Jim Leach served 30 years in Congress. These days, he has harsh words for the state of American democracy, but delivers them in the same calm, measured tone that was his trademark.
“It’s clear an awful lot of citizens in American have lost confidence in institutions of government. They have become disrespectful of their leaders. They’ve become disrespectful of other belief systems and of each other,” Leach said Friday at the University of Northern Iowa.
These days, Leach serves as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He travels the country in that role and often gives speeches about the need for civility in politics.
He bemoans the current political climate, in which political parties seek candidates who hold pure their ideology and punish those who compromise, often by supporting a more pure candidate running as a primary challenger.
Leach was always known as a moderate Republican, a stance that may have hastened his ouster from the U.S. House of Representatives. Dave Loebsack took advantage of a strong year for Democrats to win election in 2006. But the other side of the coin was that Leach was criticized by those in his own party for support of stem cell research and his insistence that the national party drop a mailer planned to hit Loebsack on the issue of gay marriage.
Leach feels the long-held tradition of respecting the other sides argument has gone by the wayside, and often opposing sides are just talking past each other, rather than looking for common ground.
He sees the influence of corporate money in politics and the Citizens United decision that ruled corporations have free speech and the same rights as individuals to contribute to campaigns. He thinks the large amounts of money entering the system — more than $2 billion is expected to be spent on advertising for the presidential race this cycle — may be changing the very nature of the American political system.
“More money is simply not more democracy,” Leach said.
Leach points to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements as having a common theme: The individual citizen’s voice is no longer being heard.
“Uncivil speech has to be protected by the court but filtered by the public. At the other end, monied speech must never be allowed to weaken the voices of the people,” Leach said.