Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


David Gergen on the poison in our political system

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

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.

“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.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 02/08/2013 - 11:30 am.

    At first I thought the story’s title

    was “David Gergen, the poison in our political system.” I was prepared to compliment you for recognizing, at last, the role that the “Centrist” pundits and politicians with their false “Both Sides Do It” symmetries play both in lending legitimacy to the anti-community radicals dragging us ever further in one particular direction and in reinforcing TINA (“There Is No Alternative”), the notion critical to policing the bounds of acceptable discourse and keeping us all between the goal line and the 5-yard-line, instead of between the 40’s.

    Gergen is correct about the destructive effect of money, but he fails to recognize that the David Gergens are a major cause of that. If folks were free of the ministrations of the Fox propagandists and the Centrist discourse-tenders, and able to think simply and critically about what is really important and what we all ought to do about it, all of the wealth of the Koch Bros, Sheldon Adelson & the rest (sure, throw George Soros in there too) wouldn’t mean a thing and we could get a Congress that represents the common good rather than the retrograde interests of a very few.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/08/2013 - 11:58 am.

    The rise of tribalism is a response to the uncertain and unsettled nature of the present and apparent future. This tribalism is manifest in every part of the world, including the US political system. Unfortunately, tribalism amplifies the ambiguity and makes it even harder to sustain forward progress for society as a whole. Tribal rewards are given to those who most emphasize tribal goals–the “other” is further excluded and their input devalued..

    A very interesting site is:

    …………Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities. Project members are using the methods of various disciplines — including social psychology, anthropology, communications, and political science — to chart the impact of this phenomenon and to identify the mechanisms through which it operates. The Project also has an explicit normative objective: to identify processes of democratic decision-making by which society can resolve culturally grounded differences in belief in a manner that is both congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks and consistent with sound public policymaking……

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/09/2013 - 01:33 pm.

      Cognitive Dissonance

      Sounds like another cognitive dissonance theory spinoff.
      Noting conceptually new here, although an effective application might be interesting.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/08/2013 - 12:57 pm.

    Fine Words Butter No Parsnips

    I think it’s clear what the problems are, and the solutions are not difficult to conceive. The real problem is going to be getting the extremists and whackos to agree to reforms that could result in them being shut out, or to get the big money folks to give up their leverage over the system. “Doing the right thing” is not reason enough anymore, or, worse still, too many are convinced that their particpation in the dysfunction is the “right thing (“God wants us to save America from Agenda 21!”).” As long as the idea of opposition or differing viewpoints is held to be legitimate, there can be no middle. There can be no reform in the true sense of “making things better.” There can be no movement forward until all of the participants realize that progress won’t necessarily give them some immediate advantage.

    To anticipate the inevitable comments: No, both parties are not equally guilty. Yes, Democrats have engaged in bad behavior, but never to the extent that the current crop of Republicans is willing/eager/required to do. Yes, there are left-wing extremists in politics, but they are not afforded the same level of influence right-wing extremists have. There is no equivalence.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/08/2013 - 09:38 pm.

    Mr. ergen

    Thanks for the article, Mr. Gergen has been an excellent well thought out voice for common sense and intellectual politics, for decades. I recall him his conversations on M-L news hours with Shields
    It is hard to dispute his authority on political knowledge and perspective having served under 3 RW presidents and 1 LW. undoubtedly “He gets it and then some”
    What’s amazing is that over the years Mr Gergen and Mr Brookes, both conservatives, have found themselves re-positioned just right of center, and on some topics left of center. The perspective being that the R-W has moved so far right that center now looks to be centered in the left wing! To Mr Gergen’s point the voice of reason now echos aimlessly across the political no mans land! Ironically Clint Eastwood recently had similar analogies as well. ‘

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/09/2013 - 10:39 am.

    Gergen shmergen

    I’ve always like Mr. Gergen so don’t get me wrong, but he’s doing little more than pointing out the bloody obvious at this point, and a few years after the fact at that. I find it hard to “credit” him with such an obvious and belated observation. And it’s still not clear to me where he’s placing the blame? Does he really think the Democrats and the Republican are equally responsible for this polarization?

  6. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 02/09/2013 - 11:43 am.

    R-W moving right?

    When JFK said “Ask not….” and that was the Democrats in the 60’s, who has been moving and in what direction? Both parties are moving extreme left.

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/10/2013 - 09:47 am.

    Open Question

    The GOP gave in on tax hikes for the wealthy during the fiscal cliff negotiations. What are Dems bringing to the table for the ‘grand bargain’?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/11/2013 - 05:26 pm.


      It’s not about who gives what. It’s about crafting the best policy.

      Perhaps we should start with a more basic question: Why were the fiscal cliff negotiations necessary in the first place? Who was holding the US and world economy hostage over what should have been a routine vote?

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/11/2013 - 06:04 pm.

        Best Policy

        You ask who was holding hostages? If we’re going to use violent rhetoric, let me ask who is stealing from the next generations? The spending path that we’re on has been hardened by decisions from congressional Dems and Obama. The us of debt limit negotiations to try and leverage policy has a bipartisan history. And to answer your specific question, the fiscal cliff was the brainchild of the Obama whitehouse as a means to kick the can down the road.
        And unless you have some kind of answer to what Dems should be willing to bargain with, I have to assume that you don’t think they should bargain on anything. In other words, only the other side should compromise.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/12/2013 - 10:22 am.

          So Many Questions

          “Who is stealing from the next generations?” Let’s see what issues the next generations will face: Crumbling infrastructure , in the name of saving a buck now? Environmental degradation, tolerated to placate powerful corporate interests? Higher education that is unaffordable (again, at the behest of powerful corproate interests)? Primary and seconday education that is useless (p.c.i., as well as full-throated religious types)? A stagnating economy, with little prospects for growth because of pumped-up concerns over the d*f*c*t (I don’t dare invoke the full name)? Or is preserving low tax rates for the wealthy the best legacy we can leave for the future?

          “The us of debt limit negotiations to try and leverage policy has a bipartisan history.” Really? Before the general drop in the sanity level of the Republican Party, debt limit votes were routine matters.

          “The fiscal cliff was the brainchild of the Obama whitehouse . . .” The fiscal cliff was engineered because Republicans were throwing a tantrum. The can was kicked, as you put it, to get the Republicans to end yet another hissy fit and agree to raise the debt ceiling. As we have seen in Minnesota, kicking fiscal cans is a standard Republican tactic, so it was the natural thing to do.

          The White House (I’m pretty sure proper usage is to capitalize the term, unless one thinks gestures of petty disrepect are clever) spent four years trying to compromise and reach consensus with Republicans. It accomplished nothing. Compromise is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end. Besides, it’s apprent that the Republicans aren’t really interested in compromise. Their history does not lead to any confidence that they want to find common ground (Why would they? Rush would yell at them if they did).

          One last point: Spending cuts now would be irresponsible. You don’t cut spending during a fragile recovery (ask the Rt. Hon. Mr. Cameron). Once the economy is in a stronger place ,we can worry about the deficit.

          • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/13/2013 - 08:46 am.

            Lots of Stuff Here

            So let’s take them a bit at a time:
            Spending on infrastructure has been relatively steady, even through GOP administrations. The environment is in better and better shape. Air quality, for instance, has improved greatly since the 70’s.
            Higher education is a mess, but it has nothing to do with corporations. As student loans became the norm, colleges found that they could increase costs without any pushback. Prices go up and students simply take out bigger loans. A classic bubble situation has occurred. Similarly, lower education has been under the thumb of left leaning educators for the past century at least. Blaming its shortcomings on Republicans or corporations is silly.
            No, the economy is not stagnating because of deficit concerns. Two reasons that we know this, firstly we’ve spent a ton of money trying to stimulate our way out of recession and secondly, we haven’t governed as if we’re afraid of huge deficits. Any theory that we’ve been employing some kind of austerity is the result of blindness.
            Yes, debt limit negotiations have been toxic before. They were toxic during W Bush’s second term. You may remember that was when Obama claimed that raising the debt limit was a lack of imagination. The last negotiation was so bad because we have a genuine conflict of visions on spending.
            The sequester was the White House’s idea. (My previous comment was a quick one and I biffed the capitalization. Thanks for the casual accusation of bad grace.) It was put in place, in part because Obama hoped that he’d have a better hand for future negotiations. And in part because he is unwilling to compromise. I don’t know where this myth of the compromising Obama came from, but it certainly didn’t come from reality. He didn’t reach for compromise on the stimulus package that he started with. He didn’t reach for compromise on his health care plan. He hasn’t reached for it in any budgeting plan. He’s not offering it now. In fact, right now he’s pretty obviously ignoring any attempt at finding solutions. He’s simply angling for ways to blame Republicans. (And no, the current GOP isn’t long on compromise either. But who gave in on tax cuts during the fiscal cliff negotiations?)
            Obama’s attitude on compromise seems to extend to his followers too. I’ve asked you twice what Dems should compromise on and all you’ve done is told me how mean and awful Republicans are. So let me ask you a third time and see if you dodge again. What compromise should Dems bring to the table?

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/13/2013 - 10:00 am.

              How about . . .

              . . . cutting defense spending? Or, if we want more specifics, how about ending corporate welfare transfers, like subsidies to the timber industry to build roads in national forests? Subsidized irrigation projects out west? Etc. Plenty of federal money flows to parts of the private sector that don’t need it. Let’s start with that. It might not amount to the same level of savings that limiting Medicare payments to the cost of tea and sympathy, but it would show that budget reductions are not going to be targeted to those who can least bear them.

              BTW, the funniest line I’ve read in ages was “He didn’t reach for compromise on his health care plan.” Obamacare was invented by the Heritage Foundation, so one could call the whole premise a “compromise.” Republicans in Congress responded by declaring that the health care vote would be the new President’s “Waterloo.” They offered no plan of their own beyond some tired, ineffectual “free market” solutions, like limiting medical malpractice awards, or allowing insurers to operate across state lines (because medical insurers are too bashful to get approval in every state in which they want to do business). On top of that, the Republicans in Congress repeated Sarah Palin’s lies about death panels whined because they didn’t have time to read the bill. What further compromise was possible?

              • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/13/2013 - 01:31 pm.

                So, No Compromise

                I’ve asked you several times and you can’t seem to find an answer. It seems like you don’t think Dems should compromise on anything. Seriously, if you only think the other people should give in, then you aren’t looking for compromise, you’re looking for surrender. Don’t be surprised if the other folks aren’t interested.

                • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/13/2013 - 01:52 pm.

                  Umm . . .

                  . . . I did suggest starting points for spending cuts. Is that not a compromise? Or is it only a “compromise” if the spending cuts are limited to those that hurt the less-advantaged?

                  “Seriously,” the rest of your post could best be directed at the Republican Party.

                  • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/13/2013 - 02:46 pm.

                    Defense Cuts

                    Wait a minute, you think that cutting defense is somehow a compromise from the Dems? Honestly?
                    For the record, I think we should cut defense, and cut it quite a bit. But the big issues right now are the entitlements. If we don’t get a handle on those, then we can’t control the budget. That’s where we need compromise.

Leave a Reply