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‘Talking Politics in an Angry America’: Stubblefield Institute hosts second event in The American Conservation Series

By Staff | Feb 14, 2020

From left, "Talking Politics in an Angry America" panel members Frank Sesno, Scott Widmeyer, Robert Fresh and Kelly Johnston talk about current issues in American politics, in Storer Ballroom on Feb. 3. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Community members filled Storer Ballroom on Feb. 3, as they prepared to listen and learn from a panel selected by the Bonnie and Bill Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications at Shepherd University for the second event in The American Conversation Series.

Since C-SPAN was covering President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial at the time, Stubblefield Institute Director David Welch announced local television station WRNR was recording the event in its place.

The panel members discussed “Talking Politics in an Angry America,” and although each of the four panel members represented a variety of political opinions, they reflected a spirit of civility throughout their discussion. The two extreme ends of the political spectrum were bookended by Scott Widmeyer, a Democrat and former media director for President Jimmy Carter, and Kelly Johnston, a moderate Republican and the 28th secretary of the U.S. Senate. The two other panelists were former Emmy winning CNN correspondent Frank Sesno and moderator Robert Fresh, who is the president and founder of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.

“I think we are an angrier society today, but we’re angry in a more broad way,” Widmeyer said, as he began the discussion. “I think people are looking for community, and I think that’s something we’re missing in society today. Back in the ’70s, you’d see the corner grocery store and community centers, where people would meet and talk with each other. You don’t see those anymore today.”

Sesno said his experience in small town journalism helped him realize how local journalism and community involvement are essential aspects of a civil society.

Bonnie and Bill Stubblefield Institute Director David Welch welcomes a full house of attendees to Storer Ballroom on Feb. 3. Tabitha Johnston

“Civility has been drained from society,” Sesno said, mentioning social media and online anonymity have encouraged the decrease in civil behavior. “Because of this technology, which is one of these tectonic plates, we are seeing this change in how people are interacting with one another.”

Johnston recognized Sesno’s point on the value of quality journalism, and said changes in how mainstream journalism is being run, have also contributed to civility’s downfall.

“We have to look at how we get our news. In the 1970s, reporters communicated differently than they do now. In some cases, we’ve learned to be less skeptical, when what we should be doing is growing more skeptical,” Johnston said. “We’ve changed the campaigning financial laws, which has changed the way political campaigns are financed. We elect people differently, as well. Whether you agree with me or not, we do have more of a reliance on government than in the past.”

Widmeyer agreed with Johnston’s point about the changes in campaign financing.

“Money really is a big problem behind this,” Widmeyer said, mentioning that the U.S. is unique, in that its politicians begin campaigning more than a year in advance of the elections. “In other democratic countries around the world, they have campaigning for two or three months before the election.”

Widmeyer mentioned that only 56 percent of Americans are registered to vote for a specific political party, which should encourage politicians to work together. However, according to Sesno, campaign funders discourage compromise from politicians. Many politicians do what is necessary to retain their funding, so they will be able to win future elections — even though it may not be in their constituents’ best interests.

“Being a legislator is not a lot of fun, and you are not rewarded for compromise,” Sesno said. “Think about Obamacare — purely partisan vote. Impeachment — purely partisan vote. That causes major changes that will have to happen.”

To learn more about the Bonnie and Bill Stubblefield Institute, visit stubblefieldinstitute.org.