NASHUA, N.H. (AP) — Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter and former Sen. Judd Gregg on Monday urged New Hampshire college students to get involved in the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, though they disagreed on whether the nominating process itself is to blame for the nation's increasingly polarized democracy.
Souter, who retired in 2009, and Gregg, who left office in 2005, spoke at Nashua Community College for a project tied to the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire presidential primary. Both said students can use the primary to learn about civics, but Souter also said they also could explore the notion that party primaries breed extreme candidates unwilling to compromise.
"I know that for a long time I suspected, in fact I simply assumed, that a great deal of the 'no compromise' politics of today was the consequence of political gerrymandering gone wild, and I have since sort of repented that view," he said.
Instead, he has been taken with the argument made by former Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and others who say that the primary system and low voter turnout are responsible for the "scorched Earth" political climate.
"If getting a sense of the candidates out there is going to stimulate a response to the provocative position that Edwards has put forth, that itself is all for the good," he said.
Gregg disagreed, noting that because independents can vote in either New Hampshire primary, the process is not dominated by hard conservatives or liberals.
"At this point in the nominating process when it's all PR, and it's all ridiculous polling that has no meaning at all when we get to the election, hyperbole wins the day, the entertainer wins they day," he said. "But when you get down to the election ... historically, people don't throw their vote away on hyperbole. They vote for someone substantive."
Following those comments, a reporter asked Gregg and Souter to comment on billionaire Donald Trump's successful showing in polls in the Republican presidential contest. Souter declined, noting he still occasionally serves as an appellate judge in Boston, while Gregg said there are "plusses and minuses" to Trump's campaign.
On one hand, Trump has probably brought a lot of folks into politics who previously weren't involved, Gregg said. On the other hand, Trump tends to reduce complex issue to "Duck Dynasty one-liners," he said.
"That's not constructive," he said.
On the broader issue of civics education, both Souter and Gregg lamented that civics has been largely dropped from elementary school and primary school curricula and cited surveys that show two-thirds of Americans don't know there are three branches of government. Souter said community colleges should "pick up the slack," while Gregg said that they should not be put in that role. Souter said the federal "No Child Left Behind" law and its focus on testing has been the biggest obstacle to restoring civics education, but said he hasn't given up.
"There is movement, but it's not the kind of turnaround you're going to see in a year or so. This is going to take a bit of long-term hauling," he said. "I will make no bones about it: If we maintain the present level of civil ignorance, there is a serious question as to whether 50 years from now, we are going to have a recognizable democracy in the United States. I'm not totally pessimistic, but anyone who's optimistic about it has got to be out of his mind."