POLIS: Promoting What Politics Could Be

Guest post by Fritz Mayer | Director, POLIS: The Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service

Almost four years ago, Eric Mlyn—assistant vice provost for civic engagement and executive director of DukeEngage—delivered a presentation to Sanford School of Public Policy faculty titled, “The Politics of Civic Engagement, or Is Tutoring the Solution to Education Problems in the United States?”  He challenged his colleagues on the vital importance of healthy politics in the shaping of sound public policy.

Stemming from that presentation, about 20 faculty members and I gathered to discuss what could be done.  From those meetings, the idea of POLIS: The Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service was born, and I have since served as its director.  The Center’s twin missions are to seek solutions to the problems of contemporary politics and to prepare a new generation of political leaders and engaged citizens.  Its ambition is not just to critique the politics that is, but to enlist the creative energies of the entire Duke community—faculty, students, and alumni—to promote the politics that could be.

In this capacity, POLIS has three areas of focus:

Bridging Divides

A major focus of POLIS is combating political polarization. The North Carolina Leadership Forum brings together prominent leaders from across the political divide for civil and constructive dialogue on major issues facing North Carolina. On campus, the Devil’s Discourse podcast invites civil discourse among Duke students on opposite sides of contentious issues.

Training Leaders

POLIS is seeking to inspire and empower the next generation of political leaders. Each day we’re assessing new ways to harness students’ enthusiasm and idealism.  POLIS’s growing menu of programs—including classes, trainings, speakers, and lunch-and-learns—equips young people with the tools to become more engaged citizens.

In all our efforts, POLIS is assiduously nonpartisan. At the same time, we have not shied away from standing for politics that is informed by facts, that includes diverse voices, that exhibits civility and respect, that builds community, and that calls, in the words of Lincoln, on the better angels of our nature. We are promoting what politics could be because it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

Solving Problems

POLIS has been playing a leading role in tackling some of the monumental challenges facing our politics. Sanford Fellow and UNC System President Emeritus Tom Ross has led a project to promote redistricting reform, and earlier this year we partnered with Common Cause to host a forum that brought together the nation’s thought leaders on how to eliminate partisan gerrymandering.  In the Democracy Lab, Duke students have worked with NGOs and elected officials in North Carolina to improve voter registration procedures and to promote non-partisan redistricting.

In the wake of President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, I started my freshman year at college.  This period constituted a political and governmental crisis of epic proportions.  And yet, on the strength of our institutions and our people, we as a nation persevered.  We were left with a renewed passion for good governance and a constructive brand of politics.

Our country can achieve this again.  In fact, we must.  These are the stakes, and this is our time to reclaim the politics that could be.