In the midst of one of the most partisan budget fights in recent memory, Washington could use a dose of civility. The political environment, increasingly fraught with polarization and inaction, is in dire need of reasonable debate. In an effort to rejuvenate the discussion about what ails our system and what can be done to reverse course, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and The Aspen Institute held the first in a four-part series, Conversations on Civility: Making Our Democracy Work.
The series highlights and promotes ways to improve our democracy and civic health. Each roundtable aims to identify opportunities for educators, business leaders, and policymakers to forge a more active and engaged citizenry.
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Wednesday’s featured speakers were Delaware Governor Jack Markell, former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (now Director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics), NPR Senior News Analyst and ABC News Political Commentator Cokie Roberts, and moderator Mickey Edwards, a former U.S. Representative and now Director of the Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership at Aspen.
The four speakers were joined by a diverse set of participants, including a number of former members of Congress. Here is a brief recap of the session’s themes:
A changing media landscape
Both Grayson and Roberts emphasized the media’s role in shaping the political tone. Grayson expressed his astonishment over the increase in media attention directed at tight local elections in the last decade. He cited the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race as an embodiment of this evolution. Roberts added that more Americans are political moderates than the media lets on. She insisted that a majority of voters want their legislators to come to Washington to work together.
A number of roundtable participants contended that the media offers a speakerphone to the most extreme and divisive candidates. Labeling these politicos “the shouters,” Gov. Markell urged serious leaders to stand up and take action on tough issues. BPC Senior Fellow and former Senator Bob Bennett, reflecting on his primary defeat in Utah last year, said that blogs and social media sites also contribute to the decline of civility and the spread of ‘misinformation.’ Aspen’s Charlie Firestone submitted nonstop talk radio as yet another corrosive factor in the political spectrum.
Grayson noted that America’s younger generations do not have a positive view of the federal government. The disconnect between politics and public service has reached a point where a government career is no longer viewed among the most honorable ways to serve the country, Grayson said. Countless scandals and ethics violations since Watergate have severely diminished the public’s trust in Washington. Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, asserted that the public rarely receives an apology even when a politician’s culpability is obvious. The effect has been damaging, Sloan said.
Roberts pointed to Congress’ large post-World War II freshman classes as examples of the power of shared experiences. The legislators, having fought a war together and established close personal relationships, could get past partisan differences with the help of common values and general camaraderie. Such elements are missing from today’s crop of legislators, Roberts contended. Gov. Markell added that trust between politicians of opposing parties has nearly evaporated. He said that Democrats and Republicans do not often know the other’s true intentions or goals. Respectable dialogue, Markell lamented, has become the exception.
A time to fundraise and a time to govern
Former Senator John Warner raised the issue of money in politics, deeming it the “500-pound gorilla in the room.” He said that members of Congress are consumed by fundraising for their own or their party’s campaign chest, cutting into valuable time to work on legislation or reach consensus.
With an eye on improving this situation, Aspen’s Norman Ornstein proposed a three-weeks-on, one-week-off schedule for Congress. Fundraising would be barred when Congress is in session and new Capitol Hill apartment buildings would be built specifically for Members and their families.
Stay tuned to our website for video from the first roundtable. Details for the second forum will be announced shortly.