Shields and Brooks on political polarization and social reckoning in 2017

Politics

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks sit down with Hari Sreenivasan to discuss President Trump’s first year in office, including the state of political polarization and what Americans can do to repair divisions, trust in democratic institutions like the press and the reckoning in American society over sexual misconduct and racial discrimination.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    So, here we are at the end of 2017. There seems to be some data out that talks about this year of polarity or increased polarization.

    What party you are seems to determine much more than, you know, how you view the world today than what gender you are, where you went to school, what church you belong to.

  • Mark Shields:

    No, I don't think there's any question that our parties have become far more monolithic than they were just two generations ago.

    Two generations ago, the pro-choice position on abortion was led by Planned Parenthood, by Republicans, I mean, and the Democrats were, if anything, a pro-life party. On guns, on a whole host of issues, there was a cross-pollination between the parties. Now they have now become far more monolithic.

    And I, for one, am a little bit of a heretic on the subject of the total polarization of us as a society. I think people decide where they live, not necessarily on the voting patterns, as much as how good the schools are, how much of a commute it is, how safe the neighborhood is.

    But I don't think there's any question that there is greater political polarization and there's a greater willingness now to think that my political opponent is my enemy, rather than just my adversary.

  • David Brooks:

    I'm a little more pessimistic.

    In 1960, they asked people, would you mind if your son or daughter married somebody from the opposing party? And it was like 5 percent said they would mind. Now it's like 40 percent say they mind.

    If you ask people, what do you — if you ask Republican, what do you think of Democrats, Democrats, what do you think of Republicans, the same words come out. The people in the other people are immoral, they're lazy, they're stupid, they're closed-minded.

    And so this is a pretty big separation. And I think it's not just a political identity so much anymore. It's a social identity. It's who you are. And I do think people are moving to people like themselves, part of the same political tribe. And politics is now aligned with TV viewing habits, with prayer, church attendance, with all sorts of other activities.

    It's now tribal. And the tribal is basically political. And to me that's just putting too much weight on politics.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, as our co-captains of civility, those who disagree agreeably, right, what do we do about it?

  • Mark Shields:

    I disagree with David.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    And I'm not going to be civil about it, OK?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    No, I do think there's majority support in both parties. We have seen an improvement in the country in questions of racial tolerance, acceptance with interracial marriage, acceptance of sexual minorities.

    So, I mean, there is — both parties — immigration, Republicans by 20 percent think that immigration is better for the country rather than worse than 20 years ago. And I'm not minimizing. I'm not trying to be a Pollyanna, but I think the areas of disagreement are more intense and more polarized.

    But what would I do about it? What I do take from personal experience, the first time I ever slept in the same quarters with African-Americans, or took orders as a direct course, a matter of course, from African-Americans, was the Parris Island, South Carolina, Marine Corps boot camp. And I think that was a great Americanization.

    I think national service is a great Americanizing experience. I think we have in both parties, but particularly my own party, the Democratic Party, there has been an overemphasis on my rights as a citizen. And I think that our duties and responsibilities as a citizen have to be addressed.

    And the idea that that's the way we meet, understand our differences and yet understand our commonality, and I would say mandatory universal at the age of 18 for everybody, civilian and military.

  • David Brooks:

    I agree with that.

    But I would do two things. One, I would try to downplay politics. Politics is an important thing. We make our living talking about it, but it's not the most important thing. Most of the things that matter in life are your relationships, your community, your ideas, your character, and those sub-political.

    And, you know, Mark is progressive. He has way got worse problems than that. He's a Boston Celtics fan.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Shields:

    I am.

  • David Brooks:

    Worse.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    And, so, first, politics is a limited activity, important, but limited.

    The second thing I would do is try to discover something we actually do have in common, which is a national story. I was raised — my grandfather had a big immigrant mentality. He was an exodus story.

    Our people, like all Americans of all different types, left oppression, crossed the wilderness, came to the promised land. And that was the national story that a lot of different people could buy into it.

    And for people under 40, that's just not their story. They just don't buy it. They don't think there's a promised land. Too much oppression. Too many historical sins. So we have to come up with a new historical story. And that's a challenge for us right now.

  • Mark Shields:

    And just agreeing with David, but let me add this, if I could, Hari.

    If we left everything to the private sector and forgot politics and public sector — and I'm not arguing with David about the overemphasis on politics — but we have to acknowledge and we have to celebrate what we have accomplished together.

    I mean, if we left it to the private sector, we would still have slavery in this country. It's only through politics, the political process and public will and public education and public morality that we decided to abolish slavery, that we abolished segregation, that we have saved our environment, that we have done everything we have to make ours a more just and humane and welcoming country.

    And, you know, I think the fairly of our leadership, particularly the current leadership, who insists, Donald Trump in particular, to denigrate and demean all public service and all public action, is a sin to this country, and to having any kind of common story or common pride or common sense of values of who we are and what we stand for.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Speaking of Donald Trump, would you, at the end of this year now, give him credit for some of the accomplishments that he says he's not getting credit for, the longest list of judicial nominees approved in a first year of a presidency, a significant tax reform plan?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes, I mean, certainly, I mean, tax reform since, you know, Paul Ryan was in short pants, this has been his dream.

    I mean, and he's been the symbol of all Republicans on this. There's no question about it, an achievement. And one cannot in any way minimize the judicial appointments. I would point out that Clarence Thomas has been sitting on the Supreme Court now — George Bush was elected 30 years ago, George W. Bush.

    Clarence Thomas is still a reasonably young and healthy man. So it's incredibly, incredibly important. If you're going to celebrate the economic difference, I would just point out that the unemployment rate was 4.8 percent when Donald Trump took office. Some credit should go to his predecessor, who cut the unemployment rate, his policies did, in half from 10 percent down to 4.8.

    But, no, I think you have to acknowledge Donald Trump's successes, the areas you mentioned.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    David, also, there seems to be a distrust in institutions of all sorts.

    You have got only about 30 percent of Republicans who believe humans are impacting climate change. And the graphic that we have up on screen, should the media play a watchdog role, that was something in early 2016 that about 75 percent of Democrats and Republicans agreed that that was the role of the press.

    And now, at this point — this was, I think, in May that Pew had this poll out — about 42 percent of Republicans feel that, 89 percent of Democrats feel that.

    You know, the president certainly adds fuel to this fire. I mean, he rails against the press, against the FBI, against climate science.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Well, you know, this is partly a media problem. We made ourselves vulnerable to this loss of faith among Republicans by not hiring Republicans. This used to be a working-class profession in which people in both parties — it has increasingly become an Ivy League profession for people with progressive political views.

    And if you do that after a number of time, you are just going to lose touch with part of the country and they are going to lose touch with you. That's partly shame on us, but it's partly shame on Donald Trump.

    It's very easy for political leaders to take nascent suspicions and exploit them into tribal conflicts. We see this around the world, where politicians — people are living together in a place like Nairobi, a lot of different tribes living in the same place. They don't have violence most of the time.

    But when the electoral campaigns happen, the politicians come in and incite the violence, and it's like setting off a spark. And Donald Trump is a genius at setting off these kind of sparks. And opposition to the media has replaced opposition to the Soviet Union in the Republican gospel.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, how do you rebuild trust in institutions at large?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I one of the things, you actually have to be out in actual contact with people.

    Second, I think you have to engage in common projects. It's one thing to all get together. But we can't just get together. The people who want to divide us have a theory about why we should be divided. And you can't beat a theory with a process. You have to have a countertheory.

    You have to have a theory about what makes America a nation, about what our institutions do in that nation. And it's — again, I go back to this thing, we need a common story where the institutions play a role in the lives of all the individual citizens.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mark, this was also a year of reckoning in different ways about race and gender. When it came to race, there was an interesting Washington Post poll out, was 2017 good or bad for race relations?

    And across the board, Democrat, Republican, independent, 82 percent said it was bad. And then, of course, later, in the second half of the year, we started looking at the gender disparities and the climate of sexual harassment that seems so deeply embedded in so many different workplaces and industries.

    How does this translate? Does this actually become something of a political issue that results in some sort of change at the polls next year?

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

    Dante Chinni of the Wall Street Journal pointed out this week that, by a margin of 42 percent, 42 percent more college-educated women are voting Democrat over Republican heading into 2018.

    I think that's a direct consequence of the two parties, particularly of President Trump, and his — first of all, his position, the "Hollywood Access," something that he apologized for twice and then attempted to deny that he had said on the third time.

    But there's no question that there is a reckoning, the — Weinstein, Charlie Rose. I mean, when you see men of that stature and that prominence fall, there's no question that it's real. And I think the warning throughout our society, the lesson is there. I think it's there politically.

    As far as Charlottesville, is it still an open wound on race in this country? And none of these cases has the president shown any moral leadership or any ability to heal the wounds. I just come back to the fact that, on the night that he won the presidency in 2012, Barack Obama stood there and he said, we, first of all, speaking of his opponent's father, and the governor of Michigan, and his mother who had been a candidate for the Senate, he said, we salute George Romney and Lenore Romney and their son mitt, because the Romney family's commitment to this country and to public service to give back to America is what we honor here tonight.

    Now, Donald Trump insists every — daily, almost hourly, of speaking about the crooked Hillary. He's never extended the open hand of friendship of anything of the sort. And there's no healing. There's no healing. And a president is supposed to be a healer.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    David?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    I think these — now I turn a little optimistic. What's happening on the sexual harassment to me is an utterly good thing. But it's painful at the moment. You have got to go through the painful thing, but it's an utterly good re-norming of how people should behave together in the workplace.

    And on racial matters, I think what is happening is, people are being more honest with each other. Some of it is noxious on the right, but most of it just conversations we need to have. And I think it's an unveiling of what's been hidden for a long time that is painful, but is part of overall progress.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you, Hari.

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Shields and Brooks on political polarization and social reckoning in 2017 first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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