Emmy Award-winning reporter Cokie Roberts, a political commentator for ABC News and a senior news analyst for National Public Radio, shared her insider’s view of Washington with a full house at UNC Kenan-Flagler on Jan. 28 when she gave the annual Weatherspoon Lecture. Drawing on her 40 years of experience in reporting on politics, Roberts delved into two of today’s most pressing political issues: the lack of interparty cooperation and the Republican Party’s brand crisis.
“The most frequently asked question I get is, ‘Is this the worst it has ever been in Washington between the parties?’” said Roberts. “The answer is no, they are not shooting at each other.”
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While America has come a long way from the pre-Civil War era when congressmen fired shots over political speeches at the Williamsburg dueling grounds, partisanship seems to be paralyzing Washington today. Roberts identified key historical and systemic reasons for the increase in political polarization.
The erosion of interpersonal relationships is a key reason for this trend, Roberts said. In the years following World War II, Congress was filled with former soldiers who had served together in the military. The entire country shared a sense of camaraderie as a result of the rationing and sacrifice they had experienced. Later the Cold War provided them with a common enemy and a unifying force.
“There used to be a very real sense that the enemy was not the guy across the aisle but the dictator across the ocean,” said Roberts.
Politicians and their families also used to run in the same social circles, which fostered a sense of friendship despite party differences. Over the course of her career, Roberts saw this social interaction become increasingly rare. Logistical complications, such as the price of maintaining two homes and spouses who had their own careers, have made it difficult for congressmen’s families to join them in the capitol. And it became a political liability to live in the city.
“People now think you go to Washington, and you become Washington. It shows that you are no longer a person of the district, a man or woman of the people,” she said.
Roberts credits the media, particularly left- and right-leaning outlets, with encouraging the modern trend toward intense partisanship.
“We give our microphone to the shrillest voices, the loudest screamers,” said Roberts. “Tuning in is just the opportunity to shore up your already firm beliefs and not learn anything new from anyone that might think differently.”
But the largest contributor to the current political stalemate, argued Roberts, is the astounding accuracy modern technology lends one political practice: redistricting along party lines or gerrymandering.
“Now you can find every one-eyed veteran that votes libertarian and put all of them in one district,” said Roberts. “That means you don’t ever have any need to talk to anyone from a different party. The only thing you ever have to worry about is somebody of your own party attacking you as being too lily-livered – not pure enough.”
Roberts said that Republicans who want to keep their seats and avoid challenges in their primaries must cater to these hard-lined, conservative districts and support policies that are “bad for the party as a brand.” This far-right pressure led to the defeat of the Republican party in the 2012 presidential election, she said.
“[The GOP] was not understanding how the country has changed and what the demographics are,” said Roberts. “My friend Matt Dowd, who’s on the air with me, says the Republicans are a Mad Men party in a Modern Family world.”
Roberts said white men, the core of the Republican party, made up 46 percent of the vote in 1980. With the addition of a few women and minorities, it was fairly easy for the GOP to win a majority. In 2012, white men made up only 34 percent of the vote.
GOP policies are alienating key demographic groups, such as young voters and women, which are necessary for victory today, she said. She named immigration as the most troublesome issue for that party’s brand because it could push away Latino voters, the fastest growing group in the U.S. population.
Although some political analysts have predicted the GOP’s demise, Roberts warned it’s much too early to beginning planning a funeral. She believes that there is plenty of reason to have hope for the American political system.
“I’ve heard these requiems for each party over the last 40 years. It’s cyclical. Parties eventually get smart,” said Roberts. “We are in for a time that’s going to be very interesting to see how both parties respond when they finally understand what the country looks like in reality today and what that means for our government going forward.”