Why do we seesaw so much in American political life? What happens that people want to change direction?
It's the day after the election. The results have not yet been called for the presidency, although they are tilting toward Biden. If so, we are likely to again have a divided government based on the Senate results so far. My phone is full of text messages from friends about the huge turnout, the escalation of on-site voter suppression, and get-out-the-vote countermeasures.
Some people are moving now to what happens after the election and some people are grieving because they expected more. I'm moving on.
The country is split virtually in two. People I know are asking how can we preserve democracy in this polarized country, how could we move toward progressive values in a divided government, and how could pollsters yet again undercount President Trump's support?
Those three questions are interrelated for me. Before I answer them, first I want you to know where I'm coming from.
When I was a child under Jim Crow, I remember going with my parents to vote, proudly wearing one of my best school dresses, single-ruffled ankle socks, and patent leather shoes. The men wore suits and ties and the women wore high heels, sophisticated dresses, and hats, signifying the importance of the occasion.
My parents and their friends would hold long debates about which of the segregationists might advance the cause of our community just that extra inch more. White men running for office would show up at our church to talk about how how they would help eliminate just enough barriers to entice church leaders to endorse them. Our hope for a better future depended on government.
Political discussions among church leaders and my parents’ friends centered on long-term strategy. To them, it was a chess game. The focus always was on several moves beyond the one that was imminent. No endorsement was casual. An immediate heated response to a White politician’s insults, whether deliberate or unintentional, could blow the strategy. Instant gratification was out of the question.
When the results came in, people gathered around the radio and then they would talk about whether we as a community had had a setback or a new opportunity, depending on who got elected. Disappointments were common.
Last night was tough. Commentators and friends were exhibiting high-pitch anxiety. The voter turnout efforts were impressive. Everyone I know actively supported voter turnout in some way. And now we wait for the results to come creeping in.
What sustains me today is awareness that none of this is new. The country has been here before multiple times. So have I. And I remember Dr. Martin Luther King's statement, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
I have celebrated some election results – I'll never forget the night President Obama was declared the victor. And I have been totally distraught by the results of others. No point in naming these. I'll leave it to your speculation.
What I have learned between election cycles is to take advantage of the up times and to do what I can during the down times to turn the trajectory back up again. Now the challenge is to get ready for what happens after the results are in.
Years ago, Dr. Robert Fisher1, a social welfare historian, introduced me to the notion that this country’s value base has swung back and forth. In a nutshell, during periods of private interests, people are on their own. Those with power and wealth are seen as having the right to keep them and freely accumulate more.
When the cycle shifts to public interests, government action to redress historical disadvantages and level the playing field is emphasized. The chart below contrasts the two philosophies.
Viewed through the lens of racial progress, we vacillate between an emphasis on private interests, in which the role of the federal government in promoting racial progress is minimized, to public interests, in which the role of the federal government is marshaled to help or advance racial equality under the law.
During periods of private interests, the pendulum begins to swing slowly in the opposite direction. Then a huge jump forward happens in the form of one or more disruptor events. For progressives (those supporting public interests), these disruptor events provide a window of opportunity for massive gains before the slow movement begins again in the opposite direction.
We are now in such a window of opportunity, with some calling on Biden – should he prevail – to be strident and “fierce” in advocating for more progressive policies.
Yet Biden has stated that he will be a president of all Americans. He has called for unity and civility.
This call is met with skepticism if not derision:
Many agreed or partially agreed:
A few questioned Blow’s assertion:
He immediately responded:
Yet what does it mean to know that you are “at war” and to stand up “fiercely”? To some, it means civility goes out the window.
Yesterday, a friend called me to say that going high wasn’t going to work, referring to my previous blog post on Michelle Obama’s go-low-go-high philosophy (blog post #19). He had just read news reports about Trump supporters driving Joe Biden’s bus off the road.2 Dirty tactics deserved dirty tactics, he implied.
This is a false dichotomy. It is possible to go high with your morals and principles while refusing to go low by diminishing the value of human beings, no matter how reprehensible their actions.
An example of a person who went high yet consistently achieved a remarkable legislative track record is Sen. Ted Kennedy. Widely considered one of the most effective legislators of his era, Kennedy left behind a legacy of achievement. While he was a Senator, his office wrote 2500 bills and 300 of them became law.
Later in life, he lamented his many well-publicized mistakes. Yet he achieved a strong legislative record.
Known variously as the “Conscience of the Senate” and the “Lion of the Senate,” he stood ferociously for his principles as an unabashed liberal.
Despite his unrelenting advocacy, he was known for his adeptness in bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle. The year of his death, Kennedy was awarded the Henry Clay Medallion for Distinguished Service from the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, in recognition of his record of bipartisan collaboration in the Senate. A late 2000s survey of Republican senators ranked Kennedy first among Democrats in bipartisanship.
How did he do it? He understood what is called the fine art of compromise. He befriended and hosted members of both sides in his home to discuss pending bills. He understood the personal tastes of his opposition, sometimes sharing small tokens of appreciation. He was also generous in giving credit to others, sometimes taking a back seat in bill sponsorships that he himself had initiated.
This story about Kennedy illustrates his strategic, yet friendly advocacy:
Kennedy knew all of his colleagues' temptations. In the case of former House Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Brooks, it was his penchant for cigars. In fact, it was rare to see the Texan without a cigar in his mouth.
In a last-ditch effort to get Brooks on board for an immigration bill in 1990, Kennedy located some high quality cigars, put them in a plain manila envelope, and went over to the House side of the Capitol to see Brooks. Arriving, he opened the envelope to give Brooks a peek inside, then put it on the table.
When negotiations were going Kennedy's way, he would nudge the envelope closer to the Judiciary chairman. And when Brooks balked, Kennedy pulled it back. A tickled Brooks ended up letting the immigration bill go forward.3
Upon news of Kennedy’s death, Senator Robert Byrd, Republican of West Virginia and then-President pro tempore of the Senate, issued a statement saying, "My heart and soul weeps at the loss of my best friend in the Senate, my beloved friend, Ted Kennedy."
Now the country is far more polarized than it was at Kennedy’s time. Yet research on assertiveness shows that advocacy and advancement of progressive causes does not have to mean incivility and disrespect of others.4
The friend who sent me that newsletter about Trump supporters surrounding Biden’s bus later sent me a video5 that illustrates what I was saying. Some Trump supporters, escorted by police, attempted to drive their huge trucks into a Black neighborhood in what was perceived to be voter intimidation.
They were surrounded by neighborhood members yelling at them to leave. “This is our neighborhood. You can’t come in our ‘hood. Get out.” No one was hurt. The truck wasn’t smashed. Eventually the truck turned around. The residents had taken the stand that no one could come into their neighborhood and intimidate them.
My focus is now post election. How should those of us who want to promote public interests advance our cause? If Biden wins, we will be in the position of having a leader who is oriented toward our beliefs.
In a previous post (blog #19), I said this is a moment of change. Looking at the private vs. public interests chart, you can see we are now in a period of disruption where radical change is possible. We are moving from private interests to public interests, and Joe Biden’s election (and the results in the Senate) will signal whether we are there or not.
The question that haunts me is how can we maximize this moment and postpone the inevitable swing back to private interests? Historically, the swing one way or the other happens when the group in power engages in excesses that turn off the mainstream public. As the party currently in power demeans the other side’s interests, they move closer toward autocratic power. When that happens, the public swings back.
I will say that another way for emphasis. When a political party in power ignores the other side’s interests, the public rebels and swing back in the opposite direction. Progressives will hold onto power longer if the public doesn’t think our power has gone to our heads or contaminated our leaders.
The question I keep asking myself is this: If the public interests side prevails, how long can we retain it? People discuss what Biden can or cannot do. But it’s not solely up to Biden. It’s up to the people who support him. It depends on us.
Will we apply continuous pressure on Biden and other elected officials or will we talk trash, bemoaning what is not happening? Will we demand that Biden adhere solely to our own progressive agenda, or will we choose the long game, allowing him the flexibility to hold firm or compromise strategically with an eye toward the long game?
Can we encourage our progressive leaders to emulate Kennedy or do we want them to emulate the worst of what the public has voted against? As I asked in my blog post #13, do you want to be right or do you want to be effective?
The ultimate decision is ours.
Questions to ask yourself
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2 FBI investigating alleged harassment of Biden campaign bus by Trump supporters. CNN.com
3 A towering record, painstakingly built. Boston.com
4 Staunton, T.V., Alvaro, E.M., Rosenberg, B.D., & Crano, W.D. (2020). Controlling language and Irony: Reducing Threat and Increasing Positive Message Evaluations. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 42(5), 369-386.