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Progressive Balancing Act

Teddy Kennedy and Orrin Hatch

Having read and written LA Progressive articles for over a decade, I often think how hard it is for us progressives to get right the proper combination of passion, tolerance, and compromise. The passion is generally there, but tolerance and a willingness to compromise not so much. As I have indicated in a much earlier article, there are varieties of progressives, and I think we should be a big tent, tolerating differing approaches in behalf of certain values like compassion and social justice.

In that we are all fallible humans, there are no perfect progressives, but I admire some who I think have demonstrated important progressive attributes. Five of them are Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), Bobby (RFK) and Ted Kennedy, and Barack Obama. I especially admire the passionate intensity of the first three individuals, and the tolerance and willingness to compromise of the last two.

Of the three politicians, perhaps Ted Kennedy was the best “balancer.” No one can doubt the passion he felt for progressive causes, but he tolerated other points of view and worked effectively with opposing politicians. Shortly after his death in 2009, his good friend conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch had this to say about him:

We did not agree on much, and more often than not, I was trying to derail whatever big government scheme he had just concocted…Ted was a lion among liberals, but he was also a constructive and shrewd lawmaker. He never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important…

I hope that America’s ideological opposites in Congress, on the airwaves, in cyberspace, and in the public square will learn that being faithful to a political party or a philosophical view does not preclude civility, or even friendships, with those on the other side.

We can all take a lesson from Ted’s 47 years of service and accomplishment. I hope that America’s ideological opposites in Congress, on the airwaves, in cyberspace, and in the public square will learn that being faithful to a political party or a philosophical view does not preclude civility, or even friendships, with those on the other side.

When reflecting on my dear friend’s life, my thoughts continue to turn to the future of this great nation. With the loss of such a liberal legislative powerhouse who spoke with conviction for his side of the aisle but who was always willing to look at an issue and find a way to negotiate a bipartisan deal, I fear that Washington has become too bitterly partisan.

Because of being assassinated in 1968, Ted’s brother Bobby never developed into the great legislator that Ted later became, but in the few years before his death he displayed great compassion and a willingness to work with others to achieve his ideals. In a new Forward to the 2002 edition of his RFK biography, Arthur Schlesinger wrote that “he was a man of passionate conviction. He was at the same time a tough and experienced politician.” Right after MLK’s assassination, RFK spoke eloquently: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

President Obama understood well the necessity of tolerance and compromise, but was sometimes criticized for not being passionate enough. “No drama Obama,” was one reference to him. Although it was clear that he cared deeply about such issues as social justice, he was not the passionate sort of man that MLK was.

In a 2009 Notre Dame commencement address he said, “We must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity—diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief. In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family.” He spoke specifically of the importance of people with domestic political differences, for example on the question of abortion, working together for the common good.

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At a University of Michigan commencement the following year,he did not ignore the role of passion: "These arguments we're having over government and health care and war and taxes—these are serious arguments. They should arouse people's passions.” But more eloquently he expressed the importance of political tolerance and compromise: “We can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.” He warned against carelessly branding others with terms like"fascist" and "right-wing nut." Such “vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning . . . . It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation.”

He also warned us of the danger of living in an ideological bubble, which those of us on the left can do just as can right-wingers. “If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. . . . The practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.”

Perhaps the biggest misfortune of Obama’s presidency was that Republicans displayed little sense of compromise, little willingness to work with him to further the common good. As the president said at a 2010 Labor Day speech in Milwaukee: “When it comes to just about everything we’ve done to strengthen our middle class, to rebuild our economy, almost every Republican in Congress says, no. Even on things we usually agree on, they say, no. If I said the sky was blue, they say, no. If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say, no. They just think it’s better to score political points before an election than to solve problems. . . . You know, I heard—somebody out here was yelling ‘Yes, we can.’ Remember, that was our slogan? Their slogan is ‘No, we can’t.’ No, no, no, no.”

Unlike the Kennedys and Obama, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and MLK were not politicians but social activists who worked hard to bring our country closer to the ideals it professed. Both Obama and Pope Francis listed both individuals in short lists of great American reformers.

Both activists spoke out against racism, war, poverty, and the excesses of capitalism. Both were inspired by their religious beliefs, she by Catholicism, he by his Baptist faith. Both advocated a Gandhian type of non-violence. Her views were conveyed most often in the Catholic Worker newspaper she co-founded in 1933, his by magnificent speeches. Both did the tireless everyday work--they not only talked the talk, but walked the walk--of organizing and leading institutions to carry out their ideals. She, for example, co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and established “hospitality houses” in various parts of the USA for the down-and-outs of society, among whom she worked. Both activists protested often and were sometimes jailed. In 1974, after attending an anarchist conference she wrote, “Because I have been behind bars in police stations, houses of detention, jails and prison farms, whatsoever they are called, eleven times . . . they accept me as an anarchist.”


Although we associate Day and King mainly with their passionate beliefs and actions, they also appreciated the value of tolerance and compromise--not of or with evil but of different methods and approaches to problems. She was willing to work with anyone, communists included, to seek the common good and help the unfortunates of society. In a June 1954 letter she wrote, “We must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences—that is the basis of the ecumenical movement, which is part of the peace movement.” King’s demonstration marches, in the words of one scholar, “brought together people from the South and North, from widely differing church traditions, not only Christians but also Jews and humanists.”

In that most of us contributors and readers of LAP are not politicians, we, like Day and MLK, can stress passion for our social justice causes more than tolerance and willingness to compromise, but when selecting politicians to represent us, including presidential candidates, we should not ignore these two values. For effective politicians they are necessary.

walter moss

Walter Moss

In deciding which Democratic presidential candidate to back in 2020, we might want to consider what qualities are necessary for a successful president, one who like Franklin Roosevelt can get things done. Yes, we want passionate champions like Day and MLK of the values we hold dear, but we will be voting for a president not a social activist. And like it or not, an effective president needs to be a good politician, someone who really cares not just about the things we seek, but about the common good (including that of those who disagree with us). Thus, we should also desire a pragmatist and unifier who demonstrates the type of tolerance and willingness to compromise that Obama recommended.

Walter G. Moss