Henry Zhu (JD' 22) was one of 28 recipients of 2024’s Skadden Fellowship, which pays for two years of salary and training for recent law school graduates to work at a public interest organization.
On October 26, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, in collaboration with the Knox family, held “The Knox Conversations: Threats to Democracy,” a discussion featuring a compelling, bipartisan panel of America’s most incisive political thinkers and practitioners. During the inaugural program, David Axelrod, Shaniqua McClendon, Karl Rove, and moderator Professor Jason DeSanto discussed America’s increased distrust in American institutions, election contesting, and the spread of misinformation.
Northwestern Pritzker Law students filled Thorne Auditorium, faculty, staff and visitors listening to the political thinkers’ and practitioners’ discussion. Axelrod, a political strategist and the former chief strategist and senior advisor to President Barack Obama; Rove, senior advisor and deputy chief of staff under President George W. Bush; and McClendon, vice president of political strategy for Crooked Media; debated for over an hour.
Dean Hari Osofsky welcomed the crowd to the event. “Everyone in this room is all too aware that we live in challenging times in which our society is deeply polarized,” she said. “Universities and their law schools have an important role to play in fostering needed dialogue on matters of importance to our society and legal system.”
DeSanto started by asking the panelists when they first got into politics; Rove said he didn’t remember a time he wasn’t engaged in government, even though his parents were relatively apolitical. “My father did not tell me who he voted for until he was 74. My mother worked for a campaign and voted a straight Republican ticket. In the next election, she supported the Peace and Freedom Party.”
McClendon said that when President Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, “I became enamored with this man who was saying, ‘If you have hope, you can make this country what you want it to be,’ and I truly did believe that.” She later was interned for Obama in the White House in 2010.
The panel jumped into a discussion about the American people’s growing distrust of political institutions. “Almost half of Americans believe democracy is not working well,” DeSanto said. Trust in the presidency? Fifty-nine percent say not very much or not at all—down 11 points in the historical average. Trust in Congress? Sixty-seven percent say not very much or not at all—down 16 points in the historical average. Trust in courts and the Supreme Court? Fifty-one percent say not very much or not at all—down 17 points in the historical average, DeSanto cited from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“If most people don’t believe in it, there is no value for them to participate in our democracy,” McClendon noted. “In recent elections, people started to question ‘Why am I participating in this? I’m not getting anything out of it.’ Which is disheartening and frustrating because when you don’t participate, that’s how you create a world in which you don’t have the impact that you [want], but there are reasons why people feel that way.”
McClendon continued, mentioning the overturning of Roe v. Wade as a major source of national cynicism. In the summer of 2022, the Supreme Court released its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This opinion overruled Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, each of which recognized a constitutional right to receive an abortion. McClendon also referenced the allegations against Justice Clarence Thomas in which he was accused of taking gifts and bribes from Republican donors. “The Supreme Court is supposed to be this institution that is impartial, apolitical, and holds other parts of our government accountable. But that’s not the case right now.”
Rove agreed that people across political lines do not have faith in our current government. He said the only institutions with strong support amongst the American people are the military and law enforcement. “You can’t have a prosperous, open, democratic society when the only things you can trust are police, some of the time, and military. We need to have an informed electorate, freedom of expression, but we’re not there.”
Axelrod added that people voted in the 2016 and 2020 elections out of fear of President Donald Trump and not because they felt a kinship with Hilary Clinton or President Joe Biden. When it came to President Trump’s refusal to concede in the 2020 election, he said, “It troubles me that 70 percent of Republicans say that the last election was invalid because one of the fundamental bedrock institutions of our democracy is free and fair elections. If large numbers would come to doubt it, that’s a real problem.”
Rove interjected, not willing to dismiss officials who did deny the election. He said Democrats did the same in the election of 2000 and the subsequent Bush v. Gore case when many Democrats claimed that President George Bush stole the election. “We’re in a bad place, and I don’t know how we get out of it.” He acknowledged that even though national faith in the system seems to waver, participation continues to climb. Voter turnout and registration have increased every year since 1996 [excluding 2012], according to Rove. “That says something to me that we have an enduring faith that we have a responsibility as Americans to participate and change.”
Adding to his original point, Axelrod pointed out that the elections of 2000 and 2016 are not comparable. “Al Gore conceded. Donald Trump has not. And his refusal to do so has burdened the [Republican] party.”
McClendon spoke on young people’s place in politics and “voting fatigue.” She said citizens must participate in primary elections to get their preferred candidate to the general. “People should have someone they’re excited about, and I don’t think a lot of young people have that right now. Things have become so dire that they aren’t showing up. Ideally, people would love to vote on offense, not defense, but that is not where we are right now.”
Axelrod acknowledged the frustrations McClendon mentioned and other policies like gerrymandering but added that citizens have to participate if they want change. “We blame politicians for all our problems. We can’t let ourselves off the hook. We have responsibilities too.”
During the Q&A, the panelists discussed the media’s role in the spread of misinformation. DeSanto pointed out that the problem with fact-checking mistruths is that people often don’t believe the fact-checker. “We do need a heightened state of awareness,” Axelrod said. “But we should not accept incendiary stuff that comes across our feeds sent to us by an algorithm.”
McClendon said Crooked Media is committed to having a holistic conversation about these topics. “Social media platforms have a role to play. They are exploiting real feelings.” Rove interjected, saying he isn’t a fan of what Elon Musk is doing with X, formerly known as Twitter, but supports Musk’s idea to have people pay for the platform. “Now we know who those people are, and we can shut them off [when spreading misinformation]. Now, there is some transparency on where that’s coming from.”
As the panel ended, Axelrod’s last words were those of unity. “Recognize our own shared humanity. Stop dehumanizing each other and look for those things that we have in common and not just the things that divide us. We all love. We all grieve. Everything is pushing us against that, we have to start fighting back.”
The Knox Conversations was established by the Knox family, who made a significant philanthropic investment to fund activities and events focusing on public debate and respectful discourse. Their wish is to create space for an open exchange of ideas on matters of importance to the legal and Law School community.