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Two former senators, a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican, had a discussion at Arizona State University on Thursday about how civic discourse has disintegrated and how it can be elevated.
And they agreed on almost every point.
“What has been prioritized is defeating the other side, and there ought to be a larger purpose,” said Jon Kyl, a Republican who represented Arizona in the U.S. Senate.
Kyl and former Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, spoke at a talk titled “Disagreement and Civil Dialogue on American Politics and Civic Culture,” sponsored by ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership on the Tempe campus.
The pair’s time in the Senate overlapped, with Kyl serving from 1995 to 2013 and Daschle serving from 1987 to 2005.
At Thursday’s talk, they outlined why they think America has become so politically polarized and why it’s become difficult to have productive, thoughtful political discussions.
Daschle said Americans have “global engagement fatigue” from many years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and the perception that trade has caused the loss of millions of jobs in the U.S. He also cited income inequality and stagnation, noting that in 1950 it took 45 hours a month of work to pay the average housing cost and now it takes 101 hours.
“That sense that there are those at the top that are benefitting more than others creates tremendous frustration and animosity,” he said.
Kyl agreed with those points and added his reasons — a cultural divide and partisan media.
“We no longer have the same basis of values or same beliefs in key, fundamental points that used to unite us,” he said.
“And it’s exacerbated by those who amplify. There are talk radio and TV hosts on famous TV channels who constantly go to the side of demagoguery and emotional rants rather than trying to seek out common ground,” Kyl said, noting that it happens with both political sides. “They appeal to the worst of our cultural divide.
“I can’t emphasize enough how toxic that has made Washington. You have them telling your constituents that if you don’t do A, B or C, ‘We’ll run someone against him.’ ”
The two senators agreed that they can now speak out because they’re “no longer in the game,” but they discussed ways that Congress could overcome its inefficient dysfunction.
“The airplane has changed the way Congress functions,” Daschle said. “It’s regrettable to me that senators and congressmen leave on Thursday afternoons and come back on Tuesday mornings and they try to run the country on Wednesdays.”
He suggested that House and Senate leaders require five-day workweeks three weeks a month.
And both men said that senators don’t socialize and get to know each other as people like in years past.
“If you don’t know someone, you don’t compromise with them,” Daschle said, adding that there should be more joint caucuses in which both parties meet. He said that joint caucuses helped members of Congress come together after 9/11.
Both former politicians noted that the stakes for dysfunction in the federal government are high. Kyl said it affects the ability to solve problems at every level.
“Instead of viewing yourself as a citizen of Tempe looking at a zoning case, you divide into different camps and motives are suspect,” he said.
Kyl said that rather than trying to make reforms at the federal level, which can have unintended consequences, it’s up to citizens to vote, be engaged and advocate for civic education.
“What are the key things in the Declaration of Independence that every American should know? Because that’s what we’re fighting for,” he said.
“We should teach kids not to agree with each other but how to analyze a problem.”
And our leaders should work on negotiation and compromise, Kyl said.
“I learned that the best way to legislate nationally is to give the other side some percentage of the victory, and try to get your percentage as well.
“But it’s hard to do when people say ‘You have to be pure, and if you’re not we’ll replace you with someone who is.’ It takes courage.”
The next School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership event will be a talk on Nov. 9 by social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt titled, “America’s Escalating Outrage: Why Is It Happening, What Does It Do to Colleges, and How Can We Reverse It?” For details, go here.
Top photo: Former U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. (left) and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., discuss "Disagreement and Civil Dialogue on American Politics and Civic Culture," at Katzin Concert Hall in Tempe on Thursday evening. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now