On a recent episode of PBS Newshour, Jeffrey Brown hosted a roundtable discussion exploring the dangers of polarized politics for American Governance. The guests were Eric Liu, Steven Hayward and Beverly Gage. Most of the discussion was an analysis of the recent government shutdown from a typical left vs. right perspective, but I thought their view of reactions of average citizens was interesting:
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.
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.
…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.
You can read the complete transcript here: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec13/governing_10-17.html
All three guests made good points, though the views of conservatives and liberals are typically generalized in such discussions and I think issues of most concern to citizens on a grassroots level are often not the ones being debated enough in Washington D.C. There definitely needs to be more political discussion between left and right not just within government but among the general public. Increased communication and education is the best defense against “divide and conquer” tactics but of course this is easier said than done because politics has become a taboo subject for many, mainly due to fear of getting into heated arguments. But perhaps this fear is unwarranted because there’s many issues that the left and right can agree on (though motives and priorities may differ). These are just some of the more topical examples:
- End the Wars – As demonstrated by widespread negative reaction to war threats against Syria, people are perhaps becoming more aware of political trickery thus becoming harder to persuade. Also, as living standards drop for more people, the connection between costly foreign policy and the nation’s declining economy and infrastructure has never been more obvious.
- Stop the Surveillance State – Privacy is a universal human need. Mass spying on citizens is illegal and unethical whether online or through drones and informants.
- End Unjust Trade Agreements – Agreements such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) hurt working people and endangers health and safety, the environment, and national sovereignty.
- End the Fed – We’ve endured 100 years of a “Federal” Reserve run by private bankers and all we have to show for it is a debt of tens of trillions of dollars. It will never be paid off as long as we continue to use interest-bearing federal reserve notes as currency.
- Create Affordable Health Care – It can be argued that Obamacare is an incremental improvement but everyone knows it’s not enough and is far more beneficial for greedy insurance companies than the poor.
- End the Drug War – We can all agree the Drug War is a colossal failure (when it comes to the stated purpose of reducing drug addiction). It has only increased incarceration rates while enriching the prison-industrial complex and drug cartels. We need to adopt policies that have proven to be effective such as legalization, decriminalization and harm-reduction.
- Stop GMOs – GMOs are unnecessary, physically and economically harmful to farmers, may have potentially catastrophic effects on the ecosystem, and only serves to increase profits for companies like Monsanto.
- End Obscene Economic Inequality – Complete economic equality might not be possible, but when economic inequality reaches absurd and unsustainable levels as they have today, obviously something needs to change.
- Protect Internet Freedom – Legislation such as the NDAA, SOPA and PIPA indicate that government and corporations are threatened by the internet. Attacks against internet freedom are attacks against freedom of speech, freedom of information and cognitive liberty.
- Ignore Corporate News – Another point of agreement between right and left is the corporate news media’s increasing irrelevancy and bias. Today it is not so much a liberal or conservative bias as it is a neoliberal and neoconservative bias.