Why is it that just when millions of Americans start paying attention to politics, our campaigns become so nasty?
It happens every campaign season. After a year of avoiding the political chatter, even the most disinterested, apathetic voter finds herself unable to ignore the campaign news.
Could it be that the one event that most engages Americans in their political system – the drama and majesty of a presidential campaign – is the very thing that disgusts them about politics? Might all the negativity be driving us into warring camps?
Much has changed over the past 25 years – internationally, domestically and technologically. But through this period, the public’s core values have remained relatively stable. The way that the public thinks about poverty, opportunity, business, unions, religion, civic duty, foreign affairs and many other subjects is, to a large extent, the same today as in 1987. On most of the questions asked in both 1987 and 2012, the number agreeing is within five percentage points of the number who agreed 25 years ago. And on almost none has the basic balance of opinion tipped from agree to disagree or vice-versa.
Pew did find that we are becoming far more divided, along partisan lines, on the specific ways we express our values:
Since 1987 – and particularly over just the past decade – the country has experienced a stark increase in partisan polarization. Across 48 different questions covering values about government, foreign policy, social and economic issues and other realms, the average difference between the opinions of Republicans and Democrats now stands at 18 percentage points. This is nearly twice the size of the gap in surveys conducted from 1987-2002.
The growing divide between Democrats and Republicans spans a wide range of beliefs, with record-wide gaps for many value dimensions Pew Research has tracked over the past 20 to 25 years. In most cases, this represents a widening of already existing partisan differences – particularly when it comes to the role of government. For example, Democrats have always been more committed than Republicans to government responsibilities in providing a social safety net and actively addressing inequality in the nation. But in both of those areas, the divide between Democratic and Republican values has nearly doubled over the past quarter century. . . .
So, while sharing the same basic values, when it comes to issues, we have increasingly divided into opposing sides and our positions have hardened.
Is it any wonder that’s so? Instead of starting our policy discussions by celebrating our common values and working on bipartisan solutions to our problems, we increasingly begin political discussions by focusing policy differences.
Wouldn’t it work better on education policy, for example, if we began every discussion by talking about our common values, i.e., our deep concern for our children and the value to them and our society of a good education?
If the idea is to persuade, the choice should be clear. That ancient expert on rhetoric, Aristotle, long ago argued that if you want to win over an audience, you should start with the commonplaces — the experiences or knowledge that most everyone shares.
That’s not the way it’s modeled for us in the halls of Congress and on cable television – particularly Fox News and MSNBC. What we often see on television — invective, shouting, insults, defamation — are not techniques of persuasion. They are used to spur people to battle, not to prompt critical thinking or rational dialog.
“Battle” is an appropriate word. In so many ways, our nation’s political affairs have become a blood sport. (Doesn’t it say something when one of the most popular political shows on cable television is called “Hard Ball.” And remember CNN’s once-
Every day, a cavalcade of candidates and their surrogates prove that they are far more adept at hurling insults and lies than discussing the issues honestly with the American people.
That’s a prime reason there’s such cynicism and disgust. Almost no one on television – or in Congress – is modeling rational, caring, dispassionate discussions about public affairs.
And, as we’ve seen in recent months, it is worse during campaign season. As the undecided vote shrinks, campaigns become turnout machines for firing up their bases with red meat and war cries.
But just as undecided Americans begin to care about politics – or at least take notice of the campaigns — they witness something only slightly more dignified than mud wrestling.
Of course, we know enough about history to realize that this isn’t a new development. If you think our politics are dirtier than ever, consult Google about the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Or read about the mutual contempt of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton that resulted in Hamilton’s gunshot death. Or, consider the decades-long argument over slavery that culminated in a bloody civil war.
Our politics have always tended toward slander, rudeness, and invective.
That said, once there were two political seasons – one for campaigning and another for governing. When the campaign was done and the winners declared, both sides usually forgot the insults. They put their swords away, accepted the results and got on with the business of making government work (at least until the next election).
That’s the spirit that made possible the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (in a presidential election year, no less) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s a sad commentary about today’s politics to consider that in the 1960s — a decade marked by violence and unrest – members of Congress still took their duties seriously enough to debate and pass civil rights legislation that largely united the country.
Even though Democrats had large majorities in both Houses, they didn’t pass the civil rights laws with only Democratic votes. They negotiated and cajoled the other party so that significant numbers of House and Senate Republicans supported and embraced the bills.
His strong support of the 1964 act may have been Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen’s finest hour.
Further evidence of the relative statesmanship of the time can be found in the person of Richard Russell, the Democratic senator from Georgia, who led the southern bloc that for decades fought passage of civil rights laws. Once Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights act, Russell courageously acknowledged it as the law and urged his constituents to accept it.
Can anyone imagine today’s Congress putting aside partisan rancor long enough to debate and pass, in a bipartisan way, social legislation like civil rights? And, once passed, can you imagine the opponents accepting the outcome and urging their constituents to follow the law?
There were once two leaders who embodied that spirit of conciliation who represented Louisiana in Congress.
(Full disclosure: I served both of them as press secretary in the 1980s and 1990s. I grew up in politics working for U.S. Sens. Russell Long and John Breaux. Just about everything I know about government, I learned from these two political giants.)
Long and Breaux were from very different generations. Long was born in 1918; Breaux, in 1944. But they were kindred spirits when it came to a commitment to making government work.
Both devoted themselves developing warm relationships with members of the opposite party. Partly, that was because Long and Breaux were naturally affable and likable men who enjoyed the company of others, regardless of political ideology. It was also because both were moderate-to-conservative Southern Democrats who often had more in common with their Republican counterparts than some of their more liberal Democratic colleagues.
Mostly, however, I believe both men devoted much time to cooperating with Republicans because it was the best way to achieve their goals. Both men instinctively knew that lasting legislative success is almost always the result of bipartisan debate and compromise.
As the longtime chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Long worked hard to listen to the views of Republican members of his committee.
I remember once talking to then-Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, who described attending a hearing shortly after he joined the committee. As the junior member of the minority party, Danforth had no power and sat at the extreme end of the dias. Imagine his surprise, when Long called upon him during a committee discussion and asked for his opinion.
Danforth couldn’t recall what, if anything, he contributed to the discussion. But he was amazed and deeply moved by Long’s willingness to engage and listen to the other side. And he reciprocated that goodwill and helped Long whenever he could.
While writing my 1992 biography of Long, Legacy to Power, I was impressed by the number of times I heard the same story from other Republican members, people like Bob Dole and Bob Packwood. They didn’t always agree with Long on the issues, but they genuinely liked and trusted him. And quite often that translated into help for Louisiana or a vote, here and there, on something important to Long and his home state.
Dole and Long were so close, in fact, that when Long was facing a tough re-election in 1980, the Senate Republican leader cut a TV commercial for him.
Breaux carried on Long’s bipartisan tradition when he arrived in the Senate in 1987. From his very first days in the Senate, I remember being impressed with how hard Breaux worked to nurture relationships with his Republican colleagues. He was extremely close, for example, with President George H.W. Bush, who he knew during their brief service together in the House.
For many years, during those House years, Breaux’s neighbor in suburban Virginia was Trent Lott, a Republican congressman from Mississippi. Years later, Breaux would move to the Senate and, a few years later, Lott would follow him. All along, they maintained a close friendship (they now practice law together).
When Lott became Senate majority leader, the relationship not only paid off for Breaux and Louisiana, it also didn’t hurt then-President Bill Clinton, to whom Breaux was also very close. Breaux, it seemed, often conducted his own version of shuttle diplomacy, helping bring the Democratic president and the Republican majority leader together to get something done.
When Lott stepped down as majority leader, Breaux was ready to welcome the new GOP leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee. The two of them developed a close working relationship on health care and other issues.
In my 17 years working for him, I observed that nothing seemed to make Breaux angrier than the mindless partisanship of his colleagues, Republican or Democrat.
My point is not to burnish the bipartisan images of these two men. Rather, it is to note how quaint and rare these images now are.
They are so rare because moderates like Breaux have left the Senate in great number in recent years, almost all of them complaining that the place no longer works, that partisanship rules the day, and that meaningful compromise is increasingly as a sign of weakness, not a patriotic duty.
If you doubt the partisan divide, consider the Senate filibuster – i..e, preventing the majority from voting on a bill or amendment — and how it has made progress almost impossible. Through the 1970s, the filibuster was rare. But, as the chart at this link shows, its use has proliferated in recent years to the point that almost nothing gets accomplished without 60 votes.
Thinking about the rancor and partisan gridlock led me to LSU’s Middleton Library the other day, down to the basement to the hefty, red volumes of the Congressional Record. There, in Volume 134, I found the farewell speech that Breaux delivered on the Senate floor on November 18, 2004, about six weeks before he retired after serving three six-year terms.
The following excerpt from Breaux’s last Senate speech should be required reading for every current and future member of Congress:
I have looked at meeting people in Congress not just as colleagues who were elected to public office, but I looked at each one of them as a potential friend. I learned a long time ago that you have to understand where people come from to appreciate what they are all about. I think many times we take a position automatically that we don’t like someone because of where they are from or what party they are in, without delving into their backgrounds, why they say what they say, and who helps develop those ideas.
I remember when I was in the House, I served on the Public Works Committee with Bella Abzug, who many thought was the most liberal person in the Congress. I remember Bella Abzug telling me, you know, where I come from, in my congressional district, they think I am too conservative. She had the type of district that encouraged her and helped her and pushed her to represent the people as they wanted to be represented in the Congress of the United States. So if you understand where people come from and understand their background and who they represent, I think it helps you understand how people of different positions can be friends, because they are truly trying to represent their States the best they can. It is not just because of their politics but because of where they are from.
Let me say one other thing that I think we need to pay attention to in this body, the Senate. That is, we should not let outside forces dictate to us how we treat each other and how we work together. Many times, when Democrats have a caucus lunch on Tuesday right outside this Chamber, Republicans are having theirs separate from us at the same time. Many times, we hear people call in from the outside who are in public relations, PR men and women and pollsters, who spend an inordinate amount of time telling us how we can take actions that will show how the other side is wrong and we are right. Right across the hall, the Republicans are hearing some of the same type of public relation firms arguing to them how they can posture themselves to be able to blame the Democrats for failure.
Back in the old days, we used to do all this together. People would stand up and give their position, and the other side would give theirs and find out we are trying to accomplish the same thing, coming at it from slightly different venues and in a slightly different direction. I always feel that if you only listen to yourself, you are only going to hear an echo and you are never going to disagree. That is why it is so important to hear the other side, listen to what the other side has to say, understand what they say. You don’t have to agree with them, but I think you are a better person if you understand and your position becomes stronger if you know what the other side is going to argue. It makes your position better and stronger.
But you also must realize that neither party has a monopoly on the truth. Both sides have good ideas. The real answer to this body and the House, and for democracies everywhere, is trying to take the best of what both sides can offer and blend them in a package that simply makes Government work for all of us. People back home are not so much concerned about who wins and loses as they are about whether we are getting the job done. Congress does not have to be like a Super Bowl. In the Super Bowl, you have to have one team that is going to win and one that will lose. If there is a tie, they have a playoff and go into overtime until one team wins and one team loses.
There is nothing wrong with the Congress trying to find ways to reach agreement and blending the best from both sides and coming up with something so that everybody wins. Then we can argue and fight over which team won. That way, I can go back to Louisiana and tell them look what I did, and somebody from Texas or Illinois can go back to their State and say look what I did. And that is fine, because we can argue about success and not debate over failure and whose fault it was.
The American people would be better served if the debate here could be a debate about how we accomplish something as opposed to why we didn’t get anything done.
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There’s another interesting way of looking at this issue, presented by John Geer in his book, In Defense of Negativity. It’s mostly about campaign advertising, but it’s still a very compelling argument. You can find a good summary of the book here.