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All the shenanigans, dysfunction and antipathy in U.S. politics today have been generations in the making, a top national journalist said Tuesday.
Cokie Roberts, senior news analyst for NPR and a political commentator at ABC News, said the divisive rhetoric, shrill antics and extreme partisanship among public officials Republican and Democrat reflect widening distortions in American civic life.
Permanent campaigning, an erosion of social ties among members of Congress and polarization driven by ratings-seeking media coverage have all been factors in this shift, Roberts said in a speech at Zions Bank headquarters in Salt Lake City.
But deeper forces are also at work, the award-winning reporter and analyst said.
With the advent of computers, redistricting the often politically driven redrawing of election boundaries has grouped like-minded voters together over the years, making districts increasingly partisan and exaggerating the influence of primary balloting, Roberts said.
"We are at a place where the primary is the most important part of our politics and it's infecting everything, on both sides of the aisle," said Roberts, also an author and syndicated columnist with her husband, Steve.
"Your biggest problem in running for office is not the other party," she said. "It's someone within your own party challenging you for not being pure enough and partisan enough.
"Just ask Bob Bennett," she said, referring to Utah's former three-term Republican senator, who lost to Mike Lee in the 2010 state Republican Convention over perceptions he was too moderate.
Roberts, 71, grew up in Washington, D.C., the daughter of two successive U.S. Representatives elected from New Orleans, Hale and Lindy Boggs. She lamented what she sees as the steady loss of a kind of moderating family life behind the scenes in the nation's capital.
"Families used to come to Washington and get to know each other," Roberts recalled. "That was very important."
She recounted the early days of her childhood friendship with Elizabeth "Libby" Miller, daughter of conservative Republican Congressman Bill Miller from New York, forged at the same time her own father served in Congress as a liberal Democrat from Louisiana.
"It's very hard to demonize someone whose child was in your house playing Clue," Roberts said. That time, she said, "is completely and totally gone."
Today, all of Washington is demonized, she said.
Yet as Thursday's potentially raucous GOP candidate debate approached, Roberts said that our democratic system has seen more contentious times. Prominent national leaders once challenged each other to duels over political views, she noted, and they fought each other on Civil War battlefields.
Modern officials, at least, "are not shooting at each other," she joked. "This is an improvement."