Former senator condemns congressional polarization

The William F. Buckley Jr. Program sponsored a talk with Evan Bayh, who spoke on
the current state of politics in the United States.
The William F. Buckley Jr. Program sponsored a talk with Evan Bayh, who spoke on the current state of politics in the United States. Photo by Alexandra Schmeling .

Former Indiana Governor and Senator Evan Bayh lamented the polarized nature of the American government in a Monday talk in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.

During the event, which was sponsored by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, Bayh — a Democrat who served as governor from 1989–97 and senator from 1999–2011 — spoke to approximately 30 audience members about how economic, political and social factors can lead to a polarized government in which politicians care more about winning elections than taking action for the betterment of society.

“Obviously, Congress is not regarded highly,” Bayh said. “People always came to the United States for opportunity. Currently, they only see a Washington gridlocked with practical and political challenges.”

Bayh pointed out that it takes extreme situations — such as the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the financial crisis of 2008 — to spur Democrats and Republicans into cooperation in order to take comprehensive action.

Bayh added that he believes the standard of living in America has not improved for the last 10 years, as economic concerns are at an all-time high. Unemployment has only gone down because people have quit looking for jobs, he said, and college, healthcare and insurance costs have all risen while real wages have stayed stagnant. Additionally, Bayh said that members of Congress are so polarized that the federal government has trouble passing measures to improve these sorts of economic problems.

“There are not enough purple states. No one votes in primaries, except the most ideological,” Bayh said. “And big money comes in to support or oppose the candidates in those primaries.”

Bayh added that in the presidential election of 2012, four states determined the outcome of the election. Political candidates are now camping out in only four or five states to win an election, he said, whereas the other states only serve as stopgaps to raise campaign funds.

Additionally, Bayh said that low voter turnouts have changed the way that senators look at primaries — they must appeal to the most conservative or most liberal voters in order to have a chance at winning, and then feel obligated to stick to these extreme policies in the general election. Because of globalization, Bayh said, American political struggles are further exacerbated, as America constantly needs to look over its shoulders to keep up with the emergence of new competitors around the world who can potentially take over market shares.

But while Bayh outlined a litany of issues within the federal government, he said he remains hopeful for the future of the country.

“In spite of all these challenges, I’ve got two 17-year-old boys, and there’s no other place in the world I would have them grow up,” he said. “There is freedom in your mind, the freedom to choose the fruits of your labors, the freedom to choose your government officials — it’s a democracy, and it’s up to all of us. I am optimistic.”

During the talk, when a student asked about the 2008 vice-president candidacy, Bayh said he was “a coin flip” away from being then-nominee President Barack Obama’s running mate. However, he said, it ultimately came down to the fact that his state was led by a Republican governor.

Students interviewed said they found Bayh’s presentation engaging and relevant — especially in the current state of the politics.

Zach Young ’17 said he found the talk interesting because Bayh is a figure who has crossed party lines to concentrate purely on political issues themselves.

“I do find his arguments convincing,” Alex Garland ’17 said. “I think the self-selection and increase in partisanship has had bad ramifications for the country.”

Bayh first held public office as Secretary of State of Indiana in 1986.

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