When Bob Dole speaks, people listen.
That was definitely the case last week, when the former senator from Kansas' comments on Fox News sparked a national discussion on bipartisanship and civility in politics.
"It seems to be almost unreal that we can't get together on a budget or legislation," Dole said of today's Congress. "We weren't perfect by a long shot, but at least we got our work done."
But while the 89-year-old Dole's words may carry weight, is there any promise for fixing the partisan strife infecting Washington and many statehouses across America?
"I'm hopeful," said Bill Lacy, director of the Dole Institute of Politics at Kansas University, citing the group of four Democrats and four Republicans attempting to draft a solution to the nation's immigration problem. "The 'Gang of Eight' is a small illustration of the willingness to reach out and work together, but I wish we would see more of it."
Others are less hopeful that the polarization in politics can change any time soon. Analysis of the roll-call voting of every Congress since 1879 shows the current group of lawmakers to be the most polarized since Reconstruction, according to Michael Lynch, an assistant professor of political science at KU.
"Historically there's been big blocks of moderates — that was true when Dole was in the Senate and the majority leader," Lynch said. "But we just don't have moderates right now, and the last few elections you've seen many moderates losing their seats."
Politicians are increasingly urged to toe the party line, and many incumbents are challenged by more ideologically pure candidates, causing them to either lose their seats or have to move farther to the right or left flank to keep them, he explained. The problem is particularly prevalent in the Republican Party, with its ultra-conservative tea party element, he added.
Some experts say the partisan divide is solely a political problem — and not representative of any greater polarization among the citizenry.
"The general public's opinions are not generally so sharply divided as the politician's views," said Paul Johnson, a professor of political science at KU. "It is one of the enduring puzzles in political research that the division among the elected officials is sharper than in the electorate."
But part of the blame can also laid at the feet of voters, who often pine for smaller government as long as it doesn't come at the expense of the government program they support — a point made by Dole in his recent remarks.
"It's definitely a national discussion we need to have: Do we want government to solve problems or do we want them to do exactly what we want as individuals?" said Lynch. "If you really want to compromise, you have to think about what as an individual you would give up."
So what will it take to make politicians less polarized? Unfortunately, many political experts feel it would require a national calamity for Republicans and Democrats to unite in the current environment.
But one reason Dole helped found his namesake institute at KU in the early 2000s was to teach future public officials the importance of working together to solve big problems. Lacy said the leadership at the institute exemplifies that model: While Lacy describes himself as a "conservative Republican with libertarian leanings," the institute's associate director, Barbara Ballard, is a Democratic state representative with a progressive bent.
"Senator Dole isn't saying compromise your philosophies. He isn't saying compromise your principles," Lacy said. "He's simply saying that … if you talk to a person and listen to what they say, you can figure out a win-win. Businesses do that every day. People in personal relationships do that every single day. But our Congress doesn't seem to be able to do that."