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Civility in American Politics: The Long Good Bayh

Civility in American Politics:  The Long Good Bayh

By Stuart H. Brody

The political landscape sustained another aftershock last week when Evan Bayh called it quits in the United Sates Senate.  More jarring than the news of his retirement was the uncommonly frank terms in which he criticized the partisanship that had immobilized the political world he inhabited for twelve years.

Just a few weeks early, Massachusetts voters expressed a similar frustration by electing Scott Brown to the Senate, and in the process ended President Obama’s supermajority, doomed safe passage of his signature domestic issue, and all but buried the promising story line of his early Presidency.

Seeking relief from the collapse of his leadership brought on by partisanship, the President’s State of the Union called for a revived commitment to the “bold action and big ideas” that had fueled previous national triumphs over adversity.  Yet he must surely have known, as Senator Bayh lamented, that the men and women listening to him in the House Chamber that night are incapable of providing it.

Our Founding Fathers dazzled the world with their inventiveness and inspired two centuries of descendants to sustain their noble work by collaboration and compromise.   These days, our political parties, like warring sects of a once common religion, have sunk into the delusion of encrusted myth, nearly incapable of rational action.

The Republican myth asserts that the “market” has the power to correct all economic abuses despite overwhelming evidence of its blindness to civil rights, labor fairness, anti trust violations, natural resource exploitation, securities fraud, campaign finance abuse, food and drug security and the list goes on.  In their free market zeal they have elevated cutthroat competition to the level of virtue and have thus abandoned not only the true tenets of free enterprise but their trust in a government that has shown remarkable power to educate, heal, invent and build.

The Democrats cling with equal fervor to the myth of government as the prime societal force for good, with the power to ameliorate human nature and deliver us to the threshold of utopia.  Democrats act as if by taxing regulating and spending they can soften every sharp blow of capitalism.  Democrats foist on government these expectations of moral achievement while decrying the very vehicle—our free enterprise system—that has delivered incalculable economic improvement.

The extremism of these political ideologies stymies cooperation and subverts our collective aspirations.   In asserting their agendas, and fueled by the fringe groups that finance them, our Senators and Representatives behave in the halls of Congress like members of a radical cult:  dialog through denunciation, communication through confrontation, insistence on personal infallibility, consistency at all costs and the identification of personal integrity with rigidity of belief.

And so, the chasm of American politics gets wider, the excuses for not acting more convoluted, the blame more fierce, the problems deeper and the solutions more distant. 

This past year has made clear that even the charisma of a natural born leader –that old standby of American political revival-is insufficient to bridge this gulf.   Expecting that President Obama can reinvent himself to cure this turmoil is unrealistic and deepens the cycle of disappointment.

Nor can the breakthrough that he envisioned at the State of the Union come from some magical unity over policy.  Current economic stresses, looming environmental catastrophe, the chokehold of dependence on foreign oil, freelance terrorism, two endless wars and the dawning realization that we are becoming number 2 in the world have been insufficient to bring us together politically.

No, the breakthrough will come neither from charismatic repackaging of Presidential rhetoric nor magical unification around policy.  If there is to be a breakthrough, it must come from ordinary men and women, or, from a politician acting like one.

In our individual lives, not as Americans, but as human beings, we bridge our differences by simple gestures:  an act of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity, often without expectation of reciprocation or guarantee of success.   This is the real source of American greatness:  men and women who confirm our impulse for common decency by grace, modesty and humility, as parents, at work, and in their communities. 

Americans like this were so memorably depicted in the movies we flocked to for inspiration during the last depression and from parents and teachers who instilled in us the belief that you could get ahead in America and do it honestly.  Their memory is all but drowned out by the cult of egoism all around us, in sports, business, the media, religion, and, of course, politics. 

Our breakthrough as a people will not come from the podium of political calculation but from the well of personal commitment, from an ordinary person who transcends politics in a simple but extraordinary act. 

Like Rosa Parks refusing to walk to the back of the bus, perhaps a United States Senator will take a few steps across the aisle, pull a colleague from the rubble of partisanship and start leading the nation out of this ego-drenched, cliché-ridden, finger-pointing culture that threatens to permanently squelch our national spirit.  

That would be a story line we might be proud to tell our children when we teach them about what America did in the depression.


Stu Brody is former Chair of the New York State Democratic Rural Conference and teaches Business and Political Ethics at SUNY New Paltz.

  1. David F. Silverman
    February 26, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Dear Mr. Brody,
    As usual you so eloquently hit the proverbial nail on the head. The one point that you might be missing is weather the Democrats and Republicans actually want to break out of grid-lock. If nothing is accomplished and each party can blame the other then congressmen and women can go back to their constituents and say “See, I tried but the Dems. or Repubs. blocked us at every turn” Then they can keep their jobs forever, always blaming the other party. To me the answer is elect a senator and congressmen for 1 six year term and that is it. They can not run for reelection. Let us prevent what is currently happening & what has existed for far too long, that congressmen & women and senators make a career out of politics. If these people realized they only had a specific length of time to do something without concern for reelection they would do the work and not look to the future elections for security.
    I honestly think that mensches don’t exist in our political system any longer. End the endless ever expanding cost to run for political office. If they only have 6 years to be in a political office they might think long and hard weather they want the job or not. The people that may say yes might actually want to get something done in that 6 year position.
    I am not that naive to believe this could be accomplished unless a ground swell of Americans start the ball rolling for this solution. I wish American’s were not so dam busy overworking for the good life and become aware of the fact that together we can make a difference, alone we accomplish nothing in this political system.
    As you stated, our best hope, Baraka Obama, a gifted speaker and sincere American President can not do it alone. He is only one man fighting a political system of very small men.
    Its only one mans point of view, I wish there were more.


    David F. Silverman, Curator
    The National Pinball Museum

  2. Bryan Burke
    February 27, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Well done. You’re a five-tool player.
    As I re-read you essay, I am searching for a glimmer of hope in the gloom. As you propose, it must be ordinary people and our individual acts that lead us out of the malaise. But not only have we slipped into passivity but we may likely have forgotten how offer such gestures.
    In a recent national display of individual common decency, we elected a leader of uncommon decency. But, to paraphrase your opening thoughts, the promising story line of his early presidency has been buried. Perhaps that suggests that the simple gestures of kindness, forgiveness and generosity must take place outside the political arena. And wasn’t that the core of Obama’s message: I can’t do it. I can only point the way. You must do it.
    Its difficult to accept, but when we look at the disfunctionality of our elected representatives, we are seeing the reflection of ourselves. They will only change, once we have changed. Much needs to happen before that Senator crosses the aisle.

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