Friday, November 02, 2012

A few kind words about compromise -- even equivocation, flip-flopping and temporising

I'm tired of ideologues.

More, I'm afraid of them.

History teaches us that the American Revolution was successful in no small part because Americans already knew how to govern themselves. Our Founding Fathers were practical men, skilled in governance and politics, able to keep their eyes on the prize -- independence -- without worrying unduly about ideological purity.

Sure, when independence was achieved, our Founding Fathers, Washington always excepted, drifted into competing parties and started slandering each other. But the British threat was past... or it was past until, oh, about 1812 or so.

On the other hand, when revolution came to France, where the Bourbons had ruled by Divine Right long enough to extinguish almost all forms of self-governance, men with no experience to speak of had only ideology to rely on -- they were all philosophers, while most of our Founding Fathers were practicing, common law lawyers -- and France was subjected to the Reign of Terror.

Now, you can argue that a little more ideology and a little less practicality might have prevented the Founding Fathers from accommodating slavery in the Constitution -- you can argue that safely, now, because, unlike our Founding Fathers, you don't have to worry about the slaveholders walking out of Philadelphia and starting up their own competing country in the South, three score and 14 years before the Civil War actually started.

I was reading Roy Blount Jr.'s essay, "Mr. Lincoln Goes to Hollywood," in the current issue of the Smithsonian, and I was touched by Blount's description of Lincoln's meeting with the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was an ideologue. He understood that slavery was wrong, wrong, wrong and he had the moral courage to shout it from the rooftops. He thought Lincoln a contemptible, conservative, wishy-washy, unprincipled temporizer. But in the scene Blount recounts, Lincoln tells Stevens that a compass can only tell you true north -- but it can't tell you where the swamps are along the way. If you don't know how to get around or through the swamps, what good does it do you to know where true north lies? You have to know both where to go and how to get there.

In our current, sad, ugly world, we are surrounded by ideologues (though everyone claims, of course, it's not them who are the ideologues, it's those other guys). Compromise is treason. Changing one's opinion is "flip flopping." Equivocation is a mortal sin.

In the current presidential campaign, the Democrats have successfully portrayed Mitt Romney as a temporizing, waffling, flip flopper who'll change his positions as often as others might change their socks in exchange for votes. It is, of course, of no moment that anyone, to gain the nomination of either party, a candidate must reach out to the party's extremists (did I say 'extremists'? I suppose it's more polite to say 'activists' -- but extremists is about right) and then lurch back towards the center in hopes of winning the general election. In Mr. Romney's case, it may even be true that his opinions are more malleable than most.

But, let me make this clear: Flip flopping, compromise, temporizing, equivocation -- all these things may be fine, even good, as long as there is a respectable core of principle underlying and a clear destination defined. Leadership is sometimes about pulling, sometimes about pushing, but often about persuasion. In the case of Mr. Romney -- or anyone else -- equivocation, etc. is only a problem where there isn't a clear, appropriate objective.

In one way (and perhaps in only one way) Lincoln had it easy in that he had an obvious, easily defined goal: The preservation of the Union first, and only then the abolition of slavery. What is the goal -- the vision -- that Mr. Obama has or that Mr. Romney has? We all claim -- now -- finally -- belatedly -- to share Dr. King's dream of a world in which a person will be judged, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. We all claim to want full employment, decent housing for all, an end to hunger, a dignified old age.

But these platitudes are too general to be a destination. We need to see better what -- if anything -- our leaders see as our destination before we can decide whom we should follow. Right now, though, we're all in the swamp together.

1 comment:

AndyK said...

Mr. Obama disclosed his compass with getting the Affordable Care Act in to law. Since then, every time republicans see him gazing off into the distance in one direction or another, they rush out to create new swamps.