This semester, disputes over Greek life and the role of former World Bank President Robert Zoellick ’75 in Swarthmore’s commencement have engulfed the college. Several seniors I know have characterized the zeitgeist as the most divisive they have seen since they arrived. This has led to a lot of conversation about whether we – as students or as Americans – can come together or accept each other despite our differences. I maintain that we can, we should, and we must.
It is sometimes said that Swatties are diverse in every way but ideologically. We are overwhelmingly liberal. We have thriving environmental, peace, queer, and labor activist groups. We value equality and social justice. Most of us celebrated the Obama victory in 2012. Our professors mostly lean left and classes are often conducted in a left-leaning context. Conservative students, professors, and groups are a distinct minority.
I share much of that outlook. It was one of the things that attracted me to this college after being raised in an extremely conservative small town. At the same time, such political consensus tends to become an echo chamber in which thinking is made duller and opponents’ sincerity, intellect, or intentions are called into question. In the liberal “Swarthmore Bubble,” all manner of left-leaning ideas are accepted but moderation and conservatism are often overlooked. That’s fine as an exercise in philosophical development of committed leftists like me, but it leaves us woefully unprepared for politics in the real world.
Our country is not Swarthmore. It is a union of people and states with very different economic, social, and political interests. The constitutional structure of the U.S. Congress forces people from different places and cultures to come together and act in the interest of an entire nation. Alabama must coexist with Massachusetts.
Even the divisions between those areas are exaggerated. While people who, for example, write opinion columns are deeply divided over politics, the American people as a whole are not. Political scientist Morris Fiorina argues persuasively in his book “Culture War?” that Americans have such broad political goals as “a secure country, a healthy economy, safe neighborhoods, good schools, affordable health care, and good roads, parks, and other infrastructure.” They aren’t interested in petty fights over ideological purity. They’re practical, if ambivalent, when it comes to politics.
A pluralist union, a divided political class, and a moderate public make the enactment of extreme ideological positions very difficult and utopias impossible. It forces us to compromise and to listen to the voices of our opponents. However, it should not force us to abandon broader convictions.
The late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) should be our model for striking that delicate balance. He was a bold defender of all the major causes the American left supports and was reviled for it by right-wing activists. At the same time, he was able to forge numerous compromises with Republicans to improve our public policy regime. His partnership with conservative Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) became legendary in Washington. Hatch at one time despised Kennedy, but on the Senate Labor Committee they found common ground on public health issues. Most notably, they led the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, providing states with federal funding to create or expand health insurance coverage for kids in modest-income families. Given that Kennedy was always a liberal and Hatch always a conservative, the partnership could be contentious, but over the long term it was constructive.
Had Kennedy dismissed his conservative colleague as a dead loss and refused to work with him, his record might have looked like that of former Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio): a lot of great words that make liberals happy but have few legislative accomplishments to support them. Instead, Kennedy accumulated a stunning legislative record and a reputation for bipartisanship, all while remaining true to his liberal values.
For this to catch on, the left cannot be the only side to compromise. Republicans must unclench their fists, stop pushing conspiracy theories, and become serious governing partners. They are sending mixed signals now, hoping to find some way to avoid giving any ground but less comfortable with blanket rejection of every Democratic offer than they have been in the past. If just a handful of Republicans in both chambers of Congress chose to meet Democrats in the middle on important issues, a lot of Washington’s dysfunction would dissolve.
Those of us who are not legislators have the luxury of confining ourselves to our respective bubbles if we want to. Liberals at Swarthmore have an especially easy time doing that. However, our democracy is better served when we know how to deal with people who don’t think like we do.
This is not a plea for everyone to get around a campfire and sing “Kumbaya.” It is merely a recognition of the basic, frustrating reality of living in a pluralist democratic republic – or a college campus full of people with strong opinions that sometimes clash. If we tear each other apart in the course of our debates, we cannot solve our problems. Swarthmore students and American political activists need to accept our differences, learn to understand each other, and seek common ground where we can. Our ultimate goal is to create a society that works as well for its people as possible. Ideology should be secondary.