Democrats and Republicans are at each other’s throats. Foreign crises are erupting across the globe. The American electorate, transfixed by the latest Twitter fights and susceptible to the spread of fake news, is swinging the country from right to left and back again.
“In 16 years in Congress, one of the lessons I learned was that for many policymakers, nothing matters until the military gives it an acronym – and the acronym that the military now applies to our state of affairs is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” said Steve Israel, a former congressman who left office two years ago. “We now have one of the most volatile and complex political environments in our history. Yet we tend to apply simple sound bites to that.”
And unlike many fellow Democrats, Israel insists it’s not just President Donald Trump.
“All of our politics is chaotic, across the board,” he said. “Just take a look at recent electoral history. In 2008, Americans elect Barack Obama. In 2010, they elect a sweeping Republican majority in the House to counter Barack Obama. In 2012, they re-elect Barack Obama. In 2014, they preserve the Republican majority to counter Barack Obama. In 2016, they elect Donald Trump. And in 2018, they elect a Democratic majority to counter Trump. If that’s not volatile, I don’t know what is!”
Israel’s answer to the fraught political era that we find ourselves in? This spring, he is launching a new academic institute – the Cornell Institute of Politics and Global Affairs – to “raise the discourse, deepen the understanding of political affairs,” he said. “I want the Institute of Politics to be the place that New Yorkers go to for an enriched understanding of political content and enhanced access to political leaders.”
Israel’s new, nonpartisan politics institute at Cornell University won’t be the first of its kind. In fact, Israel launched a similar entity, the Long Island University Global Institute, based at the school’s Brookville campus, shortly after retiring from Congress. Such luminaries as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Joseph Biden, Colin Powell and David Petraeus have come to speak at the LIU institute, a separate entity that Israel will remain affiliated with.
But this time, he is expanding his portfolio and setting his sights higher, partnering with a pre-eminent Ivy League university while aiming to emulate the track record of similar politics institutes at Harvard University and the University of Chicago. Since its 2013 launch, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics has become a destination for political figures under the leadership of David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former political strategist, hosting the likes of Obama, Biden, Bernie Sanders, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Israel believes New York should have its own version – and he is hoping to fill that void when Cornell University’s politics institute officially launches on March 1.
After all, the state is home to many of the nation’s most well-known politicians – like sports stars, some are identifiable by a single name: Trump, Schumer, AOC, Hakeem. As many as half a dozen New Yorkers are at least flirting with a presidential run, from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who recently announced her candidacy, to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is expected to make a decision soon, to longer shots like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“One of the reasons I believe that an institute of politics is valuable in New York is because New York has become an epicenter of intense political activity,” Israel said. “The minority leader of the Senate is a New Yorker. The president of the United States, a New Yorker. The chairman of the Democratic caucus, a New Yorker. The early and brisk winds of change in Congress came to New York with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary outcome. The midterm elections changed more seats than anybody thought in New York. So New York really is the nexus of these swirling political winds – and a perfect place for an institute of politics and global affairs.”
lsrael, who was invited by Axelrod to teach a course on the midterm elections at the University of Chicago this past fall, learned some valuable lessons.
“What I learned at the University of Chicago was that it’s become an almost mandatory place for political leaders to go – if they can wrangle an invitation, which is hard to get!” Israel said. “I would love to emulate that in New York.”
In early March, Israel plans to unveil an ambitious 2019 program. Democratic presidential contenders are already lining up to speak. Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle, including a number of Israel’s former colleagues, are being invited. Top Trump administration officials may make their way to Cornell’s flagship campus in Ithaca as well.
“I’ve talked to several Democratic presidential candidates who have agreed to come,” Israel said, although he wouldn’t name any names quite yet. “I’m hoping the Cornell Institute will be a stopping-off point for anybody running for president.”