Moderate and Mad as Hell

I.

In 1787, 81-year old Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American on earth. Admired for his expertise in both natural and political science, he enjoyed the intellectual status to tell others how best to govern. Franklin harbored many concerns about the proposed Constitution and had argued vigorously for provisions that did not make the final draft. Yet, in the final hours of the Constitutional Convention’s debate he addressed the delegates seeking their support for the document:

Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects…

On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and…put his name to this instrument.

Franklin’s timely display of moderation and profound humility persuaded others to compromise enough to create this country. Yet today, the very qualities that gave us such strength at our founding have been maligned by extreme positions, leading to political paralysis and a dismal failure to solve the pressing problems of our time.

The insidious allegation that has crept into America’s political ego is that moderates lack principles. Moderates are unwilling to take decisive stands and are, therefore, untrustworthy members of a tribe or a movement or a political party. They seek only to split the difference between the positions taken by their noble opponents. Their support for compromise results in mediocre solutions, which are at variance with greatness. Or so the argument goes.[1]

These claims are not only false, but dangerous and is time for moderates to say so.

Being moderate is not a political description; it is how one understands the motivations of others and how one solves problems. A moderate is a realist, accepting how people are, not how we would like them to be. A moderate is open to listening to the truths of others. It is a personality trait, not a political ideology. Hence, describing someone as a moderate Republican or Democrat speaks more as to how that person interacts with others and processes information than what they believe. And there may be a lot of us. Forty-one percent of voters described themselves as “moderate” in exit polls during the 2012 presidential election.[2]

Moderates know the history of our country as a successful accommodation of competing views and respect that tradition of conflict. They seek understanding, balance and proportion. They are skeptical, although not necessarily dismissive, of extreme positions. They understand it takes all kinds of perspectives to create policies in a turbulent world.

At the core of a moderate’s moral code is a profound sense of humility. Their loyalty, rather than pledged unwaveringly to political party, is channeled into sustaining our democracy.

Humility is a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to question our own certainty. It requires the courage to compromise when appropriate. A humble person recognizes the sovereignty of another to think differently and the value of that different thought. “A stand for compromise is not the stuff of heroism, virtue or moral certainty,” historian Barbara Oberg has written, “but it is the essence of the democratic process.”

Humility should not be confused with weakness or absence of conviction. The guiding stars of humble persons are usually quite clear; they just don’t blind one to believe in their own perfect knowledge. There are times a moderate stands purely on principle; it is just not all the time. In short, moderates want to change the world but realize they cannot do it unilaterally.

The United States enjoys a legacy of public humility reaching back to President Washington and before. Time and time again, American leaders have recognized that to solve the toughest problems they needed to reach out to the other side and to moderate their positions to achieve a lasting result. This is the essence of democracy. Our rich heritage of public humility has created the safe spaces for the Republic to flourish.

Franklin’s comments on the Constitution provide an example. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address struck the same accommodating chord by not celebrating the bloody victory over the Confederacy as all expected, but asking rather for understanding and kindness. Any modern leader would detail the victory, implicitly take credit and thank the Maker for the blessings bestowed upon the winning side. Instead, Lincoln noted both the common humanity and the moral failure of both sides,

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

He closed with no expression of that moral superiority which is so evident in current political discourse,

With malice toward none, with charity toward all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln spoke with empathy and humility and with a sacred purpose to unify. Pulitzer-prize winning author and historian Jon Meacham would approve,

The capacity not to betray anyone’s fundamental principles, but to understand that we live in an imperfect and fallen world, is a mark of a great leader. [3]

Humility is the key that opens the door to purposeful dialogue. But we have lost dialogue to debate. We are so certain in our opinions that we do not listen anymore. We rush in to tell our truths about the way things are and must be, not allowing that there might be other truths and possibilities. We talk over each other, with not even a gap for politeness, much less for silence and consideration and that “doubting of your own infallibility.” As MIT professor William Isaacs quipped, “People do not listen. They reload.”[4]

Moderates, on the other hand, value humility over party and even over ideology because they seek first to solve problems. “The greatness of America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “lies in her ability to repair her faults.” In the face of crisis we have historically banded together, compromised and overcome. Americans fix what is broken.

But today the incessant bickering has led mostly to paralysis. While political and ideological conflict is part of our national DNA, the inability to solve difficult problems is not. This failure is disgraceful: significant policy challenges such as immigration and failing public infrastructure remain unsolved. Too many leaders would rather be right than competent. Instead, we need those who practice moral humility and are committed to repairing our faults.

This is not about short-term wins and never should be. This is about governing a diverse nation over the long-term; about meeting the test of whether a free people are truly capable of governing themselves. The moderate’s natural tendency to acknowledge the sovereignty of another to think differently is the skill set least evident and most needed today.

II.

Two truths underlie how moderates understand the world:

  • People are different and issues are complex.
  • People are different; wired differently, raised differently, with different moral foundations. We are separated by great personal and public divides; race, education, culture, religion, geography, age, gender, wealth and poverty, liberalism and conservatism. We hold our personal and sacred values dearly.

When a society is both free and diverse it can be hard to find enough common ground to meet common challenges. A community of people with different backgrounds, values and personal styles must somehow temper at least some of those characteristics in order to make collective decisions. This is the mixed blessing of freedom; we traded authoritarian certainty for self-determination, giving up the notion centuries ago that a king or supreme religious leader or anyone else would make our decisions for us. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

And issues are almost always more complex than we would like them to be. There are more than two sides to each story. What we perceive so clearly proves not to be so. Our field of vision is limited by the lens through which we see. Recognizing complexity means we not succumb to oversimplification. Like a game of pick up sticks, every issue has some relation to another and it is hard to address one without impacting something else. By experience, we know this to be true. Once we know more about a situation, first reactions often prove to be the wrong reactions.

People are different and issues are complex. One might think this is obvious and we should dedicate more time and talent understanding our challenges and what divides us. But not today. Our differences are pronounced and they increasingly sort us out. Whenever possible we live, work, play and worship with people who think and look like us. We read the same books, watch the same television shows, hit the “like” button to the same articles and hover together at social gatherings with people who think and look like us. This mutual re-enforcement cements the notion that we are right and the others are wrong. Our positions simplify and harden.

This problem is exacerbated by social media. We’re choosing the news and opinions to which we are exposed, intentionally shutting out other crucial information.

Those who dare to take the time to understand the realities facing others, or to consider life’s complexities, are charged with being equivocal or indecisive or lacking principles. Nonsense. People are different and issues are complex.

Failure to understand these truths has brought anger and intolerance. As a result, we’re no longer working together to solve the problems a free people must solve. Americans once rolled up their sleeves; now, we put up our dukes. We are deeply and emotionally polarized.

Polarization is an intense commitment to a person or idea which paints the rival person or idea as not just wrong, but corrupt or immoral; when one way of thinking is assumed to be morally superior and entirely correct and the other side entirely wrong.

How bad has it become? About a quarter of all Democrats and over a third of all Republicans view the other Party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.”[5] More surprisingly, 50% of Republican parents today would be upset if their child married a Democrat (that number is about 30% for Democratic parents).[6]

These statistics are staggering. I know many people with whom I fundamentally disagree but have never considered them a threat to the nation’s well-being. And as a parent, the last concern I would have is the party affiliation of my son’s fiancée. But such are our times.

III.

Those who are driven by a fear of people and events they do not understand and who long for certainty and order challenge the moderate, and understandably so. Many can no longer rely upon the institutional anchors that have steadied our ship since the Second World War; the corporate, non-profit or government entities that provided jobs, safety, certainty and order. Fear and anger grow from a justified belief that the game is rigged for a powerful few. There is a real sense of loss out there: loss of security, loss of control, loss of hope.

The moderate is wired to trust, to listen and deliberate; not to lash out or blow up. But the very skills needed to find common ground are not in vogue. While the nation’s chorus of voices is increasingly loud and discordant, the moderate’s harmonies are barely heard.

This is an important point. There are many voices in our melting pot of a country. We are liberal and conservative, libertarian and socialist, unattached or disinterested; and mostly we fall at some difficult-to-define location along the continuum. Our distinct moral foundations are, in large part, already set.[7] This essay is intended, in part, to explain how and why moderates focus on resolving problems and to let people know there are others who think the current public discourse is insanely divisive.

In 1990, a diverse group of 30 South African leaders gathered to envision the future of the country. The noted facilitator Peter Senge led these visioning workshops.[8] Although the apartheid government was still in power and Nelson Mandela still in prison, it was clear the great sweep of history was about to change the country. Senge was asked to help the group prepare for the dramatic social and political changes ahead.

On the last day of the workshops, all gathered around the television to hear President de Klerk list the previously banned black organizations that would now be lawful. One of the community organizers, Anne Loetsebe, realized the path to the end of apartheid and to political empowerment had just been cleared. Friends and family members would soon be released from prison.

They also listened to a broadcast of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1964 “I Have a Dream” speech. It had not been allowed to air in South Africa until that day. Many had not heard it.

Before the group broke up to leave, it was customary for each person to say whatever he or she wanted about the day’s events. A tall Afrikaans business executive who has been relatively quiet during the previous sessions stood and looked directly at Anne Loetsebe. With moistening eyes, he quietly stated, “I want you to know that I was raised to think you were an animal.”

And then he began to cry.

Senge writes,

As I watched this, I saw a huge knot become untied. I don’t know how to describe it except to say it was as if a rope simply became untied and broke apart. I knew intuitively that what had been holding him and so many others prisoners of the past was breaking. They were becoming free…from that moment I never had any doubt that significant and lasting change would occur in South Africa.[9]

Senge’s story is a glimpse into how the moderate’s ethics present in the real world. The thirty participants were collaboratively seeking a better path for the nation. The white businessman clearly and courageously stated the personal assumption he grew up believing. Without such candor he, and perhaps the entire group, could not move forward. The very fact that people of fundamentally different views were in the same room and struggling to accommodate each other’s values reflected humility in their relationships. And their whole purpose in gathering was to envision a different and better future. Each element of this process required the exercise of bravery; the courage to engage, to speak directly, to give up power and to envision something different – even something very uncomfortable.

The Latin root of the word “resolve” is solvare, “to loosen or to untie.” Senge’s keen intuition was that the bonds which had so severely separated the South African community were being untied by the participants.

Anglers refer to a “wind knot,” that mess of fishing line that bunches when a rod is badly cast. Unraveling is tedious work. What you cannot do is pull quickly in frustration. You must take the time to create the space for the knot to untie. That is our task; finding the time and patience and understanding to loosen the knots.

IV.

Addressing public policy through a moderate’s lens and recognizing the legitimacy of fear is not the end of the story. Moderation is an approach, an established behavior. It answers the question how. The following is what I believe. I am a Centrist.[10]

Dr. Charles Wheelan, professor at Dartmouth College and author of The Centrist Manifesto, explains the ideal:

Identify the problem. Assess the causes. Evaluate the possible solutions. Recognize the legitimate differences of opinion. And then do something responsible. Our dysfunctional two-party system has lost its ability to do that.[11]

Centrism is not some middle-ground compromise between conservative and liberal. Rather, the Centrist draws from the most compelling ideas from each Party. For example, Centrists respect the historical strength of the Republicans’ fiscal conservatism and appropriate skepticism of ever-enlarging government. The Centrist also admires the Democrats’ natural empathy for the truly disadvantaged and long-standing efforts to protect civil and personal rights. The list of respected accomplishments of both sides is long. But we have reached the point where many of us support positions articulated by both parties and reject certain ideas from both parties. It would be considered political heresy to mix them up. Centrists, Wheelan concludes, will “take the best ideas from each party, discard the nonsense, and build something new and better.”[12]

Take the federal debt. I and most people I know are deeply troubled by its size. Unless we make some painfully tough fiscal decisions, and soon, we will leave those who follow us with an unmanageable financial mess. We also respect scientists’ warnings on climate change and its human causes. And because we know and love gay friends and family members, we support gay marriage and are perplexed why it is so troubling to others. We are deeply worried about poverty and the effects of income disparity. Clearly, no current political party is friendly to all these priorities.

In general, Centrists are committed to fiscal responsibility and recognize this will require a combination of revenue increases, spending cuts and reforms to our major entitlement programs. We recognize that history is strewn with the carcasses of failed nations and empires that refused to balance their books. Revisiting the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction committee’s work would be a reasonable place to start.

Centrists are committed to environmental responsibility in the sense that we truly consider ourselves stewards of the planet. We embrace the value of science and innovation, and the discipline of the scientific method. Climate change is a potential threat to our country and the international order. We must reduce carbon emissions, provide for energy alternatives and work to create a sustainable and safe water supply. This is not fluff; it is not even political. Being thoughtful and long-term about environmental policy is a matter of safety and survival.

Centrists are committed to social tolerance and believe the federal government should not involve itself in private behavior that does not affect the broader public. We will work to heal America’s division on social issues rather than exploiting them for political advantage.

And Centrists will fight for economic opportunity. We believe markets are a powerful tool for promoting prosperity and innovation. The role of government is not to pick winners and losers but to create an environment in which the private sector can thrive; to provide a meaningful safety net; and to ensure that every American has an opportunity to achieve his or her economic potential. We must stop talking about this challenge in vague terms and start implementing programs and practices that create – and demonstrate – economic progress.[13]

This is what Centrists believe. The Centrists are without a home and I believe there are a bunch of us.

V.

My goal has been to define a moderate, explain the Centrist movement and give some comfort to those who may share this angst and aspiration. The goal is not to convince others to join our team. Changing minds is a fool’s errand. Researchers have been telling us that for years. But finding some common ground by changing hearts? There is some hope for that.

How do you change hearts in the current political cage fight? In the same way we always have; we open ourselves to personal collisions with people who are not like us. This is hard and rare. There are too few opportunities to collide with another; to engage in the difficult conversation about one’s experiences and values.

The moderate Centrist believes that not all deep conflicts are ideological. Rather, they may reflect our different opinions as to how complex systems work. I might see the causes of poverty in one way if I were born into poverty; quite another if I were born into wealth. It is easy to devolve into some shorthand description of the Other, without understanding a whit about the Other. It is difficult to place yourself in the Other’s shoes. We are victims of our experiences and the only path forward is to listen carefully enough to come close to understanding another’s reality.

But there are rules for such personal engagement. The parties should treat each other as they did in Peter Senge’s example above. They listen to each other’s truths with empathy, they treat each other as equals and they honestly articulate their assumptions.[14] So often our conflicts result from a lack of human understanding, or some game about who actually has the power in a situation, and/or the fact that the true reason for the conflict is not the one being discussed. I’m convinced that the moderate Centrist can help heal the heart of America.

Is there such a person as an angry moderate Centrist? We do not take to the streets and our ideas do not translate easily to bumper stickers. But I admit I am angry.

I am angry that our political discourse is so superficial and coarse. We are not listening, we are not humble, and we are not resolving anything of importance. That is not being politically correct; it is being mature and mindful of the experiences others have faced.

I am angry because our policy challenges are complex and the answers will require focused thought, time and some significant level of compromise and sacrifice. I am fed up by too many people proposing simple answers to complex questions. That is not being elitist; it is being serious and realistic. I’m also angry at myself for not raising more of a ruckus long ago when I saw the trends so evident today.
Our nation’s knots are tied so tightly now. We are angry with each other and deeply troubled about our future. Some find solace in concepts of isolation and moral certainty.

Unrelenting moral certainty troubles the moderate Centrist. The opposite of moral certainty is not ambivalence. It is toleration, moral humility, intense personal engagement and a fierce loyalty to governing a diverse nation in complex times.

Steven Merritt Seibert is a lawyer and facilitator, a former elected official and state agency director, and a respected leader in the business, government and civic sectors. Seibert is a Floridian. His website is http://seibertlaw.org/.

Endnotes

    1. David Blankenhorn, “Why Polarization Matters,” The American Interest (Dec. 22, 2015).
    2. Charles Wheelan, The Centrist Manifesto, (W.W. Norton, 2013), pg. 11.
    3. Jon Meacham, from lecture in Tallahassee, Florida (Feb. 18, 2016); reported in Tallahassee Democrat (Bill Cotterell, Feb. 20, 2016).
    4. William Isaacs, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, (Crown Business, 1999).
    5. Pew Survey (2014).
    6. David Graham, Atlantic Magazine (September 27, 2012).
    7. For a discussion of “moral foundations,” see generally Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, (Pantheon Books, 2012).
    8. This story is related in the Introduction of Senge, Scharmer, Jaworkski, Flowers; Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society (Doubleday 2004).
    9. Senge, from Introduction.
    10. See generally, Charles Wheelen, The Centrist Manifesto. Virtually all I write in the next few pages is a footnote to Professor Wheelen’s work.
    11. Id., pg. 12.
    12. Id., pg. 23.
    13. See http://www.thecentristproject.org.
    14. See generally, Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (Simon and Schuster 1999).

In Defense of the Practical Politician

Is any group in America today more reviled and detested than professional politicians? I recently spent a week driving through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Ohio interviewing blue-collar Americans about politics. I learned a lot, but by far the loudest and most consistent message from these interviews was contempt for professional politicians. Recent national opinion polls confirm that most Americans simply no longer believe that elected officials, including those from their own party, are honest or can be trusted even to try to do what’s right for the country.

These beliefs are having profound consequences. To take only the most obvious example, by far the most dynamic force in U.S. politics today is the Trump movement, and much of Trump’s appeal derives from the fact that he’s “not a politician.” Of course this phenomenon is nothing new: running “against Washington” accurately labels earlier presidential campaigns from Carter to Reagan. But it’s gotten worse: A recent Pew survey found that now a majority of the American public believes that “ordinary Americans” could do a better job of solving the country’s problems than elected officials.

This isn’t right. Whatever the problems in our politics – and yes, there are many! – something is deeply wrong in any society in which the governed hold the governing in this much contempt. I’m not sure of everything we’ll need to do as a society to fix this problem, but I do have one idea. It involves remembering something distinctly undramatic that happened in a little college town in Kentucky. In 1962. Involving a 39-year-old guy from Mississippi. Who wanted to be Governor one day. And who taught me Sunday School.

In April of 1962, William F. Winter of Grenada, Mississippi, was serving as state tax collector, a post to which he had been elected in 1959.1 Previously he had served three terms as a state legislator. He was visiting Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, he told the assembled students, as “a practicing politician seeking to discuss compromise in politics.” He titled his remarks “In Defense of the Practical Politician.” Both his argument that day and his subsequent political experiences in Mississippi seem startlingly relevant to today, when Americans seem unified about nothing except that we all disdain the “practical politician.”

He told the students that he did not come to Kentucky “espousing compromise” as a “cynical, smoke-filled room, money-under-the-table concept,” but rather “as that process that has reason as its chief constituent and that permits order and progress to be substituted for impasse and frustration.”

Ever the politician, he flattered the students by reminding them that Kentucky, perhaps largely by virtue of its geography, “has provided so many of America’s tempering and conciliating voices,” including Henry Clay (“whose name has become synonymous with the fine art of compromise”), Kentucky’s “native son” Abraham Lincoln, former Chief Justice Fred Vinson, and former Vice President Alben Barkley. Such leaders

were not grim, narrow-minded fanatics insistent on every letter of their position as if it were providentially inspired. These rather were reasonable men, conscious that they did not have all the answers and willing to concede to others the possibility that they, too, might be at least partially right.

Winter then carefully interrogates the concept of compromise. For starters, is all compromise beneficial? No. The readiness to compromise is essential to serving the public interest, Winter argues, but whether any particular compromise is worthy or unworthy depends on the “sincerity, intelligence, and honesty” of the individuals involved, exercising judgements “for which no manual can be written.” There is no formula for compromise that can guarantee success.

Is compromise typically an easier course of action for the politician than its opposite? No. Compromise on important issues involves “more real anguish” for the politician than “any other area of political experience.” For “what legislator worth his salt has not lain awake at night and wrestled with his conscience as he pondered the eternal problem of expedience versus judgment?”

Winter knew first-hand whereof he spoke. In 1962, he was a moderate in a state in which the very word “moderate” had been successfully transformed into a term of vilification and abuse. For example, the Governor of Mississippi at the time was Ross Barnett, an extreme racial segregationist. His campaign song (I remember hearing it often as a child), “Roll with Ross,” included this verse:

He’s for segregation 100 percent

He’s not a moderate, like some other gent

He’ll fight integration with forceful intent

His campaign brochure (Dynamic Leadership – To Keep Segregation and Improve Our Standard of Living) boasted: “Ross Barnett is OPPOSED to ‘moderation’ in any form.”2

These were winning slogans in Mississippi in 1962. So William Winter, the moderate reformer who wanted to be Governor one day, knew very well the stress and anguish experienced by the politician who must constantly calibrate when, and in what ways, to speak out even for “moderation,” much less the progressive change that the reformer in him sought.

Is standing up for “judgment” over “expedience” worth losing the next election? For Winter, the question was a hard one. But he argues that political expediency “should not automatically be made a matter of reproach” and insists: “It is not merely cynical to say that a defeated politician can’t help anybody.”

Is “any politician who ever concedes anything lacking in courage?” Winter argues that often “the very opposite is true.” In many cases, “perhaps most,” the

willingness to compromise involves great courage…. Some of the most courageous public officials I have known have been the quietly dedicated men of reason who have worked under the most unrelenting pressures to gain acceptance of unpopular but necessary agreements, while bombastic orators denounced them as traitors or worse.

Is logrolling and political favor-trading – the stuff of which many political compromises are actually made – bad for our democracy? No:

A dam in Wyoming or an air base in Texas is usually worth more to a President in the enactment of his program than the hoopla that attends the adoption of his party’s platform…. Let me mention that I emphasize this without apology. It is simply one of the most effective working tools that a political leader has….

Finally, does American politics suffer from too many career politicians? Would our government be purer and more effective if it were more frequently led by political outsiders? No. Our history shows that success in politics is quite different from, and usually “more difficult” than, for example, success in business or the military. That’s why “the most effective political executives and legislators have been by and large the men who have come out of politically oriented backgrounds.”

Therefore, when all is said and done, we Americans

owe much to the practical politician and the adjustments he brings to the inexact science of government. If he is less than certain, it is because he knows, with Holmes, that certitude is not always the test of certainty. If he is less than an intellectual, it is because he knows that not all answers are found in books. If he is less than perfect, it is because he is dealing with less than perfect men.

About five months after he delivered these remarks, some less than perfect men – men of unwavering commitment to principle who believed that compromise is treason and that moderation is cowardice – decided that the U.S. Supreme Court had no authority to require the University of Mississippi to enroll James Meredith, a young African American. One of those men was Governor Barnett. In a series of emotional public appeals – “We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them, never!” – the Governor urged white Mississippians to gather at the University in force to prevent Meredith’s enrollment. Mississippians responded, and on the night of September 30, 1962, two people were killed and several hundred were injured in what amounted to a state-sponsored riot on and around the University campus in Oxford, Mississippi.

William Winter, privately appalled by the Governor’s behavior, was among the small number of Mississippi officials who publicly criticized Barnett. Yet his criticisms were mildly stated and almost always indirect. For example, in a March 1963 speech in Vicksburg, he observed, without mentioning the Governor by name or the Ole Miss riot specifically, that “very few mobs ever spontaneously and automatically form.” But “regardless of what motivates unthinking men to take the law into their own hands, it is the clear and unmistakable duty of Southern politicians to see that it does not happen.” He then called for new political leadership that would

appeal to the best that is in us – not the worst; to our higher selves not our baser instincts. Only in this way can our section [of the country] diminish some of the tensions that have already caused us so much grief and even now threaten more…. [Mississippi needs a leader who] can successfully turn his people from a preoccupation with the race issue and the supercharged emotions of anxiety, fear, and hate….

For new state priorities, Winter favored improved public education and economic development. For the “ever-present problems of race relations,” he urged a search for solutions “other than the bull-whip and the shotgun.” The speech’s overarching theme was that “the South will be able to prosper and progress only as it increasingly finds common cause with the nation of which it is and always has been a vital and irreplaceable part.”3

This way of talking, as uncontroversial as it may seem today, was not particularly popular in Mississippi in 1963. Winter had to work as “practical politician” in Mississippi for 17 more years, almost certainly experiencing more disappointments than joys and even on good days usually having to settle for a glass half full, before finally achieving, in 1979, his goal of being elected Governor of the state.

What can we learn today from William Winter’s words and actions in “defense of the practical politician”? First, we can recognize that this practical politician did what he could, as often he thought he could, to improve the lives of Mississippians. He was consistently decent, honest, empathetic, and intelligent during years in which those qualities were not widely noticeable in Mississippi politics. He worked hard with countless fellow citizens over many years, and often under extremely trying circumstances, to begin to replace “impasse and frustration” with “order and progress.”

On the race issue – the first and in some ways only issue of Mississippi politics – William Winter as a practical politician made a limited but real difference. The historian Charles C. Bolton, assessing Winter’s early career, finds that, after the 1959 state elections, “Winter stood as one of the most-recognizable statewide officials who represented the racially moderate position in Mississippi politics.”4 Assessing Winter’s role in the state in the late 1960s, after his first (and unsuccessful) campaign for Governor, the historian Joseph Crespino describes Winter in 1967 as “a moderate reformer who represented the earliest incarnation of the New South Democratic leadership” that in the 1970s would include Governors such as Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Reubin Askew of Florida.5

Serving in the state’s most important office from 1980 to 1984, Winter was certainly one of Mississippi’s best Governors of the 20th century – in part because he had worked hard for, and won, the support and respect of the great majority of the state’s black leaders. Since leaving both office and the pursuit of office in the early 1990s, he has embraced racial healing and racial justice as central personal priorities. Today he is a still-active leader of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and the nearly universally acknowledged senior leader of Mississippi progressivism.

The great Mississippi writer William Faulkner once suggested that the artist’s goal is to put “a scratch on the face of anonymity.” Faulkner surely made his scratch. In the realm of Deep South politics in the second half of the 20th century, so did William Winter, and I don’t know of many others who can make a better or more honorable claim.

What traits most define this man and this career? I can think of three – all three of which seem to be in short supply and held low regard today.

First, William Winter is a grown-up. He has an adult character structure, reflective of qualities such as the capacity to cooperate with others, the recognition of one’s own limitations, the willingness to see issues from different sides, reasonableness, and the strength of character to hold in check the natural human tendencies toward narcissism and selfishness. How are these qualities faring in our public life today?

Second, William Winter was a depolarizer. His whole approach to politics was based on the idea that, despite our deeply felt and often painful differences, we can find ways to live together and make progress together. Arguably today’s most significant political trend is polarization. Regarding the race issue, Ross Barnett’s days are over. But regarding the values of compromise and political realism, the Ross Barnetts of this world – “He’s no moderate, like some other gent” – are growing in number and riding high and sassy.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, William Winter was a professional politician, a lifelong insider. That meant that if he wanted to keep his job, or gain a better one, he had to focus not solely – and often not even mainly – on the merits of issues, but also on the realities of power and the chances of winning the next election. For the professional politician, issues matter, but so do interests, which means that much of the stuff and glue of everyday politics is transactional, consisting of bargaining, trading, and deal-making. Unlike the activist or amateur politician, who is often fueled by passion, a professional politician is required by his circumstances to maintain a measure of detachment. Today’s front-page crisis is important, but so are the institutions and the interlocking relationships that will remain in place after today’s front-page crisis is over.

The story goes that in 1787, as Benjamin Franklin – by most accounts, one of the wisest of Americans – left Independence Hall on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

It turns out that wisdom is not a cornpone notion or a synonym for “intelligent” or “good.” In recent years, a small but substantial academic literature has found that wisdom is its own thing: a distinctive quality of mind and heart, rare and invaluable and not like anything else. In 2009, a couple of scholars surveyed this literature and found that several traits appear again and again in definitions of wisdom.6 Prosocial attitudes and behaviors that reflect compassion and concern for the common good. Pragmatic knowledge of life and the use of that knowledge to make socially constructive decisions. An ability to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, and to see multiple points of view. Emotional stability and mastery of one’s own feelings. A capacity for reflection and self-understanding.

The list reads like a description of William Winter. More important, it reads like a description of his Practical Politician. What are a republic’s prospects, one is forced to wonder, if its voters and politicians turn away from wisdom?

Read William F. Winter’s “In Defense of the Practical Politician.”

Read William F. Winter’s “The Problems of Southern Politics.”

1. If you think that serving as Mississippi’s top tax official in those days was a snoozer of a job, you’d be wrong. For starters, there was no salary. The tax collector was paid a commission on the taxes he collected. Moreover, part of the job was to collect a black market tax on liquor, the sale of which was prohibited by state law but widely practiced nonetheless. Such a lucrative and corruption-friendly job arrangement (let us count the ways!) had led Winter, as both the Governor’s appointee and as a candidate for the post, to call for its comprehensive overhaul – a change that he and other reformers had achieved by 1963.

2. See Berri Gordon, Ross Barnett and Racism (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 2015).

3. William Winter, “The Problem of Southern Politics,” remarks delivered at All Saints’ Junior College in Vicksburg, Mississippi, March 27, 1963.

4. Charles C. Bolton, “William F. Winter and the Politics of Racial Moderation in Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History (Winter 2008).

5. Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 211.

6. Thomas W. Meeks and Dilip V. Jeste, “Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview,” Archives of General Psychiatry, April 2009.

David Blankenhorn is president of the New York City-based Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.

On Polarization

President Obama on polarization:

And that starts by acknowledging that we do have a problem. And we all know it.  What’s different today is the nature and the extent of the polarization.  How ideologically divided the parties are is brought about by some of the same long-term trends in our politics and our culture.  The parties themselves have become more homogenous than ever.  A great sorting has taken place that drove Southern conservatives out of the Democratic Party, Northern moderates out of the Republican Party, so you don’t have within each party as much diversity of views.

And you’ve got a fractured media.  Some folks watch FOX News; some folks read the Huffington Post.  And very often, what’s profitable is the most sensational conflict and the most incendiary sound bites.  And we can choose our own facts.  We don’t have a common basis for what’s true and what’s not.  I mean, if I listened to some of these conservative pundits, I wouldn’t vote for me either.  I sound like a scary guy.  (Laughter.)

You’ve got advocacy groups that, frankly, sometimes benefit from keeping their members agitated as much as possible, assured of the righteousness of their cause.  Unlimited dark money — money that nobody knows where it’s coming from, who’s paying — drowns out ordinary voices.  And far too many of us surrender our voices entirely by choosing not to vote.  And this polarization is pervasive and it seeps into our society to the point where surveys even suggest that many Americans wouldn’t want their kids to date someone from another political party.  Now, some of us don’t want our kids dating, period.  But that’s a losing battle. (Laughter.)

But this isn’t just an abstract problem for political scientists.  This has real impact on whether or not we can get things done together.  This has a real impact on whether families are able to support themselves, or whether the homeless are getting shelter on a cold day.  It makes a difference as to the quality of the education that kids are getting.  This is not an abstraction.

But so often, these debates, particularly in Washington but increasingly in state legislatures, become abstractions.  It’s as if there are no people involved, it’s just cardboard cutouts and caricatures of positions.  It encourages the kind of ideological fealty that rejects any compromise as a form of weakness.  And in a big, complicated democracy like ours, if we can’t compromise, by definition, we can’t govern ourselves. . . .

. . . The second step towards a better politics is rethinking the way that we draw our congressional districts.  (Applause.)  Now, let me point this out — I want to point this out, because this is another case of cherry-picking here.  (Laughter.)  This tends to be popular in states where Democrats have been drawing the lines among Republicans, and less popular among Republicans where they control drawing the lines.  (Applause.)  So let’s be very clear here — nobody has got clean hands on this thing.  Nobody has got clean hands on this thing.

The fact is, today technology allows parties in power to precision-draw constituencies so that the opposition’s supporters are packed into as few districts as possible.  That’s why our districts are shaped like earmuffs or spaghetti.  (Laughter.)  It’s also how one party can get more seats even when it gets fewer votes.

And while this gerrymandering may insulate some incumbents from a serious challenge from the other party, it also means that the main thing those incumbents are worried about are challengers from the most extreme voices in their own party.  That’s what’s happened in Congress.  You wonder why Congress doesn’t work?  The House of Representatives there, there may be a handful — less than 10 percent — of districts that are even competitive at this point.  So if you’re a Republican, all you’re worried about is what somebody to your right is saying about you, because you know you’re not going to lose a general election.  Same is true for a lot of Democrats.  So our debates move away from the middle, where most Americans are, towards the far ends of the spectrum.  And that polarizes us further.

America’s Descent into Third World Politics

Having worked in the international arena for over ten years, I have personally observed the replacement of decades-long progress in advancing democracy and the rule of law worldwide with the stunning rise of an authoritarian model of politics. Studies now document a worrisome trend: freedom and democracy are in retreat.

Democracy is not just about elections; it is about the rule of law and respect for individual rights.  The retreat of democracy today is harder to detect because it hides behind a superficial commitment to elections. Elections are held, of course, but are increasingly a pathway for the rise of tyrants who have little interest in constitutional limits on power.

The patterns are familiar everywhere.

In every case, authoritarians attack and undermine opposition groups in civil society. For them politics is a zero sum game; if they can’t have what they want, no one will. They take personal control of whatever political party they manage to capture, then shred it to pieces if they must once they’ve achieved their objective.

Among the tyrant’s many enemies is the press, even as the press is used in their rise. They bully into submission reporters who get in their way. They threaten to curb the free press (“open up our libel laws”). They allow their loyal ruffians to physically intimidate adversaries, all the while denying responsibility.

In every case the demagogues and extremists blame the outsider for their countryman’s woes. Their product is paranoia, fear and contempt for anyone different from themselves. Foreigners are a part of a conspiracy to destroy their country from within, they say. Other countries are robbing them blind and they are getting nothing in return, they claim. Free trade means the theft of our jobs, never job creation.

Truth and facts matter little if at all, particularly from those calling attention to the leader’s deep personal flaws. Facts can’t be allowed to get in the way of power. So they cut off all social media and information sources but their own; others can’t be trusted.

Ruthless and narcissistic candidates rarely present a policy program to fix problems, believing that knowledge and competence is a sign of weakness. The solution is not a policy program; it is a person – the Big Man. The Big Man knowingly lies and manipulates, often with broad approval, and surrounds himself with sycophants who bow in obedience in his presence.

Tyrants always exploit society’s divisions. The most convenient scapegoat among demagogues and extremists is the least popular religious or ethnic minority. If our group has lost power, it can only mean that some other group has gained it at our expense.

Never are voters told that they share responsibility for improving their own lives, like working hard at their own education to adapt to a changing economy. Nor does the citizen bear responsibility whatsoever to help improve his country – only to vote for the strong man who will do it all for them.

Does any of this sound familiar?

There are two things that are equally shocking about the above in the age of Trump. For one, Mr. Trump apparently admires this model. He has suggested that authoritarians are better at running their countries and has advocated more advanced forms of torture.  He quotes Mussolini, and in the most telling revelation of Trump’s undemocratic authoritarianism of today, he expresses admiration for Vladimir Putin, one of America’s top foes.

The second sobering reality is that a sizable block of the Republican Party has embraced Trump, apparently concluding that challenging times requires desperate measures. That voters are angry over the collapse of the America dream deserves our full respect; their choice of an authoritarian solution does not. It is a sign of broad moral failure and cultural decline. Trump is winning, fair and square, in spite of many well-known defects, offering proof that authoritarianism can be seductive even in America.

One thing is likely, whatever the outcome of this year’s election, existing party politics will almost certainly never be the same and will need to be rebuilt. Dangerous toxins have entered the blood stream of American politics.

The Republican Party is close to being captured by the very demagoguery that the Founding Fathers feared, and the Democratic Party is being riven with a movement describing itself as revolutionary, led by a self-described socialist espousing a program well outside the American mainstream. There many not be an easy short-term solution. In the meanwhile, Americans who see the dangers and wish to resist the expansion of these influences need to do what conscience requires.

Don Eberly served in the White House under two Presidents, played critical roles in Iraq and Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction, and published several books on civil society.

 

 

Better Angels on Christianity Today’s “Quick to Listen” Podcast

Christianity Today has a launched a new podcast called “Quick to Listen” (A warm twinkie to those who can tell us where that title comes from!) Hint here.

Anyway, this week’s podcast – on the issue of balancing religious freedom with LGBT protections – mentions an important meeting that Better Angels hosted at Centre College a few weeks ago. One of the podcast’s participants discusses her participation in and experience at the gathering and gives a nice shout-out to David and the project in a special section at the end of the show.

It’s worth listening to!

Red States Redder, Blue States Bluer

The study shows that state policies across the country became more liberal between the 1930s and 1970s — and then stopped. In more recent years, overall economic policies have been constant, but social policies have become more liberal.

The findings also confirmed what might have been suspected for some time: that over the past 20 years, states have become more politically polarized — not just in voting for president or members of Congress but also in state-level policies. And that if a state has conservative economic policies, for instance, that conservatism prevails across social policies as well.

Someplace More Polarized Than the U.S.

A really interesting article about political polarization in Turkey.  Here to me is the money quote:

According to the recent study, 83.4 percent [of Turks] do not want their daughters to marry a member of the party constituency they feel is most distant to them. Some 78.4 percent do not want to do business with a member of the most distant party, 76 percent do not want each other as neighbors, and 73.9 percent do not want their kids to be friends with such people.

Demagoguery NYTs Style

We tend to judge the judgmental statements of others from our own place in the world. Among many cultural elites – found in DC, NYC and LA and many university campuses – it is a given that the world-class judgmental demagogues are found on FOX News, in the GOP and among Southern religious conservatives while those on the other end are reasonable, caring and insightful. The former think they are right, but it’s really the latter who are right.

I could be very wrong, but it turns out, I am not. The NYT’s editorial board affirmed my understanding this week in their editorial on the Iowa Caucus. It truly is a piece of work and out foxes FOX in being unreflectively extreme.

Take time to read the short piece here.

Let me give you some examples of their conclusions about each party’s candidates and let you judge whether their piece really brings any honest insight or help to their readers as they prepare for this upcoming election.

  • They lament the “emotional venting common to both parties” but these parties “could not have been more different in the particulars” and nature of this venting.
  • “The Republican candidates,” they explain,  “for the most part, show no real sign of wanting” the emotional venting to subside and only one candidate, in their estimation, tried to “inject a tone of decency and hopefulness in the Republican contest.” They praise Gov. Kasich as this lone person who is capable of any decency and hope.
  • They explain that Marco Rubio has been very crafty as he “tried [tried!] to put a younger, more charming face on the basic Republican message of anger, xenophobia, fear and hate…” as if his manner of politics is merely a political smoke and mirrors trick. Holy Cow!
  • But they explain he couldn’t keep up the rouse because “he fairly quickly veered into demonizing President Obama” on issues such as Obamacare and national security. Rue the day that presidential candidates started passionately pointing out why they think their opponent’s policies are wrong-headed and even dangerous.
  • The GOP stands in stark contrast from the Dems because at least the Hillary/Sanders contest is a genuine “competition of ideas” and criticized each other and their opponents “with more civility than the Republicans and in service of talking about what they wanted to do, not what President Obama failed to do.” Goodness.
  • Hillary Clinton, in contrast to the wild-eyed and mean spirited GOP crowd, “frames her candidacy much more cerebrally and pragmatically”. She will get great good accomplished as she “made rousing calls to protect women’s rights, on wage equality, and on health care, but her primary pitch was that she detailed ideas and the ability to make them happen.”

The editorial board has made this complex race simple by showing who’s who.

GOP: mean xenophobic haters who only know how to  whiners, complain and have no solutions whatever.

The Democrats: Smart, serious, compassionate, solution oriented, addressing the real issues head-on.

Now take your pick people.

Theirs is as good a case-study as any in how to do political analysis without getting bogged down in any sort of nuance whatever. Just keep it black and white. Easier that way.

Comments Policy

In short, our civility policy is: Be powerful, be rigorous, be funny, but don't be mean.View full civility policy.

In the News

In Defense of the Practical Politician
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 5/25/2016

A Conversation with William F. Winter
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 5/25/2016

With the Anti-Trumpers in New York
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 3/21/2016

Is There a Movement to Depolarize America?
Allison Pond, Deseret News, 3/6/2016

Understanding Trump
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 2/23/2016

Follow

Institute for American Values, 1841 Broadway, Suite 211, New York NY 10023 212.246.3942