03/20/2012 07:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Politics Is a Good Thing

A seemingly non-stop series of negative ads, angry rebuttals, hateful tones and hurt eyes is flashing through my mind as I sit down to share this story with you.

Do I really have the guts -- and intellect -- to back-up what I'm about to say? That politics is indeed a good thing?

I've been pinned as a girl born on a sunny day, a blond with rose-colored glasses. It's easy for me to find the good in others and the silver lining to most situations. Writing this column could be the most cheerful and simple task for me to do. Instead, I wanted to take this opportunity to challenge myself -- and you -- to find the good in circumstances which seem awful.

For example: politics.

One of the most remarkable experiences of my college career was interning at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, run by the well-known political pundit Larry Sabato. Luckily for us, Sabato is loyal to his students and agreed to help me with what I believe he does best: teach and instill a passion for politics.

My fingers are crossed that our interview below will inspire you to dig a little deeper into the claims our candidates are making and to rise above the noise and skepticism. I also hope it will inspire you to take action: attend educational political events, advocate on behalf of your beliefs, know that your voice counts and, please, vote!

I remember receiving a button from you on the first day of class that said, "Politics is a Good Thing." Why did you give us those buttons?

The message of the button contradicts what most people think of politics, and it often causes students to stop and say, Why? That's my opening to show them that politics isn't just smoke-filled rooms and corruption, but the means to make their community, state and nation better places.


What made you decide to dedicate your life to analyzing and teaching politics?

It just happened. I didn't have a plan. I got interested in politics at an early age thanks to my World War II-veteran Dad. We were a Catholic family, and supporting JFK was the eighth sacrament. So at the age of 7, I was drawn into politics and stayed active in campaigns for two decades. Then I had to grow up and get a real job. I fell into the academy, more or less.

We are all fed up with negative campaign ads. Is there any bright side to them?

I also wish there were far fewer negative ads. But research shows they are content-filled and very memorable. They work better than positive ads -- which tells you something about human beings.

Does it frustrate you when people become apathetic about politics because they think it is helpless and that their vote does not make a difference? What do you say to inspire those people to learn and to vote?

I just quote Churchill, or what Churchill supposedly said: "Democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others." Apathy and alienation do no good at all. There are plenty of examples where political action has produced real change.

Why was part of our internship at the Center for Politics a project to register our classmates and townspeople to vote?

People need to be invited in and encouraged to participate. A small nudge like this can be the beginning to a lifetime of participation. I want students to know that politics isn't an exclusive club for the ambitious, but a general membership organization that gets stronger the more people join.

What is special about American politics compared to the rest of the world?

The United States has the most diverse democracy on the face of the earth. There are concentrations of people from virtually every other nation in some part or parts of America. If we can make representative democracy work here, the system can make a difference anywhere.

What excites you enough to get out of bed on mornings when the whole world seems to be slamming politics?

I'm addicted to the process, no question. It's easy to get moving. There is always something new and different going on, and not just in presidential years. As the old saying goes, choose something you truly love for an occupation and you'll never work a day in your life.

What are the programs at the Center for Politics and how are they proving that politics is actually a good thing?

The Center has a wide variety of programs that encourage civic engagement and participation. Our Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI) is our flagship program and focuses on civic education in schools around the world. We have thousands of students and teachers who use our lesson plans and participate in mock elections and similar programs. The Center has also recently started a program called Global Perspectives on Democracy (GPD). For GPD, we work with the State Department and other government agencies to bring groups from other countries (Sri Lanka, Afghanistan) to the United States and set up events, visits and lectures to familiarize them with democratic government.

The Center also frequently puts on events right here at the University of Virginia. We have hosted numerous guest speakers and panels who discuss a wide variety of topics. The Center is proving that politics is a good thing every day by educating students of all ages from all over.

Where did the negativity in the term "politician" originate and what can we do to change that?

People are always suspicious or wary of those who seek to gain power over others' lives -- and they should be. Scrutiny and sunshine are essential elements of democracy, to insure that power is not misused. But our goal should be constructive skepticism, not corrosive cynicism.

Why do you believe politics is a good thing?

Properly used, politics is the oil that greases the creaky machinery of government by making it more responsive to human needs. Politics is also the glue that holds together a diverse society like ours by involving individuals and groups in a great national discussion about the allocation of our goods and values. I've mixed my metaphors, but appropriately so.

What do we have to look forward to in this seemingly dirty election?

We'll have a wild and sometimes revolting quadrennial orgy of politics this year, but we'll end up with a president and Congress that will have various mandates to take us forward in the years ahead. It's a spectacle for sure, with lots of lows -- but also some high points, some teachable moments with lessons that citizens will tuck away for future use.

If there is one lesson the whole world could learn from you, what would it be and why?

You may hate politics, but you need politics, unless you like having no voice in your own affairs.

A Question for You

After soaking in the wisdom of Sabato, a man who has lived and breathed politics for as long as I have been alive, I feel reassured that our system works. We are fortunate that when our system seems to break or hurt us, our voices and actions have the power to fix it.

Sabato said, "There are plenty of examples where political action has produced real change." I agree, and stand in awe of the success the civil rights movement had in America and across the world. If you are a women, a person who does not own land, a black American or an immigrant, someone fought very hard and paid a high price for your right to vote. Painful as it was, that process stands as a testament to the power of political action to evoke direct and lasting change in our society. We have the power to make sure politics is a good thing.

What silver linings do you see in the current political debates? What do you think it should mean to be a "politician"? Do you think politics is a good thing?