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Source: The Globe & Mail, 1-25-11

…History suggests Abraham Lincoln’s faith in “the better angels of our nature” has been a fleeting sentiment in American politics. Indeed, his 1861 inaugural appeal to secessionists preceded by only five weeks the outbreak of the paradoxically named Civil War.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, with its “self-evident” truths, among them the belief that all men are created equal. Yet, while campaigning for president in 1800, his political pamphlets derided John Adams as “having a hideous hermaphroditical character.”

“Politics could get very raw and tough in those days,” McGill University history professor Gil Troy explained in an interview. But incivility in American politics “has waxed and waned.”

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood human nature. They wanted to prevent American society from degenerating into rigid, ideologically driven factions – and their potential for destructive conflict. They designed a political system to favour consensus over confrontation.

“They hoped there would be enough countervailing forces and conflicting loyalties, and enough of a sense of a common cause and big-picture nationalism, that there wouldn’t be these permanent parties,” Prof. Troy said.

Instead, rabid partisanship is as much a pillar of American politics as the separation of powers. And it is no coincidence that the current language of political debate rivals in vitriol the worst periods of past two centuries.

“What’s going on in our politics is a reflection of what’s going on in our culture,” Prof. Troy, an American native, added. “We’re in a phase in our history where our culture’s become extremely vulgar. The blogosphere is extremely shrill.”…

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Montreal Gazette, 1-13-11

It’s time to return to the notion of ‘malice toward none’ and ‘charity for all’

A makeshift memorial for  victims of the shooting in Tucson: the tragedy sparked concern about  overheated political discourse.

A makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting in Tucson: the tragedy sparked concern about overheated political discourse.

Photograph by: Eric Thayer, Reuters

The tragic Arizona rampage that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six citizens, including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who wanted to see “how our government works,” has triggered the predictable recitations about America’s long history of political violence -without any evidence that this was a political crime.

That vast numbers of shocked observers immediately concluded that the gunman’s lunatic actions were in some way linked to the present fervid red-blue debate in the United States speaks volumes about the overheated rhetoric that has come to characterize much of America’s political discourse in recent years.

But political civility has an equally long and robust U.S. pedigree. We should appreciate the coalition-builders, not the partisans; the statesmen, not the demagogues; the magnanimous uniters, not the cranky dividers. In matters political, the big broad tent with stakes driven deep into America’s rich soil is more constructive and more lasting than partisan lean-tos tilting left or right.

Transcending partisanship, understanding that every discussion about politics or culture or society need not be reduced to a red-blue, all-or-nothing partisan paradigm, is an essential first step in embracing a civilizing center. As a man of enlightenment, George Washington assumed that if his reason led him to certain conclusions, someone else’s reason, equally reasonably, could lead to an opposing position. Alas, two centuries later, such civility often invites charges of being weak and vacillating from both sides of the great over-reported color-coded divide.

Some anger is healthy in a democracy. Especially in our consumer-addled, narcotized societies, anger motivates. We need passion to pull ourselves away from our iPods and plunge into politics. Moreover, anger can be logical. The humanitarian philosopher Elie Wiesel notes, wisely, that anger is the rational response to terrorism. The mass murder of innocents and genocidal calls to destroy Western society should not be treated lightly, moderately.

Nevertheless, our parents were right: when you play with matches you risk getting burned. Red and blue partisans stoke a fury that demonizes fellow citizens and curdles their own souls, singeing the social fabric that strong communities and effective democracies need.

Although partisan mudslinging has long been as American as apple pie, the U.S. tolerance for calcified and polarizing partisan conflict seems to have mushroomed in the two centuries since the founding fathers wrote the constitution. The constitutionalists expected conflict -but they hoped to manage it, subdue it, dissipate it. During the passionate debate over whether to ratify the constitution, the man who would be remembered as “the father of the constitution,” James Madison, wrote the classic American text on the subject in The Federalist Papers. Madison identified the “tendency to break and control the violence of faction” as one of the most important “advantages promised by a well-constructed union.” He sought “enlightened statesmen” who could “adjust … clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good.”

Of course, U.S. politics has long been brutal, more contact sport than bake-off. But attitudes change. Leadership counts. Today’s sour, cynical climate is a historical construct. It can be made better -or worse.

After the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for “malice toward none” and “charity toward all.” In the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan presided over periods of patriotic renewal and increased idealism. In the 21st century, that kind of leadership, those kinds of results, are still possible. We eagerly await such leaders.

This search for civility, learning to disagree agreeably, might be the quintessential democratic quest. Democracy represents a leap of faith that a diverse group of people can find common ground, be they the 22 kids in my elementary school who elected me class president or the 300 million people the U.S. president represents. Seeking to make as many people in a given society winners, without alienating or marginalizing the losers, is a noble endeavour. Developing the common vocabulary -Madison’s “public voice” -and finding that broad social consensus is indeed democracy’s Holy Grail.

Today, more and more people turned off by the shrill partisanship of the engaged few are joining a disengaged majority. They escape the hardscrabble fights, seeking comfort in what Thomas Jefferson, quoting the Renaissance thinker Montaigne, called the “softest pillow” of political ignorance. Fortunately, even amid our current challenges, most Americans enjoy the luxury of being able to escape. But rather than being forced between the “softest pillow” of political ignorance and the hard rocks of partisan warfare, Americans once again need to seek the Madisonian golden mean, Washington’s “goodly fabric,” a muscular moderation and civilizing statesmanship that tackles problems practically and creatively rather than ideologically with blinders on, from the left or the right.

Civility is mass-produced by millions of small but bighearted gestures, but all too easily destroyed by a few loud or violent small-minded people. All of us, regardless of our political colors, should make amends for the hysteria of these last few years, reflect on today’s continuing tensions, and approach tomorrow with more openness, mutuality, acceptance, respect, humility and love -even for those who will still dare to disagree with us.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University. He is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-16-09

When Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine voted for the Senate Finance Committee’s health bill this week, Democrats rejoiced. “We have today a bipartisan bill,” White House Press Secretary Joe Gibbs exulted. While it made sense for Democrats to welcome Snowe’s support after an excruciating, high-stakes process, one moderate maverick crossing the aisle does not make the bill truly bipartisan. Mistaking a deviation for a trend in politics is like mistaking one defection for a peace treaty during wartime.

Wherever one stands on the health care debate, and on Senator Snowe’s decision, it is misleading to call this week’s tokenism bipartisanship. True bipartisanship means working together, building bridges, finding common interests, forging consensus. Bipartisanship is Republicans and Democrats spurred by the graciousness of John McCain and Barack Obama, celebrating the election of the first African-American President last November. Bipartisanship is McCain and 13 other centrist Senators creating a “Gang of Fourteen” to approve Republican judicial nominations so as to head off the “nuclear option” threatening Senate prerogatives Democrats were enjoying. And bipartisanship is the shared feelings of mourning mingled with patriotism after 9/11, epitomized by dozens of tearful, subdued members of Congress spontaneously singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps hours after the downing of Flight 93, which may have been targeting that very site.

Historically, true bipartisanship occurred when righteous renegades or statesmanlike party leaders led others to create a broad coalition, even if reluctantly. Back in 1964, Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader, was the key figure in breaking the 83-day filibuster against the landmark Civil Rights Bill. President Lyndon Johnson gave Senator Dirksen his famous “treatment,” understanding the secret formula for Congressional cajolery: one part flattery, one part bribery, leavened by a sense of history. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deployed by Johnson as point man, recalled wooing Dirksen aggressively but elegantly: “I began a public massage of his ego, and appealed to his vanity. I said he should look at this issue as ‘a moral issue, not a partisan one.’ The gentle pressure left room for him to be the historically important figure in our struggle, the statesman above bipartisanship….” More crassly, Humphrey admitted he even would have been willing to kiss “Dirksen’s ass on the Capitol steps.”

Humphrey finally succeeded without going that far. Dirksen broke the filibuster, quoting Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality … in education and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied it is here.” The cloture vote passed with a surprisingly wide margin of 71 to 29. When asked how he became a force pushing for civil rights Dirksen grandly replied, “I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind.”

Dirksen’s sense of history made him immortal – they named a Senate Office building after him, among other things. Moreover he saved the Republican Party. Today, whatever else their standing with African-Americans may be at any particular moment, Republicans can say with pride that they helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, thanks to Everett Dirksen.

Similarly, in the 1940s, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg helped lead his party and the nation away from a pinched, provincial, isolationism. President Harry Truman could construct his emerging Cold War foreign policy as bipartisan, thanks especially to Vandenberg. On Friday, April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending Franklin Roosevelt’s era of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg’s pronouncement that “politics stops at the water’s edge” built popular consensus behind America’s containment strategy. Vandenberg remained a Republican and occasionally contradicted the President, saying that frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The senator saw himself leading the “loyal opposition” putting “national security ahead of partisan advantage.”

Senator Vandenberg’s journey from ardent partisan isolationist to leading bipartisan interventionist reflected the massive ideological shift Franklin Roosevelt facilitated, and Harry Truman completed. Vandenberg’s rift with the Republican isolationists underlined the continuing American resistance to becoming a world superpower. America did not even have a standing army. Many isolationists such as “Mr. Republican,” Ohio Senator Robert Taft, reluctantly accepted the fight against fascism but hoped returning to normalcy included restoring America’s characteristic insulation.

Facing a divided country and a treacherous world, Truman crusaded for cooperation. In his first speech to Congress, on April 16, 1945, Truman said only “a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals” could provide the “enlightened leadership” the world needed. This strategy, and both Vandenberg’s and Truman’s good works, were vindicated repeatedly, culminating with Soviet Communism’s collapse, which historians credit as a bipartisan victory.

By contrast, a century earlier the “Compromise of 1850” was not much of a compromise — or too much of a compromise. No one was happy. Henry Clay’s nationalist attempt to craft an omnibus package had failed, rejected in the summer of 1850. The legislation passed – but ultimately failed – because the young Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas crafted a series of shifting congressional coalitions passing individual parts of the legislation, reflecting sectional differences not national concerns. Southerners supported the individual planks which pleased Southerners, while Northern representatives endorsed the pro-Northern legislation. There was no reconciliation, legislative or otherwise. The misnamed Compromise of 1850 failed to find common ground or common terms, the essential elements of bipartisanship. In playing to sectional differences not splitting the difference, the Compromise spread the pain without consolidating any gain.

Senators Dirksen and Vandenberg made history because they were not renegades but pioneers, leading their reluctant, partisan followers across the Red Sea to the promised land of bipartisanship to benefit America. Presidents Johnson and Truman – with assists from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others — understood that bipartisanship is not about luring one or two mavericks across the aisle, but convincing a broad swath of citizens and leaders that change is coming, and better to be on the right side of history.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 4-21-09

Countering America’s tradition of moderate, bipartisan presidential leadership is an equally vibrant tradition of moderate masqueraders, partisans obscuring their sharp political elbows with bipartisan rhetoric. In 1968, Richard Nixon now the “New Nixon,” ran to heal his fragmented nation. Six years later, Nixon resigned, his presidency derailed by his partisan overreaction to student protests which triggered the Watergate scandal. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to unite America, only to govern as a divisive president. One hundred days into his presidency, Barack Obama wavers. At his best, he has wooed Republicans, seeking a new, welcoming center for a nation reeling from economic cataclysm, continuing foreign threats and Bush’s tumultuous tenure. At his worst, President Obama has indulged Congressional Democrats and party sensibilities rather than offering the moderate statesmanship America needs.

The First Hundred Days is an artificial benchmark rooted in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obama’s presidency is unfolding. John Kennedy proved more successful than his first hundred days suggested, marred as it was by the failed Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion; Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush ended their respective presidencies less successfully than each began. Still, a presidential character starts forming. The First Hundred Days launches many story lines that ultimately determine a president’s destiny.

President Obama’s debut has been less bold than he promised and, frankly, confusing. Regarding foreign policy, his rhetoric has veered left but his actions have stayed centrist. Domestically, his rhetoric has been more moderate than his policies.

Obama’s foreign affairs messaging has positioned him as the “unBush.” From apologizing for American “arrogance” in Europe to smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to denouncing torture, Obama has enraged conservatives. But Obama has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified the military push in Afghanistan. And he gave the shoot to kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.

At its best, Obama’s foreign policy has used George W. Bush as a straw man, to appear to be hitting the oft-mentioned “reset button,” without acting irresponsibly. Obama’s approach to the Durban anti-racism review conference exemplified his strategy. In sending diplomats to preliminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike his predecessor. By nevertheless boycotting because too many delegates from Muslim countries pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western, and anti-free speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.

Ultimately, Obama must define his foreign policy more clearly. He will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than simply apologizing for Bush’s “war on terror.” And the Obama administration will have to find its moral center, rather than disappointing dissidents worldwide when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the United States and China. Still, this has been a clever, cautious start for a president with a thin foreign policy resume.

Obama’s greatest challenge has been righting America’s economic ship of state. Watching the confusion among our supposed experts, seeing how many very smart people made such a mess, the President probably is as baffled as the rest of us. Just as it is easy during boom times to forget that a bust may soon come, it is easy to forget downturns are cyclical and fleeting too. Of course, the President lacks the luxury of waiting it out. Obama argues that too little governmental response in the 1930s made matters worse – forgetting that too much governmental intervention in the 1970s was equally harmful.

Rhetorically, Obama has been thoughtful and reasonable. His April 14 speech at Georgetown was a model of moderate leadership. Acknowledging critics left and right, he sounded balanced, systematic and visionary. He invoked the Sermon on the Mount – not to perpetuate squishy liberal sentiments about helping others, but to explain the importance of rebuilding on firm foundations. He affirmed his liberalism by delineating new “pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century,” including “new rules for Wall Street” and new investments in education, renewable energy and technology, and health care. But Obama showed he was a liberal who had learned from Ronald Reagan. He added a fifth pillar, “new savings in our federal budget” and insisted that like a good doctor, the government primarily must do no harm.

Unfortunately, on Capitol Hill and in practice Obama has been less artful. While he watched the Super Bowl with some Republicans, most Republicans resented how Democrats burdened the economic stimulus package with so many items that long lingered on Congressional wish lists. More broadly, Obama is trying to spend his way out of the recession with a classically Keynesian, big government approach. At Georgetown, Obama invoked Bush’s policies to justify his actions as centrist moves – even though conservatives criticized Bush’s big-spending deviation from Reaganite orthodoxy.

Given the economic bewilderment and despair, Obama is angling for a win-win. If the economy is not as broken as the conventional wisdom now suggests, all Obama needs is a recovery before 2012, which would be a very long recession. If the economy revives, he will replicate Ronald Reagan’s position in 1984, declaring a new “morning in America” that validates Obamanomics as he coasts to re-election.

Of course, much history could intrude between now and then, ruining this scenario. But considering the headaches he inherited, Obama is governing in the politically shrewdest way for him – shifting left while speaking reasonably domestically, then sounding more radical than he actually acts in foreign affairs. That strategy mirrors Ronald Reagan’s strategy in shrinking taxes but ultimately negotiating with the Soviet Union. Obama admires Reagan’s ability to transform the country. Clearly, Obama hopes he can do the same – in the opposite direction.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 2-3-09

In a recent HNN posting, Professor John Grigg urged President Obama to stop seeking consensus, characterizing bipartisanship as “often a cynical effort to silence dissenting views.” Professor Grigg’s article is worth dissecting because he captures the current – dare I say it – consensus among academics to dismiss bipartisanship and consensus-building while romanticizing partisanship and radicalism. In fact, President Obama should press for a genuine consensus, building as much bipartisan support for his proposals as possible. As I argue in my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” this approach is not just what we need today – especially amid the economic downturn and the continuing terrorist threat – but that moderation has often been the secret to presidential success and broader American good feeling.

Professor Grigg’s indictment rests on three pillars. For starters, he tries to apply the shortcomings of the consensus school of history to the broader effort at consensus-building. He notes that the historians from the 1950s who emphasized America’s center-seeking tradition often painted a one-dimensional portrait of American development that minimized some of the constructive conflicts that made this nation great. Moreover, Grigg continues, seeking consensus breeds political complacency. Rejecting a status quo politics, he argues that “the extension of liberty in American history has come not from consensus but from confrontation.” Finally, he claims that the current chorus for consensus comes from a few insiders who seem “to welcome political debate; but only within a narrow field of vision.” The result, he insists, is a politics that gets intensely personal not because it is too partisan but because it not partisan enough.

Grigg’s critique of the consensus school has merit. There was a tendency in the 1950s – among academics and others – to assume that the unity Americans achieved at the height of World War II was typical. Fortunately, waves of historical revisionists since the 1950s have painted a richer, more complex portrait of America’s history. But, it is possible to acknowledge conflict, even constructive conflict, while still appreciating the strong, consensus-oriented, pragmatic streak in American history? Modern historians have been so successful at charting America’s disagreements – and dysfunctions – they often fail to answer the most basic question about American history – how has the country succeeded? A new, more sophisticated, post-consensus-history understanding of American consensus can incorporate diversity and conflict into the broader narrative of a country that functioned best when leaders sought to find the center – or, as we are currently seeing and have seen before – tried to forge a new center.

Grigg is correct that seeking consensus can often degenerate into simply maintaining the status quo. But to inflate a tendency to avoid into a permanent condition is like complaining about the common cold as if it were cancer. Historical change in America at its most constructive has occurred when consensus-oriented politicians like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy played off against more radical voices fomenting division. A great president takes the strong, occasionally divisive currents agitating for change and tames them, making them more mainstream, more primed for domestic consumption. Currently, Barack Obama seems to be doing just that. He is making dramatic moves, but by trying to build a consensus, he is making them more palatable politically. Such leadership goes way beyond cheap political posturing. When done correctly it fosters the kind of engagement and support we need in a democracy, rather than the bruised feelings and alienation we have seen far too frequently in recent decades.

Grigg should not be so quick to dismiss the healing possibilities of bipartisanship – or the broad cries in the country for such leadership. The success in 2008 of bridge-builders like Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama suggests that the desire for center-seeking goes beyond the Beltway insiders Griggs seeks to demonize. And the Clintons, among others, would be the first to testify to the fact that the “politics of personal destruction” which they so famously denounced came from the harshest of Republican partisans rather than the moderate, David-Gergen-like Washington types I am assuming Griggs targeted – without naming any names or offering up any evidence.

Bipartisanship and consensus-seeking need not mean namby-pamby leadership. The American political tradition we need to appreciate is one of muscular moderates, proud nationalists, who understood that in forging a national consensus they were maintaining democratic legitimacy and nurturing nationalism. This center-seeking is the call of George Washington, urging squabbling partisans to remember Americans’ “common cause.” It is the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, understanding that first he had to keep the North united before he could end the blight of slavery. It is the romanticism of Theodore Roosevelt, using the White House “bully pulpit” to position the president as the tribune of the “plain people” building consensus for progressive change. It is the experimental incrementalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, introducing enough reforms to silence working class cries for revolution but not so much change that capitalism vanished and America’s Constitution became unrecognizable or moot. And, with any luck, it will be the Reaganized liberal pragmatism of Barack Obama, restoring a sense of community and self-sacrifice, reinvigorating government where necessary, without forgetting all the lessons of the last 40 years so that America does not end up saddled again with inefficient big government programs offering delusional solutions rather than constructive change.

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