I SPENT MY first year after college doing voluntary service in Portland, Ore., serving as the hunger action coordinator for a small Catholic organization called the Oregon Center for Peace and Justice. That fall, I joined a group of church anti-hunger activists from around the state in a meeting with our Republican U.S. senator, Mark O. Hatfield. We asked him a number of questions, and urged his continuing support for food- and hunger-related legislation.
When it came my turn, I said, “Senator, how do you reconcile the compromises that you inevitably have to make as a politician with the ideals you hold as a Christian?” In his reply, Sen. Hatfield pointed to the difference between compromises of principle—which he said he would never make—and the tactical compromises necessary to make progress in a pluralistic society. Without the latter, the senator said, politics is nothing but an ideological shouting match.
These days, it’s clear that most far-right Republicans, including those in the party’s leadership, take a slightly different approach to inter-party cooperation than did the late Sen. Hatfield. They seem to see it less as building bridges for the sake of governing a varied society and more as sleeping with the enemy.
There’s probably no better recent example than the issue of health care. The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is the law of the land—passed by Congress, signed by the president, and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. But none of those legal niceties seem to matter to the raw-meat GOP. Their attempts to circumvent or undercut the law range from the inane (such as 67 failed tries—count them: 67—to overturn the ACA by congressional vote) to downright bullying.
Here’s an example of the latter: The administration is engaged in a full-court press to educate the public about the health-care reforms coming down the pike. One key issue, of course, is getting young, healthy, and often uninsured demographics—for example, men in the 18-to-35 age range—to get health insurance so that that they don’t pass their emergency costs on to everyone else in the form of higher premiums. This helps make it affordable for everyone else. To reach that group, the administration invited the National Football League to become a “partner” in the health-care education process. All good so far.
But apparently the alleged Republican support for law and order only applies to certain laws. In this case, the Republican leadership, having failed by the usual democratic means to get their way, now are actively seeking to prevent people from learning about the law—and thereby complying with it—by using tactics that are downright, well, Nixonian. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and whip John Cornyn sent a threatening letter to the NFL, saying that the football league shouldn’t help teach people about the health-care law because of the “persistent unpopularity of this bill” (conveniently ignoring the fact that once it’s enacted into law it’s no longer a “bill”), and warning the league of consequences if it took “public sides” in this “highly polarized public debate.” If you can’t get your way through the legislative process, use intimidation and veiled threats in the hopes that people won’t comply with a law—isn’t that almost the definition of “aiding and abetting”?
While such bullying passes for “leadership” in this country, a stark contrast was on display across the sea, in the person of former South African president Nelson Mandela. Here was a man imprisoned for 27 years, who emerged free of the rancor and bitterness that so sadly characterizes much of modern politics in this country. Here was a man who reached out to rivals and so-called enemies, and treated them as partners in the creation of a new South Africa. Here was a man who understood that cooperation and, yes, compromise are essential to governance, and in fact necessary to the civil proceeding of society at all levels, from families to international relations. We have a lot to learn from Mandela, one of the greatest and most remarkable world leaders of the last century; we might start by simply trying to emulate the way he treated people in our public life together.
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.
Image: Bullying not allowed, f8grapher  / Shutterstock.com