As the daughter of two former members of Congress who has gone on to enjoy a celebrated career in journalism covering and analyzing politics in the nation’s capital, Cokie Roberts says there is one question she gets asked all the time: “What happened to make Washington as poisonous as it is?”
Roberts discussed why America is in the midst of “a very, very, very partisan and polarized time” before a capacity crowd at Hollins Theatre on January 29, drawing upon more than forty years in broadcasting that have included serving as the congressional correspondent at NPR for more than a decade and co-anchoring the weekly ABC News interview program, This Week. Currently she is a political commentator for ABC, providing analysis for all network news programming, and a contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition.
Roberts is the daughter of the late Hale Boggs, a Democratic congressman from Louisiana who was Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, and Lindy Boggs, who served in Congress from 1973 to 1991 and was subsequently appointed Ambassador to the Vatican by President Bill Clinton.
The Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame inductee cited several factors she believes have contributed to today’s dysfunctional political climate, beginning with the loss of the camaraderie that existed after World War II between Democratic and Republican members of Congress.
“These men literally were in the trenches together,” Roberts explained. “There was an enormous Republican class of 1946 followed by an enormous Democratic class of 1948, and they ran as the men who went and not the men who sent. They were self-conscious veterans, they had gone to war together, and there was shared sacrifice. No one really thought of the guy across the aisle as the enemy. They thought about the dictator across the sea as the enemy, and the Cold War kept that going for a good while.”
Roberts noted that members of Congress once brought their families with them to Washington to live, which helped foster close relationships regardless of party affiliation. She, the daughter of a Democratic leader, was best friends with the daughter of a Republican leader in Congress.
“That doesn’t happen anymore because the families aren’t here. Part of the reason is economic, but a huge reason for that is that Washington has been characterized as this evil place, ‘Sodom on the Potomac.’”
Roberts also took the media to task. “We give our microphones to the shrillest voices so they’ll come in and yell at each other, and it’s considered ‘good TV.’ And that’s just the mainstream media. We’re not even talking about the outlets that are all one way or all the other way and just fortify people’s views they already hold without hearing a contradictory thought.”
But one of the biggest problems according to Roberts is gerrymandering, a tactic that has been employed since the early nineteenth century but through technology is now being used to an unprecedented degree to place like-minded citizens in the same congressional district. “Members of Congress choose their voters rather than voters choosing their members of Congress. They never have to worry about a general election, so they never have to talk to somebody in the other party, they never have to compromise with somebody in the other party. All they worry about, for the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right, is that somebody is going to challenge them in a primary for not being pure enough, for not being left enough or right enough. The polarization just gets greater and greater and greater as a result.”
This situation perpetuates another obstacle to effective government, what Roberts called “the permanent campaign” where “somebody is always running, there’s always some outside group that’s ready to attack, or looking for someone else to support if they think that you have gone off orthodoxy from their perspective in any way.”
Roberts observed that in particular, “Republicans are very nervous about their future right now” because they are faring poorly with Hispanic, African American, and female voters and only continuing to draw solid support from white men, a shrinking demographic. But, she emphasized, “I have been around a very long time covering this, and the number of times I have seen a requiem sung for a political party is huge. It’s been both political parties at different times over the last several decades. But then they come back because they do pick the smart fights or because some leader comes forward that people respond to. Or, most likely, the other party screws up.
“So, I think it is very much still an alive-and-well two-party system, but it’s going through some throes of trying to understand where America is today and dealing with it.”
Roberts’ lecture was presented by Hollins’ Distinguished Speakers Series. In December 2001, the university received an anonymous gift to support bringing to campus leading national and international experts from a variety of fields. The goal of the Distinguished Speakers Series is to enlighten students, faculty, and the community at large, whether their interests lie in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, or fine arts.