STOCKBRIDGE -- A room full of Norman Rockwell's Americana seemed a symbolic setting for a community discussion on how the political system is broken, as part the Norman Rockwell Museum's Four Freedoms Forums.

And despite frigid temperatures, many area residents ventured to the Route 183 museum Thursday to take part in the first of the series, "A Nation Divided: Getting Past the Impasse."

"When you're talking about civics and how the government works, one of the biggest problems is the money factor," said Will Singleton of Pittsfield.

Ronald Barron of Richmond continued on Singleton's theme.

"The original concept [of our political system] was that the politicians would serve the people, only serve a limited time and then return to their line of work," Barron said. "Not become career politicians."

He added, "They may be well-intended, they may think that they're doing it for altruistic reasons -- at least we hear them say that when they speak -- but they are controlled by money."

And why isn't civics taught in the schools anymore, many wanted to know.

"Those were the two things we had to do: Gym and civics," Dalton's Kathryn Mickle said. "Sometimes I really think it's intentional, so the powers that be can divide and conquer."

Other ideas abounded on how to explain phenomena like 2013's budget sequestration and the subsequent 16-day government shutdown.


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The discussion featured four "thought leaders" -- Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio; Jim Bronson, chairman of Berkshire County Republican Association; Sheila Murray, chairwoman of the Berkshire Brigades and James Arpante, a Berkshire Community College Instructor of Government.

Laurie Moffett, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, framed it this way.

"An extraordinary stridency has emerged in our political process," Moffatt said. "You can't turn on the television, or the radio, or read the newspaper, or surf the Internet without seeing the real impassioned differences in beliefs across our country."

Chartock said the political framework in the U.S. lends itself to becoming a "war zone."

"There are some things in the United States that exacerbate the way in which our politics goes," Chartock said. "First of all, unlike in other countries, we have what's called a zero-sum game. One side wins, and one side loses. They don't share."

The frequency of primaries and elections, redistricting and the media all contribute, Chartock said.

Bronson and Murray sought to bury the hatchet by appealing to our universal desire to help others.

"I'm certain that if your neighbors' house is on fire or you come across a car accident, you are not going to say ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder what their ideology is?'" Brosnan said. "No. You run out and you offer help.

"We're humans at the local level. It's when we get off into the abstract is when these problems occur."

"Compassion for our fellow man and people who are without jobs, rather than what someone's doing wrong or what they deserve or don't, should be our motivator," Murray said.

Arpante looked beyond the divide between the major parties. Everyone shares the blame when the system ceases to function, he said.

"Both parties, Democrats and Republicans, run the show," Arpante said. "They pass the election laws, campaign finance laws, there's no term limits and about 90 percent of members of Congress get reelected. That's astounding. Once you're in, away you go. You spend most of your time running for reelection rather than addressing the needs of the people."

In closing, Arpante handed out copies of the Constitution to all, who sat in a room hung with a series of four Rockwell paintings depicting "Four Freedoms" which the document enshrines: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear.

Check www.nrm.org for information on the next forum in the series.

To reach Phil Demers:

pdemers@berkshireeagle.com

or (413) 281-2859.

On Twitter: @BE_PhilD