George Mitchell on Donald Trump and the divide in American politics

Former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell was the Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995 and, most recently, the U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace from 2009 to 2011. He sat down with Yahoo Finance Editor in Chief Andy Serwer to talk about the rise of Donald Trump and the state of American politics.

When asked about the current polarization in Washington and beyond, Mitchell told Serwer the division is really nothing new, but the media and the money is. He said, “It’s worse now than it’s been for a long time, but there never was a time in American history when politics was all sweetness and light.” He continued, “The difference, of course, is now we have television, the ubiquitous and powerful element of electronic communications, we have huge infusions of money into the system, so it is tougher. I think what’s happened politically in recent years, the combination of very partisan redistricting and increased money in politics has led to a polarization in terms of policy.”

Mitchell also said the two-party system is to blame: “One interesting fact, which is in the process of occurring, there have throughout American history been third and fourth parties. This is a very big, diverse country, unusual among democracies in that we have only two major parties. That means the parties themselves are necessarily coalitions of different groups, and as third-party movements develop, in the past the major parties have been successful in absorbing them, co-opting them, bringing them into the major party.”

He said the two-party system forces both parties to be more extreme. On the right, that has given rise to the tea party’s influence. He said, “The tea party agenda has become the agenda of the Republican Party. That’s unusual that the smaller party effectively co-opts the policy of the larger policy, it’s been the reverse in the past. That’s moved the Republicans generally to the right, the so-called moderate Republicans of the past. Its very hard to think that just a few decades ago, Republicans were the party of the environment, they were the party of protectionism. … More than a few decades [ago], they were the party of freeing the slaves, abolishing slavery and equal rights for all, and gradually they’ve shifted much more dramatically recently.”

In his own party, the two-party system has given rise to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ influence on the race for the Democratic nomination. He said, “The Democratic Party has also now moved to the left in the face of what we call income inequality and separation of our society into a very smaller league and the decline of the middle class and I think that gives impetus to Senator Sanders’ campaign, and creates a ready and enthusiastic audience. So you’re seeing both parties moving in different directions on policy, fueled by the partisan redistricting, the excessive amounts of money, and so that makes this an unusual, turbulent election year in the presidency.

Mitchell thought the fix could lie in the redistricting process: “Technology has made redistricting possible to do not just on municipal or county lines, or ward lines, but you take a street or a house and move it around, and what it’s done is shifted the pivotal moment in American politics that’s the House of Representatives from the general election to the nominating process. Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives only about 50 are competitive as between the parties. The others are solidly Republican or solidly Democratic, and that means that the more extreme elements of both parties, those who are most rigid, most ideological, most unwilling to compromise dominate the nominating process, although not the election, so the House members generally don’t care much about the general election.” He continued, “It’s the nominating process, and in the Republican Party, not wanting to be outflanked on the right means that you get a lot of people that have very conservative positions, which are responsive to their immediate constituencies but inconsistent with the views of a majority of Americans nationwide. That’s why the Republicans have had so much trouble winning presidential elections, and I think the same is likely to hold true this year.”  

Finally, turning to the rise of Donald Trump, a man who has touted himself as a dealmaker, Mitchell told Serwer, “I think being flexible, being willing to negotiate with other parties, is an essential element of a successful presidency, I don’t think the term “dealmaker” is the right phrase to describe it, that’s a business term that connotes, I think, elements that wouldn’t be helpful in the presidency.”

He said the key is compromise, which has become a dirty word in Washington, particularly, Mitchell said, on the right. He told Serwer, “Unfortunately now in politics in the case of many, particularly on the right, compromise is seen as a weakness, that a willingness to talk to the other side is seen as a lack of conviction. But in a country as big and diverse as this, nobody can have their way 100 percent of the time. You have to be willing to compromise, and in Trump’s term, make deals.”