September 4, 2014
By Mike Killeen
Humorist and political satirist Will Rogers once said, "This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer."
Mind you, Rogers said that long ago. But it still rings true today, when liberals and conservatives bicker to no end.
Two students from Saint John's University — one liberal, one conservative — have a better idea. They spent the summer living together while interning in the Washington, D.C., Summer Study Program. Perhaps to the surprise of those politicians on either side of the aisle in the House or Senate chambers, they were able to communicate differing political views respectfully and civilly.
So just how did you do this, Ben Hutterer and Tyler Brown?
"We talk a lot of politics," said Brown, who interned at the office of Rep. Erik Paulsen (R, Minn.). "We definitely aren't afraid to debate, and I've never taken a political disagreement with Ben personal.
"Our political discussions are almost always civil. I can only think of a couple occasions in which a debate got heated, and whenever that happened, we laughed it off and agreed to disagree," Brown said.
"Although there are many issues that are extremely challenging and divisive, I truly believe that the worst thing to do is cut off dialogue," said Hutterer, who interned at the office of Sen. Al Franken (D, Minn.). "Only through an honest, open discussion will any sort of common ground begin to appear."
Those discussions don't get personal, they said.
"That is absolutely essential when people have conversations about politics," said Hutterer, whose duties in Franken's office included working the front desk, leading tours of the Capitol and assisting the legislative staff. "Ironically, while we're on separate sides of the aisle, there are many times we agree on 90 percent of the particular topic. In order to successfully surpass the remaining disparities, we seek to understand where the other is coming from in order to better understand the other side."
"We respect each other and enjoy trying to see where the other is coming from," said Brown, who gave tours, answered phones, helped with correspondence to and from constituents and did some legislative research while working in Paulsen's office. "While we disagree on quite a few issues, I always enjoy hearing Ben's perspective and respect his political views."
This is not a new situation for the two political science majors. They had been roommates on campus during fall semester 2013, and are roommates again this fall.
Both said they see the polarization of Washington politics, although they do see some hope.
"The town is filled with people who are genuinely working toward the betterment of the community and are willing to cross the aisle to achieve it," Hutterer said. "However, it's no secret that it has become increasingly difficult to pass legislation in recent years."
"While (the polarization) is definitely not as bad as people make it out to be, Washington certainly is polarized, especially with regard to some of the most pressing issues facing the country right now," Brown said.
Both Brown and Hutterer are active in the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at SJU, serving CSB and SJU. They both credit the center for helping keep their civility and respectful dialogue in play.
"Through the McCarthy Center and the political science courses that I have taken at CSB and SJU, I have engaged in a number of political discussions with people who have different opinions than me," said Brown, who is the student coordinator of the center. "This has allowed me to more effectively see where people on the left are coming from. Whether it's in the classroom or at Politics and a Pint, Ben and I are often among those leading the charge for our respective sides. Such conversations have definitely helped us put up with each other."
"I agree entirely with Tyler on this one," said Hutterer, one of the more active student volunteers at the center. "The Politics and a Pint series does a great job fostering the respectful discourse. The McCarthy Center will also bring in some incredible guest speakers on both sides of the aisle. Meeting with such successful people has certainly bolstered my respect for the other side.
"I also have to give a tremendous amount of credit to the speech and debate team on campus. Tyler and I were both very active in that club throughout our sophomore year. It was invaluable in forming articulate opinions and fostering the confidence to speak freely. In addition, students will occasionally debate on the side they do not personally agree with. By being placed in this environment, I learned the importance of understanding the strengths of the opponent's argument while recognizing the shortfalls of my own."
Hutterer and Brown were part of a group of 16 students from SJU and CSB who participated in summer internship experiences through the Summer Study Program from the end of May through mid-August.
The program, operated by the political science department at CSB and SJU, is designed to provide students an opportunity to live and work in the Washington, D.C., area while earning academic credit. They apply for their internships based on their interests.