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Landon Lecture Series on Public Issues

The Landon Lecture Series
Kansas State University
Office of the President
Attn: Grant Hill

110 Anderson Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506


John Avlon and Margaret Hoover, Political pundits

Landon Lecture
April 15, 2016

Hyper-partisanship a threat to nation

MARGARET HOOVER: Good evening, thank you very much for having us tonight.

JOHN AVLON: Thank you for spending part of Friday. We appreciate it.

HOOVER: It's a Friday night and you're here with us. We're so...

AVLON: You could have been anywhere in Manhattan.

HOOVER: I'm Margaret Hoover and this is John Avlon and we want to thank you first, President Schulz, for the generous introduction, and Jackie Hartman for receiving us here today, along with you, Dr. Flinchbaugh. Thank you very much for escorting us around campus, showing us around and giving us a good, warm Manhattan welcome.

AVLON: It's a very different kind of Manhattan welcome than we get at home, so I do appreciate that.

What we want to talk a little bit about tonight is certainly the 2016 election, but I think talk about our politics with a sense of perspective because it's the thing that we have least of in our political debates these days. Margaret and I, if we stand out from the pack, it's probably in part because we have very different — we come from very different places when we talk about politics. But with some work and a lot of love, we've figured out how to disagree agreeably and often find that we're actually not ending up in a different place, we're just coming at it from different directions.

HOOVER: The direction I come from is that, as was stated, I'm a Republican. I'm a Republican that is pretty concerned about the future of the Republican Party and our viability to compete in the future, and especially to appeal to a rising generation of Americans who are known as the millennial generation and represent the bulk of the student body here at K-State.

AVLON: One would assume and hope.

HOOVER: No, they do.

AVLON: In fact statistically...

HOOVER: The youngest millennials are 16 and the oldest are 35.

AVLON: Well, there you go. I have nothing to add to my wife's statistics, I just know when it's best just to concede and move on. What I'm going to be talking about is sort of an independent's perspective on politics and the hyper-partisanship we are reaping right now with a very surreal election campaign. Hopefully, I'll offer a little bit of hope about how Rome isn't necessarily burning just yet, but it's bad, folks — don't kid yourself.

HOOVER: Back in 2011 I published a book, as President Shultz mentioned, called "American Individualism —How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party." Now I wrote this book because I was concerned that my cohort — my peers — and people that were just a little bit younger than me didn't really have much positive sense or impression of the Republican Party. The title I chose for the book was because I was inspired by a philosophy that I first read about in university, but it had been kicked around the house as I was growing up. It was a book that Herbert Hoover wrote in 1921 called "American Individualism." Turns out you can borrow titles and it's not plagiarism.

But truly, it was an apt title for the book that I had, and I want to tell you because this is a time, where as John says, it's an unprecedented political time. We do have this unprecedented political moment where Donald Trump aspires to become the second civilian elected to the presidency without ever having served elective office. The first was Herbert Hoover.

What many people don't know about Hoover, because he is so connected to the pejorative and to the negative economic calamity of the 1930s, is that Hoover was an orphan from a neighboring state, from frankly land that looks a lot like this. He was born in West Branch, Iowa. He was orphaned at the age of 9, sent west to live with relatives and wound up in the first class at Stanford. He, aside from being the president, was known as the great humanitarian. He was known as the master of emergencies. A great statesman in his post-presidency, really creating a model for the modern post-presidency.

Even though he had never served in elected office before, he had really catapulted to the heights of international leadership through humanitarian food relief during World War I. So when I think about sort of what Herbert Hoover did leading up to the point where he got to the presidency and what Donald Trump did, I think that there's really a contrast that's worth noting.

One hundred years ago today, Herbert Hoover was the chair of a thing called the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, which most people haven't heard of. It was essentially an independent republic of relief, the first international organization dedicated to the feeding of an entire nation during World War I. When the Germans invaded Belgium in August of 1914, they occupied the population but refused to feed the civilian population. Because of the English blockade, 80 percent of the food in Belgium was imported because it was an industrial nation. The population couldn't feed itself. The English didn't want to import food because they were afraid that the food would go to the occupied — or to the occupying army rather than to the civilian population. And so Hoover was tasked and asked as a volunteer to organize food relief for an entire nation, and his tasks included raising money from around the world through charitable appeals and government subsidies. He had to purchase wheat and corn and food from North America, South America, Australia, and organize the delivery of 80,000 tons of food to Belgium every month throughout the course of the war.

And he was able to do this because he was, at that point in his life, an international mining engineer who was living in London, which was the capital of mining finance and had mining enterprises on five continents. He actually had the logistical expertise to be able to orchestrate this totally unprecedented relief effort. He was able to arrange for the safe navigation of food through European waters, avoiding German U-boats, arranging for this complex logistical unloading of 80,000 tons of food onto barges, sending it through canals, delivering it to mills, dairies and bakeries where food was prepared and then fairly distributed to a frankly uneasy population of 2,600 Belgian towns, all while keeping the food away from the Germans.

Throughout the course of this endeavor he was the only diplomat allowed to travel on both sides of the lines throughout the course of World War I. He knew all of the players at the table at Versailles and so President Wilson asked him to help navigate the conferences at Versailles, which led to the treaty, and Hoover ultimately walked out on the conferences at Versailles thinking that the reparations on the Germans would lead to another war. He was right.

He then went on to serve in President Harding's cabinet and in President Coolidge's cabinet as the secretary of commerce. So this 15 years of international, domestic and public service is a very different profile, I think, than the profile you see of one of the other office-seekers who has not held public office previously.

 But at the start of the 20th century, around this time Hoover came back to the United States, he wrote this book called "American Individualism." Now he wrote it because at the rise of the 20th century he had actually been part of a group of Americans — the last 137 foreigners that had been in China before being kicked out by the Boxers in the Boxer Rebellion. He had then also seen the Bolshevik Revolution, lost mining properties in Russia, seen the rise of fascism in Germany, and had seen what he called "a sickness of 'isms' sweeping the world in this tide of revolution." And he thought — well, first he was afraid. He was worried that these "isms" would creep across the Atlantic to the United States: Fascism, Bolshevism and Communism.

So he wanted to characterize what it was about the American experience that had made his life possible — an orphan from West Branch, Iowa, who wound up in the position of being able to keep one-third of Europe's population alive during World War I. And so he called our "ism" American Individualism. And the idea was essentially that we are — it was his expression of the concept of American exceptionalism — it was the idea that America is built on a system of individuals. What makes it uniquely American is that we are deeply grounded in a sense of voluntary service to others. So it's individualism tempered by a duty to serve your community. Frankly, he had a Quaker upbringing in West Branch, Iowa, and I think this is what informed his sort of international experience helping to feed the Belgians during World War I.

This truly is an ethos that is really channeled, I think, in the millennial generation — a generation that is deeply individualistic but also deeply connected to their communities, whether it's through cyber connection or through voluntary cooperation in their communities. They are a global generation, a technologically literate generation, and a deeply service-oriented generation. I found that by frankly channeling Herbert Hoover, we could find this template for really drawing on a Republican tradition and then using that to reach out to a millennial generation.

So that's what I wrote the book about, and then the idea was by explaining the millennial generation to Republicans — who the millennials are and what they're about — might actually help update the Republican Party to find a conservatism that could compete in the political sphere for the 21st century.

AVLON: So Margaret was a little bit ahead of the curve on that one.

HOOVER: We're not quite there, but we're going to get there. We're going to get there.

AVLON: It's a noble fight that my bride has taken on and it's one that I think — as in many things in politics and our political life — when you understand the history, it gives you a little bit of courage to know that you're not alone. However distant that history might be, if you can find a tradition that you're trying to build on as you try to forge the future that you'd like to see for yourself, for your community, for your country, that creates a context that I find can sometimes warm us when it can seem awfully cold and the winds are blowing in the opposite direction. You know, not all of us have or can look at history books and see our families. But we all, I think, can take a great deal of comfort from our own history, whether it's familial or country. I, as an independent, as a journalist, as an author, don't come from a family that has had journalists and authors per se, but my grandparents' immigrant experience absolutely shaped me.

I find that, as with many people who are within living connection to their family's immigrant roots, I grew up with a deeper appreciation for America inculcated in me and a sense of obligation to the opportunities that they provided.

You know, I proposed to Margaret on the southern tip of Manhattan — the other one — and it was part because you can see Ellis Island, where my grandfather came through at the age of 3. You know, he was an extraordinary guy — lived in Youngstown, Ohio, where he met my grandmother, who's 100 and still lives there and is amazing. We just named our 5-month-old daughter after her. But, you know, he was a guy who made his way up, worked in the steel mills, went to medical school, served in World War II. I remember talking to him as a kid about politics. I was fascinated by political history, presidential history. His favorite president — he was a Midwestern Republican, but his favorite president was Harry Truman. He had a little bit of skin in the game because of serving in World War II in the Pacific theater.

But it was a reminder to me that so much of our political debates today, when you look at politics in the rearview mirror of history, the parties fall away from the presidents. You may have ideological divides, but by and large they are less relevant. And that's a reminder to us today if we care about politics — because politics is history in the present tense — then we need to do the opposite, which is remember to see our politics with a sense of perspective.

When I started out working in politics in government in my 20s, I didn't go to Washington, which is another way of saying that I didn't drink the partisan Kool-Aid. In Washington, you go into a Congressman's office and you know by what TV station they have on, by what newspaper they have on the desk, you know what team they're on — and they think of it as a team. It's not significantly more sophisticated than that, folks. There's a little bit of ideological catechism they inculcate, but it's really about what team are you on.

In city hall, and even in New York — in my case working for a Republican, Rudy Giuliani, in a city that's 5 to 1 Democrat, the emphasis is much more basic, it's how do you serve the people, how do you make measurable progress? Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York in the 1930s, said, "There's no Republican, Democrat or Socialist way to clean the streets." And he's right. It's can you get the job done, and that's an ethos that's obviously missing from our politics.

Another great reminder of that in my life was in the immediate wake of the attacks of 9/11, which were just a few blocks from where we all were in City Hall. To see that warm courage of national unity and to see all the partisan fighting — which at that point had been bubbling up but hadn't really crested — immediately evaporate in the face of a national challenge, reminding us that we can't wait for these cataclysmic events to unite as a nation. Many of the challenges that we face are slower-moving.

When I left City Hall and began my work as a journalist and a columnist, I wrote my first book called "Independent Nation" to sort of write a hidden history of centrist leaders in American politics and how some succeeded and some failed. Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower. They are sort of the presidents who don't actually fit into the way we think of politics, which has to be a choice between the far left and the far right. But that actually doesn't fit most American presidents or most American political history. I wrote that book in 2004 and the initial subtitle was "How the Vital Center is Changing American Politics," which proved to be a little optimistic. So I balanced that out with my next book "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."

I actually was trying to make the same point from a different perspective, which is that part of the problem with those of us in the center is that we have allowed the center, which I think is a place of common sense and common ground, to be defined by the extremes. We haven't stood up and spoken out enough and played offense against the extremes and the interplay that exists between the extremes. So I thought it was time to sort of, you know, be radical centrists and to take the fight to the extremes and to start to punch back. I still believe that. I think we need more examples of sort of muscular moderates who straighten your civic backbone and wade into the civic debates and are willing to call out folks on the far right and the far left without magically believing in moral equivalence.

But as you look at the dynamics of this presidential race — which are really a departure not only from our best traditions but from anything resembling what we've accepted as normal since the 1860s — it is worth remembering that this didn't happen overnight, that we have been playing with these forces for far too long, encouraging polarization and hyperpartisanship, ideological litmus tests, and RINO-hunting out the center of the Republican Party. And then there are the deep problems in the Democratic Party, which are starting to come to the forefront that we'll get into. Just to realize that this election, which has basically been conducted along the lines of extremism and insults, is a departure from our best traditions. This is not normal, folks, and we need to actually remember that when we go to the ballot box. This is not our greatest moment as a country. I believe it will all end up OK, but we are playing with real fire here. And so that's what we'd like to talk a little bit more about. Margaret?

HOOVER: As I approach this, I'd like to see a Republican Party that's a bit more modernized, frankly that can win national elections, that's competitive. I have Democrats come up to me all the time and just say, "Golly, it is terrible for us what's happening on your side.”

AVLON: No one says "golly" to you. No one ever comes up to you and says "golly."

HOOVER: I'm in Kansas.

AVLON: You're translating New York? That's very condescending.

HOOVER: They don't say "golly," but what they say isn't appropriate. But the point is they want a competitive two-party system.


HOOVER: And they don't have a competitive two-party system because they feel that the Republican Party is not going to put up competition. I frankly tend to agree with them. And part of the reason I agree with this is because of this work that I've done on millennials. The truth of the matter is that the Republican Party has only won one of the last six national elections.

AVLON: Are you counting 2000 in that?

HOOVER: No, I'm not. I'm counting 2004.

AVLON: Just checking.

HOOVER: Think about it, right? In terms of the popular vote we have won one of the last six. So five of the last six we've lost, and if you care about having a competitive and vibrant two-party system you have to have a strong Republican Party. I think by studying the millennials what you can see is sort of a microcosm of what's not working on the Republican side. I want to break down just a few characteristic about the millennial generation and then back into sort of what the Republican Party can do, I think, to be competitive. Then we'll get into the 2016 race.

First of all, the reason people talk about the millennial generation as being anything significant is because in terms of sheer numbers, this is the largest generation in American history. All right, they've outnumbered baby boomers. In 2014 they finally surpassed baby boomers in terms of sheer numbers. But in terms of the electorate this year, there'll actually be only 200,000 more baby boomers eligible to vote than millennials. 30.5 million millennials will be eligible to vote and 30.7 million baby boomers. So millennials will be 30 percent of the electorate. In 2020 they'll be 34 percent of the electorate and baby boomers will be 28 percent of the electorate.

This is a huge block of the American vote.

 They are the most diverse generation in American history, with 40 percent of them being not white, 20 percent having at least one immigrant parent. They adhere least to traditional family structures. More have been raised in a single-parent household. But families are important to them. You look at all of the polling — and by the way the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Gallup organization, and the Pugh Foundation have done extensive polling on millennials since 2010 — all of them say that they, as teenagers, fought less with their parents and when the economy bottomed out in 2007 and 2008, 1 in 8 of them had boomeranged home and were living with their parents in the context of the chronic underemployment that had hit that generation.

They place parenthood and marriage as a higher priority than financial success, but they are not rushing to the altar. Only 1 in 5 of them are married, which is half of the share of their parents' generation at the same point in their lifecycle. Interestingly, they mostly attribute this to economic reasons. They feel too financially insecure to start families. Part of this is student debt, part of this is the economic malaise that the country is only really recently recovering from.

They adhere least to traditional gender roles in terms of how families are structured, which a male bread-winner and a female caretaker being the sort of older model that really represents more the baby boomer generation. Only 25 percent identify formally with religion — organized religion — although a Reader's Digest poll found 67 percent say they pray every day. They absolutely are the generation that has the fewest hang-ups about sexual orientation. Seventy-five percent of this generation is in favor of LGBT — of freedom to marry — of same-sex marriage. Sixty-three percent of millennial evangelicals are in favor of same-sex marriage. And they fundamentally believe that their friends who are gay should have all the same freedoms that they do.

In their politics, they are essentially pragmatic. They're your people. The overwhelming majority, 52 percent, self-identify as independents. But when you ask them about their political philosophy, they say they're independents. Right? They're moderates. There is a larger percentage now that can self-identify as liberal, close to 30 percent; 20 percent that self-identify as conservative; and 50 percent that self-identify as moderate.

They have a positive view of government, and this is something I always tell groups of Republicans. Think about that. First of all, one of the problems conservatives have these days is that every problem has a quote from Ronald Reagan to solve it. The oldest millennials were 8 years old when Ronald Reagan left office. Ronald Reagan means nothing to the millennial generation. And so to continue to quote Ronald Reagan as a solution for the future of America is really such a throwback that it's totally useless. Ronald Reagan said — he always said the problem is government. Government has to get out of the way. Millennials like government. They think government is a force for good in the world. And if somehow government has screwed up, it's the guys who are running it. Get those guys out, get new people in — that's sort of how you fix the system.

The No. 1 thing though that drives their politics and we are seeing this so self-evidently — although it emerged in 2012 as it was certainly what swept Barack Obama into office and is hugely driving the forces of Bernie Sanders — is authenticity. The exit polls from CNN especially say integrity, level-headedness, authenticity are the most important elements for the millennials as they experience their politicians.

Political identification. You know, when some pollster calls you on the phone and says, "How do you identify? Are you a Republican, are you a Democrat, or are you an independent?" Your willingness to say Democrat, Republican, or independent generally solidifies over a lifetime — normally three presidential cycles, frankly. It pours soft: Somebody who's not political, you didn't grow up in a political household. Normally the trend solidifies after three presidential election cycles of voting in the same party. So it starts soft like cement and then, like cement, hardens over time. A new generation, as it comes of age, if it votes in three presidential election cycles for the same party will likely self-identify affirmatively with that party for the rest of their lives.

So you saw the first generation, the first part of the millennial generation, begin to vote in 2000 but not enough statistically to really be that significant. By 2004 they began to break Democrat. They went for John Kerry about 9 percentage points more than George W. Bush. Then in 2008, as we all know, 33 percent more of them voted for Barack Obama than for John McCain. In 2012 it was a little bit better and this was because of the economic malaise and I think the housing crisis, but still Democrats won them by 23 percent. Now, if you ask the millennial generation who should hold the White House, by 20 points they say Democrats. So Republicans have essentially lost this generation.

AVLON: Well, I've got to say that if you look at the Republican Party right now they're not doing their best to attract new voters. I mean, what we've got going on right now — aside from the spectacle lighting itself on fire — is a real civic problem, right? Remember, the Republican Party began this cycle, they've done well in the midterms, they had 17 candidates running and people were getting all hot and bothered, saying, "This is the most qualified Republican field you've ever seen." Look at all the governors. We could have any number of presidents and vice presidents in this field. And if you had told people at that time that it would basically be down to Trump and Cruz, I think they probably would have jumped off a bridge.

HOOVER: And now we are.

AVLON: And now we are. To extend the metaphor, Lindsey Graham — who was one of the 17, who is always good for a quote...

HOOVER: Senior senator from South Carolina.

AVLON: ...Senior senator from South Carolina said that the prospect of choosing between Trump and Cruz is like choosing between being shot or being poisoned. He, it should be known, is now actively campaigning for Cruz as a better alternative to Trump, which makes him basically a poison salesman. But these are the choices, right? John Kasich deserves better, right? I mean he is a two-term governor from a swing state, popularly elected and he can't get arrested, right? I mean he came in fourth in Kansas. He is hanging in there, and he should.

Traditionally in America we elect governors president. Why? Well they have executive experience. And all the crop of governors who had executive experience, who were from swing states — typically the profile of someone who would make a great candidate and a great president — got wiped out. And they got wiped out because of the virulent strain of RINO hunting that the Republican Party has been incubating for a long time. RINO stands — for those of you who don't spend too much time in political circles...

HOOVER: Republican In Name Only is a RINO.

AVLON: Republican In Name Only. Margaret has been called a RINO. But what happens is it's these purity tests where the party wants to chase out heretics and they start purging people if they disagree on any — on a handful of issues. And so you burn down the big tent and you shouldn't be surprised when all of a sudden you've basically narrowed the base of the party to such an extent that the primary votes are not representative of the nation at large, or even the party as it once was. So you are having an increasingly hard time electing candidates who can win a general election. I won't dwell on all the dozens and dozens of reasons why Donald Trump is a really bad idea for the Republican Party and the country. They're somewhat self-evident.

HOOVER: I'll get there.

AVLON: We at The Daily Beast, we're nonpartisan but we're not neutral. And what that means is that we will hit left or right. We don't have a team. I think partisan media is one of the real problems in American politics that's led us to this moment because it's brought one of the core ideas of civic debate under assault, which is that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. Well, partisan media makes people come to civic debates armed with their own facts. That's a real, real problem when it comes to actually bringing people together to reason together.

And so one of the roles that I think we can play in pushing back on that is to insist on a fact-based debate. That means a) you've got to be willing to hit both sides as appropriate, but b) you don't fall on the one hand or the other definition of how to mediate a political dispute — you call it out. And one of our missions at The Daily Beast is to confront bullies, bigots and hypocrites. Donald Trump at different times has been all three — some at the same time. So we're not on his Christmas card list and that's OK with me.

The larger problem that's created the Crumps — Cruz and Trump — and marginalized the Kasichs is really, really serious. It's about the parties being more polarized than the American people. It's about the incentive structures in Congress moving people to the extremes in elected office because they're never going to lose a general election because they're only 35 competitive seats in the House of Representatives. The only way they're going to lose their jobs is if they lose a partisan primary with low turnout to someone who's more ideologically pure than they are. So you get basically a bunch of gutless weasels in Washington who are terrified of reaching across the aisle, and the safest thing to do is to do nothing.

So it leads to deadlock. It leads to confusion and indecision in a way that actually discredits our country. And why that is so deeply dangerous is that is a lot of frankly what Donald Trump is tapping into — and Ted Cruz to some extent, too. And you know, he's a one-term senator whose only achievement is shutting down the government and he is incredibly, impressively, uniquely disliked by his colleagues. One of the quotes we had in one of the articles was from a Hispanic Republican who accused him of switching his position on immigration. And the quote was, "To know Ted is to hate Ted." And he's like the likable, responsible one right now, right?

So the dynamic, though, is deadly serious just for two quick reasons. One, this anger they're tapping into is about division and dysfunction in Washington to some extent. There is a frustration — Donald Trump is not wrong when he says the game is rigged. It may not be against him — he lives in a Donald-centric universe. The game is rigged, people do understand that Washington is more divided and dysfunctional than it should be, but the people trying to surf off that anger are selling more of the same. They're diagnosing the problem but they're selling more of the poison instead of a prescription to actually solve the problem. That's a long-term danger.

And on the Democratic side, Bernie Sander's populist campaign has inflamed a debate of ideas in the Democratic Party, that's the nicest way I can say it. The guy's a Democratic Socialist who is on the far, far, far left of the Democratic Party or on the American political spectrum by any standard for four decades. I mean this is a guy who at the height of the Cold War thought Castro had a better argument than Ronald Reagan, who thought that the Sandinistas … one of his quotes was in one of our articles in The Beast that we unearthed when he was mayor of Burlington, that "breadlines in Nicaragua were a sign of economic health."

You know, the fact that Hillary Clinton is having a protracted fight with him speaks to a lot of things, one of which is, I think, the impact of the Great Recession on the millennial generation and a lack of appreciation for the struggles of the Cold War and the evils that occurred under Communism under the rubric of liberation. The Democratic Party is not immune from this disease. It is asymmetric, it is more of a problem in the Republican Party right now, but it's coming down the pike for the Democrats, so they shouldn't be entirely self-satisfied watching their friends on the other side of the aisle light themselves on fire. Margaret? 


AVLON: I don't know how to score that one at home. Maybe you all can help? That sort of, you know, "you've got a point and I'll tolerate it, but really you should stop embarrassing yourself."

HOOVER: No, it's not that. Here's why you're right.

AVLON: It's more fun if you tell me why I'm wrong, I think.

HOOVER: Here's the problem. You often tell me demographics are destiny and I've been looking at the millennial generation and they're 40 percent nonwhite. Here's the problem with the Republican math — because there are people who will make the case that Donald Trump actually could beat Hillary Clinton — he's appealing to this white working class element, maybe some Sanders supporters will support him. Maybe he could bring Wisconsin into play, or Pennsylvania into play, and maybe there is a coalition here to be had. And here's why that is totally bogus: Demographics are destiny, as you say.

If you look at what the GOP has coming to it, if the Republicans are going to win, you have to get 69 million people to vote for you, maybe 70 million people to vote for you. The groups that form the core of support for the Republican Party are older whites, blue-collar whites, people who are married and rural residents. All of those groups of people are declining as a proportion of the electorate. The groups that vote Democrat now include millennials solidly by 30 percent, by the way. They'll be 30 percent of the electorate with minorities and single women. And those groups are all growing. So right now there just simply aren't enough traditional GOP voters.

AVLON: So you're saying calling Mexicans rapists was not a good opening line for Donald Trump?

HOOVER: It's not a good opening line for Donald Trump.

AVLON: Just checking.

HOOVER: Nor is continuing to build the wall, or telling Muslims they're going to wait at the door, we're not going to let any Muslims in. All of this rhetoric, not only does it not appeal to millennials or Hispanics, it doesn't appeal to white suburban voters who you need to win, or to women who you need to win. We'll forget about the women stuff. So this is the point that I'm trying to make: There aren't enough traditional GOP voters in the U.S. electorate to win.

Mitt Romney won the highest percentage of white voters of any nonincumbent president in history and he still lost by 5 million votes. And he won every significant white subgroup — he won men, he won women, he won young, he won old, he won Protestants, he won Catholics, and he won by really overwhelming margins. But he still lost by 5 million votes because he only won 6 percent of the African-American vote, he won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, and he won 13 percent of Asian-Americans — and that is just too abysmally low.

The Republican Party has to have a message that appeals. Not just a message, they have to have policies that appeal and positions that appeal in order to grow the tent, because there aren't enough people right now who self-identify as Republicans who will vote Republican to get the Republican Party over the finish line. So if they'd pay attention to what's interesting to the millennial generation, they'll also be solving the problem of what's interesting to Hispanics and what's interesting to women, they will have policies that can actually appeal far more broadly. So what I'm trying to tell the Republican Party is that you can't win a presidential election by grabbing at a larger piece of a shrinking pie. This is something that has fallen on deaf ears entirely among the two front-runners in the Republican Party.

Ted Cruz has premised his entire campaign on becoming the most uber-orthodox conservative Republican ever to run for presidency because there is a myth — that part of the Republican Party has told itself — which is that if you're only the most conservative, then you will win. The problem with Mitt Romney was that he wasn't conservative enough, and the problem with John McCain is that he wasn't conservative enough. And there are 3 million to 5 million missing white voters out there who are uber-orthodox conservative — by the way, not religiously conservative, the Republican modern movement conservative types — who just stayed home. This is what they look at the data and they look at the voter rolls and what they tell themselves about 2012.

And so this is what Ted Cruz has premised his campaign on: being the most conservative. He's run essentially on a values voters platform. This is how he supposedly was going to sweep the SEC primary. In all these states in the south, he was going to wrap up the evangelical vote. And then Donald Trump happened. And it turned out that all those missing white voters who were staying home and who Ted Cruz was going to get, came out and voted for Donald Trump. So then it turned out that maybe it wasn't because they were orthodox conservatives that they were staying home — maybe Donald Trump was tapping into something important.

And so I try to be very, very careful about separating Donald Trump from the energy that he's representing. I think that you have some good thinkers on the center-right who have really given good thought to not just what's happening with Donald Trump, but what's also happening in terms of the failure of the Republican Party to offer real economic solutions and policies to a significant portion of the Republican base — this white working-class base that Donald Trump has tapped into.

You know, you have intellectuals like Charles Murray from the American Enterprise Institute who has written extensively about this phenomenon of the white working class that has been left behind. And when you have real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution that hasn't changed since the late 1960s, you have a hollowing out and a real economic crisis that is going to bubble up and represent itself in electoral politics. That's what Trump taps into. Now I don't think Trump had any idea that's what he was going to tap into. I think he was running for president to run for president, but he began to get it and has channeled that portion of the electorate.

I think it's sad that because of the Republican Party's real failure to offer economic solutions that are competitive and interesting and capture really the needs of this part of the Republican base, it's also merged with a real fever of protectionism, nativism and isolationism that aren't healthy for the Republican Party, either.

So the problem with the Republican Party is that two-thirds of it are either for Cruz or for Trump, and none of those is going to create the demographic formula you need to get over the finish line in November. Match that with— say it is Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton — then you have, if you stack it up, Hillary Clinton is not a likable candidate. In fact, she has historically high unfavorable ratings — shockingly high. But her unfavorable ratings in every demographic group —Hispanics, millennials — huge unfavorable amongst millennials — African-Americans, women, white women, Republicans — are doubled and sometimes tripled by the unfavorable ratings of Donald Trump. So the best gift that could happen to Hillary Clinton is that the Republicans nominate Donald Trump in terms of simply winning, because Republicans just don't have the combination of coalitions to create the sheer amount of votes it's going to take to win in November.

AVLON: There's a tradition in America of following politics like sport and that can be enormously healthy. Of course, the big difference is that it's not a game, it's our country. I mean the fact that 3 out of the 5 candidates who are running for president are not credible candidates for a general election should concern the two parties and should concern Main Street voters. It speaks to the breakdown in the two parties right now. We have a market failure and it's been coming for along time. The parties are more polarized than the American people, ignoring independent voters, focused on reaching out to their own bases rather than to the center to create and build broad new coalitions.

How we got here is that extremes and activists hijacked the process and they alienate Main Street voters who start to see politics as a peculiar cult with very little upside in engaging in. And then that's how the parties get hijacked even further. So we've got to stay engaged, particularly if you're in the center of the electorate. We all have an interest in a vibrant two- or maybe one day, three-party system. 

I will say that part of the reason we've seen this breakdown is that we've been sold a false bill of goods when we are talked to about American politics. We're told we need to choose between liberal and conservative — the far right and the far left. In fact that's not the way most folks think, it's not the way most folks vote, and it's certainly not the way most folks govern.

There is an older tradition to thinking about American politics that I wrote about in "Independent Nation" that goes back to the progressive era. And I actually said the real deeper divisions in American politics are between radicals on the far left, reactionaries on the far right, and reformers in the center. And I think that's the way we should go back to thinking about our politics. I think it's truer to who we are. I think it's what might be needed to re-center our political debate. Because, you know, someday this election's going to end. I have it on good authority it will be in November. And then we're going to need to actually get about governing again. And the real question will be how can we reset our politics and rediscover our best traditions. Depending on who the nominee is, you know, maybe the conservative movement will reassess. Maybe the Republican Party will reassess and start taking Margaret's advice. But they'll be other folks who say, "You know what? This is what we need to reignite. Let's focus on hating whoever the Democratic president is." If the Democratic nominee gets elected — let's assume that's Hillary Clinton, because if Bernie Sanders is the nominee we should come back in three months and talk — it's going to be a variation of a different theme. That attempt to unite a coalition in opposition is part of how we got here.

Parties need to stand for something positive, not look for simply unity in opposition. And the Republicans have a good argument they can make to millennial voters. Republicans have a good argument based in fiscal responsibility and a strong foreign policy. If you look at independent voters historically, they've been fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and strong on national security. Republicans should be able to compete for them. And frankly, whether you're talking about Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Kansas, a two-party system in a city or state is necessary to keep the other guys in check, right? If things devolve to a one-party state it becomes a bastion of cronyism and usually corruption and incompetence. So a two-party system, or at least vibrant general elections, is necessary.

One of the things right now — you know Donald Trump said the system's rigged. I agree with him on this one thing. Maybe we can start having a conversation about the kind of election reform we need to lead to more representative turnout, with more open primaries instead of closed caucuses, redistricting reform so that politicians aren't choosing their voters rather than people choosing their politicians. That might adjust some of the incentive structures that leads to this sort of mindless polarization, that leads to divided and dysfunctional government. That's one thing we can do, but we're also going to need to change the culture, and that's up to all of us. That's actually standing up when the groupthink at our dinner table or community meeting all is sliding one way. To stand up and say that people are not organized into dividing parties, into angels or devils. Neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice and we're going to vote for the person, not the party. And if you do that, magically you'll find yourself with a balance of power. But people need that courage.

And we can do that by asserting a couple basic things. First of all, let's remember that democracy depends on an assumption of goodwill among fellow citizens. That's been almost entirely forgotten. You know, especially when we're living in one-party cities or states, there's a tendency to demonize the other. Liberals do it to conservatives, and conservatives do it to liberals. There's a tendency to dehumanize and delegitimize the views of the other people. There's no longer an assumption of goodwill. That's dangerous to the country in the long run. We need to remember that we can disagree agreeably again. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, said every difference of opinion is not a difference of principal. We need to remember that.

And why does this all really matter? Why does this all matter? Does the presidency really affect you? On the geopolitical stage, if you believe in American exceptionalism, you're damn right it matters because other countries are right now offering a challenge to liberal democratic capitalism, whether it's Russia and China or the Islamic Republic of Iran. And one of the things that some of these competitors look at is American democratic dysfunction — little "d" — and they see it's inefficient. And, that they can offer you a way to get rich and you may sacrifice a few freedoms but it's much more efficient at getting big things done.

You know, this is actually existential as well as the circus that we're all watching right now. I'm just finishing a book on George Washington's farewell address, which he wrote in 1796 declining a third term as president. And he had the two greatest ghostwriters in history, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In it he wrote a warning to future generations. He said the three basic forces he felt that could destroy the American experiment — this is 20 years after the Declaration of Independence — Hyperpartisanship — he called it factions, but hyperpartisanship — excessive debt and foreign wars. So yeah, it's a little relevant. And these are the stakes.

If we start making a mockery of ourselves through elections by parties nominating people who don't represent the vast majority of the American electorate; if we keep sending people to Washington who are invested in division and dysfunction, democracy itself starts to look suspect. And that's when things get dangerous and that's when all of the sudden the appeals of a strong man promising to come in and solve all problems with no details — the old demagogue's appeal of us against them, which is what we're seeing in a lot of these election debates — starts to look pretty good. So those are the stakes, that's why all this matters. And that's why it's a reason to stay hopeful through all the insanity and stay engaged when everyone around you looks like they're losing their heads. It's a real pleasure to talk to you.