I recently had a rich conversation with a friend about the political tensions and social divisions we currently face.
I mentioned that because of Title IV (federal financial aid) expectations, as a university leader, I had often said that I couldn’t be publicly political, but that I had been corrected by a colleague from a sister institution who averred, “We can’t be partisan, but we must be political.”
This is absolutely true. College presidents have an obligation to lobby for education and to engage in efforts that protect and support the missions of the institutions they serve. I have a professional responsibility to advocate for my university on a regional, state, and national level.
I also have an ethical obligation to our surrounding community to pursue state and federal support for our students and the institution. As the largest private employer in Snyder County, Susquehanna University’s success redounds to the health and vitality of our region. It has often been said that “All politics is local.” The implication is that voters are driven by what happens in their own back yards, but the literal meaning of “politics” is “the affairs of the city,” so local has always been at the core.
What does it mean to be political, but not partisan? For years, when students have asked me what candidates I will endorse, I have replied, “I will vote for the person who will best support the arts and education.” I am confirming to them that my choice is driven by platform, and that it is in line with my professional position. I am being political, not partisan.
I have a professional obligation to be political, but not partisan. On Independence Day, I am struck by the realization that this should be the goal of all citizens.
A few years ago, I was visiting with a member of the House of Representatives (from another state), and I asked his position on a particular topic. The response was, “It depends on where the other side comes out.” This is being partisan and not political, and it is a toxin that plagues our nation.
In January, I had the privilege to attend a workshop led by William Doherty, Professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of Braver Angels, a community organization that seeks to depolarize our nation by seeking common ground between “reds” and “blues.” As Prof. Doherty noted, most people are not liberal or conservative. We are each an amalgam of varied positions across a range of topics. An individual may be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Many who oppose abortion rights adamantly support the death penalty, while others oppose or support both.
Our individual ideologies are often scattered across a spectrum. Not that long ago, that kind of richness existed within our two-party system. When I was a kid, politicians would frequently be referred to as a conservative, moderate, or liberal Republican, or as a conservative, moderate, or liberal Democrat. This fostered opportunities for much richer discussions of ideas and bipartisan achievements than our contemporary “us or them” mantra.
Politics is about values, ethics, and compromise. Compromise is a necessary condition of collective action, but it is not always good.
Where might we be as a society had the Founding Fathers retained the abolition of slavery from the original draft of Declaration of Independence? Would we still be a colonial dependency if the abolitionists hadn’t compromised and struck the clause?
Our greatest triumphs and our most egregious sins as a nation have often been born from compromise. The definition of the outcome has often been whether those in the right or the wrong acquiesced or stood their ground. Progress, by its definition, is incremental, but compromise built on a bet that the next step will be expeditious and continue in the right direction is laden with risk.
Our failures as a nation have occurred when we have been unable to recognize moral issues as being right or wrong rather than right or left. Our greatest successes have been those moments in our history when ethics, rather than affiliation, have won the day.
As I have written many times before, the founders of this nation were profoundly flawed people, as are we all. They seized a moment in history where brave and radical change could be achieved. The Declaration of Independence established an ideological foundation that would not be a lived reality for many in their lifetimes. Although they set a malleable prenatal nation into motion that has since made significant incremental progress, equality, unalienable rights, and a government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed is a self-evident truth that is not enjoyed in common.
We may be living in another rare moment, when, as a deeply flawed people, we can make another heroic leap, and secure for all our citizens the “equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.”
I hope we have the moral courage to make good on that promise from the first Independence Day. It is most certainly political, but it is not partisan. It is not right or left, but it is most certainly right.