It is not every day that the right-hand man to a president comes to speak to, much less take questions from, students. But the USF politics department did just that — securing time with a politico who helped get Barack Obama to the White House.
On March 3, the politics department welcomed David Plouffe, a political powerhouse who served as former President Obama’s first campaign manager in 2008. Plouffe was also a senior adviser in the Obama administration, and, more recently, has served as a senior executive to prominent Bay Area organizations such as Uber and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Kouslaa Kessler-Mata, chair of the politics department, was contacted directly by Plouffe last fall. The former White House staffer sought out time with USF students and only walked away with a small honorarium to show for it, much less than his typical speaking fees of tens of thousands of dollars. Kessler-Mata said that Plouffe’s motives for engaging with USF are unclear.
The event was promoted as a chance for students interested in politics to hear what working with a presidential administration was like. However, the discussion veered off into a meditation on the current state of American politics.
At the event, Plouffe expressed the importance of the next generation stepping into political leadership and organizing due to the turbulence of recent politics. “We desperately need young people at their earliest to set up as leaders. Less professional content can move us,” he said.
The rise of social media has been one of the largest drivers behind amplifying social justice campaigns and organizing grassroots action. For students who want to get certain issues center stage on the political agenda, Plouffe suggested creating compelling content to inform others. On the other hand, social media has also quickened the spread of misinformation and antagonistic ideologies.
“Fox News, Sinclair … Breitbart, Prager University … the [Ben] Shaprios of the world: these are massive presences on YouTube where the conservatives have a massive advantage [and also on] Facebook and Instagram. Democrats, for the most part, don’t have that existing infrastructure to move information” Plouffe said.
Many conservatives argue that they are forced to air their opinions independently because mainstream media generally has a liberal bias. Plouffe denied that left-leaning media should be equated to conservative media: “we [Democrats] have the New York Times, MSNBC; give me a break okay? To compare those things to Fox and Sinclair? They couldn’t be more different,” he said
Plouffe stressed that conservative news is constantly on “war footing,” meaning they “spin” news in a way that furthers the Republican Party’s beliefs and defames the opposition.
A notable example Plouffe mentioned was the recent conservative coverage of Dr. Seuss allegedly being canceled by President Joe Biden due to racially insensitive writing, though this claim has since been proven false by fact-checkers. While other news outlets were covering Biden’s COVID relief bill’s passage through Congress, Fox News and other conservative channels took the opportunity to cover the Seuss story, knowing it would energize and unify their base against cancel culture. Conservative news presented the story as evidence that liberal ethics are causing censorship. In reality, the Seuss Foundation stopped printing the stories in question years ago.
Furthermore, Plouffe argued that progressive news infrastructure is not as strong as conservatives’. He explained that the left does not have control over information spread and messaging to the extent that conservative channels do; this has much to do with the consolidated ownership of conservative news platforms, meaning the Democratic party is less efficient in galvanizing its base. Plouffe said that when election season ends, funding for liberal messaging generally ceases too, as Democrats rely on ads to push their messages, whereas Republicans have built up a strong messaging infrastructure with Fox News and other outlets.
Plouffe said he believes the Democratic Party needs to do a better job of engaging and exciting voters outside of election season. In particular, Plouffe said he sees room for improvement in “connecting legislative wins with election wins” through media coverage. Plouffe said Democrats need to be reminded of the impact their elected officials’ policy decisions have even outside of election season if they are to compete with the stronger, “election-oriented” conservative news cycle.
Plouffe recommended that aspiring liberal changemakers take 10 minutes a day to listen to or read news coming from conservative outlets so they can understand common rebuttals to their party’s politics.
James Taylor, a professor in the politics department, disagreed with Plouffe’s suggestion. “I don’t believe that,” Taylor said. “The other side already told us what they want. They want us to try to reconcile with racism. For him to advise to listen to conservatives is to listen to the status quo.”
However, Taylor did agree with Plouffe on the latter’s concern for the preservation of democracy in America.
Plouffe said his distress about the future of American democracy came after the political events of this past year, specifically the Jan. 6 Capitol siege. “The question of our democracy, I think, is still a very ripe question and I have great fears about where that’s heading… empires and forms of government don’t last forever,” Plouffe said.
Taylor, who was one of two moderators of the event, agreed that America is on the precipice of change. “Democracy is already under threat and the Black and youth vote just put a plug in the dam,” he said.
Plouffe and the USF faculty who moderated the event seem to have a consensus on one thing: America needs young organizers who can change the course of politics.
Editors Note: This article has been revised to reflect a more accurate characterization of Kessler-Mata’s comments on Plouffe.