Two Faces of Political Activism
It would be a better world if those on both sides were more like Ralph McKnight
By Barry Gordon 08/11/2011
A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine passed away. Ralph McKnight, the subject of a recent article by André Coleman and Kevin Uhrich, was the embodiment of a political activist. He cared deeply about his community and his country. He lived by a set of values and beliefs from which he never wavered, and he fought constantly and consistently for those beliefs. He recognized the flaws in our political system, but he never allowed them to deter his quest for a better America and a better world. His commitment, his integrity and his passion set a standard for all who are involved in politics, whether as an official, a candidate or a citizen.
Ralph also gave his time and his energy — not just his words — to make Pasadena a more diverse and fairer city. He served on city commissions, chaired political clubs and nonprofit organization boards and volunteered to lead wherever he saw an opportunity. He also co-founded an organization, One Community, designed to educate people about the various issues that touched their lives. He believed that an informed citizenry was an effective citizenry. Most importantly, he always insisted that people had a right to hear from all sides before taking a position. He valued the idea of a “marketplace of ideas,” although I think secretly he had faith that the progressive vision he cherished would ultimately prevail if only the people had enough education and knowledge to see through the political smokescreen of talking points and blatant misstatements (dare I say lies?).
Ralph McKnight’s special brand of political activism was on my mind as I watched another kind of political activism raise its ugly head in the recent debates over the debt ceiling. The Tea Party Republicans (I refer to them collectively, because they seem to be a political version of the Stepford Wives) arguably have much in common with Ralph McKnight. They, too, care about their country, believe deeply in their vision of what America should be and are willing to fight hard for their own values. But that’s where the comparison ends.
There are two axioms in politics that are not easily reconciled with each other. The first is that one should never allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Put simply, it means that we can’t always get everything we want. Politics is a messy process of compromise, of incremental change, of, more often than not, accepting a deal in which both sides walk away from the table feeling pretty miserable. Sometimes, the only thing we can be truly happy about is that we were thrown a few crumbs — made a little bit of progress — and we’ve survived to fight another battle on another day.
The other axiom is that one should never sacrifice their principles for expediency. Sure, we can argue about details, we can even yield key points to the other side, but it must always be for the greater good as we see it. We must understand that sometimes a line must be drawn that cannot be crossed.
The art of politics is reconciling these two seemingly contradictory axioms. And one of the keys to success is the idea of empathy. Even while we fight hard for what we believe in, we should always be asking ourselves a simple question: How would we feel if we were on the other side? A good political leader (or negotiator in any circumstance) should always try to understand what the other side needs to accomplish so that they don’t end up appearing completely defeated. And sometimes that means attempting to meet our opponent halfway, or at least a third of the way.
Ralph McKnight understood this idea of empathy. The Tea Party Republicans do not. Their goal is to crush President Obama and the Democrats and take no prisoners. They redefine the idea of compromise to mean that they get everything they want. And, for the most part, this tactic has succeeded. No revenue increases, a dollar-for-dollar match of spending cuts for an increase in the debt ceiling (which, I hasten to remind everyone is only authority to pay bills we’ve already incurred) and a promise of entitlement reform. And what have the Democrats gotten for all this? Maybe the ability to put off another fight until after the 2012 election. Big whoop.
The problem is that these two faces of political activism — the passionate but empathetic activism of a Ralph McKnight and the rigid, uncompromising activism of Tea Partiers — are fundamentally incompatible. If both sides practice empathy, the deal will be as fair as possible. But if one side is willing to compromise and the other is not, the compromising side will always lose. And no matter how Obama and the congressional Democrats try to spin this, they have lost this particular battle.
Our political world would be so much better if everyone on both sides were more like Ralph McKnight. One can only hope.
Barry Gordon is the co-host of “City Beat” and teaches political science at Cal State LA.