New Better Way Series: A Conversation About the State of Politics in America

The second event in the “New Better Way” series, a fundraiser for the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service’s Student Civic Leadership Program (SCLP) and Political Science WIPPS internship program, drew approximately 60 attendees representing business, politics, and the general public to hear Congressman Tom Petri (R) and former Congressman Dave Obey (D) speak about the current state of politics in the U.S. Congress.

Both speakers concurred that, whereas in the past, regardless of political affiliation, Congress often seemed to be able to put aside party differences to create policy and law for the good of the nation as a whole, the current climate of entrenched attitudes by both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill is self-defeating for the political process.

WIPPS Director Eric Giordano, who moderated the event, noted that a recent editorial by Wayne Firestone, President of the Hillel Foundation, appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, claims that “civility has had a bad run of luck lately” and suggests that to remedy this, America needs to “look to its students”. A generation of young people, Hillel adds, really want to have civil discourse, and want to work together to solve the nation’s problems.

Former Congressman David Obey stated that about every 70 to 80 years, America faces a crisis, and current events seem to validate this pattern. The stakes are high, he added, making people more combative, and the process more contentious. There is an “ebb and flow” in politics, he noted. When he went to Washington D.C. 40 years ago, the disruptors represented the “Left”: derailing the Vietnam War effort was their top priority. Today, the disruptors are on the political “Right,” and they, too, are pursuing an ideological agenda that attempts to structure the voting process to force votes and commit party members to policies set by interests external to Capitol Hill. The unfortunate upshot, he concluded, destroys proper engagement. But current indicators point towards a “more cooperative mindset” among the next generation of voters, whose leaders can return balance to civil discourse.

“The reason why I am hopeful about getting through this period of social and political trouble is because, if you take a look at the new public opinion poll, you will see that usually it’s the Baby Boomer generation that is the most polarized. However, you see the younger generation respond to these polling questions in a way that indicates they are much more interested in a communitarian approach to social issues. I think as the younger generation gets more involved, I think that they are going to bring a stronger demand for solutions to problems that involves recognizing the ‘other fellow’s’ problems as well as their own.”

Congressman Petri said the political process changes with the climate of governance. The dual challenges of the Depression and World War Two united the generation of Americans that faced those struggles. But the shift in American politics during the 1960’s altered how Democrats and Republicans operated and this situation has carried over to the present day. Also, computerized information technology is reorganizing how business and political structures are managed: the “speeding up” of the voting process has led to a more quantitative approach, with less time to debate the issues. Petri does believe there is still a dedicated staff in Washington D.C. that will listen to the other side even if they don’t agree. He, too, believes that the efforts of the next generation will make a difference.

“I know there is an effort to try to find ways for young people to do sponsored service of some kind. There is often reference to the existing civil service programs. The question is how to do that in a larger way that involves people in something constructive and trains them, acknowledging that people often feel there’s no real purpose to what they’re currently doing or that they’re not well-organized for the challenges that face them. It’s about accepting that reality, then empathizing with and offering people a chance to really experience something beyond their own self and their own community – where they’re learning and trying to do something constructive. I think that should be encouraged.”

A question and answer session concluded the forum. Obey and Petri fielded questions on topics from corporate influence over politics to limiting governmental power, and both Congressmen agreed that balance in all things, and cooperation across the aisle, is key.