How To End Our Poisonous Political Culture That Punishes Consensus And Compromise
Resurrecting a Liberal Republican branch of the Republican Party would be a means to return to consensus-driven, pragmatic politics. Three steps could help us do so.
First, regardless of its size and specific functions, government has to work fairly and effectively for all Americans. To condemn ALL government ties our nation’s hands unreasonably.
Second, our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service, not as the assurance of their own reelection.
Third, Americans who believe in the values and policies of Liberal Republicanism, especially young people and others who have become alienated from more Left-leaning current Democratic Party ideology, must reengage at the local level with passion and patience.
A. Why It Is Ludicrous to Regard All Government as a Problem
In his first Inaugural Address on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan stated “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” For decades that quote has fueled a Republican Party that has morphed beyond Reagan’s belief in limited, decentralized government. By 2012, the Republican Party had taken Reagan’s principles to extremes way beyond the place the conservative but pragmatic Reagan had advocated. Mitt Romney, a former moderate Republican Governor of Massachusetts and the son of the great Liberal Republican George Romney, only won the Republican nomination for President in 2012 by abandoning many of the policies for which he and his father had stood. At around the same time, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush pointed out that Ronald Reagan and his Dad, President George H.W. Bush, would have had a difficult time securing the nomination of the Republican Party in 2012.
Reagan’s famous quote about government is taken out of context by the all-government-is-bad crowd. What Reagan said was “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The present crisis to which he referred was the state of the economy and the high inflation that existed in 1980.
Reagan’s quote is used today as if the words “In this present crisis” were not part of what he said, as if it were a blanket statement about all government, all the time.
In fact, as described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in his outstanding book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party:
“Reagan’s inaugural address revealed his skill at rousing conservatives while retaining moderates. The address is best known for his pronouncement that ‘government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.’ But Reagan quickly reassured the nation that he was no right-wing anarchist: ‘[I]t’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work-work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.’
It is rational to believe in the small, decentralized government that Ronald Reagan embraced. It is wholly another matter to believe that all government is inherently bad.
Some on the political right who are viscerally against government could help address our dysfunctional, gridlocked government by advocating for efficiency, along with smaller government, rather than complaining that all government is problematic. And, some on the political left who advocate for a larger government role in society could convince people who are skeptical about government to support a broader role for it if they combined their advocacy for large government with an expectation that it function like a well-run business.
Saying that all government is bad limits the tools our nation can use to succeed. It is a bit like arbitrarily saying that only football players whose last names start with the letters A through K can play for our team. Such a team will be weaker than one that uses all the players available.
To illustrate how weakening such an arbitrarily restrictive approach can be, take a look at how the University of Alabama football team performed before and after it integrated racially. In 1970, the University of Southern California’s football team, a fully-integrated team, traveled to play Alabama, a still segregated team. USC won the game 42 to 21. Sam Cunningham, a USC running back, had twelve carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone. This thrashing convinced Alabama of the need to integrate, and, in 1971 Alabama recruited its first Black player. The Crimson Tide’s wins, losses and ties in the years before integrating and after speak for themselves.
Year W L T
1967 8 2 1
1968 8 3 0
1969 6 5 0
1970 6 5 1
1971 11 1 0
1972 10 2 0
1973 11 1 1
1974 11 1 0
1975 11 1 0
Jerry Claiborne, a former assistant to Alabama coach Bear Bryant, said “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate [the University of] Alabama in sixty minutes than Martin Luther King did in twenty years.” Not true of course, but the effects of this game are undeniable.
Republican politicians today routinely misuse Reagan’s words to pay homage to those who want to strangle government. And almost all Republican politicians who do not adhere to right-wing dogmas are attacked in their Congressional Districts and the States they represent, and challenged in Republican primaries by candidates who do adhere to such dogmas.
B. Restoring the Primacy of Public Service
To return to consensus-oriented politics, our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service to their constituents and to the nation, not as the perpetuation of their own ambitions. The balance most of today’s politicians strike between their reelection and actual public service is hideously biased towards the former.
Fortunately, to find a model for how our elected officials should act, we can look to our founding father, George Washington. Washington was a hero to his contemporaries and, as Garry Wills explains in his book Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, “like the Roman Cincinnatus (the famous Roman general who resigned from a position of near absolute dictatorial authority and returned to his farm and family), Washington perfected the art of getting power by giving it away. He did this when he resigned as Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army, and again when he declined to run for a third term as President.”
Wills relates a story of a conversation during the Revolutionary War between the British King George III and the artist Benjamin West, who knew both the King and Washington. Asked by the King what General Washington would do if he prevailed, West told the King he thought that Washington would return to his farm. “If he does that,” the King is supposed to have remarked, “He will be the greatest man in the world.”
How has the culture in Congress evolved so far away from Washington’s values? How did we get to a place where policies most of our legislators agree would be good for America do not get enacted because concerns of partisan politics or generating continuing political contributions get in the way? Our elected officials’ jobs are to move this nation forward, regardless of whether doing so puts their reelection at risk. As my friend Jasmine Davis has said, “We need more Washingtons in Washington.”
C. Restoring Balance to the Republican Party
The third thing necessary to restore balance to the Republican Party is for people who believe in Liberal Republican principles and pragmatic, consensus-driven government to get involved in Republican Party politics. Some should do so because the latest election has awakened in them a realization that Democratic Party politics are unappealing to too many Americans in the middle, combined with the likelihood that the Democratic Party goes politically more Left and more populist than it is today. And some should do so because they realize that Trump has so shaken up the Republican Party–a month before the Presidential election the press was full of articles about the Republican Party’s upcoming permanent demise–that longer term it may be malleable in ways it hasn’t been for decades.
Consensus-oriented politics will not re-emerge, however, until people who believe in its values and policies are willing to get back into the political arena and duke it out (politically, not literally) with their more conservative Republican brethren. A little more background on how our politics came to be so mean-spirited sheds light on what needs to be done to reverse the tide.
F. Clifton White was a Republican who evolved from moderate mainstream Republicanism to leading the movement that secured the 1964 Republican Presidential nomination for the arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. As described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin, White had run for elective office himself in 1946, and apparently his candidacy was sabotaged by Communists. Although the Communists were greatly outnumbered, they got their way through secrecy, rigid unity, manipulation of parliamentary procedure, and sheer ruthlessness.
“Sometimes the Communists simply demonstrated a superior grasp of organization and tactics, for example by voting as a bloc for one candidate while their opponents spread their votes across multiple candidates. At other times they would run roughshod over the democratic process, employing stalling motions to keep a meeting going all night until enough of their opponents had left in disgust, then ramming home the vote. Or they would wait until a rival candidate had built up such a majority that most serious challengers had dropped out, then destroy the front-runner through foul-play and make their own candidate available as a last-minute substitute. That was the fate that befell White, when at the eleventh hour the Communists spread a rumor that he had diverted funds to an adulterous tryst with his secretary. One conservative organizer and former Communist, Marvin Liebman, “felt nostalgic for my Young Communist League days,” as he felt that the young conservatives were “exactly like” the Red Guards of the ‘30’s, “with the same anger and the same passion.” Most of the non-Communists who witnessed these abuses of democracy were horrified; some were moved to join the CIA in order to dedicate themselves to attacking the evils of Communism around the world. White, on the other hand, wanted to emulate the Communists. He saw in their example methods by which a small, disciplined minority uninhibited by bourgeois scruples of fair play or tradition or truth, could defeat a majority and bend an organization to its will.”
White and his colleagues put these strategies to work to nominate the arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican Convention. Former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, less than four years out of the White House, “felt it [the use of such strategies] was unpardonable – – and a complete negation of the spirit of democracy. I was bitterly ashamed.” Former baseball star Jackie Robinson, who was one of the most prominent African-Americans in the convention audience, felt that he was witnessing white supremacy in action. “I know now how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
It is fascinating that this long-shot success of White and his colleagues in recasting the Republican Party as exclusively conservative was accomplished using tactics of the Communist Party, whose politics were diametrically opposed to the politics of White and his colleagues. But viewed through the lens of this history, it is no wonder that today’s Republican Party is so uncompromising, and that inter-party communication has become so uncivil. The roots of the modern Republican Party are in Clifton White’s “take no prisoners” politics.
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The decline of liberal Republicanism continues to reverberate in our politics today. (In the case of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her politics actually evolved tomoderate Republicanism from being a “Goldwater girl,” before she abandoned Republicanism entirely, preferring instead the emerging moderate wing of the Democratic Party.) According to Geoffrey Kabaservice, “A symbolic indication of youthful disaffection with moderate Republicanism occurred when Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke addressed the Wellesley College commencement in late May 1969. Brooke, one of the Senate’s most progressive Republicans as well as its lone African American, tried to persuade his restive audience that change within the system was still possible, as demonstrated by the poverty rate’s having fallen from 22 percent of Americans in 1959 to 13.3 percent in 1967. [This was an incredible reduction in poverty, by today’s or any era’s standards]. Brooke was followed on the speaker’s platform by the student government president, Hillary Rodham. [She] departed from her prepared text to tear into Brooke for his alleged indifference to poverty. ‘What does it mean that 13.3 percent of Americans are poor?’ she demanded. ‘How about talking about the humans, not the statistics?’ Her classmates predictably gave her a standing ovation.” Brooke, convinced that she would have attacked any other commencement speaker, gracefully commented: “I was there representing authority, and she was representing the frustrations of her own generation, which she did most effectively.” How ironic is it that in the recent Presidential election Secretary Clinton represented the established authority, and Mr. Trump’s supporters (and Mr. Sanders’) represented the frustrated outsiders anxious to change the status quo.
After the recent election, it would certainly be easy for young people to conclude that our government is such a mess that their efforts should be directed elsewhere, or directed towards Sixties-style protests designed to destroy the political status quo. But turning away from politics or adopting destructive methods are unlikely to move our politics forward. In reality our nation remains unlikely to thrive without a return to consensus-driven, pragmatic politics. Resurrecting the Liberal Republican branch of the Republican Party, along with adhering to what President Reagan actually said and believed, would be important steps towards achieving high-functioning, consensus-oriented government. Unfortunately, the likely alternative is the realization of some of the Republican establishment’s and Democrats’ worst fears of a Trump Administration, in which case much of the nation will end up suffering silently in benumbed disbelief.