March 6, 2017


The Demise of Civility and the Need for a Common, Unifying Purpose

I’ve lived long enough and read enough history books to know that the vilification of political opponents and those who disagree with us is not new.  We have seen it before and we’ll see it again.

Especially with our two-party system, we are always going to have disagreements on policy and on philosophy and values, too.  That is healthy.  It is human, and it makes for progress.

However, recent events, marked by the broadside pronouncements of Donald Trump and the prosecutorial-like questioning of Hillary Clinton in the House Sub-Committee’s hearing on Benghazi last month, has brought the issue front and center for me in a more dramatic way.

The polarization of discussion has moved beyond what can be considered healthy.  It has moved to vilifying groups of people (e.g., immigrants and Muslims) and to character assassination (e.g., disloyalty to the country and accusations of outright lying).

I wouldn’t take the time to write this if the only thing that worried me about it was the distaste for uncivil and disrespectful discourse.  It is something much more important than that which concerns me.

I am concerned that this kind of attitude creates adversarial relationships that prevent us from working together to resolve the most important issues facing our nation, such as how do we help all young people grow up to be productive adults, stimulate greater growth in our economy, and advance policies and actions that make for a safer world.

It is also turning people off.  This back-biting discourse is one of the reasons voter turnout is at depressingly low levels.

What, I have asked myself, is driving this polarization, and increasing level of uncivil, disrespectful discourse?  I suspect one driver is what has always been with us:  the desire to show “we are right”—the desire to lift ourselves up versus “others” to prove our self-worth.

But there is something else, I believe.  There is the lack of a common, unifying purpose – a robust vision of what we can be as a country and what we can be as a world, for all people.  To be sure, there has never been a point in history when the people of our nation or perhaps any nation were in unanimous agreement on what such a vision would be.  But there have been times where there has been the leadership and vision that has brought the majority of people together.

When those times have been will vary in the eye of the beholder and as interpreted by historians, it will have varied over time.  I will not weigh in on that here.  What I will weigh in on is the conviction that there have been many times when our national leaders, in the Presidential Administration and our Houses of Congress, have worked together without the personal venom we see today and with the conviction that compromise is not equivalent to selling out one’s soul--that, indeed, compromise is essential to achieving outcomes to advance the most important needs and opportunities in our nation. 

There is a substantive reason for the change I’m describing, and that is the genuine widening in what a majority of the Republican Party and of the Democratic Party view as the proper role of government in people’s lives.  It goes beyond the scope of this short paper to trace the magnitude of that gap over time.  It would be interesting in this regard to compare the party platforms in different presidential cycles over the past 150 years or so to note the differences that exist, large or small.  Whatever, perhaps exacerbated by gerrymandering and the role of money in elections, the gap in the judged proper role of government held by the majorities of our two parties has widened a great deal over the last 50 years.  As one illustration and drawing from Tim Wise’s excellent book, “Under the Affluence,” I cite this section of the 1956 Republican Party platform:  

“We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs:
            --expansion of social security
            --broadened coverage in unemployment insurance
            --improved housing
            --better health protection for all our people 
We are determined that our government remain morally responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.”

Later, in the same platform, the GOP bragged about the fact that, under the leadership of President Eisenhower, “The federal minimum wage has been raised for more than 2 million workers.  Social security has been extended to an additional 10 million workers, and the benefits raised for 6-1/2 million.”  Going even further, Republicans trumpeted the fact that union membership was up 2 million since 1952 and, later, the platform called for “equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex.”

How does one explain the tremendous difference in position between that platform and mainstream GOP ideology today?  Reading Wise’s book leads me to believe a key reason was that the social benefits, coming after World War II, were seen and in fact were benefiting the broad middle class, the great majority of the population, whereas today, quite incorrectly as it turns out, government support is portrayed by the majority of the members of the Republican Party as going to people who are “less deserving,” who perhaps just haven’t worked hard enough or have gotten themselves into trouble.  In too many ways, government support plans (unlike, say, the GI Bill and housing support which drove the improvement of life and the overall economy so strongly following World War II) are seen to be going to a small minority.  In fact, most of the government-provided benefits today, e.g., social security, Medicare, student loans, expanded health coverage and home mortgage interest deductions are going to the broad public.

I wouldn’t want my earlier example of how Hillary Clinton was quizzed in the Sub-Committee hearing to suggest that denigrating the “opposition” is confined to the right or to the Republican Party.  We see it on the left as well.  We are not going to bring this country together or solve the challenges in front of us by pilloring CEOs and their salaries or characterizing Wall Street and banks as the “source of all evil,” as some critics tend to do.

Yes, in general, CEO salaries have gone past the point of reasonableness.  It’s hard to deny that, when you read that the average salary of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies grew from 42 times the average American worker in 1980 to 372 times the average worker in 2014.  And, whatever it is, pay should be calibrated to performance!  But remember:  these CEOs have worked hard to get where they are.  Their jobs are on the line every day.  The average tenure in CEO jobs is less than it has ever been. 

So, too, proper regulation of banks and industry are important matters.  But let’s remember two things; our economy would not begin to be what it is today nor where we need it to be in the future if we do not have thriving, innovating corporations, large and small, providing jobs and quality products and good careers for employees.  

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, like it or not, we are not going to reduce our increasing income inequality by depicting business leaders as corrupt and mean-spirited.  First of all, it’s not generally true; second, we can be sure it will trigger a defensive reaction that will throttle the advance of social policies which are vital to give people of lesser means equal opportunity.

The bottom line is that we need to recognize that we are all in this together.  Not just in some rhetorical kumbaya sense but because if we are not together, we are not going to accomplish what we need to.

In this regard, we need to recognize that we are the common beneficiaries of many government programs.  The idea that government should be “stamped out,” that less is always better, is a glittering generality that defies knowledge of the realities of life.  Where would we be if we didn’t have government-sponsored research into disease, government-supported infrastructure, social security, or our nation’s defense?  Where would we be if we didn’t have the government underpinning of a law-abiding court system and laws?

Yes, government is sometimes too invasive.  We can ask it to do things that are best done by the private sector.  But this is not an “either/or” issue.  It is a question of choice and balanced judgment based on experience and the particular situation.  

We’ve got to turn away from having government versus non-government become an ideological wedge as opposed to a practical question of how to best provide the benefits that people and society need.

I believe that it will be as we recognize the common benefits being provided by government and by business, while providing constraints where we should, that we will come together as a nation.  That is what characterized the period during my lifetime where we came together more than any other.  That was the period following World War II, when our middle class was growing, benefiting from such government programs as the GI Bill and home loans and while corporate America was booming.

We are not going to go back to that time.  But there are principles of how we came together and what our common mindset was as evidenced by the Republican platform I cited earlier.  While a reading of the two party platforms in 1956 reveals party conflict, there was far greater agreement on the role government should play in advancing the welfare of the public than there is today.

There are many needs and opportunities in front of us which should draw us together across party lines; -- for example, the development of our children from the very earliest of age, the war against drugs, the growth of our economy, the rationalization of our penal codes and prison system, and the improvement of our infrastructure.

We have to stop pitting one group against another. 

Whether you agree with my historical analysis or not, we would all agree in hoping, desperately, that we will achieve a more uniting vision and commitment to work together in the next administration.  Our country and the world need it and the people demand it.

We have great challenges ahead of us.  We will be not meet them unless/until we can work together with a far more mutual respect and trust than we have today.

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