Is the American political system broken?

Founding Director, Pew Research Center
Kohut is deeply concerned by a lack of moderation in our political landscape.
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Andrew Kohut: I think what shapes us is when – and I’ll refer to my polls now – when we did surveys about the millennium, we asked people what were the most important things that have influenced where . . . how the United States . . . what the United States achieved in the 20th century. And despite all the complaints about democracy and political polarization, people said “the system”. They said the . . . our . . . our . . . our way of governance, the way we have organized ourself more than anything else; more than our abundant . . . our abundant country, and more than the many things about us, it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s the kind of political system under which we live. There are other . . . lots of criticisms about the way we do it, but I think the basic . . . the basic American framework – political framework – of governance, the first democracy, the oldest democracy, is one of the most important things to understand about what shapes the United States.

I think one of the things that concerns me a great deal is the lack of moderation in politics.  The political leaders so much in Washington now come so much from the ideological extremes of their parties, because it takes a lot of money to get elected.  And that money comes from, you know, the    . . . the . . . the . . . the people on the left and right who wanna influence things.  And it has produced a . . . a . . . a generation of political leaders who are more ideological, more extreme, less moderate, less prone to bipartisanship than what we had 30, 40 years ago.  So that . . . that . . . that . . . that worries me.  I’m worried by the fact that we are in a new . . . a new gilded age so to speak; that so many people who are rich – so extraordinarily rich – and that people who are in the bottom third of the . . . of the country are not making as much progress as . . . as has been traditionally been the case.  There hasn’t been a lot of progress for quite a bit of time.  

 

Question: Does the ideological makeup of the primary states set the tone for the whole election?

 

Andrew Kohut: I think that’s a pretty good supposition.  I mean I think that it’s not only the primary . . . it’s not only those states, it’s the kind of people who are drawn to primaries.  The kind of people who are drawn to primaries, you get lower turnout than in a general election obviously.  And you get in the Republican primary, more conservative people; in the Democratic primaries, you get more liberal people.  The independents play less of a role in the primaries.  And so you tend to get . . .  The candidates tend to play to those tendencies.  The Republicans are, you know, trying to . . . each one is trying to prove how much more conservative they are than all the others.  The Democrats are all dancing around who has been . . . who’s been most right about . . . about the wrongness of the war in Iraq.  It plays to their constituency.  In any event I think . . . I think you have a point; but it’s not just the states.  It’s also who in these states.

 

Question: How can we bring more people into the political process?

 

Andrew Kohut:  The irony of this is that political participation in this country increases when people are unhappy and when people are struggling with things.  The elections which get the highest numbers of turnout are the elections that have . . . where people are really angry.  They’re discontented.  And so I’m not ordering . . .  I’m not suggesting we should make the public more discontented to get them to participate more.  I think making the campaigns less circus-like would help a lot.  Shorter, more to the point, not such drawn out . . . not such drawn out exercises.  We’re already beginning to see . . .  Here we are taping this in September of ’07.  We’re already seeing fewer people saying they’re paying attention to what’s going on in the political campaign.  They’re beginning to burn out, and we’re more than a year away.

 

Recorded on: 9/14/07