Norton Garfinkle

Restoring the Vital Center to American Democracy

VTR Date: November 7, 2005

Norton Garfinkle discusses the problems of partisan politics.


GUEST: Norton Garfinkle
VTR: 11/07/05

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

And when he has been here before I’ve always introduced today’s economist/entrepreneur guest as Chair of George Washington University’s burgeoning Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, where he and his colleagues stress the value of the community as always a critical force in shaping the Good Society.

This time, Norton Garfinkle joins me in his role as Chair of The Future of American Democracy Foundation. He and Daniel Yankelovich, Chair of the Foundation’s Advisory Board, have just edited “Uniting America – Restoring The Vital Center To American Democracy”, published by Yale University Press.

And I would first today like to ask my guest to develop for us the meaning of their title and subtitle and to parse somewhat the content of their formidable volume.

But first I should note that I’m a member of The Future of American Democracy Foundation’s Advisory Board. And I hope you’ll agree that having an “open mind” on the air doesn’t have to mean being an intellectual eunuch!

So, with that said, Norton, tell us about the meaning of the title.

GARFINKLE: Well, the issue that faces us today is whether our politicians and our media are contributing to the dialogue …the democratic dialogue … by being “uniters” or dividers. And the argument is that the country has become so partisan, so polarized that there is no such thing as unifying America. The reality is that the majority of the American public has a unified set of values, is not part of the extreme partisan divide. And it’s only the politicians in Washington and the media that think that the new idea of “fair and balanced” is a political food fight between an extremist on one side and an extremist on the other side.

So the object of this book, the theme of this book, the content of this book is to restore the understanding that there is a vital center among the American people and it is that vital center that will ultimately respond to “uniters” rather than dividers. And that uniting, rather than dividing is not simply a slogan that people trot out in the midst of a Presidential campaign and forget as soon as they … as soon as the campaign is over.

HEFFNER: And you really think that it is the people in Washington or the political world and the media who have made so many of us think that there isn’t any vital center any more.

GARFINKLE: I think it’s very clear from the material that we have in the book, that literally finds that when you ask the public what they believe in, what their fundamental concepts are, you find that they share them. That the great majority of people share them. And it’s true in a straightforward way on the general ideas, but even when our politicians and our media start telling us about the most divisive issues like abortion or same sex marriage … that the public is not where they are. They are trying to energize a base on one side or another, the base is usually less than 20% of the population, either on the extreme Conservative, or the extreme Liberal side. And the reality is that the majority of people, ranging from 60% to 80% on issue after issue is not joining the partisan divide.

HEFFNER: You mean those magical words, “Red’ and “Blue” don’t have the same meaning so many people have given?

GARFINKLE: You’ll, you’ll find that the outer cover of our book and I, I can’t take credit for this, but the outer cover shows a needle and a thread and in the thread there’s a red end at one end and a blue end at the other end and in the middle there’s purple. And the middle purple is, in fact, where the public stands.

Now the public stands ready to respond to politicians who will, in fact, support common points of view that they hold. But if the politicians are not providing that, if the media are not providing it, then it’s easy for folks to say, “Hey, this is, this is a polarized country.

The fact that in an election you get 50% voting for one candidate and 50% voting for another candidate on the other side, does not mean that the country is polarized. Within the framework of those fifty percents there is a small group who are extremely Liberal, supporting one candidate. A small group that are extremely Conservative supporting the other, and in the middle there is the majority of the population that literally is responding to not the polarizing cries, but some other criteria, like “Do I like this guy? Or do I like this guy more than that guy?” rather than the claim that there is a strong commitment of one person to one point of view and a strong commitment of the other person to the other point of view.

The reality is, after the election, suddenly you have two parties and they do have extreme views for a number of reasons that has nothing to do with the center of public opinion on issue after issue after issue.

HEFFNER: Well, if there is that difference between this center, this hard core very large basic American position and the extremes, how long can that last? What’s going to happen?

GARFINKLE: Oh, I, I think that it’s very interesting to see how the public changes. And I’, I’ll use two examples … one that is more historical and the other that is more immediate.

The historical one is interesting. In 1970, if you asked people how they felt about interracial dating, more than 50% were against it, they thought it was a bad idea. If you ask them today, you’ve got over 75% said, “That’s fine. Why not? We believe in diversity. We believe in toleration.”

The carryover of the sixties is “You may have your views and I may have mine, but whatever they are, we have to accept yours for you and we have accept mine for me. And let’s tolerate each other, let’s compromise, let’s find solutions”.

The other example of very fast decision making is the war in Iraq. The public is basically very pragmatic. It wants to know if something is working. So if we go back to 2004 and the pre-election of 2004, a large majority of the pubic was in favor of war in Iraq. All of a sudden, today, a large majority of the population is against the war in Iraq because it’s not working.

So the public is there, it’s there with a set of values that are not extreme. And it’s there with a willingness to look at the facts and come to conclusions about how their values are being supported or rejected by the politicians in Washington and the media.

This is one reason why both the politicians and the media have such low confidence ratings among the public. Because the public feels, the majority of the public feels that they are not representing them.

HEFFNER: This is … in a sense, as I read what you’ve written and what the others have written, I have the feeling that you’re really saying the people … yes. There is a great faith and trust in the people in this volume. And the people are represented by that vital center.

GARFINKLE: Well, the reason for that is we’ve actually done the research. And we’ve found … my co-editor, Dan Yankelovich is one of the leading, if not the leading expert in analysis of public opinion.

And what he’s found and the chapter elaborates this is that there is an emerging new set of values that are held in common by most people and a number of them have to do with social cohesion. There is a hunger on the part of the public for a unity in, in our country amongst the populations. They don’t want to fight with each other.

So, for example, there is an acceptance of diversity by a large majority of the population. There’s a hunger for common ground, there’s a commitment to community and charity. There is a desire to cooperate with other countries rather than to be at odds with other countries. And there’s a strong preference for pragmatism and practicality over ideology.

So these are the social cohesion set of values that we find in research that are shared by most people. And this not just one little public opinion thing. I mean Dan Yankelovich has been doing this kind of public opinion analysis over decades and this is confirmed in study after study. That this where people are.

Now, interestingly enough, they’re … they also share in common, and have the believe that they share in common a whole set of other new values that are emerging, that really have nothing to do with social cohesion, but which are share in common by the public.

And they include things like patriotism. Most people in the country really are patriotic. There is also the sense of self-confidence, they really feel confident that they can manage their lives relatively well. There’s a sense of individualism, they know who they are and what they’re trying to do. There’s a belief in hard work and productivity. You know, the pleasure of work comes from the sense that you are accomplishing something for yourself, for your family and it’s making a contribution.

There is this new child-centeredness that is shared by people in common and there is, in the majority, a commitment to religious beliefs, but as a unifying activity rather than a divisive activity.

HEFFNER: Do you see these insights as the basis for a political movement?

GARFINKLE: I …here’s what I see. We’ve had politicians who have been dividers rather than “uniters”. We have a redistricting pattern in the country that emphasizes that. So we have, we have Congressional districts that are so designed in a gerrymandered way to be virtually impassably Republican or virtually impassably Democrat. Not quite, but, but virtually.

What I do see is the politician who stands out and says, “I am for the values that the majority of the public hold” and can develop and present a realistic conviction that he will in fact, or she will in fact, stand for those and be supportive of the public in designed policies that will reflect those values, that politician will suddenly become successfully and will start the new movement. And it doesn’t have to be a new political party, it can be a new leader for either party that could do this.

HEFFNER: What do you say, “it doesn’t have to be a new political party” because it seems so clear that that would be the, the ticket. That that would be where we would have, of necessity, perhaps, have turned.

GARFINKLE: Well, I mean … look, historians, including all of your fellow historians and, and some of the people that I also consider as substantial historians will tell you the third party movements are very difficult to develop and adopt and sustain. Especially in this era where the expenditure on political campaigns which is left to private contributions, as it were, is so much more likely to go to the established parties.

I actually, also, do not believe that the established parties are not open to this. So I, I don’t think that they are hidebound in this divisive partisanship, I think they’re stuck with it now. But I, I actually think it’s going to be relatively straightforward to overcome within one party or the other.

And once one party does it, the other party is going to suddenly discover that the common ground, the center is, in fact, the vital center of our society and they will have to respond to it.

HEFFNER: Is there any evidence that that point of view and that that approach wins?



GARFINKLE: Yes. The Clinton era is a perfect example of somebody going to the center and somebody reflecting the values of the general society and getting a response from that general society. Now unfortunately we had the end of the Clinton Administration which posed a set of moral issues that could be used as a club against him, but the public did not support impeachment because they actually found that his presentation of the centrist point of view was one that they could respond to, that supported them, as they supported him.

HEFFNER: And the media who are … take the brunt essentially of you … when you say why we have not recognized this, why we have been divided, you pick the media, you pick Washington, too.

GARFINKLE: I pick Washington first.

HEFFNER: Well, you say Washington first, but I have the feeling the if it were not for the media, Washington would not be first.

GARFINKLE: Well, the media are supposed to intermediate between what Washington is doing and what the public sees and hears. And, unfortunately, the media as, as you’ve said many times, are engaged in the ratings war. And they seem to have concluded, largely, that the way to conduct the ratings war is to have food fights, or the responsible media equivalent of a food fight, which is something called “fair and balanced”, which gets somebody on one side that is relatively extreme, balanced by somebody on the other side. This is fair, but it is a different …

HEFFNER: It is balanced.

GARFINKLE: But it is balanced in a peculiar kind of way. Not balanced in the way the public tends to see issues, where they would like to see two people with somewhat different points of view and … have an intelligent conversation about public policy issues.

And by the way, one of the marvelous things about what we tried to do in this book, is we didn’t just confront this general issue, but we went out to look at the major issues that face the public, or that face the society today. And that includes foreign policy, includes taxation policy, includes health care and in chapter after chapter we find that it is possible to address a question and to come up with a sensible answer that represents a, a … an intelligent approach to the problem rather than an argument about the problem.

HEFFNER: Yes, but there is one element missing here. And though you and I have talked about this many times, I didn’t become aware of it until yesterday afternoon as I was reading this volume. And that is the thing we’re talking about, the media themselves. They’re not here. The role, the obligations, the impact of the media themselves … were are they?

GARFINKLE: Well, all right. The first comment is one of the reasons for The Future of American Democracy Foundation is to cover all of these critical issues in the development of our democracy. So some time within the next year or two there will be a volume, a book and, and maybe some television work on the media. In which we talk about the history of the media.

Now it’s true that in this society from the beginning we had food fights, we’ve had people on one side and people on the other. But, in the forties there was developed a, a concept supported largely by Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite and, and that group that says that the media really had a responsibility not to be extremely partisan, but to be intelligent and analytical and, and perform the function of being a responsible intermediary.

The journalism schools developed in that time period around this concept of responsible journalism. In the last ten years we’ve reverted back more to the old extremism and that’s something that needs to be thought about and discussed and see how we can get back to the concept of responsible journalism and, of course, you’re going to tell me well, that’s difficult as I would tell you, it’s difficult because of the ratings war. Sure it’s difficult. But we, we as a country have been able to deal with difficult issues before.

HEFFNER: But the ratings war is just an outer manifestation of the fact that our media today, educational, value setting, as they are, are first and foremost profit making.

GARFINKLE: That doesn’t mean that profit making organizations can’t also be principled. Again, speaking of the foundation, my co-editor, Dan Yankleovich will be publishing a book as part of our series of books, published by Yale University Press, which is one of our partners in the Foundation called “Profit with Honor”. And that book literally will talk about company CEOs and how they can run profitable companies that are not ripping off the public.

And it is possible to do that. And there is a desire on the part of most CEOs to be honorable people. It’s just that they have to commit themselves to it. And I believe that the journalists who have gone to journalism school, who remember the Murrow/Cronkite tradition would like to be thought of as responsible journalists. And they, they can find a way to do that.

HEFFNER: But, Norton, those aren’t the ones …the people who make the decisions aren’t the ones that go to the J-schools. They’re not the ones who are going to sit and listen to lectures on values and ethics. They’re not going to read, as I’ve read things that you’ve written, about our changing economic beliefs. They’re not going to accept that, are they? They’re, they’re there because they’re there to maximize their profits.

GARFINKLE: Well, they’re there for two reasons. I don’t mean the, I don’t mean the owners of, let’s call it, the food fight networks …

HEFFNER: But that’s what I mean.

GARFINKLE: Well, so we’re stuck with them. We’ve been stuck with people like that throughout out history. But our democracy has not totaling been destroyed by …

HEFFNER: You say we’ve been stuck with these people … I, I’m suggesting and I’m sorry to bring this up now, we have four minutes left …


HEFFNER: … I’m suggesting that we’re stuck with the idea that’s basic to their activities, that you can take something that Herbert Hoover said was a great educational instrument radio/television and say, “No, it’s not a university, it’s a profit making machine.”

GARFINKLE: No. William Randolph Hearst had a profit making machine which was very successful and to a considerable extent deleterious to our democracy and … at the turn of the century, but it was not the only thing and our democracy did not fail. We had politicians like … in an earlier age Lincoln; in a later age Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and, and, in the newest period Bill Clinton. Who, saw the future of American democracy, saw it as a positive thing.

And we’ve had media people like Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite who have been able to restore a balance in the media area and they were successful for a period of time and it’s a constant battle and, and you can assume that you’re going to win all the time. You just have to conduct the battle and hope that you will win more often than … well, if not more often than not … often enough to sustain the future of American democracy.

HEFFNER: Norton, do you think that we, as a people, can accept the notion of your sub-title here, “Uniting America” and then you go on to write the important thing … “Restoring the Vital Center to American Democracy”. Do you think we’re able to do that?

GARFINKLE: I think so because I think, what I would say, it is to the interests of the politicians themselves … if they want to have a sustained electoral success, not a … not a slight electoral success in one election or two elections, but a sustained electoral success, to respond to the vital center of American democracy which is public opinion that really wants to have a positive view of, of what our democracy is about.

HEFFNER: You think you can identify politicians who will find their base in the vital center?

GARFINKLE: Well, let’s see. Let’s see. There are such politicians, they will find their base.

HEFFNER: Well, Norton, I’m delighted with “Uniting America” obviously, something you and so many other people have thought about seriously. Restoring the vital center to American democracy, you and Dan Yankleovich and the Yale University Press are to be praised for this.

I hope you’re right about a united America, a vital center being the base to which our politicians can return. Thanks for joining me today.

GARFINKLE: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.