From Harvard came the Marshall Plan, from the University of Michigan Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. John F. Kennedy gave his space-race speech at Rice and his world-peace speech at American University. Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Years from now, if we are lucky, we may recall that the big idea of the early 21st century came from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.
Like the others — the ideas that social justice and peace are good and that the threat of Soviet expansion and war are bad — the Allegheny idea isn’t really new, just a plain-sense notion plainly expressed.
Allegheny is a tiny college, fiercely proud of its devotion to teaching and admirably willing to boast of students whose interests are “wonderfully weird” — you’ll find those exact words on its website. Wonderfully weird, perhaps, but the Allegheny alumni I know also are wonderfully intelligent and sensible, so it is no surprise that the Allegheny idea is simple: “Nastiness, Name-calling and Negativity” (the title of the college’s ground-breaking new report) are bad, and civility and compromise are good.
The report emerges from a Zogby International poll of the nation that shows the better angels of America’s nature at work among the public if not among its politicians. The poll shows that 95 percent of Americans want civility in politics; 87 percent want political disagreement to be respectful; 70 percent want compromise, even on the most divisive issues.
These findings produce what the Allegheny researchers describe as a rule book for politics. The rules are a lot simpler than the infield fly rule and the reserve clause, for they bar the following common elements of our politics: belittling or insulting opponents; making personal attacks on people with whom you disagree; shouting over someone during an argument; interrupting people in public; manipulating the facts to persuade others to your viewpoint; and questioning opponents’ patriotism.
It’s no surprise the public deplored all those things — even though you can see them on the House floor or hear them on your car radio just about every day.
The truth is that our civic life is no longer civil.
We all are drearily familiar with the argument that it was always like this. This view leans on the lousy comments the Federalists made about the Democratic-Republicans, or the nature of the opposition to Abraham Lincoln, or the insulting bromides about 1884 presidential nominees James G. Blaine (“the continental liar from the state of Maine”) and Grover Cleveland (“Ma, Ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”)
Yes, politics ain’t beanbag, as Finley Peter Dunne taught us a century ago. But the fact is that we remember these singular incidents precisely because they are departures from the norm rather than the norm itself. Today the nature of American politics is so acidic, so rife with rumors and what Harry Truman would call things that just aren’t so, that a poll showing the quite unremarkable fact that the public deplores these tactics is considered remarkable.
“Americans want to be passionate about politics,” says Daniel M. Shea, the Allegheny political scientist who led this undertaking. “This isn’t about lying down or retreating. It’s about airing interests and concerns in a respectful way. At the end of the day, we should still be neighbors and still be friends.”
Fair enough. But while we encourage compromise in our daily dealings at home, on the playground or at the office, we often ridicule compromise in politics. This contradiction is imbedded in our history and in the controversies that linger from our past.
Should we, for example, celebrate the Compromise of 1850 for putting off the Civil War for a decade or condemn it for the Fugitive Slave Law that was part of it? Why do we celebrate Henry Clay for being the Great Compromiser when we criticize other politicians for bending their principles?
Here’s one of the most startling findings in the Allegheny study, which, at the same time, is not so surprising at all: Some 85 percent want politicians to cultivate friendships with members of the other party.
This used to be normal behavior. Consider the little-noticed but very revealing conversation that former Republican Rep. Ronald A. Sarasin of Connecticut, later the president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, conducted with former House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, a Democrat, and former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, a Republican, in 2006. What is astonishing to the eyes reading a transcript of it in 2010 is the prominence of the word “friend.”
In the era of Michel and Foley, the two parties swapped venues for bipartisan leadership meetings, first in the Democrat’s office, then in the Republican’s. Now such meetings hardly ever occur anywhere. In the Michel-Foley era, party rivals played gin rummy after hours and golf on weekends.
“When you have that kind of a relationship it begins at the top, and I think that’s what’s very necessary in order to filter down to the members so they take a lead from their leaders,” said Michel. “Well, if they are getting together and talking socially and being civil to one another, maybe we ought to.”
What a concept. But then again, it was this very familiarity with the Democrats, who had been in the majority for 40 years, that spelled the end of Michel’s rule and opened the way to the more combative speakership of Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Today, Republicans remember the indignity of 40 years in the wilderness on Capitol Hill — an indignity, it must be added, that wasn’t soothed by gin rummy or golf — and resent the way the Democrats this year muscled through the overhaul of the health care system. Today, Democrats consider the Republicans obstructionists so bent on destroying the presidency of Barack Obama that they won’t even vote for a bipartisan commission on the deficit that they supported before Obama embraced it.
All that’s true, but all that’s history. And the Allegheny report has a rejoinder for it all: Get over it. Get together.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.