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Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg decried the increasingly polarized climate of “cultural politics” and called on Democrats and Republicans to engage voters on “larger issues” at the Institute of Politics (IOP) John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Friday afternoon.
In the forum, entitled “Red States v. Blue States: America’s Cultural Divide,” Greenberg lamented the division of the country into two partisan camps and its negative impact on political discussion. He argued that political strategists increasingly appeal to the party faithful, exacerbating the polarization. The divide is the subject of his new book, The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It.
Greenberg, who advised the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton in1992 and Al Gore ’69 in 2000, as well as many international leaders, said devoted Democrats and Republicans have profoundly different worldviews. “It’s not about issues,” Greenberg said. “This politics is about a way of life.”
He described the conservative bloc as representing tradition, firm principles of right and wrong and an emphasis on the individual and markets, while the liberal group focuses on empowering the individual, diversity and tolerance.
David Gergen, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, sat aside Greenberg for the duration of what was essentially an exchange between two major players in presidential politics. Gergen himself served as an adviser to U.S. presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Clinton.
Greenberg said the political strategy of President Bush, as directed by chief political adviser Karl Rove, is to excite the conservative base on key issues and use select initiatives to reach out to certain targeted groups. He said tax cuts, farm subsidies and aggressive positions on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage are specifically directed at business interests, rural voters and white evangelicals—three key elements of the base. He said Bush administration policies on education, immigration reform and prescription drugs are designed to capture votes from suburban women, Hispanics and seniors, respectively.
Asked by Gergen to discuss Clinton’s political strategies, of which Greenberg was at the center as a lead pollster and strategist, Greenberg quipped, “Ours was all high-minded. There never were any tactics.”
Reflecting on the current political climate, Gergen said the conventional notion in presidential elections of appealing to the base in primaries and to the center in the general election has recently been challenged by the idea of focusing on the base throughout the whole process due to greater partisanship and the even division.
“I don’t think it’s wholesome politics, but I think it’s real,” Greenberg said. “The people in the middle have been forced to choose between these two blocs that are mostly playing base politics.”
His advice to Democrats: “Don’t play this game.”
“I’m basically urging Democrats to escape by not winning group-by-group, but by taking on larger issues,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg said he feels many issues are constricted from the national debate because of the deadlock, citing inequality, health care, globalization and the environment.
“This kind of politics can only deal with these issues incrementally, on the margins, and leaves it out of the debate,” Greenberg said during a presentation and discussion at the Coop following the forum.
“I wrote [The Two Americas] because I don’t think our politics can deal with the issues that face the country,” he said.
Greenberg encourages the parties to think not just in terms of “tactics” but to address major issues that may cut across party lines. With the electorate so evenly divided, however, he said he isn’t optimistic that the parties will think in terms broader than the tactical.
He suggests Democrats discuss economic inequality and raising middle-class incomes, emphasizing opportunity and thinking of themselves as “JFK Democrats”—focused on how to make all Americans share in the national prosperity. He said he feels that Republicans are best served by using a “renewed Reaganism” as their paradigm.
In addition to his work on Democratic presidential campaigns, Greenberg worked for scores of other domestic campaigns and in the Clinton White House. He has served as a polling guru and political adviser to world leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former South African President Nelson Mandela, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
“This is not someone who comes to politics and takes politics lightly,” Gergen said.
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