Examining The State Of The Nation's Politics

Jan 30, 2018
Originally published on January 30, 2018 7:38 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, so as you heard, a lot's swirling here as President Trump is getting ready to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress tonight. He'll be giving his assessment of the economy, also national security. And this seemed like a good time to look at the state of something else - our politics. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: If someone were delivering a speech to the American people about the state of our politics in 2018, they might begin by saying, ladies and gentlemen, the state of our politics is tribal.

PETE WEHNER: There's an attitude within the American people and within our political institutions that it's my team, right or wrong.

LIASSON: That's Pete Wehner, former White House aide to George W. Bush.

WEHNER: People are lining up with their political tribe above virtually any other principle.

LIASSON: Here's an example of what Wehner's talking about. In a Quinnipiac poll taken last week just after news reports that President Trump's lawyer had paid a porn star to keep quiet about an alleged extramarital affair, 89 percent of Republicans said it's important that a president be loyal to their spouse. Seventy-two percent of Republicans said President Trump is a good role model for children.

Tribalism is related to another problem in American politics - a blurring of the lines between opinion and fact, what the RAND Corporation in a recent study called truth decay - whether it's liberals rejecting the safety of vaccines, conservatives rejecting evidence of Barack Obama's birth certificate or conspiracy theories embraced at the highest levels of government. Here's retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake on the floor of the Senate earlier this month.

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JEFF FLAKE: 2017 was a year which saw the truth - objective, empirical, evidence-based truth - more battered and abused than at any time in the history of our country at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government.

LIASSON: Flake was referring to President Trump's hundreds of inaccurate statements ranging from the trivial - that he's signed more legislation than any other president in history - to the consequential - that millions of illegal immigrants voted for his opponent. If Democrats and Republicans can't agree on whether the planet is getting warmer or whether inner-city crime is going down, it's impossible to have a debate about solutions. And that's why the state of our politics - in Washington, at least - is also dysfunctional.

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JOHN KENNEDY: Our country was founded by geniuses, but it's being run by idiots.

LIASSON: That's Louisiana Senator John Kennedy exasperated that Congress allowed one government shutdown and may be careening toward another. Democrats and Republicans in Washington are having trouble avoiding another shutdown because the state of our politics is mistrustful. Former Democratic White House aide Bill Galston cites the annual Edelman worldwide trust survey.

BILL GALSTON: What it showed is a significant drop in trust among the general public. But more notable than that was a total collapse of trust among the informed public - people who have a college education and who actually pay attention to the news.

LIASSON: Trust in what?

GALSTON: Trust in everything - down, down, down. And nowhere has trust and confidence fallen farther than in government.

LIASSON: Galston says the mistrust is apocalyptic.

GALSTON: The percentage of Republicans who view Democrats as a threat to the republic and vice versa has soared in recent years and now exceeds a majority in both tribes.

LIASSON: Many Republicans felt that way about Barack Obama. Many Democrats feel that way about Donald Trump. And higher percentages of voters say they'd be disappointed if a child of theirs married someone of the opposite party. So that's the bad news about the state of our politics. But there's good news, too, because the state of our politics in 2018 is engaged - very engaged.

SAYU BHOJWANI: I'm Sayu Bhojwani, and I'm the founder and president of New American Leaders, an organization that trains first- and second-generation Americans to run for local and state office.

LIASSON: Not only are there record numbers of candidates from immigrant communities running for office - mostly Democrats, but Republicans and independents, too - there are double the number of women running compared to 2016. Bhojwani says some of this new engagement was inspired by Donald Trump, whether his example is positive or negative.

BHOJWANI: The first and most obvious thing is that we see that it's possible for anyone to run for office, regardless of qualification.

LIASSON: Not only are a record number of people running, but so far this year, a record number of people are voting, and that's a big change.

BHOJWANI: We were complacent, right? A lot of people were complacent about whether their vote would matter or not. And nobody who is serious about politics or has become newly serious about politics is taking things for granted.

LIASSON: Whether you're a woman or from an immigrant community running for the first time or a white, working-class Trump supporter who voted for the first time two years ago, this renewed sense of civic responsibility is the first step to making the state of our politics less broken. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "LAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.