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IOWA CITY - Although a Wednesday night panel discussion at the Englert Theatre was titled 'The Future of U.S. Politics,” the debate in many ways signaled the future is now - in that it is, largely, uncertain.
A panel of three politically entrenched analysts representing a range of perspectives weighed in before a crowd of about 500 on a smattering of issues - from fake news to Donald Trump's authenticity to the electoral college and the already-crowded field of Democratic challengers.
'This is a time where things are not up for grabs just for Republicans - it's a time of major political and cultural realignment,” said Chris Buskirk, who represented the right-leaning view on the panel as publisher and editor of the conservative website American Greatness.
Unrest in the middle class is rampant, according to Buskirk, not just in America but internationally. And the Republican Party, he said, has been struggling with its identify amid this upheaval longer than Democrats 'because of Donald Trump.”
But Democrats today are faced with the question Trump forced in his party.
'OK, what are we now?” Buskirk said.
The answer to that, and questions on many other issues, remain unknown, according to the panelists. But they also highlighted some sure things and probabilities - including the deepening political divisions, illustrated at Wednesday's event by the back-and-forth between the left- and right-leaning speakers, not to mention a stream of questions from an audience that interjected readily on demand and just as seamlessly without being asked.
The moderator, Iowa Public Radio host Ben Keiffer, asked the audience to weigh in on their most important issues, their political engagement, even their age. He also asked for applause related to the question of siloed thinking, however, and audience members responded with loud clapping to cue that they have friends who think differently than them.
Buskirk said he does too, and finds it 'easy actually” to maintain those relationships.
'I want to engage people with those views - I don't want to cut them off,” he said. 'And I fundamentally believe in persuasion. That is part of the role that I play.”
But, in discussing persuasion, the panelists disagreed on several topics and issues - including the term 'fake news.” While Buskirk said he thinks the term strictly refers to false narratives and made-up reports, the other panelists said it often includes stories that politicians - namely Trump - don't like.
'Certainly there are times when the president is referring to elements that are false,” said panelist Tamara Keith, who's been covering the White House for National Public Radio since January 2014 and is a co-host of its politics podcast.
'Sometimes it is actually fake,” she said. 'Other times it's that he doesn't like it.”
Keith said working the political beat for the past several years has been interesting - as 'facts have become politicized, in a way.”
'It really does feel like just reporting the things that are out there - in government statistics … has become, at times, politicized,” she said. 'It does lead you to wonder what is up and what is down and what is real.”
Keith and Melissa Ryan, representing the left perspective on the panel with her recent chronicling of the rise of the alt-right online through her website Ctrl Alt-Right Delete, highlighted some things that seem relatively sure about the near-term political future. For example, Republicans will run in 2020 against socialism and things like the Green New Deal, championed by freshman Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But when Keiffer asked Buskirk and Ryan to share their visions - and perhaps hopes - for America's political future, they seemed to find common ground.
'My vision is that the middle class is 50 percent bigger than it is now and that people can stay securely in the middle class on a single income,” Buskirk said. 'So they can build families however they like, and be full participants in this democracy of ours.”
Ryan said she'd like to see 'major changes in our power structure.”
'I want our leadership to better reflect the American population,” she said. 'American democracy will function better if we have more ideas and more inclusion at the table.”