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Conference To Address Political Dysfunction At National, Local Levels

The U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building

Political dysfunction has been bandied about for several years, but its meaning remains unclear. That’s the first order of business Friday at the Political Ethics Conference at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

“One of the reasons that we decided to do the conference was precisely because everyone complains about political dysfunction, but you ask five different people what it is and you’ll get five different answers,” Wally Siewert, director of UMSL’s Center for Ethics in Public Life, told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday.

“People can’t get along to do something productive and constructive for the citizens of the state,” said Tim Green, a former Missouri state senator. “We all get elected. We’re all there to serve, and our top priority should always be to the taxpayers. It’s not that difficult to get along and try to work things out.”

At the state level, Green said term limits have adversely affected how politicians work.

“With term limits, you only have people serving eight years,” he said. “So as soon as they are elected, they know their time clock is running eight years. They are then looking for other opportunities to run. Before term limits, you had people that would serve up to 20 years. They created relationships (and) worked on things.”

Political battles have become about control, said Laurel Harbridge, a faculty fellow at the Institute of Policy Research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Harbridge will speak about partisanship at Friday’s conference.

“In recent years, we’ve had much more competition for majority control in terms of the majority party switching back and forth,” she said. “When you do that, you don’t have very many incentives to point out to the public where you agree with the other side.”

“Compromise seems to simply have become a bad political word,” Siewert said. “When we talk about politicians who work across the aisle, they seem to be politically punished for it.”

Courting The Extremes

It’s become an environment where extremes are welcome, Harbridge, Green and Siewert said.

“There’s a lot of disincentives to compromise kind of built into the political system that we have to deal with,” Siewert said. “I think redistricting is defining a part of that. We’ve drawn districts that are so safe, for instance, that you’re only going to get a challenge from an extreme end of your party, as opposed to somewhere from the middle.”

“In previous decades in the United States, the alignment between party ideology and who people voted for was much less connected across the country,” Harbridge said. “So in particular, you had southern Democrats representing very conservative parts of the country. So those members were much more concerned about the kind of general election sorts of constituents that they had. Those electoral concerns encouraged them to find these places of bipartisan agreement.”

People in the middle of the political spectrum often feel left out, Siewert said.

“We had record low turnout in this last election, and one of the reasons that the extremism is seen in the legislature, both at the state and the national level, is because that extremism is represented in the electorate that comes out to vote,” he said. “A lot of the people that might be in the middle of the aisle are feeling frustrated and therefor they leave the political process and that makes the political process worse and therefore they feel more frustrated. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at some point.”

Working For The Primary

Because many districts now favor one party, primary elections have become more polarizing. In an “St. Louis on the Air” interview on Oct. 29, former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe said candidates are now more responsive to those who elected them in the primary than a general election.

“In primaries, the turnout is very small and the people that turn out are the ones that are at the extreme end of the party,” Siewert said.

“When you’re dictating the electorate through the primary process, you’re going to elect the extremes on both sides,” Green said. “Then when you elect both of the extremes and then they go to Washington, D.C., what do you expect is going to happen?”

Related Event

The Ethics of Political Dysfunction

  • When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, 2014
  • Where: Millennium Student Center, University of Missouri–St. Louis, 1 University Blvd., St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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