The USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and the Sol Price School of Public Policy collaborated on Wednesday morning to host the “Government and Leadership Conference: People Over Politics” symposium.More than 100 students, faculty, staff and prominent guests, such as former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, gathered at the USC Town and Gown Ballroom for the event. Panelists included former California State Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his former Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy and Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
The conference, which consisted of two panel discussions and a research presentation, focused on the mounting issue of politicians catering to their political parties or personal agendas rather than representing their constituencies.
This theme, which was constant throughout the morning, reflected the views of the Schwarzenegger Institute itself.
“It is our core belief that our country is better when our officials put our interests above those of their political parties and political ideologies,” said Nancy Staudt, academic director of the institute.
Following a brief introduction, Schwarzenegger delivered opening remarks to the students in the room.
“Our political system has let you down,” he said. “When Congress has a 10 percent approval rating and 90 percent of them get re-elected, you know it is a broken and rigged system.”
He ended his remarks advising students to make an impact on the political system.
“What can you do? First, get out and vote. Second, fight for what you believe in,” Schwarzenegger said.
The panelists continued into the first panel discussion entitled “Political Gridlock — Is There an End in Sight?” Moderated by Kennedy, this debate featured republicans Scarborough and Schwarzenegger going head-to-head with Brzezinski, a democrat.
Kennedy spared no time in asking difficult questions.
“Do you think gridlock is an aberration in our society, or is it just the way we do business?” Kennedy asked.
Even as the debate got heated, the mood remained light, with the panelists often telling jokes and teasing each other about their respective ideologies.
“I used to hate Bill Clinton — and he hated me too!” Scarborough said, reminiscing on his career as a Florida congressman.
“You should see them together now though,” Brzezinski said of her co-host and the former president Clinton, who she now has a very friendly and cordial relationship with.
After debating the nature of gridlock, the panelists took on the task of deciding whether it is productive or regressive for the nation.
“I think gridlock is necessary but for how long?” Schwarzenegger said.
“If you look at this country I think we’ve had enough.” Schwarzenegger continued to explain how he quickly and constructively used gridlock in California as political leverage in tackling issues such as pension reform.
The panelists reiterated the fact that paralyzing effects of gridlock on politicians and constituencies are just as dangerous as legislative stagnation itself.
“Nobody wants to be challenged anymore — everyone just wants to go into their corners,” Brzezinski said, adding that media bias contributes heavily to gridlock.
“We have a political system that encourages extremism and polarization,” Scarborough said. Scarborough also explained that refusal to compromise on Capitol Hill is often seen as a victory at home for congressmen.
Villaraigosa also commented on what needed to be done to enact change.
“Leaders in both parties need to be willing to challenge their own constituencies,” he said. The former mayor lamented the extreme polarization in both Congress and the nation at large.
All of the panelists agreed on the need for party leadership to ultimately put aside their career aspirations to address partisanship in the government.
The panel concluded with questions from students, who asked about topics ranging from the Tea Party to whether there actually was an end in sight to the gridlock.
“Courage wins,” Scarborough said, urging politicians to challenge the interests of hyper-factionalized constituencies in order to make cohesive change possible.