Some irenic thoughts about a current topic. One of my favorite courses to teach–which unfortunately I won’t be teaching again soon, now that I live in Missouri–was “Buckeye Presidents,” a survey of the eight presidents from Ohio (W. H. Harrison, U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, W. H. Taft, and Warren G. Harding). The course is essentially a history of the Republican party from the early days of the Whigs through the 1920s, when the GOP’s conservative wing took precedence over Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism. I use course time to educate students, in a non-partisan way of course, about the differences of philosophy and policy of both parties. I tell students that I hope they gain an awareness of politics so that they could make informed decisions.
After feeling dispirited, lately, about politics–the fact that we’ve seen such polarization during the past two presidencies and now Obama’s–I found two articles this past fall that gave me some hope. One was Jon Meacham’s excellent editorial, “Words Have Consequences,” in the Sept. 28, 2009 issue of Newsweek, where he decries both the liberal demonization of President Bush and the current conservative demonization of President Obama. (See http://www.newsweek.com/id/215744 )
I was also interested in an article, “Getting to No: The Republican Dilemma in the Age of Obama” by Peter J. Boyer in a recent New Yorker (Sept. 28, 2009, pp. 32-36). Boyer quotes former congressman Pat Toomey, “I’m pretty conservative. I’m pro-life, for instance. But it never occurred to me that someone who is pro-choice can’t be a good Republican, or shouldn’t be part of our coalition. We can disagree about that issue, we can try to persuade each other about that issue, but that should never be a reason for excluding someone. On fiscal matters, nobody’s got a monopoly on exactly what the right number is that we ought to be spending this year. Now, I think we’ve spent too much, and I’ll argue that pretty forcefully. But reasonable people can disagree about what the right number is. Those are all very health discussions to have within a great party. But there does have to be a unifying theme–there has to be some idea that brings us together, or else it’s completely meaningless” (p. 33, first column).
Boyer notes how the GOP has rebounded since 2008, but that “[w]ithin the Republican Party, the intensity is all on the side of the aggrieved base” (pp. 36, top of second column). Thinking about Toomey‘s comments, Boyer writes, “The question remaining for many Republicans is whether the Party can develop a strategy beyond opposition, an argument for governing that will expand its appeal [and thus increase a sense of inclusion within the party] beyond its ideological core” (p. 36, bottom of third column). Jacob Weisberg’s article, “Do As We Say, Not As We Do,” in the Dec. 21, 2009 Newsweek (see http://www.newsweek.com/id/226481) illustrates the way some GOP congressmen are still leading-through-opposition rather than through a well-thought-through ideology.
This week, I’ve wondered if the Democrat’s efforts to accomplish Senate passage of the reform bill before Christmas will possibly contribute to the erosion of public support for health-care reform, support which has been dropping some during the past few months. In order to gain the key 60th vote from Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Nelson himself gained additional federal funds to help Nebraska pay for its large Medicaid-eligible population. Nelson’s demands concerning restriction of abortion funding were also controversial among both pro-choice and pro-life contingents. Another senator, Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), expressed pride in a late-inserted funding increase of $10 billion for community health centers around the country. Still another controversial addition to the bill was increased government funding for Montana, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming hospitals. Such excessive government spending and interference is one of the chief concerns of critics (see http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091219/ap_on_bi_ge/us_health_care_overhaul )
For those of us who support some kind of just health care system because of our religious convictions–specifically, the Bible’s call for a society in which the needy are cared for–rather than primarily through a particular party’s platform, the political process seems worrisome, and not very just! That’s the reality of politics: legislation, and the social change that results from legislation, is often the result of persuasive rhetoric, deal-making, pressure tactics, compromise, the pulse of public opinion, the likelihood of a party’s reelection, and so on.
But although politics is a necessarily a messy business, one of the reasons why I’ve been discouraged this year has been the seeming dominance of angry, irrational voices in our current climate, not only media commentators and politicians but also folks on the street. Those who claim the high moral ground resort to slogans and sarcasm, even those who are attempting rational discussion. I would never say that all conflict is unhealthy: conflict can be a necessary way to move issues forward and achieve positive change. But, to echo Rep. Toomey, how do you achieve political wisdom and cooperation when conflict becomes strident?
I’m being idealistic. I’m a teacher and I enjoy open, positive discussion in classrooms. But even very early presidential elections like 1796 and 1800 were bitter, slanderous campaigns. So were several of the campaigns of the eight presidents I mentioned earlier, and others that you could name. As Meacham notes in his editorial, bipartisan cooperation may be an ideal but we’ve never had anything like a golden age of political concord. Throughout our history, our political system has held together reasonable discussion, intense controversy, public and backstage maneuvering, aggrieved opposition, and goals of social change. A good reason always to keep our government and leaders in our prayers!