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Will the civil majority please stand up?

Aug 28,2019 - Last updated at Aug 28,2019

STANFORD — Recession fears are gripping Europe and spreading globally. Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union now seems imminent, and Italy’s government has just imploded. The Argentine peso is collapsing, owing to expectations that President Mauricio Macri’s administration will soon be succeeded by another Peronist government. The bombing of a wedding in Afghanistan augurs the return of escalating violence in that country. And fears of a Tiananmen-style crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong are rising.

Meanwhile, America has suffered through heat waves; disgusting revelations about a wealthy serial pedophile with ties to the rich, famous and powerful; and four horrific mass shootings. Each of these incidents deserves thoughtful analysis. But in a 24/7 news cycle amplified by unfiltered social media, the immediate response has been dominated by an exchange of partisan recriminations. 

In the past, Americans generally viewed those with whom they disagreed as wrongheaded, insensitive, beholden to particular economic interests, or driven by different values or cultural experiences. But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents.

We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve, or at least defuse, serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did.

Consider race relations. Here, most Americans will be familiar with the main historical landmarks. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown vs Board of Education, declaring the principle of “separate but equal” unconstitutional and putting an end to school segregation. The following decade, the civil rights movement gained steam under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.; in 1965, president Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which was followed by the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

Yet, given the depth of political polarisation nowadays, we would all do well to consider the deeds performed by figures some might now regard as our opponents. For example, Calvin Coolidge, a Republican who served as president from 1923 to 1929, played a key role in advancing civil rights in the United States. And today, one can find a prominent bust of him on the campus of Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC.

Whereas Woodrow Wilson, a supposedly progressive Democratic president, refused to support anti-lynching legislation, and dismissed black federal employees from their jobs, Coolidge not only supported anti-lynching legislation, but even joined the demonstrations in support of the law. He also supported a medical school for African-Americans at a time when many Americans, shamefully, did not think African-Americans were capable of being doctors. Similarly, John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and at one point the world’s richest man, paid off the debts of what would later become Spelman College, a beacon for African-American women.

For his part, president Richard Nixon significantly advanced the project of desegregation. Aided by my friend and current Hoover Institution colleague George P. Shultz, who was then serving as secretary of labour, Nixon organised biracial councils in southern states to see that the Brown ruling was being honoured. According to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic senator from New York, Nixon’s enforcement of desegregation was his greatest domestic achievement. In the space of just six years, the fraction of African-American students in all-black southern schools declined from 68 per cent to 8 per cent.

Seeing the good, even the great, in flawed figures like Johnson and Nixon can help us rediscover the perspective upon which productive cooperation is based. But we also need to reclaim a sense of national service. In my career as an economist, I have seen leaders suffer stinging defeats for putting the country’s interests above their own. President Ronald Reagan, for example, backed US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s efforts to rein in double-digit inflation, knowing full well that the resulting recession would cost the Republicans dearly in the 1982-midterm elections.

Likewise, President George H.W. Bush, facing huge Democrat congressional majorities, accepted short-run political peril to do long-run good. In order to clean up the saving-and-loan and developing-country-debt crises, manage the oil shock from the first Iraq war and forge a budget compromise that controlled spending, he had to renege on his “no new taxes” pledge. And just as Reagan had worked with Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, to save Social Security, so president Bill Clinton worked with Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker, to balance the budget and reform welfare.

Sometimes, heroes show up in surprising places. One such figure was Lane Kirkland, the late president of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labour organisation, who chaired the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Labour Policy Committee at the same time (1989-93) that I chaired its Economic Policy Committee. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, I joined a presidential mission to Poland to help with that country’s transition to a market economy. It was there that I first learned, and had reiterated by Lech Wałęsa, the co-founder of Solidarity, a few months later at the White House, that Kirkland had provided crucial support to the movement against communism. Over fierce opposition by leftists within the AFL-CIO, Kirkland had helped smuggle fax machines into Poland so that union members could communicate and coordinate their actions. I called Lane and said: “We may have our differences on economic policy, but bless you for what you did for the Poles.”

The next time you hear of some ugly deed committed by someone you regard as an opponent, take a minute to remember that most of us are capable of performing good, even heroic, deeds, too. Humankind is far from perfect; yet, we have managed to make remarkable progress by working together. The loudest voices on the Internet and elsewhere should not be permitted to drown out that message.

 

Michael J. Boskin is professor of Economics at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was chairman of George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993, and headed the so-called Boskin Commission, a congressional advisory body that highlighted errors in official US inflation estimates. Project Syndicate, 2019. www.project-syndicate.org

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