Here is the question Sen. Kamala Harris should have been asked during the Democratic Party’s presidential debate, and it would have been a good question for each of the candidates: “If you were in the United States Senate when the major civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 was being considered, and you were one vote short of passage, would you have done business with the despicable segregationists of the time to pick up the one vote you needed to win?”
There may be no easy right answer to that question. Politics has always been about the tension between principle and necessity. Some politicians are dug in at either end of that equation, but most are somewhere near the middle, willing to compromise a bit here and there, but not too much, to move their ideas forward.
Huey Long, who was Louisiana’s governor and United States senator in the 1920s and ’30s, changed nearly every aspect of life in his state with his populist agenda and his rough political manners. Long stopped at nothing to promote his agenda, moving quickly from trying to be friends to making bald threats.
Long established night schools to fight adult illiteracy, paved highways and built free bridges, moved the mentally ill from jails to hospitals, expanded public education and provided free textbooks for all students, established the state’s medical school, and taxed the rich to lift the poor out of hopelessness.
To get this done, Long had to deal with people in his state whose beliefs he found repugnant. And any anti- Long politicians who wanted their own agendas to move forward also had to deal with him. It is a damnable aspect of politics, but Long met it head-on.
“They say they don’t like my methods. Well, I don’t like them either. I really don’t like to have to do things the way I do. I’d much rather get up before the legislature and say, ‘Now this is a good law and it’s for the benefit of the people, and I’d like you to vote for it in the interest of the public welfare.’ Only I know that laws ain’t made that way.”
At its core, politics is reduced to simple arithmetic. The highest principles and goals eventually depend upon the passionless practice of counting votes. And if you do not have enough votes, you can give up or try to get the necessary votes from folks with whom you mostly disagree, even some you hate.
You can try persuasion based on the righteousness of your position, which rarely works. You can cajole and charm, which sometimes works. You can try to find something the other side wants and make a deal, which often works. Or you can disrespect the opposition and show them the contempt you have for them, which never works.
Our system needs unwavering believers, those who remind us of what Abraham Lincoln called our “better angels.” But reconciling that with getting something done is the daily challenge of democracy.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the renowned American theologian, described these competing interests best, when he said, “Politics is an effort to establish tolerable community, the sinfulness of man presupposed.”
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.