Carolyn Lukensmeyer

Is Politics Destroying our Mental Health?

Air Date: July 11, 2015

Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer talks about how to reduce dysfunction in American government.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In response to the Tuscon massacre in January, 2011, the University of Arizona established a National institute for Civil Discourse. Our guest today is its inaugural director, Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the founder and president of America Speaks, former Chief of Staff to the Governor of Ohio, and leading political thinker.

Co-chaired by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the nonpartisan center is particularly focused on our mental health and the threat of embittered partisanship upon it. That means working to make peace in a warring Congress.

Nearly five years since the tragedy in Arizona, the climate of incivility drives still more spats of venomous violence and rhetoric. Take note, for example, of President Obama’s Twitter debut and the racist posts it produced. Not from Internet bots but real people and real Americans. Or the flurry of angry Tweets on the left and the right in reaction to the Georgetown University poverty summit, which was an attempt at genuine dialogue to overcome dogma.

So with the institute’s mission to reduce dysfunction in our political discourse parallel to our own on these airwaves, we have fertile ground to cover, and I’m eager to ask Carolyn first, is politics destroying our mental health?

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: Well Alexander, that’s quite a question. What I think most Americans would say in response to that question is that the way politics is working today, the constant negative ads, the immoral amounts of money that are invested in order to elect officials, actually does leave them very anxious, angry, depressed, all of which people would say are indicators of not an equilibrium in our mental health but actually disturbing our mental health.

So I don’t think anyone would say that politics is driving people crazy in terms of the way people attach that idea to mental health, but I think they would definitely say, this is a part of American life that disturbs me. This is a part of American life that I am extremely unhappy about. So I actually think your question would suggest that it is an issue.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: And, a symptom of that disease was responsible for the creation of your institute … that is the tragic events in Arizona. And often we hear folks say, don’t politicize a tragedy, but your institute is proof, is evidence of a public response, a reaction to what occurred.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: The community in Tuscon, Arizon, who loved Gabby Giffords, who still love Gabby Giffords and respected her for her truly bipartisan work, she never introduced a bill that didn’t have as many or more Republicans on it than Democrats. Some of her best friends in Congress, both in the House and in the Senate were Republicans. So, the community understood that Gabby herself did not buy into this hyper partisanship. So they had an image that it’s possible to be a great member of Congress without dipping into those kinds of strategies of character assassination of people on the opposite side of the aisle. Demonizing people. Frankly presenting facts about issues that are profoundly distorted in order to get people to follow you. So yes, the community and the university came together and said, we have to make something good come out of this horrible tragedy.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Your efforts are targeting what is plaguing the political process. Incivility. And … and your efforts are a policy response in essence, to research and gather facts and to … and to arm people with civility.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: Well Alexander, I appreciate that you noticed or noted that every action we’re taking, every time we do a program with the public, or a program with journalists, or a program with elected officials, it is based on research, research about what are the causes of incivility, what are leverage points for impacting it. I think your listeners might be very interested that the research we’re doing right now is the impact of satire news on how particularly millennials receive their information about politics. We did both focus groups and a national survey. The out … the …we’re still studying those results but a couple of things I think are worth noting.

First of all, conventional wisdom is that millennials are not paying attention to politics. Now it’s accurate that millennials don’t choose political careers… that millennials see their way of being in the community much more around volunteerism and service.

But it is not true that they are not paying attention to what’s happening in politics. The second thing that I think is most interesting is they as a generation, more than some of the rest of us, actually do want to hear both points of view. They actually do want to hear both sides of an issue, and they’re very disturbed about the lack of fact-based news reporting.

If I could go on for a minute in terms of what we’re trying to do, one of the things I think your listeners would be very interested in, in October, in Ohio, we’ll be inviting a hundred and twenty people to work together over two and a half days. One third of them will be from the media–internet, radio television, print–one third of them will be elected officials from the state of Ohio—state legislature and members of Congress—and one third of them will be members of the public who actually are voters and do pay attention to these trends in our society.

And the question that we’re posing them is right at the heart of what you asked me. Given the issues facing our democracy, and as we look to the 2016 election, which many Americans are already dreading. They know it will be very negative, they know there’ll be too much money in it, so the question we’re posing is, what do citizens, what do elected officials, and what do journalists and the media need from each other to in fact create a healthier process in the 2016 election. We’re very excited about this and very interested to see what happens.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well it’s a great question. We were talking off camera about how this millennial generation has been exposed to the evil twin of the more lofty West Wing, and House of Cards is the predominant entertainment choice for political fare. Which might be reflected in the attitudes of the focus groups and the … and the journalists even if they’re not millennials in Ohio. What do these parties … what do you suspect these parties need from each other?

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: We believe they will enter this discussion with more of a sense of a conventional wisdom and what are—we are dedicated to do, is create a very safe environment in which people can express what they really feel, and we’ve now seen this happen in each instance when we have brought these individuals together, which is they discover that there’s lots of common ground they would not have expected. Maybe … let me go a little in-depth into one of our programs called Next Generations. A former state senator, Republican, from Iowa, and a former state member of the House of Representatives in Ohio, a democrat, came to the institute two years ago and said, you know. Super PAC money is coming into the swing states to try to intentionally create the same kind of hyper partisanship in Ohio, in Iowa, that we’ve been watching in DC for a decade or more. And this—this is not how we want to behave.

This is not what should happen in our state legislatures. So we created a program called Next Generations, and the premise of it is that leadership of both parties has to sign off, has to say, yes, we want to do this, and then members of both parties participate in a workshop we call Building Trust Through Civil Discourse.

Alexander, I’ve been privileged to observe and participate in these several times, and one of the things that you often observe, most recently we trained some of the people who’ve gone through the workshop to be facilitators of the workshop in other states cause they love this work so much. But at the beginning, a very conservative person from a western state, a very liberal person from a New England state, were kind of at each other, were kind of assuming that by definition they wouldn’t agree on anything.

By the end of the two and a half days’ work together, they volunteered to step up and say, we see how far off our views of each other were when we started. So let us go to another state and the two of us will be the leaders to bring this to the next state … state legislature.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: How do you apply that model to a gerrymandered system?

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: Gerrymandering is a big part of the problem. There are only about 30 seats in the House of Representatives—that’s 30 seats out of 435 that are actually competitive. So people always ask me, what can I do as a citizen?

One of the things you really can do is look into in your state, in most states these days, there is an effort to begin to changing redistricting. Iowa did it first, I happen to be a native Iowan and I’m very proud of my state, they took redistricting completely out of political hands. They set it up as an independent commission, and if you look at the record, Iowa has had more competitive districts in the House of Representatives than any other state in the last 15 years. So if we make that structural change, it actually does bring peoples’ voice more strongly back into our democracy. So if you’re a person out there listening to this who’s really upset about how dysfunctional our politics has gotten, take a check. Call the League of Women Voters. Take a look at a website of an organization called Fair Vote. And see if there is an active group in your state to bring redistricting into an independent process.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: And that wouldn’t undermine any ideological identification one might have.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: Not at all, not at all.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: It …it would only move two parties and points of view closer to a meeting of the minds.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: One of our biggest issues, and I know why it’s happening, many people blame the public for this. Our voting turnout is very, very low. In 2014, the academics that really track this, you know, usually you hear commentators say things like, it was the lowest voter turnout since World War Two. In actuality, 2014 was the lowest voter turnout since 1837.

So if we don’t get more people back into the voting process, big money by definition will determine who our elected officials are. Part of the problem is that Americans, when you get the whole community in the room and they get a chance to talk about these big issues, they leave their ideology pretty quickly and go to solve the problem. That’s our character. That’s who we are. We want to take action to solve the problem. Alexander, de Tocqueville said that about us in 1838 and it’s still, in my opinion, one of the real strengths of the American character. Yes, of course, there’ll be a very radical right and a very radical left that will never leave their ideology. But in total, that’s probably 17 or 18 percent of the population.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: But are we so infirmed now that we’re incapable of doing that?

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: That’s not been our experience, and one of the things that I think you’re … again you would be interested in, and I’m gonna focus again on young people who are one of the categories that are reluctant to vote. We created in the work we were doing on mental health after the terrible, terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook and President Obama called for a national discussion on mental health.

We actually created a new platform in which we combined texting and talking and social media. And in our first use of it, it was all about, what are the challenges that young people face in terms of mental health.

But it was so exciting to see young peoples’ participation. We did it last on May 7th, twenty four thousand young people across the United States in total have done this, participated.

We have 9.3 million impressions on social media. So we—it doesn’t—shouldn’t surprise any of us that if you use the technology and go where young people are hanging out, despite their disavowal of politics, despite their seeming unwillingness to participate, when you bring it to them in a medium in which they care about, they will participate and they will participate in large numbers.

So we plan in 2016 to actually use the same platform and call it Text, Talk, Vote, where young people can go and get information about candidates, have real discussions about the issues, and hopefully be motivated to vote.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: If they don’t vote then that mindset, which can be differentiated from very rigid attachment to ideology won’t prevail.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: Well you know, when people look at the definitions of politics that have operated for centuries, it really is all about compromise. It really is, where can—you and I may be very different in our views about physical policy, about social policy.

But if we want to solve the United States debt problem, once we get into a fact-based discussion of the issue, we’ll both understand fairly quickly that in order to solve it you have to both raise revenues and cut spending. And Americans, as people, once they see that, they do it.

Our dilemma is, politicians who are organized more toward the next election and the people who are voting for them are the people who are stronger in their partisanship, and it’s this vast middle that is staying home, so …

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: They’re feeding into this, um, obstinacy, this disrespect for anything other than your feeling, your conviction.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: It’s a tragedy. But it is … it has come to a place where, on issues, diehard advocates and in some cases politicians actually behave as if, if you think differently than I think on this issue, in some way you’re less of a person. And Americans really don’t buy into that except for, as I said, very fringe percentages of the population.

Americans want to see their politicians solving problems. They want to make progress on the big issues facing the country. They know there’s something profoundly wrong about student loans and the amount of debt that kids are coming out of college with. They know there’s something wrong …

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Do they? Is—is there not a school that-that things that that’s irresponsibility? That, when I look at Twitter and the feed in response to a very earnest effort with the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for American Progress, a meeting of the minds. And I see the feeds of hundreds, thousands, probably tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of attacks against the position of government intervention or lack thereof. It seems like there’s always a scapegoat.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: And, in the last thirty to forty years, we both from a mass media perspective and the way politicians run their elections, we’ve made that scapegoat the government. So we’re no longer asking the question of what’s the right role of government. And if stick with the student loan as example, I don’t think anyone would say that’s a problem the government alone should solve, I think what most people would say is we have to figure out something about a deeper dive into what’s happened with tuition rates in the country.

So partly we’re looking at causes, and then we’re looking at public/private partnerships. The way you see in the kind of Twitter feeds that you’re talking about are people that don’t even hear the end of the sentence after AEI, which is a more conservative, tending to be Republican think tank. Who … part of their solution to student loans includes a role for government. But once people who are in the Twitter world and looking to react… this is a dilemma with the way in which that technology works. It is extremely reactive. I heard the word in your sentence that I don’t like and I tweet. I haven’t even heard the end of your sentence, nor have I observed that the lead economist from CAP, the more democratic liberal think tank, and the lead economist from AEI have just looked across the table and say, I really agree with that, I think there is a way for government and the banks to figure out a process that would allow students to be able to have less interest growing over time that for the loans that … Yes, everybody agrees with the personal responsibility. Nobody’s saying forgive these students these loans… Yes, they should pay them back. But we’ve set up a financial structure that is punitive in terms of their capability of paying it back.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: In terms of the reaction to President Obama over the last 6 years, 7 years almost now, we … we talked about this in the green room, the incident at the University of Oklahoma. And there were young people who were chanting racist, um, using abominable language. And you have to think about their families and the communities in which they grew up. And whether or not really, as you read here, the racial hostility towards President Obama has not been a primary source of this antagonism.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: You know, I think what people sometimes forget. Human beings are social beings. David Brooks writes about this beautifully. And given that we’re social beings, we react very profoundly to the context that we’re in, and to the signals that we’re given in that context. And if you go back to the Oklahoma bus situation. These were a set of young people who had been part of a leadership training program in which, and I wasn’t there, you weren’t there, so we don’t know exactly what happened, but in that context, which is a very group identity, a very rah rah context, and seemingly a private context. Something about this chant was generated in that process. And once again, on a bus, in a very rah rah context with a solid deep, deep, deep group identity, that got repeated. And I think you can see in the process of the individuals’ responses once it became a public process rather than a private process, I think you can differentiate those individuals who instantaneously knew that what they had participated in was just wrong.

And they could quickly acknowledge, you know, this isn’t even what I actually think. But I was caught up in the moment. Now your larger question, are we living in a time in which the, having Barack Obama as President of the United States, has some way legitimated the expression of what is usually very submerged racial feelings. People will argue about this, this will be written in terms of the history of his presidency …

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: And the fact that we’re discussing this into the midpoint of his second term, shows that there was some evidence of that antagonism.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: There’s no question about that. And I think that the real challenge to us as a society, and I think we’ve seen the same thing in terms of the number of incidents in terms of young black men’s interactions with police, we’ve come a huge distance in terms of racial issues in this culture.

This is the 50 year anniversary of Selma, the 50 year anniversary —and you can look, the Voting Rights Act, the number of young black people in college, education. But what we’re seeing is the evidence of the next layer of a deeply embedded in our society, question an issue which we now have the opportunity to bring out of the shadows. Bring it into the light. And work on it in the next level in which we need to address it.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: And Carolyn, your keys to instill the values of civility into this next generation?

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: Well I was just recently in San Diego where I gave a keynote speech at the League of Women Voters’ state convention. And I was extremely heartened, the League, which I hope you and all of your listeners know has been an extraordinary organization in this country from its very genesis all focused around the health of democracy and voice and voting.

Many of the chapters in California have started on a local level to recognize that we as Americans are concerned about this incivility. So we should be working on it locally. We should be doing it in our own communities. And I—this will be just a fun moment—one of the chapters in San Diego has started using the ubiquitous wristband. It says, Civility Matters, Pass it On. So we are beginning to see this around the country. You know, 80 percent of Americans say that incivility is an issue. 70 percent of Americans … this is a Weber Shandwick poll a year and a half ago … 70 percent of us even say it’s at crisis level.

So we have to look not only to work like we’re doing where we’re getting elected officials together across the aisle, but we have to look in our communities. We have to look to churches, to schools, to say, if 80 percent of us think incivility is a problem, then at least 50 percent of us better be doing positive things to change it.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well maybe you can get the League of Women Voters to return to being the sponsor of the presidential debates.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: We would all appreciate if that could happen.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: We talked briefly about the role of advertisers in Iowa and being a native Iowan and having a relationship with the battleground state of Ohio. Um, what … what can you relay to a potential station in Iowa or Ohio that, uh, needs the quick dollar but is gonna be forced to air something that might not be factually accurate or that doesn’t meet your criteria for what is civil discourse?

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: That’s a great question, Alexander. You know, most of our time together we’ve been focusing on the behavior part, how do people behave, how do politicians behave. But there are very many structural issues built into this. We talked about redistricting, you’ve just named one.

The reality is in the United States that political advertising is not held to the same standard of facts that commercial advertising is. We won’t let Proctor and Gamble lie about its soap, but we let politicians lie about their opponents or lie about their positions.

And this has previously in American history come up to the Federal Communications Commission and nothing is ever … no action has ever been taken because it’s all said that political speech has to have a broader standard of being—meeting the First Amendment in terms of free speech.

We know, uh, I live in Washington DC today, so I see the political advertisements for Virginia, I see them from Maryland, and in those last weeks before the election, it’s a universal experience across the country, it’s just disgust, it’s, number one, there are too many.

They’re widely and most often negative and you hear people talking about it all the time. So I think an interesting potential would be, if people in a community would really organize themselves. You mentioned this that you happened to be in Des Moines and saw this in a—this discussion on a college campus about the local Des Moines stations.

So wouldn’t it be interesting is if the public in Des Moines, who, and I … the swing states are the worst by far … came together and went to the news executive, to the management. Cause it’s not the journalists that have the opportunity to change this, this is part of the business model. And just lay it out, this is not who we are. This is not how Iowans want to see our politics played.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: A different kind of Citizens United, perhaps? Right?

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: A very different kind.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Carolyn, I know you have a flight to catch, thanks so much for being here today.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: It’s been my pleasure, Alexander, thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: Of course. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

Please visit The Open Mind Website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter & Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.