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Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science

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Tanner, Emerson Talk Bipartisanship

Oct 13, 2009

Congressman John Tanner (D-TN) and Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) spoke to Union students and community members of "Bipartisanship in Washington" for the Jones Lecture Series. The two members of congress blamed the rise of partisanship in congress on gerrymandering, the 24 hours news cycle, and a change in congressional work weeks. 

First, Congressman Tanner focused on the rise of gerrymandered districts that are drawn to elect a Republican or Democrat. With the rise of computer technology, we can identify where the Democratic and Republican voters are and we pack the districts with partisans to insure the election. This leads to the parties to nominate candidates who are more ideological and these candidates can win because the disticts are not competitive. These changes contribute to the ideological gulf between candidates which, in turn, make it difficult to work together. 

Second, Congresswoman Emerson blamed much of the partisanship on the changes in the media. She said that the 24 hour news programs leads the news to focus more on entertainment to gain viewers. This leads them to put the members who are more extreme on tv because they will make news by saying outrageous things. Moreover, talk radio and the internet has removed the filters that the mainstream media use to use to keep out the personal, mean-spirited attacks. Because of these changes, media is less objective and more partisan and people read and watch the news that reinforces what they already believe. Without hearing the other side, they do not have enough information to make objective conclusions.

Third, Emerson also blamed the change in work weeks. In the past, members of congress stayed in Washington and socialized with members of the other party. They did this because it was more difficult to get home each week. When you know someone, it is much harder to attack them. With the increased availability and affordability of transportation, members of congress visit the constituency each week. This reduces the number of relationships they have with the other party making it easier to demonize them.

The solution to the problem then is gerrymander reform, a more active, engaged citizenry, and more personal relations with members of the other party. Congressman Tanner proposed a national law that would lead independents (either former judges or neutral legislative staff) to draw districts to insure competition. This change would lead to more moderate members because extremist could not get elected and would lead to more bipartisan cooperation. Emerson also would like a more active, engaged citizenry that would seek out additional sources of information so they could see throw the ideological fog and make more objective decisions. She would also like to see members of congress interact more with each other because personal ties would reduce the chance that you would attack other members.