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America's Political Toxicity

If they turn out next year, Millennials will play a big role in the 2012 elections


One of the most oft-posed questions in American politics today is, Why can't we get past the polarization and get something done? More than anything else, bitter partisanship is holding America back — and most Americans know it. Most also want it to stop.

  So why isn't anybody doing something about it?

  Last week, some of the best minds in American politics came to New Orleans to discuss ways to "take the poison out of partisanship" at the Bipartisan Policy Center's (BPC) third annual "summit" at Tulane University. The event was once again co-hosted by America's premier political (and bipartisan) couple, James Carville and Mary Matalin, who prove daily that opposites not only attract but also are capable of living happily ever after. Partisanship is not a four-letter word in the Carville-Matalin household, but incivility is. America should take note.

  "I have one daughter who's a liberal and one who's a conservative," Matalin told the crowd. Echoing several panelists, she added, "It will be the next generation" that finds a solution to America's political toxicity.

  I tend to agree with the notion that the current generation of "leaders" won't get us past the current morass. The reason is simple: They lack the basic qualities that define leadership, and the nation's political landscape isn't making it any easier for them to muster what's needed.

  "There's no constituency for doing the right thing," said Karen Hughes, longtime adviser to former President George W. Bush. She cited as an example the high price paid by moderate Republicans who voted for her old boss' TARP program after the 2008 economic crash. One of them was panelist and former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who was crushed by GOP extremists in 2010.

  "There is a yearning" among Americans for consensus, Hughes added, but leaders in both parties remain risk-averse, fearing for their political lives if they break ranks and move to the middle.

  Witness the current deadlock on the so-called Supercommittee empaneled by Congress to deal with the nation's deficit and debt.

  Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, now a lobbyist, lamented that he's never seen it this bad. The real problem, Lott said, is not the institution or the rules. "The problem is us ... elected officials and our generation."

  Some blame social media, but that's like blaming the Wright Brothers for a plane crash. While it's true that social media have changed the political game, the real problem vexing our current leaders is their failure to understand new media — and to harness it for something other than propagandizing.

  Which brings us back to the next generation, the Millennials. They thoroughly embrace new media, many to the exclusion of traditional media. Most of them don't read much, and too many have the attention span of a gnat. But, as GOP strategist Margaret Hoover noted, Millennials are more numerous than Baby Boomers. They already have been heard, and if they turn out next year, they will play a big role in the 2012 elections.

  Most panelists rejected the suggestion that a third-party candidate or movement could break the current deadlock (they're all wedded to the current two-party system), but I think they're wrong. Sure, it might be too late for next year's elections, but there's plenty of time for a political Arab Spring to take hold in America before 2014 or 2016.

  If the Millennials decide they've had enough, who's to say they have to limit their choices between Republican and Democrat? Their generation was raised to believe in infinite options. Why not a third political option — especially when the two current choices offer only more of the same?

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