TIER Talks speakers explore deterioration of American political culture

By Steve Seepersaud

David Schultz '80, MA '86, says he can predict how you can vote based on what car you drive, where you shop, what kind of clothes you wear and where you go out to eat.

The statement, on its face, may seem outlandish and it received its fair share of reactions among the audience members at the TIER Talks speaker event held at Homecoming. The political science professor at Hamline University, goes beyond party affiliation, looking at marketing data to show how polarized the American electorate has become.

"If I'm Ted Cruz trying to find my supporters, where do I go and hang out? Chick-fil-A," Schultz said. "If I'm Bernie Sanders...I go to Chipotle."

Schultz was one of three alumni who addressed the topic, "Our political system on life support," at the Sept. 24 speaker event sponsored by M&T Bank and the Binghamton University Alumni Association. The crowd of nearly 200 people at Watters Theater heard about the societal shifts that essentially erased moderates from the political landscape, how present-day media fuel the polarization and what hope may possibly exist for change.

Because Congressional districts have been redrawn in order to favor one party over another — a practice known as gerrymandering — Schultz said elections have become remarkably predictable.

"If I were to imagine that everybody in Congress was running for re-election this year, about 98 percent would get re-elected," Schultz said. "They come from safely Republican or safely Democratic districts...There is less incentive to compromise. Your constituents send you off saying, 'do what I told you as a Republican, do what I told you as a Democrat.' If you compromise, you're probably going to get primaried from the right if you're a Republican or primaried from the left if you're a Democrat."

Matthew Kerbel '80, professor and chair of political science at Villanova University, said objective reporting was the norm 40 years ago when fewer media outlets existed. The explosion of media outlets such as cable news stations, blogs and social media was followed by an onslaught of partisan reporting, and an increasing difficulty for the discerning consumer to filter fact from fiction.

"We pick and choose media that conform to our world view — the challenge is to discern what to accept and discard, and be active participants in our civic life," Kerbel said.

Jean Harris ’82, MA ’86, PhD ’88, professor of political science at the University of Scranton and director of Ready to Run Northeast Pennsylvania, keyed in on the word "civic," largely because of its absence from primary and secondary education. Not only is the electorate largely unengaged, she said, it's very uninformed. Voters are not able to effectively participate in the political system because don't know how government works, who's running for office or their policy positions.

"Sixty percent of college graduates don't know how the Constitution is amended...and nearly half could not identify the term of office for folks elected to the U.S. House or the Senate," Harris said.

Michelle DiGiacomo '15 and Andrew Pfeiffer '15 presented opening remarks on behalf of M&T Bank, which is a multi-year presenting sponsor of TIER Talks.

"M&T is a community bank and events like these are great ways to come together and really leverage the talent and the brainpower that comes out of this University," DiGiacomo said.

James Pitarresi, vice provost of student and faculty development at Binghamton University, and executive director of the University's Center for Learning and Teaching, was the moderator for the session.

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Last Updated: 10/12/16