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David Gergen on the poison in our political system

It threatens the continuation of U.S. leadership in the world, Gergen tells a Minneapolis audience.

David Gergen’s appearance in a conference room at the Fredrikson & Byron law firm in downtown Minneapolis was a fundraiser for FairVote Minnesota.
Photo by Bill Cameron

Political dysfunction in Washington is so severe that it threatens the continuation of U.S. leadership in the world, David Gergen told a Minneapolis audience Thursday night.

“The poison has spread in our system,” Gergen said, “and it’s getting worse.”

He mentioned the usual suspects: Republicans whose top priority is to make sure President Obama doesn’t succeed, congressional district lines that have greatly reduced the number of swing districts, too much money in politics (money used to talk in politics, he said, now “it screams”), extremists (he actually called them “whackos”) who have lost the art of compromise, the disappearance of boundaries between how our politics and our economy perform.

“People [around the world] no longer look to us as the model” of how to organize a nation that wants to get ahead in the world, Gergen said. He still sees plenty of potential for a renewal of U.S. leadership. We are approaching what he called a “strategic inflection point” where decisions the United States makes or fails to make will determine whether the long-term future trajectory heads up or down.

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“There is a future out there, if we change the way we do our politics, that could be very bright for our kids,” he said. Bill Clinton likes to quote an Australian cabinet official who says the United States is “one grand bargain away from being a great nation again,” Gergen said.

“But if we continue to practice our politics as we have done over recent years, with a deteriorating national discourse, with a politics that seems increasingly removed from the average citizen,” the age of U.S. leadership could be winding down.

Gergen worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations. He is now most visible as a CNN analyst who is distinguished by his moderate tone. (Minneapolis attorney Keith Libby, who introduced Gergen last night, described him as “America’s last reasonable man.”)

When he came to Washington, Gergen said, the saying was that politics functioned “between the 40 yard-lines,” where centrist ideas were found that could attract support from both parties. Now we have “whackos trying to run this thing from the end zones.”

The hyper-partisanship is reinforced by a change in congressional district boundaries. The parties have become adept at creating safe seats. As recently as 1992, he said, analysts said there were about 120 swing districts. Now it’s about 35. Swing districts bring to the fore politicians who are seeking middle ground, who have to gain moderate votes to win. Safe districts create congresspeople who are worried only about primary challenges within their own party. This phenomenon has hit Republican moderates especially hard, as they have had to move to the right to fend off potential challenges from Tea Party challengers.

Democrats would have to win by 7 points

Republican success in the midterm election of 2010 – which put the party into control of many statehouses — translated into control of the 2011 redistricting process, which they naturally used to maximize the number of safe Republican districts. In 2012, that enabled Republicans to maintain control of the U.S. House despite the fact that Democrats got more overall votes in all House elections combined. Gergen estimated that in order to retake control of the House in 2014, Democrats would have to win the overall national vote by about 7 percentage points.

Gergen’s appearance in a conference room at the Fredrikson & Byron law firm in downtown Minneapolis was a fundraiser for FairVote Minnesota, the organization that is promoting the spread of ranked choice voting. Gergen gave RCV a plug, calling it “one of the most interesting, valiant attempts to see if there another way” to organize politics that might mitigate some of the damage hyper-partisanship is doing.

Under RCV, a voter can rank the candidates for a particular office in the order of their preference. If a voter’s first choice isn’t a contender to assemble a majority, the ballot will be awarded to their second or third choice until one candidate has a majority.

Businesswoman Marilyn Carlson Nelson of the Carlson companies, who introduced Gergen and who also supports RCV, said that the organizers of the event had used RCV to choose the evening’s speaker from a list of possible candidates. She congratulated Gergen for getting the job because, she said, “you were everybody’s second choice.”