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Can Civility Be Restored To Politics?

October 1, 2012 2:02 p.m.


Carl Luna, political science professor, Mesa College

Nathan Fletcher, California Assemblyman, 75th District, former San Diego mayoral candidate.

Related Story: Nathan Fletcher Says Civility Can Be Restored To Politics


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST JOHN: As we approach the elections we are being force fed a diet of negative ads that start by being distasteful and become more and more unpalatable as we see the same hit pieces again and again. Much of campaigning seems to be about how terrible the other guy is rather than what good ideas and strong leadership the candidate is offering you. The whole tenor of political dialogue has become very bitter with compromise seen as a dirty word in some circles and although there is talk of bipartisan cooperation there doesn't seem to be a lot of action. So today we're going to talk about a community initiative on the importance of restoring respect and civility to our civil discourse and here in studio with us we have Carl Luna Is a political science professor at Mesa college, Carl, thank you very much for being here

CARL LUNA: Good to be here.

ALISON ST JOHN: And also Nathan Fletcher was finishing off his term as a California assemblyman. He's also known as a former San Diego mayoral candidate who took a very risky move and left his party to become an independent and Nathan will also be a participant on a panel that's happening later this week to talk about this issue. So Carl we are going to talk about them panel in a minute but first I just wanted to ask you like a devil's advocate question which is surely politics is more interesting if there is a battle, candidates throwing barbs at one another, and a real sense of conflict.

CARL LUNA: Well, it's more interesting for the media to be able to portray it as the horserace you the winners losers good guy bad guy there's a nice narrative that goes with that and if you can't do that and have substantive debate about the issues, great. Tended to lose a substantive debate instead of turning it into a form of dances with the stars although the stars are swinging truncheons at each other.

ALISON ST JOHN: Nathan you presumably must have experience some of this while you were up in Sacramento, when you make this decision which is pretty risky to leave the Republican Party and become an independent and I wonder if you found was lack of civility and respect even within your own party?

NATHAN FLETCHER: I think Carl had a great point. Politics has always been a rough sport. It is a contest of conflicting ideas and the voters have to see a contrast. My frustration was this notion that sometimes you just disagree. You don't have to hit the other person. You don't have to personally dislike them. You don't have to think they are a socialist orientated or any of these types of things you could just say hey we view these funds differently and I think what's lost limited the politics is the sense that we can agree to disagree or sit down and negotiate in good faith and that was my frustration with the political process. That, and oftentimes a lack of political courage, and you hit something that is really a key point and I'm so glad you raised it which is this notion of compromise equals weakness I think is completely counter to the way I view the world. The easiest thing to do is to retrench to your ideological extreme corner since important to plant my flag and then never going to move unless it is perfectly pure because then you never have to be responsible for governing or finding a solution. The difficult thing is to actually sample to step out of my comfort zone and into the writing because it's the right thing to do and I'll give you a perfect example. We've watched an entire debate about poor Bob ordered as an committee spoke about the price of, the inability of each side to step out of their comfort zone but in 1983 Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan sat down and worked out a deal to preserve Medicare. Tip O'Neill agreed to cut benefits and Ronald Reagan Reagan agreed to raise taxes to preserve the Social Security moving forward and they worked together in good faith and I think that's what's missing most. I care less about the tenor of the campaigns. I care about people's willingness to sit down and negotiate.

ALISON ST JOHN: Once they are actually elected and what's interesting though perhaps you could give us a sense from the inside what it's like to be a member of a party that is so entrenched that even if you do not necessarily agree with where they planted their flag, I mean, what is it like if you take a step to the side?

NATHAN FLETCHER: It's difficult and you are expected to toe the party line and there's number of instances in sending Sacramento where legislators have made commitments and ending times we are even co-authors of bills all of a sudden the party decided that's not what they wanted and then they went back on their word and my point when I was in a party was hype reserves the right to agree or disagree on any given issue because my constituents did not vote for a party we don't have a representative system, we voted for me, the person. So what you see in the parties is you are expected to toe the line and if you don't then you are continually driven out particularly in the Republican Party which has become so small in recent years has seen a mass exodus of the members in the Democratic shift on social issues, issues of women's choice, the environment, equal rights for people regardless of sexual orientation. You are not allowed to have a dissenting opinion. But my big beef with Republican Party when I was there is a you weren't able to sit down and negotiate it in good faith to get solutions. I would get grief when we negotiated Chelsea's law actually lower penalties to pay for the increase in penalties because we have a budget deficit. The site tax reform I worked with Gov. Jerry Brown to close a loophole that benefits out-of-state companies and provide relief to California companies. It was a party the didn't want you to stray from their ideology but also didn't want you to do things in mind but consistent with the ideology someone else might get the credit and that's a problem we have to have a willingness to solve problems.

ALISON ST JOHN: Becoming increasingly frustrating to even be a politician

NATHAN FLETCHER: If you want to preserve the status quo to get a great singer in there or to be the hero of a blog or twitter conversation then it can be great. But none of that, all of that makes for great politics and great soundbites and great debates, but it doesn't make for an education system that teaches kids. It does not make for an environment that encourages job creation. Doesn't make for infrastructure and infrastructure that makes peoples less better just makes for political conflict and that's where I would really like to see elected officials come together and feel a greater sense of obligation. And I think that the public is willing to absorb difficult decision-making to a far greater degree that elected officials belief they are and I think they're willing to absorb honesty and candor. They're willing to absorb all of that but we just have an environment right now that tends to really push people to the extremes.

ALISON ST JOHN: So Carl this is not a new problem, it's been going on for decades why did you decide it's time to start this initiative now?

CARL LUNA: If you look at the vitriol you see immediately see on the cable channels the blogosphere, the 24-hour news cycle echoes in well you can go back to the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and see really better stuff being brought about since World War II we kind of had a grand consistence consensus as Mr. Fletcher is putting out Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill could work together and John could say we have different views on America by both parties are working toward the common good. Starting in the 90s who started a politics of distraction. One party or the other always wanted to win and compromise. Yet you can't imagine Barack Obama and John Boehner are working together and eating jelly beans it's gotten worse in terms of the vitriolic and negative ads. They are done because studies show they work and campaign officials think they work but I think we hit a tipping point about a year ago in the run-up to this election when you've got people questioning not only whether or not a candidate should be a good candidate but the right to be a president they weren't born here both John McCain and Barack Obama were attacked that way before. There's got to be a 55 mile an hour speed limit here for what we are trying to achieve in civil dialogue people are going to exceeded but if you don't have a speed limit people drive 120 and we are crashing the system.

ALISON ST JOHN: I was going to say it seems so quintessentially American to win. I mean that is so much a part of this culture and yet I think about the lessons kids learning baseball is how to lose gracefully. You think we've lost that art?

CARL LUNA: In part we've become too focused on the winning. You look at that on kids sports having four daughters go through sports there's a tendency not to just look at the game they are playing at the college tuition. There so much on the line. The American middle class feels very threatened by current events so they are feeling scared by the way the economy has developed and you have politicians playing to their baser instincts. In better times politicians both pattern party intended to appeal to our better angels.

NATHAN FLETCHER: I think to there are a couple things Carl is absolutely right politics has always been rough. You could go all the way back to the 1790s, William Wilberforce was a British member left Parliament to work to end the slave trade and there were flyers distributed throughout the British Empire that said that he beat his wife.

ALISON ST JOHN: To undermine his credibility?

NATHAN FLETCHER: He wasn't even married. A sitting vice president shot of former secretary of the treasury had dearly stages of our country's the politics of bit rough, but I think to Carl's point there used to be difficult spirited contest to win an election, but the purpose of winning the election was to be in a position to enact policies that make people's lives better. Now in a lot of ways it seems like the purpose of winning the election is to perpetuate the election.

ALISON ST JOHN: Or to keep the power.

NATHAN FLETCHER: To keep the power within your party so you see more instances where people are not willing to sit down and you know I had an interesting experience in the mayor's race. David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times when I went independent about the dilemma you face when you are in a party but you don't toe the line and you don't fit much want to solve things that actually make the world a better place. And I was at an event and it was late one evening 18 hour day I was tired a very legitimate came up to me and he I clipped out copy of that article and he said you are us and I said what do you mean I wasn't understanding and he said our generation, the World War II generation, we fought in a war and it changed how we view politics. He said we won the war we rebuilt Europe, we rebuilt America and we had our differences but we had seen true strife and conflict. We have seen not a metaphor of this election is a battle or a war we had seen a battle in the war and I talked about that a lot in the election you know when you go through those experiences he cannot view some of the other party as the enemy, you view them as someone you disagree with. One of my closest friends in the legislature Speaker of the assembly John Perez. We are personal friends we socialize we go to dinner we do those types of things

ALISON ST JOHN: Does much of that happen in Sacramento these days?

NATHAN FLETCHER: Not like it used to and I would go through and it is always so it's been a which is complained about it folks are renting a there was a period of time when folks spend time with each other they knew each other's kids and allowed them, it made it harder to bring well you see that is just pure anger and hostility at one another. Was an era where if you know someone and your friends with him and you know their family you may say hey I disagree with them I think they are wrong. I think they have a bad idea but you preserve the ability and what happens now is because the lack of civility he make it impossible for people to sit down and negotiate because there's no trust

ALISON ST JOHN: No trust impacts no motivation to preserve solve the problem.

NATHAN FLETCHER: Preserve the problem to win the election.

ALISON ST JOHN: Carl what about the average citizen how much are we to blame? If you look for example at the Wikimedia is fragmenting and people are gravitating toward sources of information that reinforce their own opinion, do you think that we are also becoming more polarized and not really listening to the other side?

CARL LUNA: We've got three camps in America. We have one camp that will be listening to Fox news sets about 20% of the population and they have their opinions. Another campus watching MSNBC and reading the New York Times and 60% in the middle really are not paying much attention and actually are paying less attention than they used to years and decades ago as Mr. Fletcher was pointing a. World War II and World War II generation Y Diffie don't have pay attention to politics and writable by even though bod. Each of comfort that followed we got lazy. I want to eat our vegetables hard as we don't want to pay attention to the issues. So emotional appeals that, at the end of the campaign become a nice way to reach voters really don't want to become and gauged as Pogo said we met the enemy and he is us the question is how do we get ourselves on the same side again?

ALISON ST JOHN: We had one piece of legislation that may affect us which is the new primary system that went into effect this year so that for example the 76th assembly District and North San Diego County there are two Republicans Rocky Chavez and Sherry Hodges that are facing off against each other instead of a Democrat and a Republican. So do you think this could make a difference that you might end up by having voters deciding against the extreme candidate, and this could change things?

NATHAN FLETCHER: When I was introduced I was a legislative whip for open primary. So it was my responsibility in assembly to put together the votes to help try and pass it and it was a very very difficult fight because both parties were opposed to it. And there's not one thing you do that's going to magically make it all better. But I think there's a combination of three things that I will hit. Quickly. I think have the potential to make the legislature a little bit more functional place. The first is open primary. So now you have elected officials who actually have to respond to the entirety of their constituencies. When you get elected in a low turnout primary you are only worry is, your ideas are as big as your market and if your market is 5 to 7% of the vote on the extreme right or left that's how big your ideas are now we can get 50 and 60% ideas because people care about the entirety of the electorate. The second change is a change in term limits. Your well-intentioned, well-meaning I don't think someone needs to be there 30 or 40 years but when you have six years you are in and out you worry about which are running for next you'll develop relationships, now they will be there for 12 years. Other changes redistricting. We took the power to draw lines away from legislators who will always because they are human beings dry really safe seats. We have a few more competitive seats and for legislature to perform better we don't need everyone. To be somewhere in the middle. Right there is a great healthy and legislative bodies to having the ideological extremes are presented. You make good points, they flesh out the debates we just need a few more folks who are willing to sit down and say at the end of the day we have to build a bridge. We have to fund the schools. We've got to have jobs that we make it happen so I think open primary is a part of those three that will have a positive effect.

ALISON ST JOHN: And just to conclude here, Carl, those are legislative fixes but you had a conference in the spring where you got people involved to talk about what can we do about this to restore some civility to the dialogue. Were there any suggestions beyond legislation that came out?

CARLL LUNA: What we are looking toward developing and we hope to develop in the spring but this is an ongoing marketing processes something about a statement of principles. What are the things people should try to adhere to in civic dialogue within the community politicians running for campaigns get people to sign up on a. 30 years ago you through your trash or every three or trash outré recycling with the trash now people find that to be wrong. We change social behaviors over time by making behaviors seem less plausible, less acceptable. Chains of power. What would like to do is establish a little bit of shame in the community for people who go too far in the campaigns and give praise to the candidates were doing Hubert Humphrey's idea of the politics of joy working as Mr. Fletcher is saying toward a common good.

ALISON ST JOHN: Well you're going to have the breakfast event coming up on Wednesday morning between eight and 10:30 at USD at the Joan Kroc Institute of peace and justice an appropriate spot for such a discussion and it sounds like it's going to be very interesting. So if you are listening to that find more information about that go to the KPBS website and you will find that there. I'd like to think hard to guests very much for coming and that is Carl Luna Mesa college

CARL LUNA: Good to be here

ALISON ST JOHN: And Nathan Fletcher

NATHAN FLETCHER: Thank you so much.