Thursday, May 12, 2011

When the high road isn't necessarily the right road to take

Having finally finished off Ed Sullivan, I've now moved on to Steven F. Hayward's massive and brilliant two-volume The Age of Reagan. Hayward's contention, with which I agree, is that to understand Reagan (or anything, really), one has to understand the times in which Reagan came to political prominence. Therefore, the entire first volume covers the years 1964-1980, much of it dealing not with Reagan at all, but with the social and political environment - the self-destruction of liberalism, the failure of Nixon, and, finally, the rising of Reagan.

At this stage in the book we're looking at the nascent Vietnam War, in particular the Gulf of Tonkin affair, which was the catalyst for deepening American involvement in the war. Without getting too deeply into the intricacies of what happened in the Gulf, Hayward's point is that for LBJ, less than a year into his presidency but with less than four months until the 1964 election, it was imperative to be seen as tough on Vietnam in order to avoid Goldwater's charges of being soft on Communism.  With apologies for the length of this excerpt, here is what I want to center on:
Although critical historians have emphasized the role of political opportunism in Johnson's decision to exploit the Gulf of Tonkin affair to defend against the potential Goldwater charge of weakness, it was in fact unnecessary. In Goldwater's aforementioned Oval Office meeting with Johnson before the Gulf of Tonkin affair [Tonkin occurred in August 1964], Goldwater told Johnson that "there was already too much division in the nation over teh wear" and that neither of them should make things worse "by making Vietnam an issue in the campaign." Johnson sighed in relief, Goldwater wrote in his autobiography. "I interpreted that to mean he agreed." This was one of the great missed opportunitites of the 1964 campaign, not so much for Goldwater as for the nation. A vigorous debate about Vietnam during the campaign might have forced Johnson to give clear commitments to the nation about what would and would not happen in Vietnam. Between Johnson's craftiness and opportuinism, and Goldwater's fastidious patriotism, the nation was denied that debate.
You often hear a lot of discussion from people lamenting the divisiveness in politics today, the polarization between the two parties. There's much to this, in that the arguments that follow are often constructed in a soundbite manner, with no real substance and no effort to educate or illuminate the public.

Nonetheless, it is a profound mistake for candidates to simply paper over issues for the sake of civility, or in order to avoid conflict. Conflict is what makes democracy work, just as expression is what makes freedom work. The manner in which conflict is voiced often makes the difference, but the "can't we all just get along?" mentality, applied to the critical issues of politics, can't be anything but a disaster. Yes, let's be civil about it - I've harped on this point as much as anyone. But let's not deny conflict when it exists, and is meaningful.

You might ask how one applies this to someone like Mitch Daniels and his infamous plea for a "truce" when it comes to social issues, or the larger issue of the Tea Party and its emphasis on economic issues over social ones. And that's a good question. Does Daniels say that social issues don't matter, or that it is essential to concentrate on first things first - save the economy, then take care of the rest?

I've long thought that there was a holistic nature to politics that requred consideration of economic and social issues simultaneously, because of how they're intrinsically intertwined. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between deferring an issue and denying it. Even the Founders realized that slavery, as important an issue as it was, could not be allowed to prevent the formation of the new republic. First things first - let's found the nation, then deal with the rest. Hayward himself, earlier in the book, points out that conservative trends in economics often precede a similar conservative trend in social issues by about twenty years. The Reagan Revolution was mainly economic, but it took until the late 90s for his socially conservative wave to catch up with the rest of the nation.

That's just a side issue, though. My point here, and I do have one, is that Goldwater was dead wrong to refuse to make Vietnam an issue. Whether or not it would have helped him in the election was beside the point. In a misguided effort to maintain national unity during a dangerous time of war, Goldwater's decision denied to the nation a debate on war policies that may have prevented a great deal of misery down the road.

Remember that the next time you hear someone complain about divisiveness in politics, and echoes that plaintive desire that we all "just get along." Is that really the best road to take?
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