Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell acknowledges the current partisan nature of American politics, but he’s still optimistic for the future.
“I think there remains among most Americans of all political persuasions a fundamental commitment to the country itself as opposed to a political position or ideology,” Mitchell told a crowd Wednesday at the Dole Institute of Politics as he gave the 2012 Dole Lecture.
Mitchell, with his New England accent, weaved in stories about his career and said he was fortunate to see how the United States was the “land of opportunity.” As a teenage boy, he was generously given the chance to attend Bowdoin College in Maine even though his father had recently lost his job.
And as a federal judge after performing a naturalization ceremony, an Asian man reminded him: “Everybody has a chance in America.”
“That’s what has made this country great. The first true meritocracy in all of human history, the first human society in which we drew upon the talents of everybody in society,” said Mitchell, who served Maine as a Democrat in the Senate before retiring 1995.
Still, he said, the country faces political challenges. He said technology has allowed for gerrymandering in congressional districts almost down to the city block, which has decreased the number of competitive seats. It places more emphasis on primary elections giving “activists and ideologues” in both parties more influence.
“As a result, the candidates are driven more and more to the extremes,” he said.
He also blasted the recent Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision that has resulted in creation of super PACs and allowed unlimited campaign contributions — including from corporations. He said it has led to more negative political advertising.
“I think it’s getting worse and worse and worse. I don’t think it can be changed, except by the American people,” Mitchell said. “There’s going to be a time in the story of this country when a scandal will occur, and the people of this country will rise up.”
Mitchell said even though Bob Dole was his Republican counterpart as a leader in the Senate, the two had a cordial and effective relationship.
“He could figure out in his own way where you might be able to find common ground there,” he said, “where the difficulties were, where the pitfalls were, and avoid them.”
Mitchell talked about his difficult roles as an envoy in the Northern Ireland peace process and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding he hoped a successful resolution could come soon for Israel, the Palestinians and other Arab states in the region.
“They would be far better off if there were an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and Israeli and Arab full recognition of each other to enable them to organize in a united way against a threat that Iran poses to the region,” he said.
Mitchell said America in the future should use military force in foreign countries only for protection and after “very careful” consideration. He also said the U.S. should be supportive in encouraging other countries to transition to democracy without operating “from the premise that we can ultimately direct the outcome in other counties.”
“No one should ever forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great military or economic power,” he said. “The United States became a great nation when the Declaration of Independence was issued and the Constitution was adopted because they set forth a series of principles, which have guided us.”