Two journalists and a former senator discussed the polarization of American politics to a full crowd at the Janus Forum on Wednesday, March 7.
Vox.com Founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein, Axios national political reporter Jonathan Swan and former Republican senator Kelly Ayotte tried to answer the forum’s central question: Are American political parties as we know them over?
The Janus Forum brings speakers to Miami University’s campus every semester to engage in debate, answering questions from the Janus Forum committee and the audience.
“It’s is to provide a platform for members of the Miami community to engage in discussion and debate about the most important issues in our society and to do so in a constructive and informed way,” Janus Forum coordinator Colin Greig said.
Klein said American political parties are weak while partisanship is strong, meaning individuals, such as President Donald Trump, who don’t reflect the values of the party can come to power, but,voters consistently vote for their party because they hate the other one.
Swan countered that comparatively: American political parties are incredibly powerful in the amount of money and influence they wield, he said. Swan also argued that despite news reports, there is little dissent within parties.
The American political center is shrinking, and the polarization within the political system makes it hard for politicians and citizens to reach a compromise, Ayotte said.
“If you think that someone is bad because they think differently than you how are you ever coming to come to any common ground?” Ayotte said. “So, these next generation of leaders that’s in the audience out there, I hope that you can do a lot better than we’re doing right now.”
Klein said President Trump is both polarizing and unifying because there are multiple forms of polarization. Trump is less polarizing ideologically and in the political parties because his views constantly change, and he isn’t hardline for either party.
But, he is culturally polarizing because he consciously focuses America’s attention on cultural issues that are difficult to resolve.
“When someone repeatedly makes a huge deal of the NFL players kneeling before the anthem after that had died down, most other politicians would have just not have chosen to release it given that they have no solution to it and it does not affect them,” Klein said, “but he did.”
Swan said the Trump administration is a symptom of American polarization rather than a cause, reflecting anger among some Americans. Some see him as an outsider who could infiltrate Washington.
“A lot of those people saw Trump as a wrecking ball that was sent to Washington because they hate those bastards in Washington and they wanna take them out,” Swan said.
The White House can be difficult to cover because Trump’s advisors rarely know what is happening in a chaotic environment and some individuals maliciously lie to journalists, Swan said.
Klein said the cause of the dysfunction is that Trump didn’t come up through the ranks of government, so he hasn’t had time to form his own opinions. Coupled with the fact that he has little knowledge of policies, his opinions change as his advisors change.
“Donald Trump does not know what he believes,” Klein said. “He does not know anything about policy, and he’s incredibly changeable and so what’s that created is an extremely unstable equilibrium within his administration.”
Ayotte said schools don’t put enough emphasis on civic education. Klein said the more people inform themselves, the more polarized they become because they get better at rationalizing their viewpoints with the information they learned.
The speakers also answered questions in small break-out sessions before the forum, allowing students to get to know the individual speakers in a more intimate setting.
Greig said Janus brought those speakers to represent different political viewpoints from the right, left and center.
Senior and Janus Forum president Madeline Zick moderated the discussion, asking questions she received from the audience. Zick said the forum is named after the two-faced Roman God Janus, the different faces representing different viewpoints that come together in discussion.
“It [the forum] definitely fulfilled the purpose of our organization which is to bring these discussions to campus and engage in meaningful dialogue on the issues but also at the same time realizing it’s ok to disagree and that you can learn from each other from having these discussions,” Zick said.