My father’s father, whom we called J.R., was ideologically conservative and a committed Republican. He came to New Jersey from Indiana, to train with the Army Signal Corps, before shipping out to an around-the-world tour of duty in World War II. He ran for and won elective office as a mayor and state legislator. He criticized opponents and fought for his party, its platform, and its vision for small-town New Jersey and for American democracy.
With all of that, I never felt any pressure to internalize any kind of ideology. In fact, though ideology was part of the political world he inhabited, I think his sense of decency made it unthinkable to try to indoctrinate his grandchildren. Instead, I remember him being someone who enjoyed in a profound way that the civic space was open to everyone. To J.R., it was a sacred principle that every person had a basic right to use their mind to make more good possible.
At least this was the world he wanted for his grandchildren.
Ideology was secondary to this higher principle. The world we live is something we build together. There is no reason not to do the best we can.
J.R. taught me that ideology has its limits and that you cannot be effective or serve honorably if you don’t see this. To insist that ideological preference gives you the best answer every time is like insisting that no math exists except 2=3.
Fairness was a fundamental principle in my childhood experience. My parents, my teachers, my coaches… Sister Lorraine, who taught me that science was a way to honor the value of others… everyone insisted that fairness was an absolute obligation for all of us. There is no excuse for deviating from fair treatment of the other.
So, in my early years, I learned that:
- Fair-mindedness means you let math and science explain what is true.
- Conservatism requires deference to truth and evidence.
- Fair-mindedness requires the recognition of shared reality and experience.
- Elected officials are first and foremost sworn servants of their fellow citizens, whose rights and dignity are paramount to any notion of party or ideology.
The Declaration of Independence ends with the promise that “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” There is no access to fairness, unless we conceive and uphold it, mutually. This is what it means to serve with honor.
Though the United States came into being with terrible injustices enshrined in law, the system was designed to allow us to overcome and correct those injustices. The work of doing so is something all of us are working on—explicitly or implicitly—every day. We have fundamental responsibilities to each other, to all those who do not have this privilege, and to future generations, to whom we owe the best of ourselves.
Congresswoman Mia Love, Republican of Utah, explained her commitment to the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, this way:
When people come into a room and they talk about what they’re FOR, that is democracy at its best. As a member of Congress, as an American and as a Republican, I think it is our responsibility to work across the aisle together to get rid of partisan politics and do what’s right for the American people and the world.
Politics will always disappoint us. There are many views, many interests, many ways of saying everything that matters, and many things that don’t matter as much as others often win the rhetorical battle. Democratic order is not supposed to be perfect adherence to any ideology. If it works, such rigid intellectual stricture should be impossible. Service should win, in the end, even if by accident.
We can disagree; we should disagree, so our views are not limited to any one person’s thinking. We can argue as if life itself depended on the outcome, but we are all in this shared project of self-government together.
J.R. taught me a few unforgettable things about what our civic space should be:
- Your opinion might be the smartest, or it might not.
- You will never know which if you don’t share, and also listen well to others.
- Politics is service. People don’t care what you think about, so much as they care how you treat them.
- Working with people—even people who oppose your most cherished ideas—is the only way to serve with honor.
Harriet Beecher Stowe distilled these four insights as follows:
Half the misery in the world comes of want of courage to speak and to hear the truth plainly and in a spirit of love.
We are all allies in this great democratic experiment. It only works if we embody this in our civic action.