When he graduated from the School of Foreign Service in 1994, Georgetown Institute for Politics and Public Service Director Mo Elleithee’s professional sights were set on the State Department and international relations.
“I came here because I wanted to go into the foreign service, I wanted to be a diplomat,” Elleithee said. “There was no better place in the country to be than in D.C. and at Georgetown.”
The winding career in domestic politics that has now brought him back to Georgetown to serve as the Executive Director of the McCourt School’s Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) was not part of the plan. In fact, Elleithee explains, he had no plans to get into the kind of politics and campaigning that would come to define his professional life.
“When I was here, I had no idea that politics could actually be a career,” he said. “The only kids I knew that went into politics were the ones that were able to take an unpaid internship that I couldn’t afford to take, or whose parents were connected.”
As an SFS undergrad, Elleithee was an active member of the International Relations Club and one of the early members of Georgetown Students for Bill Clinton in 1991.
“I was in College Democrats, I went to all their stuff, it was an exciting time to be at Georgetown,” Elleithee said. “I was here for the ’92 elections and our first alum was running, so there was a lot of energy and excitement on campus for the ’92 election. He gave some his first policy speeches as a candidate in Gaston Hall–we got used to seeing him around.”
Now, however, Elleithee has come back to Georgetown to examine the dynamics that he sees in the American political system and attempt to address some critical problems. He uses his perspective from a career in political communications, including a stint as the communications director for the Democratic National Committee, to address the changing ways that voters connect to their candidates and elected officials, and how partisan conflict in Washington should be understood and addressed.
A Political Career
Motivated by the political climate after his graduation from SFS, including the decimation of Congressional Democrats in the 1994 election, Elleithee pursued a degree in political and campaign management from George Washington University and began working his way into the world of campaigns and elections. He worked at the Tombs while he completed his graduate degree, which was finished in time to get involved on-the-ground in North Carolina in 1995 campaigning against the freshman Republicans from the previous cycle.
“I had always been interested in domestic politics, I was the kid in high school who volunteered on local campaigns and played the role of Mike Dukakis in my high school mock debate in the 1988 elections,” he said. “My thought at the time was, ‘I’ll go work on a few campaigns while I continue to try to do the foreign service.’”
Throughout this process, Elleithee would discover that his interest lay in communications and campaigns, and he would eventually leave the Hill to resume campaign work.
“I learned through this process that…my real interest was in communications: messaging and press,” he said.
He worked for Bill Bradley’s primary campaign against Al Gore in 2000, and from there moved to Chuck Robb’s U.S. Senate campaign against George Allen.
“It was the most contested, hottest Senate race in the country,” Elleithee said. “He was running against the former governor of Virginia, George Allen – they’re looking for a communications director, and it was the hottest race in the country. I said, ‘Hell yea!’ We lost but it was a high profile race, and that campaign trail began what ended up being this long career I had specifically in Virginia politics.”
Elleithee went on to work for Mark Warner and Tim Kaine’s gubernatorial campaigns. After taking a break from constant relocation to start a political consulting firm, Hilltop Public Solutions, with colleague and fellow Hoya Nick Baldwick, Elleithee got a call from the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2006.
“I started in ‘07 with Hillary as the guy who was focused on state and local press. We had our national press secretary who was focused on CNN, Washington Post, the New York Times, I cared much more about what was in the Des Moines Register and the New Hampshire Union Leader,” he said. “After the New Hampshire primary we shuffled the chairs a little bit and I became her traveling press secretary.”
Communications and Engagement
After Clinton’s campaign ended, Elleithee would go back to his consulting business, working there until he was eventually tapped to serve as DNC Communications director from 2013-15. He also stayed involved on the Georgetown campus, including work as an adjunct professor teaching a campaign management course, until he eventually returned full-time in 2015 when he helped create the Institute of Politics and Public Service in the McCourt School. He continues to focus on the political communications that have spurred his career, now from the academic angle.
“All of my career was as a press secretary, the guy on the front line actually interfacing with reporters, but later in my career I ended up trying to do much more of the strategy around it,” Elleithee said. “What is the message, how do we figure out what the message is for our candidate? What is the story we want to tell, and how do we tell it?”
For Elleithee, an essential part of that communication is finding the way to directly connect to the ultimate audience in politics: the voter and constituent.
“I’ve used the word ‘message’ a lot, but I actually hate that word because a message is something you post on a bulletin board or slip under the door,” Elleithee said. “It’s a one way form of communication. I believe the way people actually consume info is more through story, a narrative that they can project themselves into.”
Politics today have been transformed in the last decade by social media and digital communication, even affecting the way that message can be disseminated.
“The most sacred relationship in our political system is between the political figure and the voter or their constituent. That’s what the whole thing is about. And up until very recently the only way to truly facilitate that relationship on a mass level was through the press,” Elleithee said. “In the social media age, it’s different. The press is still incredible important but they’re less of a figure because now political figures can communicate directly with people through social media. People are much more connected to one another, for better and for worse.”
Elleithee is particularly concerned about self-confirming ‘echo chambers,’ where individuals surround themselves with media that confirms their views.
“You pick up your phone and see an interesting story and click on it and suddenly the algorithm spits back at you three more stories just like it,” he said. “If you look at a conservative and a progressive’s Facebook feed at the same time, you would think they’re living in two alternate universes, and in a way, the echo chamber that’s being created journalistically, particularly in politics, is creating alternative realities. There is no individual arbiter of fact, the way there used to be.”
The Institute of Politics and Public Service
Examining the echo chamber and other problematic currents in politics is part of the mission of the Institute of Politics and Public Service. Elleithee came to the institute motivated by the frustration and lack of engagement with politics he witnessed in his previous work, particularly among younger generations.
“I love politics, I think politics is a good thing, I think public service is a good thing, but somewhere along the way people had started to decouple those two things,” he said. “Politics was not a form of public service to people anymore–politics was a problem.”
Elleithee described three areas of focus for the Institute: giving interested students access to political practitioners as a companion to their academic experience; highlighting avenues for students to enter careers in politics;and most importantly, engaging students and young people in the political process.
“Young people hate politics more than any other constituency hates politics, and everyone hates politics. So the notion that I can come here and teach people how to do politics is laughable because I’m one of the guys that broke it. I’m one of the guys that spent 20 years doing all the things that people say they hate about politics,” Elleithee said. “So what we try to do here, with the fellows that we bring in, the people that we bring in that are very current, still engaged in the process – is bring the benefit of our experience, pull back the curtain, help students see what the process really looks like.”
Part of that process tasks students and fellows with examining the problems that they identify and proposing solutions.
“Maybe by coming together we can figure some things out. Maybe the students can help these practitioners see things a little bit differently through their eyes, through their generation’s eyes,” Elleithee said. “These practitioners can take that back out into the bloodstream, and not overhaul the system overnight but maybe tinker with it just enough that we leave just a little bit of a mess when we turn the keys over to the next generation.”
Many of the problems and frustrations that the Institute examines have manifested themselves in this year’s election, where themes of engagement and disenchantment have affected both candidates.
“I would never want to discourage somebody from fighting passionately for their belief structure. The problem is, that used to be the path toward the end goal, and somewhere along the way it became the end goal, somewhere along the way the fight became the end goal,” Elleithee said. “As a Democrat I hate seeing what’s happening to the Republican party right now. I want a strong Republican party because if I don’t have a strong opponent, I’m not going to be putting my best foot forward and I run the risk of following them down a dangerous path.”
For Elleithee, one source of the tension in this cycle is misunderstanding problems in communication. Vitriol has broadened, with loud voices on each side vilifying the other in broad terms that Elleithee cannot see as a successful way to win any voters away from Donald Trump.
“Too many Democrats just like to attack all Trump supporters as racist. They’re not, and that’s frankly dismissive and not respectful to those voters, many of whom are not motivated by xenophobia or racism, but are motivated by a fear of something,” Elleithee said. “If I can’t listen to them and understand what they’re afraid of, how am I going to pull them over and engage them, explain to them that I actually can address their concern?”
For both candidates, frustration with old political labels and paradigms has manifested itself in disapproval from voters.
“The problem is, now in the general election, you have the two most unpopular candidates in the history of American polling, and I say this as a Clinton supporter,” Elleithee said. “Whoever wins is going to go in with higher disapproval than approval numbers, and that will be unprecedented.”
While acknowledging an array of forces seemingly working to slow down and complicate politics, Elleithee does not see reason for despair.
“We don’t call ourselves a non-partisan institute, we call ourselves a pro-partisan institute. What I mean by that is, I believe that parties as they were designed were groupings of people who shared a worldview,” Elleithee said. “There was a general worldview about where the country should go, and the party organization became a place where likeminded folks could go and try to effect change through the political process. At its core there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s actually a beautiful thing.”
Somewhere among the rhetoric, Elleithee sees opportunity for shared progress.
“If we listen and understand each other a little bit better that might de-escalate some of the tension that people oversimplify as partisanship.”