09:57 AM

​Congress comes to campus to discuss roots of political divide in America

Former Congressmen Barry Goldwater Jr. and Jason Altmire served on opposite sides of the political aisle when they worked in the House of Representatives. Tuesday, they shared the same table as they discussed politics and polarization before a room full of students and faculty at The Ohio State University.

“This agitation that is going on, what you are hearing and what you are feeling, is natural and normal in a democratic process,” said Goldwater, a former Republican representative from California.

Goldwater and Altmire are part of Congress to Campus, a program created by the United States Association of Former Members of Congress, to increase civic literacy and participation. The university’s Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability hosted the program, and journalists from The Lantern moderated the panel.

Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Neblo, who serves as the director of the institute, said the program aligns with the core mission of Ohio State.

“The biggest reason taps into our motto, Education for Citizenship. I take that really seriously,” he said. “So getting students exposed to people who have served in public life can be attractive to motivating them to consider careers in public life.”

Altmire and Goldwater answered questions from Lantern editor-in-chief Kevin Stankiewicz and campus editor Summer Cartwright.

Stankiewicz asked the congressmen about increasing geographic sorting and its impact on politics. He pointed out that large urban areas are voting for Democrats in increasing numbers while Republican votes are more concentrated in rural areas.

Michael Neblo starts the conversation

Goldwater, who served in Congress from the late 60s to the early 80s, said California was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans when he was in office. He said that has changed over the years and he was at a loss to explain why his former home state had become much more liberal.

“People move. You’re not going to stop people from moving,” Goldwater said.

Altmire said a consequence of this concentration of votes is a lack of cooperation. He heard it from his constituents when he represented Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2013.

“When you have a town hall meeting in an area like that, all you hear is, ‘Right on, don’t you compromise,’’’ he said.

“Since this rise of social media, since Twitter became a thing, since Fox News and MSNBC became so popular, do these affect the way lawmakers go about their business?” Cartwright asked.

“You can’t help but be influenced by the news,” Goldwater said. “Liberals listen to MSNBC and conservatives listen to Fox and we get reconfirmed in our thinking.”

Altmire said research has found a great divide in where Republicans and Democrats get their news, with little overlap in sources.

“Social media has made it exponentially worse. It’s just become so toxic,” Altmire said.

Both Goldwater and Altmire recommended that voters broaden their news sources to be better informed and to understand both sides of controversial issues.

With their names off the ballot, the two were free to criticize party leadership and the media institutions that often support extreme viewpoints. Former lawmakers can speak openly about their experiences and true feelings, Neblo said.

“They were being candid and saying things you might not hear from some who were worried about a bad sound bite getting back to them,” he said.

Neblo said he sees the experience of these former congressmen and involving students in moderating the panel as critical parts of the teaching and learning role of the university.

“The primary purpose of the series is about the students. Those two are going to be professional journalists, not student journalists, next year,” Neblo said. “So giving them an opportunity to get in there and set the stage for the conversation strikes me as showing off what fantastic student we have here at Ohio State and getting them experience in what they will be doing in their careers.”