Charles Blow on Polarization

Charles Blow on Polarization

Congress appears stuck in neutral and civil discourse has been replaced by partisan sniping. Charles Blow, blogger and New York Times op-ed columnist, talked with David Holahan in a question and answer session and didn't hold out much hope for change. Blow will be a panelist Thursday [2014] at the Connecticut Forum and, along with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin and political strategist Karl Rove, will discuss "Debating Our Broken Political System, What's Wrong and How To Fix It" at 8 p.m. at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Mr. Blow spoke with Mr. Holahan by telephone.

Q. Let's start with partisanship, which many believe is the root cause of our national paralysis. We Americans have waxed partisan in the past, when virulent differences precluded addressing pressing problems: The long run-up to the Civil War comes to mind. Franklin Roosevelt, who was called a traitor to his class, inspired attacks remarkably similar to those leveled at our current president. How does our time rank for divisiveness?

A. I hesitate to rank it. It's a different kind of divisiveness. It has a different demography than in previous times. It has become not only a class issue but it is now a gender issue, a race issue and a regional issue. It is urban vs. suburban and exurban. The way House [of Representatives] districts are drawn now they are incredibly homogenous politically and candidates have no incentive to be more moderate in any way. In fact, if you don't want to face a primary you have every incentive to be more strident.

Q. Some argue that these things run in clearly defined cycles, with peaks and valleys. The Brookings Institute has analyzed U.S. Congresses since 1857 and determined that our current impasse commenced in the 1990s. Has it run its course or is the insanity just beginning?

A. Not only do I think it hasn't run its course, I don't see how we pull out of it. History suggests there will be an end to it, but in the short term between now and the next drawing of congressional districts, I don't see how we get out of it. It's hard to see how the Democrats can take back the House and also hard to envision, barring a terrible Democratic candidate, how the Republicans can win the presidency. We could see incredibly divided government in Washington for the next six years.

Q. Talk about one or more important areas where the nation is being harmed or weakened by all of today's ultra-political shenanigans?

A. Many federal appointments can't get through, including some judgeships. That's ridiculous. We can't deal with infrastructure in this country. Roads and bridges are not partisan. We should have high speed rail here as they do in countries around the world. There are just basic investments in America that we need to be making that we are not. We should be investing in early childhood education and beyond. How long can we kick that can down the road?

Q. We like to blame our leaders for most things, but could the problem be with We the People?

A. There's plenty of blame to go around. There's more opinion journalism today and people gravitate to the voices they like and the opinions they agree with. Some people want ammunition rather than information to win the argument, rather than reading straight news. People are somewhat isolated from one another and there is less empathy for other people they don't see or interact with.

Q. Do you live and associate predominantly with like-minded people?

A. I live in Brooklyn. It has an urban sensibility but I try to connect with my rural upbringing as much as possible in my writing, for example, about poverty, which is how I grew up. But it's almost impossible to escape being isolated today. In New York City, we are trying to find ways to build more affordable housing because the economic diversity of the city is being drained away. In fact, New York State was recently ranked as being more segregated in its schools than states in the South.

Q. In political standoffs it is always the other side that is being unreasonable. Are there ideas on the opposite side of the political spectrum, I'm assuming you are on the liberal side now, that make sense to you or that show promise as the basis for compromise between right and left?

A. I'm incredibly liberal when it comes to personal freedoms. I believe your body is sovereign as long as you are not hurting anyone. You can choose to love whomever you want to love, work with doctors to get any sort of medical treatment you desire. If marriage is available to one group of people it should be available to all. There is no compromise on those questions. But on other things we can have real conversations. On fiscal issues I am very open to discussions. However, if the argument simply becomes that our fiscal problems in America are about poor people and whether someone cheated on receiving food stamps — and not about the defense budget or whether Apple or Burger King or whomever have a tax dodge that they can legally use, then the discussion grinds to a halt. Everything has to be in the hopper for discussion.

Q. Does partisan politics include all Americans today or is it just something that happens to different segments of the establishment?

A. If you look at the data there are a large group of people who call themselves independents, but if you look at the voting behavior there are not that many people in the middle. It's not just dyed-in-the-wool Republicans and hard-core Democrats, it's pretty much all of us who are divided.

Q. If you could get President Obama and Sens. John McCain, Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell in a room together, what would you say to them about getting our nation moving again?

A. I'd probably just marvel at the fact that they were all in the same room and that they had accepted my invitation. Part of the problem with these people is that they are always running for office, always. Dealing with campaign finances is probably the only way to address this permanent campaign mode. If you're in campaign mode you have zero incentive to work with the opposition. All you're doing is raising money, all you're doing is worrying if this or that vote will show up in an ad targeting you. If I get my picture taken with the president is that going to hurt me down the road? If that's how we keep doing this, there's little hope of getting anything done.