Jeffrey Brown and Scott Simon

Jeffrey Brown & Scott Simon: Searching for civil dialogue in a divided America

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Searching for civil dialogue in American politics these days is like…

by Bill Israel, Ph.D., is associate professor of journalism and political communication and director of graduate communication studies at St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, Texas.  He is the author of A Nation Seized: How Karl Rove and the Political Right Stole Reality, Beginning with the News (Spokane, WA.: Marquette Books, 2011).

Searching for civil dialogue in American politics these days is like confronting Danté’s sign at the gates of hell: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Politics is the art of war in a civilized society; and war is hell.  Because news is the essential political battlefront, those who control it can choose the battleground, use it to damage or destroy the opposition, or, these days, undercut the news entirely.  That was partly true of those who battled for civil rights and to end the Vietnam war in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  It’s even more so now, when the political Right has so dwarfed the Left, I argue the United States has become a nation seized.

When we taught “Politics and the Press? together at the University of Texas at Austin, political strategist Karl Rove scoffed at the notion of political civility.  It evaporated, he said, the moment Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson began sniping bitterly and anonymously at each other through the pages of opposing newspapers.  In that tradition, Rove refined the art of the drive-by hit, mastering direct mail to bypass the news.  “Mail,? Karl told our class proudly – hard-hitting, few fingerprints, deadly, especially in the last couple days of a campaign when it’s nearly impervious to media attention – “is for Maoists.”

But more important than campaign tactics alone are the myriad organizations of the Right developed since 1969 into a superstructure that’s changed what and how Americans think: the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, to name a few.  By 1980, there were 70 of them in place that helped to elect Ronald Reagan.  By 2000, there were 500.  They helped designate George W. Bush president-select without a popular majority, through a Supreme Court whose majority owed appointment to the work of another part of the new superstructure: the Federalist Society. As Grover Norquist said later, “If Hillary Clinton had wanted to put some meat on her charge of ‘a vast right-wing conspiracy,’ she should have had a list of Federalist Society members and she could have spun a more convincing story.?  Rove, speaking to the Federalists a little later, said, “…the reason we will prevail rests in large part on the good work of the Federalist Society.?

Consider: almost 50 years ago, Democrats smashed GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and his ticket; and 10 years later, the GOP was so damaged over Watergate that its leaders considered changing the name of the Republican Party.  Yet, through decades-long refinement of their new superstructure, conservatives now have a lock on the House of Representatives; are awash in unlimited, unrestricted, anonymous campaign cash and the science to target it; and have the Senate, the presidency, and elective offices down to the level of town council in their sights nationwide. In contrast, liberals who revived in the New Deal appeared to retire in 1971, once a Democratic president had enacted civil rights, voting rights, aid to education, and Medicaid and Medicare; and after a Republican president founded the EPA, created Amtrak, took us off the gold standard, and declared he was a Keynesian, too.

Win or lose, anyone who’s worked the highs and lows of a fair political campaign through voting day feels a moment of exhilaration: that elections are how we institutionalize revolution, usually without resorting to arms.  Imperiling that institution, the Right has mastered a superstructure and resources anonymous and abundant enough to supplant one man, one vote, with a new Golden Rule: he who has the gold rules, and dictates the course of the country.

After 40 years of steadily losing to superior forces, only American liberals seem still to pine for a lost political civility.  Conservatives, in the meantime, hold the gold and control the battleground, and may as long into the future as we can see.

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Why Are We all So Pissed Off?

By Nancy Urbschat, owner of TSM Design, a marketing, advertising and brand development firm. She also serves as founder and president of Pro Springfield Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the conversation about Springfield, Massachusetts.

My family and I have been vacationing on the Cape (Cod) for the past two weeks. We have been in the company of tens of thousands of others who are choosing to bask in the warm August sun and swim in the chilly Atlantic for as much time as they are able to afford. Sounds like the ideal condition for carte blanche civility, right?  Maybe not.

The other day a dramatically reduced version (four) of our extended family walked the beach gear over to our regular spot on Nauset Beach. For the unfamiliar, Nauset is one of the most beautiful stretches of beach the Cape has to offer.  As we began to remove beach chairs from our backs, we discerned that our choice appeared to be unpopular with a nearby woman. Her displeasure was palpable. We evaluated the situation and adjusted our site plan so that we were not infringing on her direct gaze at the Atlantic. Yet, her steely snarl remained. The last time we’d seen so much pissed off-ness was on our drive over to the Cape. Traffic was backed up as we approached the Sagamore Bridge. A driver decided he couldn’t wait and started driving on the breakdown lane. A driver up ahead flipped out, flipped the bird and then swerved over to block said impatient driver. The enforcer inched along in front of the offender until a very angry Mass. State trooper stopped both drivers dead in their tracks.

Circling back to the story at hand, our daughter’s boyfriend, a genteel young man, generally not inclined to making assumptions, quietly observed, “That woman just gave me the hairy eyeball.? For those in need of a glossary, hairy eyeball is a look ranging from displeasure to disgust. Her look was then followed by the 180-degree turn of her petite body in her lawn chair – throwing her legs over arms of said chair, facing away from the sun and thus minimizing her tanning. For those with little tanning experience, that’s pretty pissed off!

Granted, no words were ever exchanged. I can only speculate. For the record: We weren’t sporting a boom box. We weren’t raucous. We weren’t tossing objects (Jarts, bocce balls, or Frisbees) in her direction. I am left to assume that she saw something she didn’t like. Maybe it was the very visible tattoos sported by our daughter and her boyfriend. Maybe it’s the fact that Nauset (and in fact, the entire Cape) is pretty much all-white and our daughter’s bf (boyfriend) is of Korean descent. Whatever the case, she was unhappy having us in her neighborhood.

My daughter and I moved down to the water’s edge where we could strategize about what to do. We considered a number of options. Naturally, the best idea came from my offspring. “How about this? I’ll walk over and simply ask, ‘Would you help me apply my sunscreen?’?

I guess we’ll never know if my assumption was true. But I’ve been seen enough of people’s intolerance to feel okay advancing it. I own and operate a business in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. Several large corporations have offices in towers nearby. Many of their employees drive into the parking garage, go to work, and drive home without ever setting foot on Main Street. They choose to remain cloistered because they are afraid to go out onto the wild, noontime street. This is a widely known fact that is confirmed by these employers. Now there’s nothing even remotely wild or dangerous happening at high noon in Springfield. But it’s very likely they might see people of a multitude of colors, many of whom are poor, waiting for the bus, walking down the street, talking to their friends. This seems to be all it takes to keep some people inside.

My conclusions are that it’s possible to find intolerance at any time of day, in any environment, triggered by nothing more than people with appearances different than one’s own. And that, my friend, pisses me off. Rather than rage, I like to keep my responses absurd and I try never to let ignorance ruin a perfectly good day at the beach.

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Divide and Conquer

By John V. Lombardi.  President Emeritus of the University of Florida, former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and former president of the Louisiana State University System.  He is a founding Co-Director of the Center for Measuring University Performance and posts occasionally to his blog, Reality Check on Inside HigherEd.

The American political tradition of outrageous partisan rhetoric has been with us since the beginning of the nation.  Then as now, the purpose of a conflict style that drives all discussion to the extremes is to divide the audience into firm partisan camps, with the goal of making one partisan camp large enough to win elections. The development of instant media, almost universal literacy, constant audio and video access, none of us can escape the attack-counterattack partisanship so much in vogue.

Some of us enjoy this form of debate because it tends to reduce complicated issues to slogans and personal invective of the form “you are a bad guy so your policy proposals are bad.? Part of the attractiveness also comes from an affiliation with a pseudo-community of people whose general perspectives match your own.  So we say, “Well, that’s surely an outrageous attack, but her general position matches mine.? In the battle, public commentary that we would reject from our friends and family is tolerated because we belong to the partisan community of the offensive speaker.

Although the level of discourse is low and unpleasant, it nonetheless has little to do with substantive issues or the development of effective policy alternatives for the nation.  Instead, it is a battle for the center driven from the edges. America is a three-party country: Red, Blue, and Independent. The Red and Blue are already persuaded, they’ve been persuaded since the beginning of this endless campaign, but the 40% in the middle will decide the election. The hyperventilating rhetorical flourishes of each partisan group seeks to drive wedges into that independent electorate hiving off some from the left leaning side to join the Blues and some from the right leaning side to join the Reds. An additional benefit of this kind of campaign is that many independents do not care to belong to either partisan group, may simply sit out the election. Because voter turnout in America is low and those who stay home also vote with their feet by leaving the field to dedicated partisans and those who vote even believing they are picking the better of two not very impressive options.

As with most things in American culture and politics, we often rush to the edges of extreme behavior and then, recognizing the distance that has taken us from the center of American life, drift back away from the destructive fringe, closer to the rational center. National elections in America are always close, with the losers representing large proportions of the electorate. Winners almost never have a majority of the votes, even in our indirect system, and whoever ends up governing cannot assume a mandate from the people write large, only a mandate from a partisan group and a fraction of the independents, a total less than 50% of the voting public.

Some of us simply check out of the electioneering, recognizing the false premises of much of the discussion. Finding no place to hear reasonable people talk about practical approaches to the complex problems of America, they choose not to listen to the ranting and fake controversies. Perhaps this blog and some other initiatives from independents will create an oasis of conversation about managing national challenges that can only be made worse by irrational rants from the fringes of American life.

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Helping Democracy Work amid Decision 2012

By Hon. Mark R. Kennedy, Director and Professor of the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University; and Three-Term Congressman (R-MN) who served as Treasurer of the Pawlenty for President campaign

Decision 2012 is a divisive one. It demands partisanship be sacrificed for the good of the nation. The victor in November will be he who advances the issues 80 percent of voters agree on rather than harping on those where there is nearly an even divide among the electorate. Our challenge is underscoring that while divisive politics makes for great ratings on talk radio and cable news, it is counter-intuitive to what Americans—and, ultimately, the global economy—need. We have the responsibility to help democracy work.

The goals of democracy must be bigger than just winning elections, although you will be hard-pressed to hear anyone from the Obama or Romney camps suggest this at this stage of the contest. As we approach November, we must never forget that other countries are watching—some with contempt, many more with hope. Once a winner is selected, the challenge is by no means over. On the contrary, it is at that point that harnessing the skill of practical politics is truly tested. Partisanship aside, Americans need representatives to champion the legislation that paves the way for a better life.

One of the most important lessons we can teach at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) is how to engage those of different persuasions in a constructive manner. Our hope is that our graduates will participate in this way in the political sphere, effectively shifting the conversation to one that promotes an effective, working government. To that end, we are honored to launch a new display in the GWU Media and Public Affairs building, highlighting former Republican and Democrat chairs—both board members of GSPM—who worked together to advance democracy. We are also pleased to be a co-sponsor of the upcoming Lisner Auditorium event Jeffrey Brown and Scott Simon: Searching for Civil Dialogue in a Divided America on September 20th.

GSPM is in that unique position of being able to guide the political conversation of today and of the future. GSPM invented the idea and launched the first school dedicated to the teaching of practical politics. As the school whose namesake—George Washington—cautioned against the perils of excessive partisanship, it seems appropriate that the purpose for GSPM should be helping democracy to work. We do not purport to be nonpartisan, since passion is an essential element to that which our students study. Nor do we strive to be bipartisan, as international students in our program come from countries with dozens of political parties. What we do stand for is effectiveness and serving the full spectrum of the electorate who depends on steady, honest, forward-moving representation. It is hard to imagine a more meaningful purpose.

We encourage others to join us in the conversation on September 20th.

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Jeffrey Brown and Scott Simon in Conversation

JEFFREY BROWN and SCOTT SIMON in conversation:
Searching for civil dialogue in a divided America.

As the 2012 American presidential election approaches, partisanship has reached fever pitch. In public and political discourse, charged and sometimes ugly language has become the norm. When hyperbole and outrage rule the day on the stump, in ads, on the airwaves, and in print, how can we talk to one another? How do we get past the divisive rhetoric and where do things really stand? Amidst the shouting, how can we as individuals find our voice?

Join public media’s Jeffrey Brown (PBS NewsHour senior correspondent) and Scott Simon (host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday and PBS’ Need to Know) on Thursday, September 20, 2012 as they look at the divisions in the country today, the current cultural and political ‘map’, and the latest issues facing our country. A robust question and answer session will follow the discussion.