There’s nothing quite like doom-scrolling on Twitter to make you lose all hope for mankind.
Or watching cable television news, for that matter.
I’ve followed politics for a long time – long enough that I remember when Walter Cronkite told people every night what the news was and let them make up their own minds about what they’d just heard. Now we have entertainers – I won’t dignify them with the title of “journalist” – shouting back and forth every night. The more outrageous they can be, the better the ratings.
It’s often enough to make me wonder how long our republic can last. How can we hope to govern a country that is not only divided, it’s so divided that it can’t even agree on the basic facts, much less what to do with them? I’m not the only one: Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich writes this week in The Guardian: “The second American Civil War is already happening.” Perhaps his answer to the question the The New York Times posed earlier this year: “Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War?” Along those same lines, Business Insider this spring identified “3 States Where A Second American Civil War Could Start.” Discount the news media chattering if you want, but last year the august Brookings Institution raised the same question: “Is The US Headed for Another Civil War?”
Sometimes the conditions do seem a little too ripe. Just as in 1860, our divisions are increasingly geographical. And neither side seems inclined to compromise on whatever the issue of the day might be, perhaps the result of that geographical polarization that creates too many districts that are really one-party districts where it’s easier for more extremist candidates to win. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, should serve as a warning. And that doesn’t seem like some isolated event, either. Sometimes, to judge by what I see on social media or certain news channels, it seems that the other side – however you define the other side – is a dangerous, potentially treasonous horde that’s out to undermine the very foundations of the nation and impose its malicious will on anyone who dares disagree. All those one-party districts only exacerbate that because those candidates never have to compromise on anything. On the contrary, compromise is something that will get you primaried – and replaced by someone further left or further right.
But then, whenever I hang around some politicians, my faith in the country is usually restored.
Yes, you read that right. There are certainly politicians we’d be better off without. By and large, though, I am generally impressed that the politicians – at least the ones I know best in the General Assembly – are far more civil with one another than many of the constituents they represent are with each other.
I wish more people could see that side of politics. Maybe Washington is different, I don’t know. Thankfully, I’m not there. I sure see a lot of clowns dominating the news, some of them scary clowns. But whenever I see our state legislators up close I am reminded by what decent people we have (for the most part) in Richmond. That’s not to say I agree with everything they do (I don’t), but I have generally found them to be good-hearted people who have the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.
A few months ago, I wrote about the odd-couple friendship between Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County – Rasoul had directed honor roll students from his district to McNamara’s ice cream shop. They might not agree on much policywise, but that did not stop them from working together in other ways.
This week I got to see more examples of that kind of legislative camaraderie. The occasion was the meeting of a state commission in Franklin County – I’ll have a future column on what just what commission is doing, so for now the exact details don’t matter. What matters is this: The commission met at what was officially described as the Historic Holland Duncan House but is also the law office of state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. Stanley’s not on the commission but he made the conference room in his law office available. He was out front when a van arrived from Richmond bringing some of the commission members, most notably the commission’s chair, state Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.
As soon as they saw each other, they hugged.
When the day’s events were over and it was time to leave, they hugged again.
These are two people who certainly don’t agree on very much. I’m sure they don’t agree on taxes, or probably on spending, either. Or abortion. Or guns. Or whether the governor’s picks for secretary of natural and historic resources and the parole board should be confirmed. Or on whatever any of the other hot-button issues that divide us might be. But they hugged each other. It wasn’t for the cameras, either. I was the only journalist there and was too slow to get my phone open to take a picture. (OK, it was a quick hug, and I’m slow with the camera trigger finger.)
Whatever their policy differences might be, and there are many, they still were friendly with each other in what seemed a genuine kind of way.
Later, after the commission meeting was over, the five senators present – four from the commission, plus Stanley – took a field trip to the nearby Booker T. Washington National Monument. At one point during the tour, two of the senators – Republican David Suetterlein of Roanoke County and Democrat Scott Surovell of Fairfax County – wandered off together on a short hiking trail. I have no idea what they talked about. Maybe they talked politics. Maybe they didn’t. But it didn’t seem to matter. It seemed a nice bipartisan moment no matter what they talked about. More people could stand to take a bipartisan walk in the woods like that.
Now here’s the part where I will leave some of my more liberal readers demanding universal health care to cover their high blood pressure medicine: I want to say some kind words about Gov. Glenn Youngkin for doing his part to calm a populace that seems dangerously on edge.
What? I can hear some readers saying now. What about the way he campaigned on the phantom menace of critical race theory? What about his infamous tipster hotline aimed at ratting out teachers? What about the way he tried to take the unprecedented action of trying to shorten the terms of the Loudoun County School Board?
I’m completely aware of all those things – and more. But here’s the thing: We’ve always had controversial politics. However, with the notable and instructive exception of the 1860s and occasional other fits of violence (such as the Southern reaction to matters of race), we have generally managed to disagree without being too disagreeable with one another. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill certainly disagreed. They also regularly got together for drinks. We’d be better off if a few certain politicians weren’t in politics anymore, but we’d also be better off if we could all treat those we disagree with as fellow citizens with different views, not public enemies of America. No matter who wins the next election, we’ll all still be here, and we all still need to figure out at least some way to get along.
That’s why we ought to give a little more attention to the commencement address that Youngkin gave last weekend at Regent University. The relevant part: “We’ve lost the ability to debate, to disagree, and yet to find a way forward. Instead we create enemy combatants of colleagues, even friends and sometimes, sadly family members. So all of you graduating today have this amazing opportunity to reintroduce the concept of grace. Grace in the public discourse. That even if we disagree, we can hear one another … see each other where we are even if we so deeply disagree.”
I often hear some on the left complain that Youngkin is some kind of Trump acolyte. That just seems absurd. Trump never talked like this. The country would be better off if he had. On Cloverdale Road in Botetourt County, there’s a homemade sign that reads: “I’d rather have a mean tweet and $1.95 gas right now.” I understand the desire for $1.95 gas, but why do we have to have meanness in our public discourse?
Youngkin went on to tell the Regent graduates: “You all can define this discourse. You all can reintroduce grace.” That’s true – and not just true of the graduates. Youngkin might want to ask himself whether all of his actions have met the test he’s laid out, or whether he’s done things simply to fire up his political base that have only sharpened political divisions that didn’t really need to be sharpened. (People might have different opinions on that, especially state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, who complained that Youngkin and his staff broke tradition by not notifying him the governor intended to veto one of his bills. I wrote then that this seemed a violation of common courtesy, which seems a form of grace in public discourse.) Still, Younking has laid out a good standard so let’s take him at his word and apply this. Yes, I know it’s easy to preach “grace in the public discourse” and harder to practice it when the other side is getting ready to (insert whatever horrible policy you think the other side wants). Common decency won’t solve every problem or soften the sharp edge of every disagreement, no matter how much I wish it would. And a single speech won’t change very much. Youngkin himself joked that he didn’t remember who his own graduation speaker was or what that speaker had to say. But we’d be better off if more people remembered (and heeded) what Youngkin had to say at Regent – and if more people could see a white Republican man and a Black Democratic woman hugging each other even if they don’t agree on very much. None of that will change any votes, but it might change a lot of attitudes.