Former Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire leads a discussion on American partisanship at KPU Election Day event
Altmire talked to students about partisanship and his successful political career as a centrist
While Americans cast their votes on Nov. 7 in crucial gubernatorial elections in Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia, American University students delved deeper into the topic of partisanship, a subject of significant relevance in today’s political climate, with former United States Rep. Jason Altmire.
The Kennedy Political Union hosted the event, bringing Altmire, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, to the School of International Service for a conversation with Thomas Kahn, a distinguished faculty fellow at the University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. As a former congressman, Altmire said his mission of promoting political reform has particularly fueled his enthusiasm for engaging with college students.
“I’ve been through politics and business, and I’ve spoken to a lot of groups, and I just like to exchange ideas and talk to folks who have their whole life in front of them,” Altmire said. “Maybe in some small way I feel like I might be able to make a difference in the way they approach that mission in their own lives.”
Altmire served as the representative for Pennsylvania's 4th Congressional District for three terms, from 2007 to 2013. During his tenure, he chaired the House Small Business Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Regulations and was a member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Altmire held the most centrist voting record during his time in Congress, according to the National Journal. He also achieved significant legislative success, garnering 432 cosponsors for his 2011 American Legion bill, the highest ever for any congressional bill.
“It’s the way I legislated, but just as a person, I think we need to move the country more to the middle,” Altmire said. “Unite America aspires to bring people away from the extremes and to empower voters who are closer to the center. I think that’s a very important mission.”
Altmire currently serves as the co-chair of Unite America, an organization specializing in nonpartisan election reform, with the goal of bringing more people to the political center. His philosophy of centrist legislation aligns with his work at Unite America.
In 2017, Altmire published the widely-acclaimed book, “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It.” The book delves into the issues that Altmire discussed during the event, such as the exacerbation of extreme partisanship by social media and cable news.
Altmire drew on his three terms in Congress to write the book, particularly his challenging experience as a centrist in a polarized political landscape. For the book, Altmire conducted extensive academic research on political extremism and the psychology of partisans.
“It’s really important to understand the thought process that goes into extremism if you want to address it. I talk about the systemic causes of polarization: partisan gerrymandering, the news media, social media, closed primaries, campaign finance, money and politics,” Altmire said. “Those are all conspiring together to drive people to the extremes, and I felt like it was really important to write a book about the experience that I had as a centrist.”
In addition to discussing partisanship, Altmire took the time to advise the politically-minded young audience. He urged students to prioritize entering public service first, rather than solely focusing on becoming politicians.
Altmire also shared his own journey into politics, which began when he worked as a legislative assistant for former Florida Rep. Pete Peterson, after initially joining Peterson’s Tallahassee campaign office following his graduation from Florida State University.
After leaving Congress, Altmire ventured into health policy and gained experience as a senior executive in the health industry. Altmire also works in education as the president and chief executive officer of Career Education Colleges and Universities.
Norah Nasser, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, was excited to have a speaker like Altmire on campus.
“I think it’s important to hear from voices that we don’t really hear from,” Nasser said. “We often hear from liberal, more left-leaning people, especially at this university, and the fact that he’s a moderate is something that we haven’t really seen before here. So, I think it’s very interesting to hear a diverse range of voices.”
As a moderate centrist, Altmire said he hopes to see nonpartisan reforms in American politics, specifically in the way that candidates are elected.
“You know, there’s that old saying, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” Altmire said. “We’re not going to get a different result unless we change the process and the key to the whole thing is changing the way primaries are run, opening them up to all voters, candidates of all parties, rather than just having a closed primary.”
This article was edited by Kate Corliss, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Daniel Carson.