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Meet in the middle

NPR’s Linda Wertheimer on Tea Parties, missing Tip O’Neill and why we can’t all just get along

NPR senior national correspondent Linda Wertheimer discusses political polarization and civility in political dialogue in her talk “Cooling the Partisan Fires,” 1 p.m. Nov. 6 at UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall.

Are you a wingnut or a moonbat, a fiberal or a dittohead? Pick a side, because in this politically polarized age, the middle ground is nowhere to be found.

Or maybe we just to have to work harder to find it. National Public Radio senior national correspondent Linda Wertheimer thinks we need to turn off the snark, stop jerking our knees and return to a saner time when compromise and common ground were the tools of political discourse. She shared her thoughts in a recent interview in advance of her Nov. 6 talk at UNLV.


American politics have always been wild. Are we really living in a more partisan, politically polarized age?

It certainly is if you compare the current age to my long, long, long experience of observing Congress in action. It seems to be that it’s just about as bad as I’ve seen it. Compromise has gone out of style, as has the idea that the leaders of the House and Senate and two parties should be friends, should know and respect one another. That idea died with Tip O’Neill. The general tone of presidential politics has changed to more of a “my way or the highway” atmosphere.

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How did we get to this point?

It’s hard to put a mark on where it began, why it began and who started it, but it seems to me it had something to do with 1994 and the Contract with America. It was then that one began to sense there was no longer an appetite for solving problems and much more of an appetite for holding onto power.


Why is partisanship a bad thing? Doesn’t it signal that there’s an actual difference between political parties?

There are times when people can play at politics and it won’t matter much. When the country is prosperous, they can try out theories, try to solve problems everybody thought were insoluble. But if you’re talking about the time we live in now, this is not the time to play politics. This seems to me to be to be an “all hands on deck” kind of time.

There’s no question we went through a long period of time when people were upset with members of Congress, when they would say they’re all alike — that’s something you would hear over and over — but it was never true. That’s always a fallacy. Politicians are not alike and they’d never be alike — in fact, trying to get into office by stressing that you’re not like the other guy is the time-honored way of doing it. But what we’re left with is the idea people are still carrying in their minds that they are all alike.

When you don’t like the ones who are in power, though, you don’t necessarily want to take on board all the philosophical baggage coming with the new person you’ve elected.


Is there any upside to partisanship? It certainly makes elections more interesting, no?

I don’t think it makes elections more interesting. But what it does seem to do is turn the whole enterprise into being about conflicts and elections and not about governing. It makes it hard for people who are elected, makes it difficult for them to run the country and the state. There are exceptions to this. Take New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He’s a Republican and a he’s a very pragmatic man. He looks at something, sees it isn’t working, and he does something about it.

 [HEAR MORE: Will redistricting be a partisan nightmare?  Hear a discussion on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]

Do we even have a political center anymore?

I think we do have a viable political center. What people are doing, though, they’ve handed off the nomination process to the edges of their parties. You get very right-wing nominations in the Republican party … the process has a way of generating these very one-note candidates. The Democratic party does it, too, but to a lesser extent.


Is a more open primary the answer? That way, independent voters would ideally bring a moderating factor to the primary process.

I don’t have a quarrel with primaries. What’s important is that even earlier in the process, people need to be eyeballing their candidates. It can never hurt to take a long look at who you’re voting for.


Is this polarization a distinctly American problem?

As long as we don’t have a parliamentary system, we’re not going to be like the other guys. Nations with parliamentary systems deal with trends in a different way. They don’t have the starmaking capacity we have in this country. They bring everyone up through their own system when they feel they’re ready to work with the electorate. They bring them up from within the system. We don’t always do that. President Obama, for example was a Senator, he was young and didn’t have all that much experience. Then all of a sudden, he’s something very different.


Would we be better off with a parliamentary system?

I don’t even believe in third parties. The system we have has worked, can work and should work, if we put in people who are committed to making it work.


What’s been the media’s role in creating extreme partisanship?

Lots of people feel that the media are more sort of tearing down than building up, accentuating the negative versus the positive. But I don’t see buying into the argument that press negativity is the problem. As a journalist, I try to spend my life trying to show up to see clearly and say what I say.


Hasn’t the Internet played a big role in this process? It was supposed to usher in an age of information and understanding, but it seems like people use it to reinforce their own views and biases.

I call that the “information versus affirmation” quandary. I have a very hard time believing that more information can be a bad thing. It seems to me that any time people have the capacity to find things out, that’s got to be a good thing.

Some of the most interesting things going on in the political season was how citizen reporters will put something on YouTube, something a candidate says or does something that you would think would go unnoticed. Former Sen. George Allen from Virginia lost an election because of a clip on YouTube. In another era we would never have envisioned that in a million years.

I think we’re stuck with that. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with it. I think that everybody in public life should have to answer for everything they say in public life.

That said, it’s an incredible revolution. It’s easy to see how the Internet could contribute to a polarizing effect, but consider the upside: That you have an amazing resource with which to do research on a candidate and find out what they believe.


As campaign season heats up, do you see the political landscape getting more partisan or less partisan? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

I’m mostly mystified. I think we should all hope and pray that we will come back to a period when we have a more temperate and more cooperative view of politics. We had periods in America when the southern Democrats were more conservative than anyone and were very hostile to civil rights. There was a great tension, and we recovered and moved on.

What I basically think is we have seen enough periods when the American people look at what’s going on with leadership, and they’ve said enough of that, we need to fix that. They’ve risen up with all the power the Constitution has conferred upon them and made change happen.


Wait. Isn’t that what the Tea Party did?

We have to wait and see what the Tea Party actually is. It made itself felt in an off year. When the American people get thoroughly sick, they will change it. My experience is that candidates can raise zillions and spend zillions in order to get and stay elected, but they can still be trumped by voters.


Is there anything we can do to counteract this trend of partisanship?

If you feel like cooperation is necessary — because some people don’t think it is — if you think partisanship has gone too far, the most useful thing you can do is exactly what the Tea Party is doing — go into the smallest unit of the electoral process, the primary, and make yourself felt there. And I’d say pay attention to whom you’re electing. Make sure this is what you want. Most Americans are not in charge of nominating their candidates. A very small sliver is. You may find you don’t have any good choices, but you have to shop around, figure out early enough in the process who’s a good guy, who matches your idea of how policy should be carried out. It sounds silly and almost Pollyanna-ish, but people do really have the last word if they choose to.

We are about to embark upon a political campaign that is about as important as anything could be. It’s incredibly important that the people who are in charge of our fate make sensible decisions from here on out.


Has observing this polarization affected the way you cover politics?

I generally think leaping into the coverage of a political campaign is a joyful thing, but I’m not sure about this election. I have a feeling this is going to be an unpleasant experience. 

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