When So Little is at Stake

Recalling those who had reasons to resent, and didn't.

There’s no doubt that the cultural and ideological fissures in American politics have become more apparent in recent years with the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and the pushback from Occupy Wall Street. Still, it’s tempting at times to look at our political leaders and say what is often said of academia—that the battles are so vicious because so little is at stake.

The Florida primary showcased a particularly nasty fight between two politicians who have little that separates them in policy substance: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. They resent and resemble each other. For instance, both men supported health insurance mandates before they didn’t. And both of course have serious gripes with Obama (who, incidentally, adopted the originally Republican idea of insurance mandates as part of his healthcare reform package).

When aiming at Obama, the Romney-Gingrich fusillades can seem strangely out of proportion even to their obvious differences with him.

Take Romney’s claim that Obama wants to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” while he, Romney, would “ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.” The choice in November, if Romney finally carries the GOP flag, would actually be between two politicians who desperately want to position themselves as “reasonable centrists” in the general election, as John Harwood of the New York Times has pointed out. Put another way, the election would pit a Republican in favor of keeping the Bush tax cuts against a Democrat who would return to Clinton-era tax rates. That adds up to a difference of roughly four percentage points in the top marginal rate. It’s not what separates a socialist strongman from a friend of the free.

Gingrich’s clashes with Obama might be more profound ideologically. But could these possibly justify his assertion that he, Gingrich, honors the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence while Obama supports neither? As Speaker of the House during the ’90s, Gingrich did more than any other political figure to envenom the public discourse. He helped make it safe for politicians to habitually attack the decency and good faith of their adversaries.

No small amount of that incendiary rhetoric has rubbed off on the left. Many liberals have lapsed into the habit of condemning Republican “lies.” Very often, these alleged prevarications are really just matters of opinion, like the GOP claim that the rich already pay too much in taxes. To call them lies is itself a distortion.

When Things were Rotten

Plainly, there’s a lot to fight over in 2012. But there was far more at stake a half-century ago when Martin Luther King and the civil rights marchers, walkers, and sitters showed another way of relating to the opposition. You might say they had some serious differences with the segregationists. They were living in what was, for African Americans, a state of terror in the Deep South. But they steered a way to mutual understanding even as they took to the streets.

During the movement’s early years, King went to such lengths as to answer his hate mail respectfully—thanking his correspondents for writing, and proceeding to reasonably state his differences with these unreasonable points of view. (There was less time for that as the freedom campaigns intensified and the hate writers became more prolific.) During the few times he lost his cool with a segregationist or, some years later, with a supporter of the Vietnam War, King would reproach himself for hours, as his biographers (including Stephen Oates) have described. And then he’d pick up a phone and apologize.

Unlike today when political dialogue is often clogged with conversation stoppers like “lies” and “dishonesty,” King and his supporters found ways to keep the conversation going. They engaged in rational argument, as King did in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (in which he asked his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth,” and begged God to forgive him if he had understated the truth). He tried to open channels of discussion because of his belief that hearts could change, but also because, as a trained theologian, he could “see that some truth, however minuscule … may exist in quite opposite ideas and viewpoints,” as the social ethicist Rufus Burrow Jr. has noted.

In other words, everyone has a piece of the truth—not the most likely message of a Super PAC ad.

Yes, King denounced and confronted: history told him that oppressed people seldom gain their freedom by dropping hints. But he and his fellow campaigners made it clear enough that the prize they eyed was not just their own freedom. It was friendship and community with white America, what King often referred to, in rich theological tones, as “the beloved community.”

During this Black History Month, it’s worth recalling how civil rights activists often spoke large-heartedly about people who set off bombs in their churches or tacitly condoned the terror. It shouldn’t be too hard to practice a similar forbearance today with political rivals who would like to raise (or lower) taxes by a few percentage points.






  1. You’ve raised many interesting points here. In light of the recent violence in Oakland, CA–some perpetrated by Black Boc members masquerading as Occupiers, some by the police–holding closely to the civil rights movement’s example of respect, striving to find a way to communicate, and peaceable assembly becomes even more important.

    That phrase “peaceable assembly,” from the Bill of Rights, led me to look at the first paragraph of the Constitution as well, which says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…promote the general Welfare…” That interesting wording makes me think that very much is at stake here. The radical right, certainly, and sometimes even Gingrich and Romney, accuse Obama of being a socialist because he has embraced the idea of a health insurance mandate, extension of unemployment benefits during a serious and long recession, regulation of the financial sector, and other actions designed to promote the general welfare. Beneath all the posturing, name calling, and divisive rhetoric, it seems that we are arguing about the meaning of the Constitution.

    It will be interesting to see how things unfold this year with laws in Chicago using costly insurance equirements to restrict First Amendment rights, and Republican house committee members arresting journalists (this was yesterday 2-1-2012) trying to film a public hearing on fracking.

  2. Briefing Book says

    Come now, Bill. Gingrich’s rhetoric was a love letter compared to the venom directed against Nixon, Reagan and Bush by the useful idiots on the lunatic left. And who can forget Ted Kennedy’s fusillade against Robert Bork, when he charged that Bork wanted to have blacks sit at segregated lunch counters? The Left musters all the hate it can spew, then whines indignantly when the Right hits back.

    • William Bole says

      J.D., I agree there’s enough of that on all sides, but I also think the Gingrich lexicon (“traitor,” “liar,” “sick,” etc.) is something else. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Briefing Book says

    Well, considering that Bush was compared to Hitler, Scott Walker to Mussolini, Bork to a slavemaster, and Cheney to the Devil Incarnate, Gingrich’s rhetoric is something else–mild in comparison.

    Best regards as always!

    • William Bole says

      You get the last word, J.D. Thanks.

      • Kimball Baker says

        I appreciate the opportunity to join such an interesting dialogue. Agreed that throughout American history, people on all sides of just about every question have hurled horrendous insults at each other, and that this seriously inhibits constructive efforts to come together. But I think that what’s going on now in American life is much deeper than this nasty habit of incivility. What’s going on now, I believe, has more to do with a seeming lack of common ground, of any way in which the participants in important debates see themselves as being part of a uniting entity or sharing a uniting value.

        Your choosing Martin Luther King as a way to get into this topic is entirely apt. You’ve correctly recognized in other posts (e.g. “Return of the Meek and Militant”, 11-17-11, in which you kindly cite my book “Go to the Worker”) that economic justice is a key requirement for the attainment of “beloved community”, and of course it is this battlefield onto which King had moved in his later years, but in the face of even greater resistance than the civil rights fight encountered.

        Thus even more is at stake today around the worker-justice issue, and the gulf is wider than increased civility can bridge. This at a time when at the heart of the issue is basic fairness, a value which is part of every faith tradition in America and is something around which most Americans could unite if they had the will. Yet corporate interests and the political right are too enmeshed in the injustices involved to give workers the fair shake to which they’re entitled. Of course workers means just about every one of us, as recent developments have shown and as this year’s developments, hopefully, will show in no uncertain terms.

        • William Bole says

          Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Kim. I agree that civility isn’t everything, but I also think not having it makes it terribly hard to engage the public in a search for solutions.

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