Obama senior adviser encourages BYU students to participate in democracy

PROVO, Utah — “Democracy demands our participation.”

That was the advice David Axelrod, former chief strategist and senior adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, shared with Brigham Young University students during a forum address on Oct. 31.

“It is not about whether the blue team wins or the red team wins,” he said. “It is not about who is up and who is down — it is not about that. It is about what we can do together to try and solve problems that impact people’s lives and problems in our communities.”

Every semester, BYU invites a variety of special guests to campus to offer a forum or devotional address held on Tuesday mornings. Axelrod, who is a veteran of politics and journalism, shared with students highlights of his career and offered advice for participating in politics moving forward.

“I am a believer in politics,” he said. “I want to talk to you about why.”

Axelrod shared how even at a young age as the son of an eastern European immigrant growing up in New York City, he was interested in politics. His interest led him to attending college at the University of Chicago, and later as a political reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He later became involved in local, state and national campaigns.

Sharing some personal experience from working with President Barack Obama, Axelrod — who came up with the “Yes we can” slogan — spoke of times he was able to do what he thought was the right thing regardless of what others thought or how impossible the tasks seemed. Whether it was winning an election, working to reform healthcare or working to help families with difficult situations, Axelrod’s career highlights have come from participating in democracy.

Recognizing that the founding fathers of the United States experienced differences, Axelrod encouraged listeners to work together — even amid differences — to get things done.

“It’s OK that we disagree,” he said. “That’s democracy. That’s the way our system was set up.”

Highlighting a system developed that allows for compromise, debate and spirit in democracy, Axelrod spoke of the need for those same attributes today.

“I think the worst thing that’s happened to our country is this notion that we can’t disagree without being disagreeable,” he said. “That we can’t disagree on issues without trying to dehumanize our opponents or disqualify them as patriots and Americans.”

Axelrod shared an experience he had when he and his wife were asked to speak to some of Mitt Romney’s donors — after he had worked for President Obama, Romney’s opponent — about their research foundation to help epilepsy.

“I got to know him not as a cardboard cutout, not as an opponent, not as a character, but as a man, as a human being, as a caring father and grandfather, as a person who cares about this country,” he said. “We still disagree on a lot of issues, … but I never for a second doubt how much he loves this country. And I love this country, too.”

Alexrod also shared an experience he had while visiting Moscow for a meeting on what would have been his father’s 99th birthday and spoke of the great feeling of pride he felt as he heard the national anthem played on foreign soil.

“I stood there thinking about the incredible ordeal [my parents] went through and the tremendous, tremendous battle that they … waged to get to America because they saw America as a place of opportunity for freedom,” he said. “And here I was just one generation later, standing there as a senior advisor to the president of the United States.

“So don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t a great country — this is a great country, a country that would enable those kinds of dreams to come true.”

Axelrod, who currently serves as director of the University of Chicago’s non-partisan Institute of Politics and as the host of The Axe Files, a podcast jointly produced by CNN and his institute, encouraged young people today to “not get trapped in a kind of social media silo” where they are surrounded by only people who share the same views.

Rather, he encouraged listeners to continue to invest in democracy.

“I urge you not to turn away from this political process which can be so discouraging at times. … Whatever it is that you care about, … you can either turn away and leave those decisions to someone else, or you can lean in and demand a better kind of politics, politics that is based in honest debate and mutual respect.

“I have confidence about the future, I have hope for the future, because I work with young people every day and I believe that young people in this country want a better kind of politics and will demand a better kind of politics and so I am here today to urge you to use your gifts, your enormous talents, the talents that are being cultivated at the ‘Y’ to make this country better and stronger and help heal our democracy.”