BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | SEP 15, 2018
“John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: ‘We are better than this; America is better than this.’” — Eulogy for the late Senator John McCain at funeral services in the National Cathedral by former President George W. Bush
John McCain wasn’t alone wanting our politics to be better than this. It would do all of us some good to keep his memory alive more than a couple of weeks, despite what’s going on around us.
We know what ‘this’ is. It only took a few days for McCain’s legacy to turn to dust, replaced with more anger, distrust, dishonesty, hyperventilation, vulgarity, and incivility, and that, exclusive of President Donald Trump’s behavior.
The “this” has continued the erosion of American institutions and the abandonment of American values. I believe the vast majority of Americans agreed with McCain and are fed up with “this.” McCain preached the politics of inclusion and the personal behavior of courage and civility. He didn’t always succeed in putting them into practice, but they were among the values he considered critical to the survival of our grand experiment in self-governance.
American values—or virtues— are like lanterns that light the path through the thicket of tough decisions, judgments, and actions that shape our behavior. The values, taken together, define our character as individuals and as a nation.
You have your own list, but it would likely include: courage, tolerance and patience, honesty, morality, humility, a basic sense of fairness, civil behavior, mutual respect, a strong work ethic, and some sense of spirituality and/or religious belief.
Several of McCain’s eulogists—former Presidents Bush and Obama and his daughter Meghan– spoke eloquently at his Washington memorial service about his devotion to duty and public service. But they also took swipes, some gentle, some not so gentle, at President Trump for displaying attitude and behavior so contrary to McCain’s and so absent common decency let alone presidential comportment.
The contrasts between McCain and Trump were striking. They reflected two wildly divergent patterns of thought and behavior in politics. How many of the values above define Trump’s behavior? How many McCain’s?
In his later years McCain, the rascal that he was, became the voice of our national conscience, whispering in our ear to do better, to be better. But his whispers were lost in the hurricane winds of discontent, disillusionment, and ugly divisions that separate us. It was those same strong winds that propelled Donald Trump into office.
Politics and the governing processes today remain in a horribly self-destructive state.
Congress is a mess, better but still largely unproductive and incapable of dealing with myriad national and international problems and crises, running the gamut from cyber security to restoring educational excellence to fixing roads and bridges and facing up to the crisis of public debt. The fault lies on both sides of the political aisle, with leaders who jump over the time for governance, from one election cycle to another.
The presidency appears in shambles, struggling with internal strife, a lack of cohesion, and any consistency in public policy decisions. Worse is the loss of respectability and isolation from large blocks of the U.S. citizenry. You can’t govern without it.
A good share of our impressions, however, are shaped by an infotainment media industry that behaves like a dog with a new bone. So many outlets have gone into the trenches, either bent on destroying Trump or saving him, but all profiting handsomely from him.
There are real consequences from a media lacking discipline, without external oversight and without strict adherence to standards of ethical behavior that once made it a public trust, worthy of the First Amendment, and its reputation as the fourth branch of government.
The President and the press are engaged in the worst battle for supremacy in the history of the country. Famed journalist Ted Koppel observed recently that “Trump has drawn much of the media into a distortion of their traditional role” and by doing so “has turned reported evidence of his many failings into a confirmation of his victimhood.
“A partial journalistic remedy,” he wrote, “would be to lower the temperature, reduce the volume. Except of course that there is no story to match it. The world without Trump, even a world with reduced portion of Trump, would be a much duller place and the industry of journalism does not thrive on dull.” Trump’s “sleaziness has re-energized American journalism even while undermining it.”
It is left for the rest of us to either choke to death on the dust and grime of the circus or leave the tent to the clowns and try to focus our energies elsewhere, reorder priorities, and embrace a more reasoned perspective of and approach to the current condition.
The first step in adopting a new perspective is revisiting how we got here in the first place, and do it with calm and reason instead of anger and hate.
First, put Trump in context.
Trump is not the cause of our current condition; he is the result. He didn’t produce it; he is only the self-propelled product of it. Our current condition is much more complex, much more of a historic nature and, hard to believe, much more of a dilemma than the President.
I believe, as do others, that the state we are in is largely the result of a gradual decline in the public institutions that have stood for centuries as the pillars of our Republic, nurturing a relatively free and civil society. The institutions—governmental institutions, the political system, organized religion, media, public and private education, charity, community, family, among others—are the victims of either public apathy, distrust, and/or total disillusionment.
The decline in institutions runs parallel with an abandonment of American values, our virtue.
Some academics trace this change to the turbulence of the 60s and 70s when politics, society, and culture underwent excruciatingly difficult transitions that caused both serious damage and major benefits in many elements of our lives.
Some academics argue that social and political upheaval was just one element in the introduction of postmodernism, a revivalist liberal philosophy spanning the arts and sciences, which caught hold and never let go.
I am not of sufficient intellectual capacity to lecture anyone on postmodernism. I am not sure I understand it; nor am I sure I want to. It is not an all-inclusive explanation for the sorry condition of our political system and institutions today. But the term is a good context for what has happened to us over the past 50 years.
Britannica on the web describes it thusly: “…a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.”
Aaron Hanlon, an assistant professor at Colby College wrote in the Washington Post recently that the era: “Developed within literature and philosophy departments in the 1970s, it supposedly told us that facts were debatable, that individual perspectives mattered most, that shared meaning was an illusion and that universal truth was a myth.” It was by product of great social and economic change spirited on by revolutions in consumerism and technology.
Hanlon quoted Conservative writer Victor Davis Hanson, a historian and author, who he said “faulted postmodernism for President Barack Obama’s handling of health care legislation. In the gospel of postmodern relativism, what did it matter if the president of the United States promised that Obamacare would not alter existing health care plans when it was clear it would.”
In other words, truth has become a relative term. Facts are fungible, and good and bad behavior are in the eye of the beholder. One individual can justify Trump’s behavior and another can abhor it with no imperative to understand the thinking of the other, or the motivation that led that individual to draw the conclusions he or she has drawn.
In that setting, there is no compelling reason for people with differing viewpoints to talk to each other. The era allows everyone to be right and no one wrong.
There are examples of postmodernist thinking and acting strewn all over the political landscape of the last 50 years. Some effects have been devastating, particularly in our ability to communicate with one another.
Hanlon wrote that “Losing a shared vocabulary for the world’s problems, for the way we relate to one another and for current events may be the greatest threat to American society.” He saw it as a crises and it may very well become one.
The current condition reinforces that thought. It has unleashed a torrent of political babble (reminiscent of the mythical Tower of Babel and the end of universal communication), and angry talk not intended as a form of dialogue or discourse, but as a marker, the branding of ideological viewpoints that draw a line in the sand or build a wall against the ideologically unwashed.
Our beautiful language has been devalued by terms such as ‘fake news’, ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’, ‘systemic racism’, ‘deplorables’ and the radioactive bomb,’enemy of the people’. They reflect the pretense of individualism, but a retreat into clans, and a new approach to propaganda that threatens our ability to communicate anything of relevance to each other.
So, too, with the abuse of facts, once considered the staple of honest and enlightened communication. Their selective use (what Kellyanne Conway was trying to explain to NBC’s Chuck Todd several months ago when she used the term “alternative facts”), their misinterpretation and deliberate distortions have made fact-checking a frenzied full-time job.
It is this relativism—an end-justifies-the-means, believing-what-you-want-to-believe condition that contributes, as well, to the collapse of our values system and our ability to get along politically.
In his book, Friends Divided John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Gordon Wood made this observation about the two founders’ view of the new Republic and the importance of virtue:
“In monarchies, where authority flowed from the top down, each man’s desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by patronage or honor, by fear or force. In Republics, however, where authority came from the below, from the people themselves, each citizen must somehow be persuaded to sacrifice his personal desires for the sake of the public good. In their purest form, republics had no adhesives, no bonds holding their societies together, except their citizens’ voluntary patriotism and willingness to obey public authority. Without virtue and self-sacrifice, republics would fall apart.”
The founders understood that a Republic would not last forever, and certainly not without the “wisdom and devotion” of the people, which is the second critical imperative. Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin told a lady outside Constitution Hall in Philadelphia when she asked what kind of government the founders had given the country, he said, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Can we keep it? Good question.
If the citizenry must make up for a lack of leadership from American institutions–particularly politics and the media–American citizens must embrace their role and responsibilities.
It won’t be easy. Average citizens have been gradually but systematically driven from the elective process in the postmodern era.
Elective politics is so partisan, it prevents good people without strong party affiliation from even entering the arena. Citizens are shut out by the vast amounts of money required to run a successful campaign. The process is neutered by news coverage that reduces complex issues and problems to meaningless tweets. The architecture of more and more congressional districts disenfranchises half the voters living in them. Campaign ads are often nothing more than exercises in character assassination, deliberately intended to distort reality and bend truth into a pretzel. Campaign promises have become empty vessels, creating expectations that will never be realized. Candidates are forced to campaign in highly controlled conditions, often because of outside professional political forces bent on disrupting events and circumstances that provide voters access.
So, in truth, while voting is a solemn responsibility that should be exercised by every qualified citizen, it is also a challenge to anyone who wants to make a difference. And making a difference takes more than casting a ballot, especially in a rigged election.
Citizens who want to make a difference may try a new approach. For decades the country has been leaning to candidates who come off as tough, no compromising, populist outsiders with big ideas and bravado. Look where it has gotten us.
It is time to go back to the future, to a time when politicians had exercised courage, but also common sense; when politicians stuck to their principles, but believed among them was the principle of getting stuff done through consensus, and, hold your nose, compromise.
- Citizens should challenge candidates to not make promises and not sign pledges, which usually inhibit the decision-making process rather than facilitating it.
- Voters should educate themselves, from diverse sources of information and challenge candidates who pop off with simple solutions to complex problems, because those solutions are almost always wrong.
- Issues confronting our representatives today are highly complex and multi-sided. They should be treated that way. Candidates should be challenged to explain to you what the other aspects of an issue are as honestly as they explain their own position.
- Tell candidates you’re tired of hearing that they are going to fight for you. There’s been too much fighting. Put down the boxing gloves and pick up a hammer and nail. Build something.
- Ask candidates who they are going to work with across the aisle in the opposite party to get things done and ask them if they are willing to buck their party and their leadership in order to achieve bipartisan cooperation.
- Avoid candidates and political groups who preach extremism of any kind. Extremism is gridlock and gridlock is dysfunction and dysfunction is failure.
John McCain was right. We can do better. But being right is only the beginning of the journey. McCain’s is over, ours is not. Remember to follow the lanterns.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.