Two former congressmen visited USC for the Congress to Campus tour on Jan. 29 in a Pasta & Politics event to focus on engaging college students in politics.
The Congress to Campus program visits college campuses throughout the United States with a mission statement designed to expose young people to public service leadership. Congress to Campus sends two congressmen, one former Republican and one former Democrat, to each campus in an attempt to show that both sides can come together and peacefully discuss politics.
Former Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania who served from 2007 to 2013 and former Republican Rep. Dan Miller of Florida who served from 1993 to 2003 were the two congressmen who visited USC this week.
“The idea is to show that we can get along, that we’re not yelling and screaming at each other," Miller said. "You may have difference in views ... but we all get along."
Both congressmen agreed that the reason voter participation is lowest in college-aged people is because college students believe less is at stake for them and believe their voices and opinions are not being represented as they should. Some connection challenges arise when students' political views do not fall underneath the two-party system, but Altmire said Congress to Campus attempts to bring a diverse group of congresspeople to each campus to connect to as many students as possible.
Being a former college professor at Georgia State University and an adjunct professor at University of South Florida, Miller has experience working in universities and discussing issues with students. Because of this, he's seen first hand what issues students care about and how they think — including the frustration students express towards politics and politicians.
“There’s that great frustration that, you know, my voice is not being heard," Miller said.
However, Altmire pointed to the 2018 congressional elections as an example of how candidates used social media — with younger people make up a big portion of its users — as a driving force in their campaigns.
“I think in the future that's going to play a big role in getting young people interested," Altmire said. “They’re exposing young people to a political process that was foreign to them before.”
Miller pointed out the close proximity of the Statehouse to USC which he said is unique in comparison to the other colleges that he has visited. Both congressmen agreed this allows students a chance to get more involved in state politics.
“There is definitely a different feel on this campus related to most college campuses politically and I hope the students here would take advantage of that, because they're very fortunate to be so close to their state government," Altmire said.
Jacob Vining, president of College Republicans, and Jane Marryat, president of College Democrats, joined the congressmen in the Pasta & Politics event where the congressmen each gave a speech and then held a question and answer session to end the event. Both clubs often come together and have meetings in an attempt to promote civility, which Vining says is one of the strongest points they can promote.
“Me and Jane have very opposite agendas but that doesn’t mean that we can't talk it through and, I mean, we’ll argue about it until the cows come home," Vining said. "But that doesn't mean that me and Jane still won’t hangout on Friday nights with our groups of friends or it’ll be any different.”
Both presidents also agreed that social media is not only the driving force for political engagement for millennials but for everyone. However, they find that getting stuck in echo chambers can hinder conversations between opposing viewpoints on social media and in their joint meetings.
“I think it's really interesting, especially with young people, not to get absorbed in a political echo chamber," Marryat said. "I think that’s a big hindrance to civility."
The Civic Learning Education and Action Team, a student-run civic engagement program, sponsored the three-day event at USC. Kylie Carney, a member of the momentum series advisory board with the team, said having the two former congressmen on campus to chat and have dinner with students gives them a chance to connect with the congressmen and learn how Washington truly works.
“Having them here is a really great way to give people an idea of what it’s like from a much more relatable level," Carney said.
Miller said the main goal of Congress to Campus is to show students that the difference of political opinion is no reason to be hostile towards one another and that the political system can work well if everyone is involved and cooperates together. Both congressmen stressed the importance of students getting involved in politics in any way possible.
“Young people are the future of the country," Altmire said. "The decisions being made today are directly going to impact you and you should definitely be involved in those decisions by voting."