by James Wiseman, OSB

When I was in grade school, one of my regular jobs was cutting the grass at my grandparents’ home.  While doing that work one afternoon, I found on their front lawn a piece of paper quoting then-President Eisenhower praising the middle of the road as the only way to get ahead safely and productively.  I have never forgotten how at that time I instinctively agreed with what he had said.  Recently looking up the full quotation and not just the single sentence I read that day, I found that it went as follows: “People talk about the middle of the road as though it were unacceptable. Actually, all human problems, excepting morals, come into the gray areas. Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”

One of the issues our country confronts today is that many disparage Eisenhower’s position.  In Congress, the animosity in recent years has even led some members to leave.  Some years ago it was Senator Olympia Snowe, much more recently it was Senator Rob Portman, who said that he will not seek reelection in large part because of his frustration at the “partisan gridlock,” with members of both parties “being pushed further to the right and further to the left, and that means too few people are actively looking to find common ground.”  Many who responded to his announcement were in full sympathy, leading him to say, “I think people are really yearning for some renewed bipartisanship and cooperation.” While some of his critics denigrated his decision by saying he mostly feared losing a primary challenge from the right, even if that was a factor it would simply highlight the increasing partisanship not only of politicians but of the electorate as a whole.

Those of us who are troubled by this phenomenon have been seeking its causes.  It is not as though there has not been hostility between different sides in past decades and centuries.  One need think only of the animosity between many followers of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, or of the fact that in the decade leading up to the Civil War there were physical attacks on persons of the opposing political party on the very floor of the Senate.  However, in recent decades the situation both in Congress and in the nation as a whole has definitely become worse than, say, in the middle years of the twentieth century. 

The most vivid expression of anger on the national scene was the rioting at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.  The harm caused not only to those injured or even killed in the insurrection but also to our nation’s reputation throughout the world was massive.  President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine answered forthrightly when asked about his reaction:  “Shocked.  I could not even imagine something like this was possible in the United States of America…. We are used to thinking that the U.S. has ideal democratic institutions where power is passed calmly, without war, without revolutions…. After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy.”

There were surely many different motivations on the part of those who participated in the rioting, but I find it telling that examination of the public records of those facing charges shows that nearly 60 percent had significant financial difficulties of one sort or another:  bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades.  Not only were such persons feeling left out of the prosperity that they know some of their fellow citizens continue to enjoy; they have also long felt that many other people, especially minorities, have been “cutting into the line” ahead of them or enjoying special treatment, as noted by Professor Arlie Hochschild in her fascinating book Strangers in Their Own Land.  Political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart pointed to this problem already a decade ago when they wrote:  “Exceptionally high levels of economic insecurity are experienced by many sectors of U.S. society…. Many American families, even in the professional middle classes, face serious risks of loss of paid work by the main breadwinner, the dangers of sudden ill-health without adequate private medical insurance, [and] vulnerability to crime.”

So, what to do?  To their credit, many organizations have been formed in recent years to help promote understanding between different groups in our country.  One of these is the Institute for Civility in Government, whose founder and president spoke at a symposium held here at St Anselm’s in the early summer of 2019.  Another group is Braver Angels, originally called Better Angels after a phrase used by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address.  Among other activities, Braver Angels sponsors meetings throughout the country with an equal number of participants from red states and blue states, as well as podcasts in which two persons of different political persuasions converse with one another about issues raised by a facilitator of the Braver Angels staff.  

It is encouraging to listen to such podcasts, for they illustrate the way in which two persons can listen to one another and respond in respectful ways without in any way disowning what they believe is right.  By avoiding what President Eisenhower called the “gutters” of extreme positions, two recent participants in one of these podcasts agreed that the aim is not to “win” by defeating an opponent but to agree to a “tie” in the sense of being willing to compromise, to recognize that one simply cannot have everything one’s own way if we are to avoid the kind of behavior manifested to the whole world on January 6.

Facing harsh reality, however, obliges me to recognize that there always will be some persons for whom “political compromise” is a dirty term, persons whose sense that everything they have long held dear is now under dire threat by others.  Burke Nixon, who teaches in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, recently reviewed a book titled Charitable Writing.  In his review, he referred to an “eternal earthly tension between attempting radical Christian love and wanting to protect ourselves from very real dangers,” a tension that it often seems impossible to resolve.  As he wrote, “Our malicious public debates—and the violence that they can bring—won’t end anytime soon.”  May each of us at least accept the challenge of holding ourselves personally accountable to a higher standard and doing whatever we can to promote harmony, understanding, and mutual respect in our divided land.