Other Voices: Does it work from the middle? An Englishman looks at political bipartisanship
What do you think of this?
“A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation. A politician looks for the success of his party; a statesman for that of his country. The statesman wishes to steer while the politician is satisfied to drift.”
I am torn between admiring such skilled cadences, and wanting to protest about the bum rap it is for politicians. That it is the pronouncement of a Unitarian minister, J. F. Clarke (1810-1858), rather than someone active within the world of politics, doesn’t add to its appeal.
I first encountered this stereotype of the politician at school when I was 13 or thereabouts in the early 1950s. Our teacher, Mr. McKenzie, was a short, whimpering sort of a man, dwarfed by many of the boys in the class, and actually bullied by a few, I’m afraid.
I remember the occasion. It was when Mr. McKenzie tried to explain how the British parliament worked. He told us the significance of where members of parliament sit in the House of Commons. On one side of the chamber the seats are for “His Majesty’s Government” (this was before Elizabeth became Queen in 1952) and on the other side, facing them, “His Majesty’s Opposition.”
Such odd terms, I remember thinking. After all, the British monarch began to lose political power big time when King Charles the First literally lost his head in 1649, and yet 300 years later the reigning monarch not only claims ownership of the government, but grants the elected opposition the noble distinction of being his, too!
Something didn’t feel right about this. Some people are elected to govern the country and others to oppose everything the government is trying to do? That can’t be right, can it?
My confusion agitated me enough to ask a question, something I rarely did in any class. I raised my hand. “Sir,” my light treble voice began, as we has been trained to address staff, “what if someone in the opposition actually agrees with what the government wants to do?”
“Good question, boy,” said Mr. McKenzie. “Well, if they agreed, they would be sitting on the other side of the House, wouldn’t they? Now where was I?” and on he rushed toward the day’s final school bell, leaving me unclear about whether he had answered or dismissed my question.
But the question has stuck with me, and in my naïvete, as I realized many moons later, I had stumbled across the quest of politics for the holy, but apparently inaccessible, grail that these days is referred to as bi-partisanship, or as Sen. Edward Kennedy could demonstrate, so people say, with an unequaled facility, “crossing the aisle.”
As I write, we face the prospect of a Democratic bill in the American Congress to reform health care that may succeed without a single vote of support from the Republican Party, or fail for want of Republican support (or fail as a result of a rebellion by the so-called blue-collar Democrats from the southern states).
The amateur strategist in me thinks that if a bill fails for want of support from within the party presenting it, it should never have been brought to a vote in the first place. But if the resistance is based on the need, as Rush Limbaugh seems to have suggested, that everything must be done to ensure the party of the president in power fails in everything it tries to do, then this is a different kettle of fish. The division then has nothing much to do with values or ideologies, or the needs of the people the members of Congress represent, and everything to do with the struggle for power.
Of course, as you see, this reflects the cynicism about politicians with which this piece started, and which seems to be popular all over the world.
So, here is a dilemma for anyone wanting to achieve good government. A party with an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress can certainly get things done, but will that result in high quality decisions that can best come from the pressure of dissent by the opposition, however small? Or maybe, if you allow the opposition in, you end up with such limp compromises that nothing radical can ever stand a chance?
There is another dimension to this problem – the electorate. The history of general elections in Britain in my time seems to suggest the voting public will tolerate radical or extreme politics only for a while. After then it turns its affections in the opposite direction.
I am old enough to remember the euphoria of the unexpected success of the British Labour party at the end of World War II that ousted the party of the nation’s hero, Winston Churchill.
After that I have only a hazy recollection of the left wing and the right wing taking it in turns to form the government, with ineffectual attempts by Liberals and, later, Social Democrats to win for a sort of middle way.
I have a more vivid memory of the longer reign of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, but once her heir, John Major, fell and the nation brought Tony Blair and the Labour Party back to power in the 1990s – a reversal apparently about to end its run – it became even clearer to me that the British public tolerates only so much of each party before it demands change.
Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown, who succeeded him, have had a longer run with a Labour government than most modern British governments, and this may be because Mr. Blair learned from President Clinton that less radical, and more centrist approaches are more viable, though it doesn’t explain why the British Liberals and Social Democrats (who eventually combined into the present Liberal Democratic party) have never had the same appeal from the center. It seems the public prefers moderation among the big boys.
Rab Butler, a senior Conservative party politician of a previous generation in Britain, memorably defined politics as “the art of the possible,” and that surely implies achievement through compromise. You get things done only when your opponents can be persuaded to temper their resistance and work with you just as far as is needed to succeed.
Robert Caro, in his major book on L. B. Johnson’s rise to power in the Senate tells of the way LBJ hectored Sen. Hubert Humphrey on the importance of compromise.
“Compromise is not a dirty word,” he would say. “The Constitution itself represents the first great national compromise.”
But LBJ went further. As Caro puts it, his position was that those who refuse to compromise are a threat. “The purveyors of perfection,” as he came to call them, “are dangerous when they move
self-righteously to dominate.”
Humphrey later struggled with the label describing him as one of “the unprincipled compromisers,” but he got over it. He was to say, “I felt it was important that we inch along even if we couldn’t gallop along, at least that we trot a little bit.” Rab Butler’s art of the possible, I suppose.
It doesn’t look at the moment that the Republicans in Congress can see much beyond the need to stop the Democrats rather than work with them. Newsweek recently carried a piece by Sam Tannenhaus who had written extensively over the years about the right wing in politics. His article is about the future of the GOP, and he laments what seems to be happening now in Congress. One bit in particular captured my attention, not because it wags a finger at the right, but because it is a message for both wings in our politics.
“The function of conservatives is not to meet every liberal program or scheme with a denunciation or a destructive counterscheme, but rather to weigh its advantages and defects, supporting the first and challenging the second. A declaration of ideological warfare against liberalism is, by its nature, profoundly unconservative. It meets perceived radicalism with a counterradicalism of its own.”
Just try reading this aloud, replacing conservative with liberal (and vice-versa) and you will see it works well for both extremes!
The question is whether this is too utopian to achieve any of the really big reforms that are needed. I talked recently to some students about the idea of the good being the enemy of the best. Now, I suppose I need to explore with them whether one party’s best is the enemy of what two parties together can make possible.
Bill Simmons lives in Lake Wildwood.
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