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2013 Winter Issue 5 (February 15, 2013)

Former Presidential Advisor on Divisive Politics Today

February 15, 2013
By Jonathan Lin

Renowned political commentator David Gergen opened his convocation address last week by comparing Poskanzer to Gandhi. He characterized the Indian leader as someone who “spent his first year listening,” before becoming the voice of India. In the same sentence, he praised Stevie P. for doing the same during his tenure at Carleton. His presentation emphasized political cooperation and compromise, focusing on the current gridlock that significantly impeded the country’s capacity for growth and greatness.

In proposing the question of whether American policymakers have lost their ability to compromise, Gergen outlined the trials and tribulations that U.S. democracy had experienced since its inception in the eighteenth century. “In our history there are chapters and chapters of heated and messy argument, yet at the end of the day, you still strike compromise and a bargain, and move forward.” Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century, Gergen gestured at Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as examples of leaders “reforming the system from both sides of the aisle.”

Gergen emphasized the generation of leaders on Capitol Hill when he arrived in D.C. to work in the 1970’s. “I found people who were strong Republicans and Democrats, but first and foremost, strong Americans.” Though the generation was far from perfect – Vietnam and Watergate are some major blemishes on its record – these leaders came in with the strong urge to “renew and rebuild America.” One apt example he used was the cooperation between the Democrat Harry Truman and the Republicans of the House and Senate on developing the Marshall Plan. He gestured at their cooperation and “the formation of relations that got things done.”

Gergen lamented that there was little evidence of such cooperation in today’s politics, where for many of today’s policymakers, “the country does not come first for these people; it’s their cause.” He outlined the decline of important values that were once the cornerstone of the American worldview: “Sacrifice used to be our middle name: now decision makers don’t even want to talk about it.”

In highlighting the extreme left- or right-wing views from both parties, Gergen admitted that he was “deeply disturbed by the directions American politics are heading.” He blamed the many obstructionist Republicans, as well as the White House administration that has also adopted a non-compromising position, thus missing out on important opportunities to cooperate with more moderate Republicans like John Boehner, who on November 7th offered to pursue a deal with the newly-re-elected Obama to raise taxes “under the right conditions.”
“In delegating blame, there is a lot to go round,” Gergen argued. “Both parties need to begin acting like adults. Otherwise the ‘Grand Bargain’ is going to be very elusive.”

Gergen’s talk was highly informative and entertaining, with well-placed humor aimed at his alma mater Harvard University. His presentation was particularly geared towards his Carleton student and trustee audience, citing statistics of Carl graduates going into civil service such as Teach for America, and praising the college’s academic caliber and rigorous training for critical thought.

In closing, Gergen highlighted the urgency of the political gridlock in American politics. “We can continue practicing the dysfunctional politics and go down, while the rest of the world moves on. If we do, we will be written off the stage.” In identifying the upcoming generation of millennials as his greatest reason for optimism, he noted how the current lack of cooperation set a terrible example for younger Americans. “There are incredibly well-educated kids who care deeply about this country,” Gergen concluded. “They are desperate to reform. This new generation knows that the country comes first, and we invite you to come onto the stage soon.”

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