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Exploring the dangers of polarized politics for American governance

October 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Fundamental disagreement is an expected occurrence in Congress, but lately crises have come in increasing frequency. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Eric Liu of Citizen University, Steven Hayward of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Beverly Gage of Yale University for a closer look at polarized American politics.
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GWEN IFILL: As Washington continues to move almost breathlessly from crisis to crisis, it seems like a good time to take a step back and examine the political history and philosophies that bring us to the brink again and again.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in those larger terms, just what is it that we’re witnessing today in American politics? And what impact does it have on citizens?

Author Eric Liu looks at these questions as founder of Citizen University, which seeks to engage people on progressive issues. He served as an adviser to former President Bill Clinton. Steven Hayward is a visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. And historian Beverly Gage of Yale University joins us once again. She studies political movements in U.S. history.

Well, Eric Liu, I want to start with you with something you said to our producer in thinking about these issues. You said, people have stopped drawing any kind of line between politics and government.

Now, what does that mean, and what kind of line should there be?

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ERIC LIU, Citizen University: Well, I think the reality is that that line is always hard to draw, but there is a difference between politicking and trying to appeal to one’s base in electoral terms on the one hand, and on the other hand actually just governing, running the operations of government.

And what we saw over the last two weeks was a very dangerous blurring of that line, where the — for political purposes, we were willing, as a country, to go almost to the brink of putting our full faith and credit on the line and stopping the functioning of government altogether.

And I think that’s the — the tricky spot here is that, of course, there is no purity in government. But the question is, as citizens, can we in fact have a certain measure of full faith in the way that things operate every day in government, and not treat it as just another football in the constant political games?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Steven Hayward to answer that, respond to that.

What do you see happening in terms of political movements such as the Tea Party and attitudes today about government?

STEVEN HAYWARD, University of Colorado, Boulder: Right. Well, that’s you know, a big tangle there.

I can take Eric’s distinction between politics and government up to a point, but I think I would say back that the bigger government gets and the more things become politicized and centralized in Washington, the more we’re going to have these fundamental clashes over our disagreements, deep disagreements.

I think if you take the long view, the way I have been explaining it is this. If you go back 40 years ago and think about the anti-war movement and how it transformed the Democratic Party, the Tea Party is now the Republicans’ version of that.

And if you think back again to the anti-war movement, a lot of people didn’t like their tactics and their disposition, a lot of liberals, but they did tend to agree with a lot of their point of view. And, today, the Tea Party, while a lot of people even in the Republican Party don’t like the Tea Party because it seems to lack prudence, sensible calculation about things, they do agree with their aims, and they do agree that there’s something deeply wrong with out-of-control government.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Beverly Gage, you often look back for us. Ideological divisions, of course, are nothing new in American politics, but what do you see that can help us understand what’s just been happening these last few weeks?

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: It’s certainly true that ideological divisions are not new.

I think the thing that’s new about whose happening now is really the frequency with which we are having these crises. So, as soon as one is resolved, we’re already starting the countdown toward the next crisis. And it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone out there who really has a definitive solution about how that’s going to end.

And so while we have had these conflicts in the past, I really don’t think that we have had them at this level of one after another after another.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so, Eric Liu, let me ask you, because I know you’re very — you’re trying to engage people in the act of citizenship. What do you see the effect of all of this? Are they more engaged? Are they just more disgusted and turned off?

ERIC LIU: Well, I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. There is disgust.

(LAUGHTER)

ERIC LIU: But, because of the disgust, there’s actually more engagement.

And that’s true on both the left and the right. Look, I think the reality is, when Steven was speaking a moment ago about the kind of encroachment of ever-growing and ever-larger government, we can have reasonable debates in this country about what the proper size and scope of government ought to be, but we ought to regard those debates not as “on/off, yes/no, my way or we shut the whole thing down” kind of debates.

And I think the danger of the Tea Party argument that every new thing, whether it’s Obamacare or something else, is another slide down the slippery slope, look, the bottom line for responsible citizenship is our job is to build steps on the slippery slope. It’s not to say, if you take one little step, it’s down to oblivion and to tyranny.

Our job is to figure out how do we negotiate these balances, how do calibrate? And if by temperament or even by ideology, you are not wanting to calibrate or compromise, then we’re going to have a politics of, as Beverly put it, perpetual crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steven…

ERIC LIU: I think so people from both left and right watching these last two weeks are ready for something different.

They’re ready to actually hear each other and see one another and not the caricatures of one another, and try to figure out, well, where is it that we can manage to agree on the role of government, and where we can’t agree, how can we recognize that to be a citizen isn’t just a single-shot sudden death game. It’s infinite repeat play, and you’re going to win some, and I’m going to win some.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Steven Hayward to respond to this.

Do you see the result of this as people ready to work together or more divisions that ever more polarizes?

STEVEN HAYWARD: Well, I think there’s two things to think about here.

One is, is we have divided government once again. The voters, God bless them, have a lot of cognitive dissonance. Right? In the last week, what you saw is people say, I don’t like Obamacare, but I don’t want the government shut down. I don’t want it to be a matter of a budget fight the way it’s become. And that’s why Republicans lost this proximate battle.

But if you look at some of the poll numbers right now, I think they ought to be very worrying for everybody, but I think more worrying ultimately for liberals, for this reason. You have seen record high numbers of people who now say — I think 65 percent in one poll — that government is a threat to their rights.

You have seen a long-term trend going back really to the 1960s of the number of people saying they have confidence that the federal government will do the right thing down in 15 percent, 20 percent, when it used to be in the ’50s up around 60 to 70 percent. And to the extent that if you’re liberal and that you believe in political solutions to our social problems or government engagement with our problems, you want the public to have confidence in the federal government’s capacities.

And so it seems to me that, as much as this might have been a train wreck for Republicans, the long-term effect of this might not necessarily play out that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Beverly, when you look back at political — what could be called political crises of the past, what does it — what happens in terms of public response to those?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think to some degree, Steven’s quite right, in that I would kind of like to subscribe to Eric’s view that we’re going to have a much more serious conversation, a much more bipartisan conversation.

But I think it’s equally possible that you’re actually going to see people throw their hands up and say, oh, it’s all such a mess. I don’t really want to make sense of it. I don’t want to deal with it. And, in that way, it sort of serves an anti-government message, and in some ways, even serves sort of the Tea Party message in ways that maybe were intended and maybe weren’t.

But I think there’s also a danger for the Republican Party in all of this, which is to say that these divisions that we’re seeing right now within the Republican Party between moderates and Tea Party conservatives and also between a sort of establishment business class, which is very, very alarmed about what’s happening, and this more right-wing part of the party, that actually may in fact spell destruction for the Republican Party.

Those are divisions that have been there for a long time. They have often been papered over. But when you’re on the brink of financial catastrophe in the way that we were, we may not see them be papered over, and we may in fact see some sort of political realignment coming out of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we just have about a minute left, so, Eric Liu, I just want to ask you very briefly, 30 seconds, and I will give Steven Hayward the same, is this some kind of evolving sense of common good that we’re seeing? Or is there a — how does that fit into what we’re watching?

ERIC LIU: Well, look, this is a question for us, for the viewers right now to decide.

This is not going to be a thing that either Speaker Boehner or President Obama waves wand and says, we will now enter a period of civility and common cause. We have to decide as citizens what kind of tone we’re going to set, what kind of engagement we’re going to ask of ourselves and our leaders.

And I do think there’s an opportunity right now, even as the Republican Party figures out what it wants to be when it grows up, for all Americans of both parents to figure out how we can learn to talk to each other and hear one another again.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

All right, Steven Hayward, a last word from you, briefly.

STEVEN HAYWARD: Yes.

When I hear Eric’s idealism in a student, I always applaud it and try and nurture it. But, look, I think that — I’m reminded of something James Madison wrote way back in the Federalist Papers. He said that sometimes deliberative wisdom will be conspicuously absent when it is most needed. I think if you plopped James Madison down today, he would say, yes, I recognize this. This is exactly how I thought things would go.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Steven Hayward, Eric Liu, and Beverly Gage, thanks so much.