Ashbrook Scholar Discovers the Big Picture of America in the Details of Washington D.C.
December 24, 2020
Senior Ashbrook Scholar Tyler MacQueen spent the summer of 2018 in Washington D.C., interning for Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. This was Tyler’s first political internship, and he gained from it a deeper appreciation for America’s unique form of government.
Tyler confesses that he didn’t expect the internship to give him greater hope for America. He loves his country, but has worried about Washington politics. “I was preparing mentally to walk into a warzone. I expected to see what our newspapers and our television reporting have portrayed– very aggressive and hostile behavior.” Instead, he saw and experienced surprisingly civil and helpful interactions among Senators and their staffs.
The welcome Tyler received from Portman’s staff was a first reassuring sign. He had not expected busy, senior-level staffers to take time to help an undergraduate intern learn the culture of Washington. Happily, Senator Portman’s Director of Operations and Scheduling is Ashbrook Scholar alumnus Angela Youngen (1999). Angela mentored Tyler throughout his internship, giving him advice on networking and how best to make the jump to work in Washington D.C. fulltime, if that’s what he chooses to do.
Another mentor Tyler found was Senator Portman’s chief of staff. A second-generation immigrant, he displayed what Tyler called a “patriotism typical of immigrants who come from a place where they don’t have the freedoms that we have.” On the last day of his internship, Tyler asked him why he works in the Senate. He replied, “I do it because it is what makes America exceptional in the history of the world. To be able to walk under that dome everyday and to know that it’s a symbol for people all over the world – it’s humbling.”
Tyler saw Senators acting with more bipartisanship than he expected. Even Senators who are ideologically opposed find legislation to work together on. “On the hot button issues there is gridlock,” said Tyler. “But on many other issues, from national parks to the opioid epidemic to human trafficking, there is agreement.” A recent analysis by Quorum found that 26% of the bills introduced in the Senate since 2017 have been bipartisan. Tyler bemoaned the scant media coverage of such legislative work: “Bipartisanship does not give a good sound bite or quote. None of it gets highlighted with the same panache that, say, nominating Kavanaugh did.”
Some of Tyler’s work in Portman’s office involved helping the Senator’s legislative aides research and analyze legislation. But he spent more time fielding calls and answering letters from constituents. Tyler took this work very seriously, realizing that he represented the Senator to citizens sharing their deep hopes and concerns. While most callers were polite and considerate, a few rudely unleashed their anger at recent policy decisions. Tyler attributes this to “a great sense of fear among some Americans, leading to a kind of tribalism. When people begin identifying with their party over their citizenship as Americans, it’s not surprising to see protests, rallies and counter-protests– and violence and destruction of property.”
Tyler points to a recent poll which shows that 59% of Americans think our era is the worst in American history – a history that includes institutionalized slavery, a Civil War, the British burning down our capital, two world wars, and the Great Depression. Asked how one might counteract this pessimism, Tyler recommended that Americans read Lincoln and the American Founders, contrasting their lives and words to the histories of the Roman republic and ancient Greek city-states. “Those who don’t know our history, and don’t know world history, fail to see what really makes America great,” said Tyler. “Before 1776 the whole world was basically peasants, under the control of princes and potentates. The political revolution of 1776 was the first step to answering the long-mooted question, ‘Is man capable of self-government or not?’”
Tyler’s ’s favorite part of the job –giving tours of the Capitol Building –allowed him to share his hope with Senator Portman’s constituents. As citizens viewed the beautiful architecture and artwork that celebrates the history our nation, partisan questions faded away. Tyler invited them to contemplate the theory and practice of American government – how out of many diverse backgrounds and interests, we come together to form one self-governing people. “It was a really good chance to show people what is great about American politics,” said Tyler. “I don’t think you can be an Ashbrook Scholar without gaining a deep passion for what makes American government unique and fascinating in the history of the world.”
Another of Tyler’s favorite experiences came out of what might have seemed a menial task. At the end of the Senate’s session this summer, his new friend and mentor Angela Youngen tasked Tyler with cleaning out Senator Portman’s desk on the floor of the Senate chamber. “No one else was really there,” said Tyler. “It was amazing to stand in that room, the home of the world’s greatest deliberative body. To soak in for a few seconds something that many people don’t get to experience.” The Senate moved to its current chamber in 1859, just two years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Tyler reflected on the weighty events that had taken place in the room – from Jefferson Davis’s farewell speech in 1861 before leaving to become president of the Confederacy, to the passage of the declarations of war for World War I and World War II, to debates over civil rights, the Vietnam War, and national security following 9/11. Tyler’s Ashbrook education has helped him understand these events in the context of the larger American experiment in self-government. As he put it, Ashbrook has helped him “zoom in to the smallest details and then zoom back out to understand the big picture.”
Our experiment in self-government is far from over. Every citizen has a part to play in making sure that it endures. Tyler noted that as a government “of, by, and for the people,” it is sure to be “messy and imperfect.” But small details matter. All of Portman’s full-time staff –from those who make sure the Senator gets from point A to point B to those who help craft policy –“are pursuing a greater end: the truth that all men are created equal,” Tyler says. “Insofar as my feeble contributions helped further the office’s agenda, I too contributed to that bigger picture.”
Senator Portman recognized Tyler’s contributions this summer, “We need our best and brightest to consider careers in public service. I’m pleased that Tyler showed the drive to learn more about the legislative process and I’m grateful for his assistance this summer. I look forward to hearing about his future accomplishments.”