Democracy 2024: Hickenlooper, Roth talk Political Optimism and Opportunity

Sarah ParkeJune 5, 20245min
1200x660 D2024

United States Senator John Hickenlooper ’74, MA ’80, Hon. ’10 didn’t set out to become a politician when he graduated from Wesleyan half a century ago. He wanted to be a geologist, but when that didn’t pan out, he found success as an entrepreneur and brewery owner in Denver at the height of the craft brewing craze. When he ran for mayor of Denver at the age of 49, Hickenlooper never anticipated that national politics would play such a huge role in his second act. But after serving as mayor for two terms, he became governor of Colorado for another eight years, and he now represents the Centennial State as a U.S. Senator.

“The Wesleyan education does a lot to show you that every person has value,” said Hickenlooper. “That’s great training if you want to get into politics; a lot of politics is blending different networks together and making sure people get along. That’s really what a mayor does day in, day out, to solve problems by bringing people together and then making sure everyone feels heard, everyone’s validated.”

Hickenlooper joined President Michael S. Roth ’78 in conversation in the Goldsmith Family Theater as part of a WESeminar titled “Democracy 2024” on May 25 for Reunion + Commencement Weekend 2024. The theater was packed with many of Hickenlooper’s old classmates as the Class of 1974 returned to campus for its 50th Reunion.

In the months leading up to another critical presidential election, Wesleyan’s Democracy 2024 initiative is working to combat what Roth referred to as a “crisis of trust” in the world today, and the growing cynicism that many young people feel toward the American democratic system. D2024 sponsors events and speakers that encourage civil discourse and liberal learning in the world beyond campus and provides opportunities for students to participate in the public sphere.  The Jewett Center for Community Partnership’s Political Engagement Fund, for example, offers micro-grants to support students who want to work for campaigns or civic causes around the country.

“We are trying to get our students to play a role in the next six months at whatever level they want, however they want to do it, whatever political party they want to work for,” said Roth, “but to become used to compromise, conversation, listening, and being part of the political system, rather than being a critic on the outside of the system.”

Hickenlooper spoke about some of the structural problems plaguing our modern democracy — from out-of-control gerrymandering to trade association lobbyists. But despite mainstream media’s focus on the loudest, most extreme politicians on either side of the aisle, Hickenlooper believes America is really more moderate than it appears. The kind of change he works toward in Washington, D.C., is slow-moving but necessary, achieving progress one conversation at a time.

Roth added, “Giving people a sense that they can make a difference, but it may not be a difference at the scale of a history textbook, but it can make a difference and [it’s] really important for the lives of somebody getting health care in their community or someone looking for housing in their community.”

The Senator concluded his remarks with a reading of “To be of use” by American progressive activist and poet Marge Piercy.

“It’s one thing to learn, to change yourself and become better,” Hickenlooper said summarizing the poem’s main themes. “It’s even more important that you change the world around you and make it better for others. We’ve got to remind our kids that their spirit and their optimism, their determination to face the ridiculous challenges that we face right now is also an opportunity.”