City on a Hill: Hoya See, Hoya Do

February 18, 2015

According to the website of the International Society on Infant Studies (whose unfortunate acronym is ISIS), babies as young as four months exhibit a behavior called mirroring, by which they mimic the expressions, vocalizations, and emotions of their parents.

For most Georgetown University Student Association executive candidates, that mimesis starts a few hours into campaign season.

And who are the parents, so to speak, from whom our candidates take their cues? Trade Healy’s Gothic bulk for the Romanesque porticos of Capitol Hill and you’ll have some idea. Switch the Wadibia/Cheney ticket’s “Dignity” for Obama’s “Hope,” or Margolis/Shymansky’s “Believe in Georgetown” for Romney’s “Believe in America,” and you’re getting warmer. Interpret McNaughton/Simons’ emails to student leaders as strategic efforts to curry favor and you’re there.

Call it the mirror effect, imitation game, or monkey see, monkey do. Washington, D.C.’s greatest coup is the ease of its own impersonation, the export of its hometown brand. The effect is that what passes for politics on Capitol Hill translates mimetically to the Hilltop with ill-disguised glee.

And the effect is strong. Every national political season has snafus; this year’s GUSA elections didn’t disappoint. The campaign’s obligatory scandal stemmed from a petition floated to candidates by the Georgetown Israel Alliance that affirmed Israel’s right to exist and opposed Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction legislation. Though every campaign save Luther/Rohan initially agreed to GIA’s pledge, blowback from Muslim students compelled all but Rosenberger/Varghese to change their minds.

Several candidates publicly blamed GIA for the episode, most rancorously Chris Wadibia (COL ‘16) during Monday’s presidential debate. A campaign manager characterized the incident to me as a “political grenade” engineered to torpedo campaigns. And on Monday, Rosenberger alleged that his opponents had recklessly signed a statement whose implications they didn’t understand, a mistake they never publicly admitted.

Mudslinging? Distancing? Flip-flopping? Questionable honesty? Good old-fashioned gaffes? All this sounds familiar, and not in a good way. The junior-league imitation game is strong.

To understand why the D.C. mirror effect is bad for GUSA (and maybe Georgetown), we have to take a hard look at D.C. itself. Last year, David Rothkopf argued in Foreign Policy that Washington has an institutional habit of suppressing novel and potentially transformative ideas to protect the status quo. The nation’s central bureaucracies structurally produce think tanks, policymakers, and pundits too conventional, uncreative, and cravenly unchallenging in their thinking. Quoth Rothkopf, “the city most in need of big, new ideas may be home to the most dumbed-down smart people of all.”

How does this culture affect Georgetown? Beyond the preponderance of smart people on campus and the poor facsimile for national politics that plays out annually, our everyday interactions with Capitol Hill may also play a role. In fact, GUSA elections are only the most obvious (and odious) examples of the D.C. mirror effect.

Take the Congressional internship, a kind of campus-wide honeypot. No one denies answering phones for one’s senator laudably facilitates the democratic process. You might even learn something. The problem arises when doing so blinds us to the blanched ideas that pass for Congressional policymaking—or, worse, dupes us into worshipping the same uncreative mold.

Next, consider Georgetown’s much-touted professor-practitioner, who divides time between Georgetown classrooms and the World Bank, Obama administration, or another policy entity. From professionals who have capped off their careers with teaching (Madeleine Albright, Dennis Ross) and those who shuttle between the two (Chuck Hagel, Ron Klain) we Hoyas of course benefit immensely. But we might also question some of them as products of lived-in Washingtonian surroundings.

Finally, speakers whisked to campus, advertised, and plunked at podiums. Last week, Georgetown hosted two high-profile District emissaries in as many days. On Wednesday, Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) spoke at the invitation of GU College Democrats. The next morning, amid a cacophony of media coverage, FBI Director James Comey discussed police-minority relations in Gaston. With so much GUSA politicking, debating, and campaign chicanery afoot during their visits, one imagines either visitor could’ve gotten the impression he’d never left Capitol Hill at all.

So what’s a Hoya to do? The past two weeks prove that the Hobbesian realist adage that life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” recited semesterly in international relations courses, rings equally true of GUSA campaigns. That’s a mercy, but it also places the burden of resisting the Georgetown-D.C. mirror effect on us—and our candidates.

Both Capitol Hill and, lately, the Hilltop have more than enough bad politics as it is. Both mirrorer and mirrored could use a change. This campus, city, and country need reformers, disruptors, and re-imaginers to redeem D.C.’s stultifying status quo. And considering Georgetown’s long litany of government-serving alumni (GUSA and otherwise), it’s likely that some students are incubating these habits on campus already.

Maybe there’s one in that IR lecture. With any luck, we’ll elect two today.


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