I turned 60 years old a few months ago and—like everything else in life—it’s got an upside and a downside. One of the significant benefits is the interesting perspective it brings. It’s like reaching the top of a peak from which you can look back and see a long arc of events over a relatively long period of time. It’s easier to see how things have changed over time (and, sometimes, how they haven’t).
From this vantage point, I’ve noticed one trend that’s played out over the last couple of decades in particularly harmful ways. It’s not unique in our history—we’ve lived through periods like this before—but up until about 25 years ago, we’d mostly moved on. What I’m seeing is a paradigm shift in the way we conduct politics. We’ve moved from an emphasis on getting things done to an emphasis on beating the other party at all costs.
I thought about this while I was listening to an audio clip of Chris Christie announcing his presidential candidacy. Christie is probably not a guy I could ever support but he said something today that made a lot of sense. It struck me as something that we would all do well to remember:
“If Washington and Adams and Jefferson believed that compromise was a dirty word, we’d still be under the crown of England.”
There was a time not too long ago when this would have been the least controversial statement imaginable. Politics was understood to be “the art of compromise” and it was this widely shared attitude that facilitated one of the nation’s most dynamic eras. It was an era in which we undertook great projects and programs together. We built the Hoover Dam and the Interstate system of highways. We moved to advance civil rights and to solidify voting rights. We went to the moon and built a social safety net that was designed to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens. The common denominator among all of these was that members of both parties were committed to getting something done and were willing to make practical compromises in the service of a greater good.
But thirty years after Ronald Reagan demonstrated the value of compromise, we’ve reached a point in our politics where it’s regarded as a dirty word and politicians who are willing to entertain the idea are often punished at the polls. Consider, for example, what occurred in Ames, IA during a debate in 2011 among Republican presidential candidates. Moderator Byron York asked, “Is there any ratio of cuts to taxes that you would accept? Three to one? Four to one? Or even 10 to one?” Not one of the candidates was willing to entertain the idea of compromising, even in a way that heavily favored GOP orthodoxy.
One of the motivations behind this brand of dysfunctional rigidity is the notion that the other party is the enemy and must be defeated. Tragically, it’s a mindset that works well politically but it’s also one that’s completely incompatible with the ideals we as a nation profess and basically incompatible with our system of government.
George Washington understood the dangers of partisanship and presciently warned against them in his Farewell Address when he left office. He understood that partisan allegiance had the potential to be toxic in precisely the way that it is today. (It’s worth noting that our Constitution doesn’t reference political parties and makes no provision for their participation in government.)
A better, more functional model is to see each other as colleagues who disagree.
Imagine yourself at work, on a committee tasked with reviewing the company’s product line and recommending additions and deletions. Then, imagine that the committee is evenly divided between those who want to maximize profitability from existing products and those who believe that innovative new products are the company’s real future.
It’s not hard to predict that people on each side might dig in and defend their point of view energetically. It’s almost impossible, though, to imagine one side threatening to shut the company down if the committee didn’t go along with its plans. But that’s where we find ourselves today when it comes to our politics.
I’ve written before that even our most cherished beliefs ought to be held with a certain amount of circumspection. In politics no less than any other field of endeavor, intellectual rigidity seldom works in our favor. As one wag put it, “If you haven’t changed your mind about anything lately, how do you know if it’s working?”
I prefer to approach political adversaries with the assumption that they’re acting in good faith and trying to do the right thing. That’s not always true, of course, but neither is it always true of those on my own side of the political divide. Still, it’s a better approach than reflexive opposition. It’s less stressful and who knows? As Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill demonstrated 30 years ago, it just might lead to something getting accomplished.