Political differences are not sins or any other species of moral failure. Political differences are not treason. We don’t fight political differences with fire, literal or otherwise, even if they run to philosophy and first principles. We don’t address them by calling large groups of people racists, socialists, morons, or extremists. Political differences are highly heat-resistant, but only moderately light-resistant, so we address them with persuasion and reason — and with patience. To be sure, we learn very quickly to expect far less than complete success in doing so.
That’s probably okay. We need political differences. We respect them. We learn from them. We embrace them. But these days, I’m afraid, it would be an improvement if we would all just tolerate them with civility and equanimity.
Somehow, all that relates to the following.
Four years ago at a meet-the-candidates event in American Fork, Alpine School Board candidate John Burton (the eventual winner) gave a one-minute answer which stunned several people who were present and even angered a few.
For me — at least here — Burton’s answer is only the pretext for a more general discussion. (See Tim Osborn’s campaign blog for a discussion of what Burton may have meant in context, and how what he said applied to the school board and the current race. In the interest of full disclosure, I note that I was managing Osborn’s campaign and helped to write that blog post.) So let’s look at the part of his answer which matters here, and then I won’t mention him again in this post. He was speaking of the school board and explaining the importance of following the board’s unofficial code of conduct, which emphasizes unity. (For the record, “unofficial” is my word and a matter for separate discussion.) I transcribed this from my own digital recording of the event.
It doesn’t mean you can’t have differences of opinion, but those differences of opinion should be settled in private, and then when you come out as a board, you come out as a unified group. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t as a single board member, but you come out as a unified group when you come.
To move our focus from the current election to that general view I mentioned, consider this question: Unity is an important thing in many contexts. We preach it, we wish for it, we admire it, and we sometimes labor mightily to achieve it. So why would these particular words, coming from the mouth of a school board candidate, stun or anger anyone, let alone — as it did here — experienced elected officials and other serious students of government?
I can’t even begin to tell you what a fine question I think this is, even if I did ask it myself. But I must note before I proceed that some of the insight which follows — if insight is what follows — is drawn from chatting with those very people who were stunned or angered. So it is not solely a product of my own bizarre little brain. I’ll still take the blame, but they can have the credit, to the degree to which the following may merit either of those.
A Familiar Pattern
Consider a fine orchestra playing a great symphony, perhaps Beethoven’s Fifth, which consists of that first movement with the theme everybody knows and the other three movements I like even better. Beethoven gave us the authoritative text, so to speak, of that symphony. It’s the score, the sheet music, the paper with all the notes and other markings on it. In any given performance, the conductor is the authoritative interpreter of the score. He determines how to read and apply what’s on the paper, and he uses rehearsals and a large repertoire of conducting gestures to keep the orchestra unified as it plays. If you put the principal violinist or the rookie percussionist in charge instead, or even a different conductor, you’d get a different interpretation, but it would still be recognizable as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. However if any member of the orchestra fails to follow the one who wields the baton, the performance may be ruined. So may the player’s or even the conductor’s reputation. Unity isn’t the whole battle, here, but it’s a lot of it.
Consider a football team. Let’s talk about just the offense. A coach calls the play, which consists of agreed-upon and practiced movements, perhaps with some options, by each of the team’s eleven offensive players. The quarterback conveys the authoritative word — the play — from the coach to the offensive players. He synchronizes their movements. He may call an audible — that is, change the play at the line of scrimmage — if he sees that the defense is wrong for the play the coach called, or if the defense appears to be offering a much better opportunity. This isn’t rebellion; he’s been coached to do it. In any case, if any of the eleven players tries to run the wrong play, the results are likely to be ugly. Again, unity isn’t the whole battle here, but you won’t get far without it.
Consider a church. For the sake of our discussion, let’s think of one with a pope or a prophet at the head. Presumably, God somehow reveals his will to the leader, who conveys it authoritatively to the people and teaches them what it means and how to apply it to their lives. If there is more than one of these popes or prophets at a time, and if they disagree, or if subordinate leaders insist on doing their own thing, you’ll still have something, but it won’t be much of a church. A degree of unity is critical in such an organization, to the point that people who cannot agree on fundamentals with the leader are likely to leave the church, either voluntarily or otherwise. Once again, unity isn’t the whole battle, but it’s a big part of it.
In each of these cases, there is a single authority at the top with a single authoritative viewpoint, whether it’s the composer, as represented by the conductor; the head coach or offensive coordinator, as represented by the quarterback; or God, as represented by a pope or prophet. It’s neat. It’s orderly. It’s unified. It’s supposed to be. I’m not saying it’s necessary for everyone to think exactly alike, but when the group gathers to do its work, if its members don’t follow the leader, good things usually don’t happen, and bad things often do.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Congress worked that way? Then again, would we even need a congress?
A Different Model
Actually, it would be terrible if Congress worked that way. It would be tyrannical. Here’s why.
In our politics, authority does not come from a single point. It doesn’t come from a coach or a composer or some deity. It comes from the people — all the people — and “We the People” rarely agree completely on anything. We have many different and legitimate ideas, values, perspectives, interests, backgrounds, circumstances, and fears. They all need to be heard and considered. When this happens, our complex political processes are surprisingly good at balancing everything to create a more or less functional government.
We need to hear and consider others’ views. We will in many cases revise our own views in response. Bodies of the people’s elected representatives should reflect this diversity in some measure, and the people need to see that their representative institutions do reflect it. They need to see that their views and others’ views are voiced, considered, and balanced in a reasonable way. They need to see that they are represented, not just governed. If they don’t see this happening, they tend to assume that it isn’t happening, and who’s to say they’re wrong about that?
Representing the people in matters about which the people care is not a very orderly sort of government. It’s tumultuous, frustrating, adversarial, and, at least on the surface, rather unstable. It bothers people, largely, I think, because it is so different from the unity for which we strive at church, at work, or at play. It makes us grow up in ways in which we might not want to grow up. It requires us to be tolerant and respectful of people who embrace what we think and believe is wrong. It invites us to put our feet in our mouths, which I do as often as anyone. Sometimes some of us go too far individually, and people get hurt. Sometimes we go too far together, and communities and even countries reel.
It’s restless and even pugnacious, this self-government of ours. It’s creative, destructive, exhilarating, and profoundly frustrating. It’s baffling and even repugnant to broad sectors of the world’s population. Even we Americans, who have been practicing it for centuries, find it uncomfortable and unsettling, because some part of us naturally yearns for, and has rightly been taught to seek, unity in worthy pursuits where unity is essential.
It’s disorderly and dynamic. Sometimes it just hurts. We forget that this is how it should be, how it must be. Among us imperfect mortals, you see, real freedom and real self-government cannot survive in any other environment.
You don’t have to love the chaos. I don’t particularly love the fertilizer I put on my garden, either. But I love the tomatoes it produces.