Could the governing failure of Pennsylvania’s 18th century “Quaker Assembly” provide a warning for the 21st century U.S.?
The late historian Daniel Boorstin suggested that the Quakers’ failure in governing the colony of Pennsylvania resulted from “the curse of perfectionism.”
“On more than one occasion … the Quakers in power seemed more anxious for their own principles than for the welfare, or even the survival, of the Province itself,” Boorstin asserted in his book, “The Americans: The Colonial Experience.”
He added, “To the Quakers, their obstinacy doubtless seemed a purity of principle and their rigidity a steadfastness of belief. But some of their more perceptive contemporaries saw the perils hidden in these virtues.”
Replace “the Quakers” with “U.S. politicians” and “the Province” with “the U.S.,” and Boorstin’s assessment offers a needed critique and insightful warning about the current state of affairs.
A leading trend in U.S. political life has been manifestations of “if you’re not with us at every point, then you are against us.”
This growing trend is precluding cooperation not only between parties but also within them.
The GOP has been visibly fragmented since the birth of the “Tea Party” in 2009. The emergence of Donald Trump as a leading 2016 presidential candidate has further strained the party.
This has resulted in some GOP candidates moving further right and away from “middle of the road” political positions.
Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, for example, have stepped back earlier support for bipartisan immigration reform proposals, seeming to take a harder line of immigration as a result of Trump’s popularity.
John Boehner’s time as Speaker of the House offers another example. His tenure was a tumultuous one – filled with intra-party disagreements between Tea Party leaders and the rest of the GOP. He noted party tension as a reason for resigning in October 2015.
The Democratic Party might seem more unified, but the veneer is thin and cracks have emerged.
Hillary Clinton seemed to be the heir apparent as party leader at one time. What portion of the party she leads is now in question.
She has distanced herself from the current administration on various issues – foreign and domestic – and the White House has remained ambiguous regarding its support of Clinton.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has gained traction for reasons similar to Trump’s emergence.
He is an outsider with comparatively radical views who is challenging the Washington establishment and shirking traditional campaign strategies.
With growing support for Sanders, Clinton seems to be moving further left on issues than she might have otherwise – perhaps seeking to be a truer, purer expression of liberal politics than her opponent.
In addition to inter-party conflict, lack of bipartisan legislation provides further evidence of a polarized political climate.
While this is an ongoing problem, presidential election years tend to preclude these initiatives, as parties and politicians focus on appealing to their bases by becoming increasingly ideological – more rigid and obstinate in their politics.
To engage in bipartisan cooperation in this climate is to risk being seen as not conservative or liberal enough – not a “true” Republican or a “good” Democrat.
The immediate backlash and continued criticism of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for surveying the state’s storm-battered boardwalk with President Obama in 2012 is a prime example. It was an election year and many felt that this helped Obama win the election.
Might this become an enduring illustration of the dangers of a political system in which would-be leaders are “more anxious for their own principles [i.e., their own political ambitions] than for the welfare, or even the survival” of the nation?
This demand for purity, for perfect adherence to a particular faction’s ideology is having a detrimental impact not only on the political processes, but also on other societal institutions, including the local church.
Too often and too easily churches become divided along political lines. Guy Sayles observed, “These days, I think sadly, most churches are blue or red; there are hardly any ‘purple’ churches left, and I think it’s a real loss.”
To counter this harmful trend, we need more realists who hold firmly to their political principles while being willing to compromise for the common good, and fewer ideologues whose goal is personal power and privilege through a purported adherence to their “principles.”
We need leaders at all levels and within all institutions to be more concerned for the welfare, the survival, the common good of society than they are for their own power and prestige.
Essential to a more positive approach, to paraphrase Boorstin, is for folks with differing ideals, principles and visions for society to recognize that obstinacy is not the same as purity of principle and rigidity is different than steadfastness of belief.
One must not let go of political ideals to work with folks across the aisle, but “the curse of perfectionism” that results in a gridlock-inducing “my way or the highway,” “if you’re not with us on every point you’re against us” mindset must be avoided.
While election maps continue to focus on whether districts and states will be blue or red in November, goodwill people of faith need to expand the locales where purple becomes the predominant color.
Not by founding a third party based on watered-down, lowest-common-denominator principles, but by folks on both sides of the aisle recognizing that they can compromise and collaborate toward a shared goal of a healthy, vibrant society without giving up their principles and ideals.