“The extreme elements of our Government must realize that compromise is not bad, that we can be compassionate and responsible at the same time by being moderate in our approach to public policy. No one of us can remake Government or society in our own image. With 535 Members of Congress, thousands of executive branch officials, constitutionally mandated checks and balances, shared power, and a strong two-party political system, compromise is an inherent necessity. If compromise is abandoned for rigid ideology, the system cannot work as it was intended.”
– Howell Heflin, 1996 Farewell Address to America
As a student of Rhetoric, I have to admit that election seasons are a particularly fascinating source of study. Political ads – and debates, for that matter – provide a wonderful tool for teaching writing students how to detect logical fallacies, and political speeches become rich sites for rhetorical analysis. In some ways, election seasons are a gleeful self-indulgence for those of us who spend our days (and nights) studying language in action.
I can’t speak for all scholars, but that glee has turned to frustration for me. Over the past several months, I have watched American citizens tear each other apart over their political beliefs. “Conversations” about politics quickly devolved into fights, with no attempt on either side to meet in the middle. It seems to have all become one big competition, where each side is either a winner or a loser – there’s no in-between. In the days following the election, it has been interesting to see how many citizens, political commentators, media personalities, and elected (or not elected) officials have viewed Tuesday’s results as a win or a loss for their “party.” The Democrats won the Senate and White House; the Republicans won the House. Third party candidates barely even got to play the game. The entire election was a competition, and now we know who the winners and losers are.
I believe I can speak for a large number of Americans when I say that politics should never have become such a spectator sport. When we turn our entire political system into a competition, none of us truly win. And the sad fact remains that this competitive attitude usually does not disappear upon the end of election season; indeed, it has pervaded every aspect of our political system, including the law-making process.
However, the good news is that you – yes, you, the Members of Congress – have the power to change that. The greatest victory of our “political games” is still quite possible, and it is in your hands. It would be a victory for you, for your “opponents,” and, most importantly, for the American people. That victory? Cooperation. Compromise. Seeking to find common ground, for the common good.
On election night, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – who during this election season became the de facto representatives of your parties – delivered speeches that opened the doors for bipartisanship. Governor Romney’s concession speech was gracious, and President Obama’s acceptance speech was inspiring. Each of these men ignored the opportunity for finger-pointing and poor sportsmanship, instead using those important moments to speak of unity. In his concession speech, Governor Romney reminded us that “at a time like this we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.” President Obama, while conceding that spirited debate is helpful to moving us forward, also stated that we must start with a “common bond,” and noted that he is “looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.” Both men spoke of working together. Both men used measured words. Both men serve as a good example for how the other members of their political parties should behave moving forward.
In the speech quoted in the epigraph above, Senator Howell Heflin offered some sharp criticism of the state of political bickering in our United States – a sad state of affairs that has only become worse in the 16 years since. Among the critiques and pleas for an end to “character assassination,” Heflin offered a sound reflection: “If we look back over history, we see that moderation and centrism in Government have led to some rather remarkable achievements.” If we can find a way to “un-trench” ourselves from the far ends of the political spectrum and strive earnestly to move toward one another, we might just find that fertile ground in the middle that is capable of producing remarkable achievements.