“DEAR COLUMNIST: I am 13 years old and in the 8th grade.
“Some of my friends say America will never be able to put back together after the highly divisive Presidential election and that due to hyperpartisanship people will never work together to solve our problems. They say it’s getting almost impossible. Papa says if you hear people say it on TV, in newspapers and on blogs then it must be so. Please tell me the truth: can America truly get together after this election? Can there ever be a change that takes place that could move our country towards real problem-solving, or is this as “good” as it can get?
“285 Quintessential Ave., Any City, USA”
Virginia, your friends are wrong. As someone who writes this column, loved political science at Colgate, monitors political shows on radio and TV, and who spends hours surfing the internet to edit and write my centrist blog The Moderate Voice, I know how easy it is to get swept up by the early 21st century’s rages, passions and melodrama.
You and your friends are picking up the fact that our politics no longer resemble the kind of politics that made America great -- where consensus and compromise were virtues and where politicians perhaps begrudgingly acknowledged the importance of truth and could not blatantly and intentionally ignore it. You’re picking up on the tone of our political culture where rudeness, boorishness and aggressiveness are perceived by some as being intelligent. Our political culture has shifted, but just as things shift, they can re-shift -- and it is in the power of you and other young people to do it.
Go back into American history and you’ll find many examples of times when compromise -- two principled parties or politicians giving a little, then taking a little to come up with something for the common good that’s supported by more than a power-play faction of people -- was a virtue. Legislator and former Secretary of State Henry Clay, Sr. (April 12, 1777 – June 29, 1852) was even called “The Great Compromiser” for his role in the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Partisans known for compromise today face primaries and are replaced by hyperpartisans.
You see, Virginia, much of American political culture is now set up to define compromise as a “caving” or weakness, and consensus as being in the inaccurately defined “mushy middle.” It showers those who are the loudest, most outrageous, and most insulting with attention and riches. Some of today’s leaders in both parties do seek compromise and cooperation (note New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and President Barack Obama during Hurricane Sandy) and some may seek consensus, but there are forces that eschew the notion that real political nirvana is when a policy garners the maximum number of populace’s participants to buy into it.
American history is filled with figures that cherished the idea of consensus, even while assertively promoting strong ideological ideals: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ and many more. Gil Troy, in his superb book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” classifies Ronald Reagan as a “moderate” because he successfully used compromise and consensus.
Strong work to sandbag compromise and consensus. Ideological movements that demonize opponents and seek to shrink once-big political tents. Corporations selling and broadcasting popular talk shows and cable shows that rake in big bucks by harnessing, communicating, and enlarging resentment and anger to build audience share that’s then sold to advertisers. The ideological cable channels increasingly celebrate political incivility.
Still, there courageous politicians and media types and America has a strong center. Many young people in their teens and 20s that I talked to and emailed these past two years make it clear they look with revulsion on hyperpartisanship, and the verbal and written screaming and insulting associated with it. Many wish there was a strong third party movement.
The fact you and others ask this question means you may -- and can -- make it different. Other generations made it different in positive (the Greatest Generation) and negative (Baby Boomers) ways. Your generation can do it in a positive way again.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joegandelman