David Gergen is neither surprised nor offended by the sometimes outrageous rhetoric that dominates political discourse.
“We’ve always had a raucous society,” Gergen, a political analyst, author and adviser to both Democratic and Republicans presidents for 30 years, said May 3 at Cornell College in Mount Vernon. “Democracy has always been a contact sport and it always will be.”
Rather the CNN commentator and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, worries “whether at the end of the day are people willing to find solutions.”
“It’s not the cacophony so much so much as that we’ve demonized each other to such a degree that to sit down and strike a bargain, which was once seem as an action of statesmanship, is now seen as an apostasy,” said Gergen, who was on campus to deliver the Delta Phi Rho Lecture “The Press, The President and Public Policy.”
The Tea Party movement may be part of that deterioration of public discourse, but not the cause, he said. The Tea Party is a symptom of “not just the angst, but the frustration people feel in a society that isn’t doing as well as it once did.”
Gergen related how he heard “fiery rhetoric” from the podium at a Tea Party rally in Boston, but talking to people in the crowd was “like going to the state fair.’
“They were friendly, in a good mood,” he said. “They were not angry or bitter, but they are frustrated.”
Tea Party members share many similarities with Ross Perot supporters, Gergen said. Both groups are mostly white, have more education and higher incomes than Americans on average and are fiscally conservative.
In most places, the movement isn’t strong enough to elect candidates, but it’s clear to Gergen the Tea Party played a vital role in Sen. Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts and is helping Florida Rep. Marco Rubio in his U.S. Senate race.
“If they are on your side and you are a good candidate, that’s very potent,” he said.
It’s too early to know what impact the movement will have on elections this fall and in 2012, but Gergen said a smart political party will accommodate the Tea Party “without giving into the crazies — and there are crazies in every party.”