Capitol Journal: Two longtime political street fighters have a new cause: restoring civility to Trump-era public discourse
Former President Obama didn’t mince words denouncing “the politics of division” during a South Africa speech in July.
“The politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment [are] on the move” — not just in the United States, but all over the world, he asserted, adding: “People just make stuff up….
“We see it in the growth of state-sponsored propaganda. We see it in internet fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders when they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.”
“You have to believe in facts,” Obama continued. “Without facts, there’s no basis for cooperation. If I say this is a podium and you say this is an elephant, it’s going to be hard for us to cooperate.”
And there was the late Sen. John McCain’s memorable final speech to the U.S. Senate last year. He lamented that the chamber had become “more partisan, more tribal … than any other time I remember. … Both sides have let this happen.”
“Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet. To hell with them,” the Arizona Republican continued. “Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. … We’re getting nothing done.”
Polarization has poisoned politics from top to bottom in this country — from ill-mannered President Trump down to uncivil shouting protesters inside Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The poison long ago infected social media and is worsened daily by the obsessively tweeting president.
So what can be done about it? Realistically, nothing until Trump is up for reelection in 2020. If he’s booted out of the White House, politicians might get the message and rediscover comity and bipartisanship. But most likely, politics won’t become halfway civil again until the next generation of activists and leaders emerges.
At USC, two longtime political street fighters are working on it.
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum and Republican guru Mike Murphy are heading up a new Center for the Political Future.
“The political divide is as stark as it’s been in modern memory and spans from the #resist [Trump] movement on the left to #Make America Great Again on the right,” says the USC announcement of the ambitious effort.
The program will bring in political pros for civil debates and public policy discussions, showing students they don’t need to scream at each other to make their points. And without ticking off people, they can cooperate and work on solutions to today’s problems.
“We’re trying to expose students to civil, fact-based dialogue,” Shrum says. “Hopefully, the new generation will have a tolerance for different viewpoints and an intolerance for fact-free politics.”
He adds: “There’s an incredible [student] interest in politics that has been spurred by Trump.”
The center will hold conferences on such topics as “the politics of climate change,” Shrum says. “I have no interest in another conference with people saying, ‘The polar cap is melting and the planet is threatened.’ I want to know, for example, what can be the private sector’s role. California has been leading the way on this.”
“We’ll also have a conference on tribalism and what drives people into tribes.”
There’ll be fellows — Republicans and Democrats — teaching classes on practical politics.
They’ll use the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll as a research tool.
Murphy, who has worked on six presidential campaigns and managed several gubernatorial races — including that of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 — wants to create a new winning high-road strategy.
“When the voter fatigue really hits and Republicans are looking for something new because they’ve gotten clobbered, I want to have something interesting,” Murphy says. “I don’t think anyone in politics now is looking for anything like this. But after having to pick up more arms and limbs, there’ll be an interest in new ideas. And having the right answer at the right time is gold.”
Shrum has been an advisor for several Senate and gubernatorial candidates. He was a speech writer for Sen. George McGovern and Sen. Ted Kennedy in their presidential bids, and was an advisor to Al Gore when he ran for president in 2000. He is currently director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
Shrum says he wants to analyze the gender gap in politics.
“A lot of research shows the gender gap is driven more by race than gender,” he says. “White women vote more Democratic than white men, but they actually vote Republican in presidential elections.”
Minorities of both genders generally vote Democratic.
“We want people to not just respect each other, but respect the truth,” Shrum says. “We have to get back to fact-based politics where we operate from a common set of facts.”
Murphy says we’re “in a shouting bubble, where the other side is not just your opponent, but your enemy. ... ‘I’m right and you’re evil. Everything you say is a lie.’ … Any compromise is evil and must be punished by the party tribe.”
“‘Shrummy’ and I can barely agree on lunch,” Murphy adds. “But we agree there has to be lunch. There has to be rules for combat. I don’t want to clobber Bob just to get a cheeseburger.”
“We’re not goody two-shoes,” Murphy says, “but we understand politics.
“...Politics has to be pretty awful to get professionals like us to become reformers.”
If nothing else, the students should be entertained.
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