Veteran politicians bridge the divide between red and blue; Barney Frank and John Sununu seek civility in disagreement
MIDDLEBURY— Audience members expecting a bipartisan discussion on how best to build the American economy instead got an inspiring civics lesson.
Former New Hampshire governor and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, a Republican, and former Congressman Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, came together Wednesday evening at Middlebury College to discuss “Finding Common Ground for Economic Opportunity in the Trump Era.”
Time and again both veteran politicians brought the discussion back to what was clearly an issue of pressing concern: the importance of disagreement when making laws and a bedrock commitment to America’s political system.
“I think you can overemphasize the importance of agreement,” said Frank. “Civil disagreement is essential to a democracy.”
Sununu concurred, saying: “You cannot move forward, you cannot hone ideas, you cannot improve policy, you cannot make things better without disagreement. Disagreement is how you shave off the useless parts of an idea, by debating and finding common ground.”
Frank, 77, served as a Massachusetts state representative from 1973 to 1981 and then in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 2013. Sununu, 78, served as governor of the Granite State from 1983 to 1989 and then as President George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff from 1989 to 1991.
Gail Chaddok, former Washington political editor for Christian Science Monitor, acted as moderator for the forum, which was co-sponsored by the college, the nonprofit Common Ground Committee and the Monitor.
Elaborating on the importance of civil disagreement, Sununu said, “It was never designed to be easy. Our constitutional form of government is designed to make it hard to change major policy.” Starting about two decades ago, the press started calling this essential process “gridlock,” Sununu said.
Sununu then elaborated on what it takes to find common ground in the legislative arena. First is the substance of an issue, an area where disagreement is not only expected but is essential to the conversation. Second is what Sununu called the “will to come to a result,” which must be shared by both parties to achieve a result. Third, said Sununu, “We have to understand that results don’t necessarily happen quickly, and that the process has to be one of a long-term commitment to the exchange of ideas.”
Both also admitted that civil sparring is invigorating.
“Do you want to know why Barney and I have done a half a dozen of these (Common Ground forums) over the last 10 years?” said Sununu. “Because it’s fun to argue, it’s fun to be searching.”
And, as both emphasized repeatedly, that’s how you get things done most effectively.
What’s in the way now, both articulated, is the increasing polarization of the electorate.
Both blamed the media. Both blamed the internet. Both cited such media outlets as Fox News and MSNBC. And both cited the way the internet lets individuals huddle directly with their own affinity group.
“It has promoted a clustering of sameness,” Sununu said. “When you can communicate that well, you can have a party immediately with the 40 people who agree on everything the same way and you don’t have to invite anybody else.”
Frank further criticized the internet for its lack of vetting and its erasure of important layers of expertise, calling the internet “the greatest source of misinformation in the history of the world.”
“It used to be that to get something printed you had to put it in front of at least one other person,” he added.
Frank told students that “I heard it on the internet” is the equivalent of what in his and Sununu’s student days went as the equally lame “Somebody told me.”
This “clustering” into political echo chambers on both the right and the left has made the electorate intolerant of the compromise necessary to the political process, both said.
“It’s one thing when people disagree because they think you might have made an error. It’s another when they think you have betrayed them, when they think you consciously refused to do what you can,” Frank said.
He gave an example from the ongoing debate over health care, saying that recent exchanges with many on the left has gone like this: “‘Why didn’t you guys have single payer in 2009?’ Because we didn’t have the votes. There wasn’t a majority for it. ‘What do you mean there wasn’t a majority for it. Everybody I know is for it. Everybody I talk to is for it.’ And it’s true. Everybody they talk to, everybody they listen to on the radio, everybody they follow on the internet is the same.
“So the problem is not simply that people have different values. Each (group) is convinced that it’s in the majority and therefore resents compromise.”
Both also blamed academia for narrowing debate.
Given recent debates and unrest at Middlebury College and campuses around the nation over what constitutes hate speech vs. free speech, Frank spoke straight from the heart about his experiences as a ground-breaking gay activist. Six decades older than the college students who made up most of his audience, he delivered a kind of insight that could only be communicated — as both personal experience and political belief — from one generation to another.
It is dangerous, Frank said, to claim that because something offends you you shouldn’t have to listen to it.
Some people think that “you shouldn’t have to listen to things that are very upsetting to you. And I understand that. And I’m told that LGBT people shouldn’t have to listen to people who offend them.”
Frank paused and continued: “I’ve heard this argument before, that there’s a particular sensitivity to discussion relevant to LGBT issues such that people should be protected from having to hear it.”
Frank then recounted working toward the first gay rights bill in Massachusetts in 1972 and being silenced.
“I was told, ‘I’m sorry, they don’t want to have you because a lot of straight people find it much too upsetting to talk about two men having sex.’ There was a book called ‘Heather Has Two Mommies,’ which was a pioneering book about a child being raised by a lesbian couple, and it was banned from libraries, banned from schools because the argument was it would be too upsetting for the straight children to let this happen.
“So this argument that people should be protected against hearing things that would be upsetting to them, I must tell you it’s an argument I spent a lot of time fighting in the campaign for LGBT rights.”
The audience responded with thunderous applause.
GET INVOVLED IN POLITICS
Both men encouraged students and other attendees to get engaged in the political process.
What’s important, said Sununu, is “to recognize that the system is complex, to not get frustrated when things don’t happen quickly, to understand the value of checks and balances, to participate in the process and stay with it. You’ve got to keep at it and keep at it.”
Frank again concurred: “Yes the system is frustrating but the only way you’re going to exercise your rights is to participate in the political system.”
Frank then pulled no punches in telling students that feel-good demonstrations don’t accomplish as much as getting involved in electoral politics. He gave the example of two different responses to the financial crisis of 2008: the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movement.
“The Tea Party got fully involved in the politics of the Republican Party and Occupy smoked dope and had drum circles,” Frank said. “I’m going to tell you, not surprisingly, people smoking dope and beating drums have much less impact.”
Today, Tea Party Republicans are the major force in the U.S. House of Representatives, Frank observed.
He concluded with a key principle based on “all my years in politics,” saying that if you’re advancing a cause and “you’re engaged in an activity that makes you feel warm and supported and part of a group of people with whom you are in total solidarity, you’re probably not advancing that cause very much. You’re cheering each other on, and you’re not reaching out.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
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