Former Governors Talk Polarization at Politics Luncheon



Former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee (right) and former Republican governor Jim Douglas of Vermont were the special guests at this week’s politics luncheon hosted by Professor Matt Dickinson.


“In an environment of intense political polarization, how can the country work together to solve its problems?”

This question was raised Tuesday, Jan. 15 as the subject of a public question and answer session with former governor of Tennessee, Democrat Phil Bredesen, and former governor of Vermont, Republican Jim Douglas. With the federal government shut down over the question of a multibillion-dollar, anti-immigrant border wall, the question comes at a critical time in the history of the United States — a time that makes the question a difficult one to answer.

Both former governors are self-described centrists. Both have had political success in states that traditionally do not support their political party. And both remain proud of their work as governor, compromising with opposition-party legislatures on behalf of the public interest. It is from this perspective that the two men, now good friends, proposed to speak about the current state of polarized U.S. politics.

Prompted by an audience of both students and town residents at the Robert A. Jones House conference room, the governors offered a variety of reasons why they believe the U.S. is so polarized politically, along with some potential solutions. Responding to the opening question by the coordinator of the session, Professor of Political Science Matt Dickinson, Bredesen commented that the mental frameworks people use to analyze political issues make a big difference in the way they end up approaching those issues. He described his efforts as governor to not let his legislative priorities become framed as party-based choices.

“You know there’s an old adage, I’m sure you’ve heard of it –– if the only tool you have is a hammer, you make every problem into a nail,” Bredesen said. “I think there’s an analogy with the political world that if the only tool you have to think about issues is Democrat versus Republican, you are going to make every issue into that kind of issue.”

A large part of the discussion was dedicated to how news, whether from traditional sources or through social media, might be affecting the current political situation. Douglas, who is now an executive-in-residence at the college, suggested that there is a natural tendency for media outlets to err on the outlandish side of news interpretations, as “the story about the cat that didn’t get stuck in the tree” would not do so well ratings wise. He cited Professor Dickinson in advising the audience to always look at multiple sources in their news consumption.

On this subject, Bredesen, fresh off a nationally prominent Senate campaign, specifically pointed out that nationally, news companies are being forced to cut their staff due to budget concerns. He believes that this makes the problem of one-sided news coverage much worse, as there are less resources available for in-depth, open-minded reporting, leaving the news to be filled with quicker, more reactionary impressions.

Douglas reacted positively when the idea of term limits for congresspeople was floated by a student, saying that, “Pushing the refresh button every now and then in our national cackle might not be a bad idea.” Bredesen, however, reacted strongly against this proposal, citing his experience working with a term-limited Nashville City Council. As an alternative, he suggested putting an end to widespread gerrymandering — the practice in which state legislatures redraw legislative districts with the intent of suppressing the power of votes for the opposition party. This practice leads to districts that are easy wins for one party or another, which in turn causes the election of more polarized legislators who do not need to account for a broad coalition of voters.

“To me the answer is to make districts more competitive. The House was designed to be a place that flows from election to election with the will of the people. Except we’ve gotten so good at designing districts now — that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Ultimately, Bredesen felt strongly that the solution will not lie in one party’s ideas winning out over the other. Instead of making political issues into a fight between different groups, he championed the ability to listen to a variety of perspectives in order to find solutions that work for a broad range of people.

“The idea that one ideology has all the answers is absurd on the face of it,” Bredesen said. “I think listening respectfully to different people’s views on how you might solve these problems and trying to understand them is critical.”

Douglas wrapped up his comments on a different note, warning the audience to be wary of being swayed by the strong views that are expressed by activists.

“I used to look out the window of my office and see these people demonstrating for or against something, and I wondered — Don’t they have a job?” Douglas said. “I think, to be honest, there are paid demonstrators who will take whatever position they’re asked to.”

This stance — that many activist are paid — was famously used by Donald Trump in October to dismiss the Kavanaugh protests.

The question and answer session ended with both former governors looking ahead to the next presidential election. Both hold the hope that there may be a candidate who will be able to bring the divided country together — although neither knows specifically who that might be. The former governors are in agreement that it may take a strong presidential commitment to unifying the polarized parties to ultimately improve the current situation. Bredesen, invoking the history of the country, left the audience with a few thoughts on the gravity of the situation.

“I think our country, every so often, goes through an existential challenge to its basic stuff. How we respond to that challenge always sets the path of where we are going as a country. There was the civil war and slavery. There was industrialism and all of that,” Bredesen said. “Certainly the Depression, the civil rights movement — and I think we are going through it right now. Technology and globalization are upsetting all sorts of assumptions about what’s important, and we have to respond.”

While the former governors offered some ideas as to what that response should look like, what it will actually end up being remains to be seen.

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