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How did we get to this terrible place in Washington D.C.?

New Jersey Newsroom
By Irwin Stoolmacher

Former First Lady Betty Ford asked Cokie Roberts, ABC News political commentator and NPR senior political analyst, five years ago to be one of the speakers at her funeral and to talk about the importance of getting along in politics. Cokie’s father, Democrat Hale Boggs, who died in a plane crash in 1972, was Majority Leader when Jerry Ford was the house Minority Leader.

In her eulogy delivered on July 12, Roberts harkened back to time in Washington when Democrats and Republicans were friends – a time when comity was preferred to rancor. She recalled a conversation she had with President Ford a couple of years before his death in which he said, “You know, Cokie, I just don’t understand what happened in Washington. When your father… and I… would get in a cab together on the Hill and we would go downtown to some place like the Press Club and we’d say ‘OK, what are we going to argue about?’ Now it was real debate. We had different views about the means to the end. We genuinely disagreed with each other, we were certainly partisans. But after we went at it, we’d get back in the cab together and be best friends …” Roberts said, “They weren’t questioning each other’s motives, much less their commitment to country.”

Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman, author, orator and political theorist, said it well: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.” Why is the “art of compromising” no longer viewed as virtuous? Why do most politicians, from both political parties, today see conflict as preferable to compromise?

How did we get to this terribly cynical place both nationally and in New Jersey?

Too many politicians today feel that voters want gridlock. To quote Rush Limbaugh, “The American people want the government to shut down. They want all government spending to stop immediately.” There is a significant outspoken segment of the electorate who turn out heavily in primaries, who want to dramatically shrink government. Politicians respond to the squeaky wheel that votes.

Too many of those elected today are captives of special interest on the left and the right. They take their seat with rigid pre-determined views on a wide range of important issues. They have promised complete loyalty to their core constituency. Nowadays far too many of us want leaders who toe the line rather than inspire us. As a result, newly elected officials are frequently unwilling to consider changes in circumstances, nuances, or new information. Rigidity and purity reigns supreme. Few of them show real empathy – the ability to get feedback and adjust their actions accordingly. Their closed-mindedness prevents them from forging compromises.

The electorate is incredibly polarized and we are fast becoming a bipolar nation. Polarization fosters a bunker mentality which gives rise to recalcitrance. I believe the ideological gap between the far left and the far right is greater than at any time in our history. We are seeing this play out on the debt ceiling issues; the Tea Party adherents do not want to see those they help elect bend one iota on spending cuts or tax increases. Likewise the far left does not want to see any additional cuts in Social Security or the social services safety net no matter how far off the cuts are. Any kind of concession is seen as total capitulation.

Instead of trying to be objective the media has become a vehicle that accentuates and reinforces our differences in a hostile, angry manner devoid of civility. The emergence of liberal stations (CNN and MSNBC) and conservative stations (Fox News and a plethora of political radio shock-jocks) serve on a daily basis to reinforce our differences rather than to supply unbiased information.

Increasingly there is less and less respect for the government and its institutions. David Brooks wrote in his recent book The Social Animal, wrote that people have lost “faith in the government’s ability to do the right thing most of the time and come to have cynical and corrosive attitudes about their national leaders.”

Likewise, our elected officials have far less respect for the institutions in which they sit. Brooks quotes the words of Ryne Sandberg, long-time second basemen of the lowly Chicago Cubs, when he was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2005; as “an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution: I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespected your opponent or your teammates or your organization …. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play right and with respect.” Contrast this with the situation in Washington, DC and Trenton where, with rare exception, there is a total lack of respect between both parties.