The Long Way Home 11.11.22

By now the election results should be final in most contests. If you’re happy or not with the results, let’s agree that democracy as we’ve created it is a powerful governing system.

It’s been another campaign season where people are cruel to each other, sneezing out lies like they are the coronavirus. 

People might be more interested in elections and governing if this weren’t true. Still, those in charge of the system make the most money when they turn people off to the process, getting them to vote against people and policies (or not at all) rather than voting for someone or something.

We all give in to nostalgia for simpler days, when people didn’t seem to despise each other over policy disagreements and elections. Those days didn’t exist.

I recently found a column I wrote in July of 1997, 25 years ago, about arguing and compromise. Spurring the column was a guest commentary by a local Real Estate Broker about the affordable housing shortage and how arguing among citizens needed to stop if the problem were to be solved. The Executive Director of Cook County EDA at the time said in a June 3, 1997, public meeting on economic issues, “The constant arguing in this town impedes economic growth.”

Cook County was dealing with multiple issues back then, and some will sound familiar. Affordable housing. Economic diversity and growth. How to finance improvements to the courthouse. Build a standalone cop shop. What to do with USFS land and garages donated to the Grand Marais (now the Northhouse campus.) Whether and where to allow motorized portages in the BWCAW.  

Public meetings on these issues would slide into shouting and name-calling, what some call arguing. But arguing didn’t cause problems or even prevent solutions. In most cases, differing expectations, poor communication, and a lack of compromise (both sides giving a little to get a little) did.

From the founding of our nation, there has been arguing around issues and elections with the public nearly equally split. Other than brief spurts of popularity, usually, when the country was attacked, people were almost evenly split in support of a President and his party. 

A sizable part of the population of the colonies did not want to leave the protection of English rule. The arguments and name-calling were pretty rough.

During the Civil War, tempers ran high. President Lincoln was routinely vilified, not only by the Confederate enemies but by people in the North, including some of his senior advisors. Cartoons circulated that portrayed him as a monkey and a raccoon. It was not sure that he’d win reelection to a second term. Now, he’s revered as one of the greats.

The 1930s were ugly. Prominent men like Joseph Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh argued in favor of appeasing the expansion of Nazism in Europe. Many US and European businesses traded with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, before and during the war. Even after Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the USA, people were not coming together.

When President Harry Truman left office in 1953 his public approval rating was in the low 30 percent range. He graciously left the White House to Dwight Eisenhower, gathered his belongings, and drove himself and his wife Bess back to Independence, MO in his own car. Today, he’s considered to be one of the top ten Presidents.

Real solutions to our problems and challenges call for leadership and taking chances. Ultimately they call for compromise, getting people to work together, and focused on the future without forgetting the past. Real solutions are not kumbaya moments. They will make some people angry.

We have a long tradition of ugliness in politics, often directed to those we disagree with or those who “aren’t like us.” That ugliness often brings our society to the brink. Somehow, it all works out. The problems may still be with us and the arguing goes on, but this democracy is a pretty good thing.