To the many who claim to hate politics, I beg of you: don’t. Does our political system seem broken? Yes, it does. Can it work? Absolutely. It has to.
David Brooks penned an article that I can’t stop thinking about. In “The Governing Cancer of Our Time,” Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, wrote of the dueling messiness and beauty of politics. An excerpt:
We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society — politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics.
Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them…
The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.
But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.
Brooks warns that over the last generation, a strong anti-politics force has taken hold, one in which outsiders with no political experience or desire for compromise are elected. Where they shout each other down. Where everyone refuses to see or hear those who differ from them.
No wonder Americans are weary of politics, unhappy with their choices. It’s not how we live our lives. Consider your marriages, work, parenting and friendships — who gets their way all the time? Refuses to see each other’s humanity? Yet too often that seems to be the way of politics.
It doesn’t have to be.
When Brooks wrote of the messiness and beauty of the American political system, it wasn’t just theoretical. I know, because I saw and worked this system in all its messy glory.
My story begins in the summer of 1993, when I was hired by the nonpartisan staffing agency of the Maryland legislature, known as the General Assembly.
Let me add this: While the last four Maryland governors are evenly split between the two major parties, the General Assembly was been majority Democrat for as long as I can recall. As an ardent Democrat, I knew going in I’d be working with Democratic leaders. Because whichever party controls the chamber gets the chairmanships, right? Of course right. That’s how power works.
The subcommittee I was assigned to staff was right up my wheelhouse: the Subcommittee on Health, Education and Human Resources, chaired by Senator Barbara Hoffman from Baltimore.
So there I was, happily working as a nonpartisan staffer for some pretty liberal Democrats committed to the same things as I was: expanding access to quality, affordable healthcare. Investing in our schools. Ensuring the poor and marginalized were not forgotten.
Sure, I was a little nervous. The subcommittee was full of smart, strong-willed people, including the infamous Senator John A. Cade, a Republican from Anne Arundel County. It was said he made staffers cry (more on that later). He was gruff and abrupt during subcommittee meetings that first session. I will tell you this, though: he asked really good questions.
So it would have gone, year after year.
Except the 1994 election happened. The committee chair lost his seat. Senator Hoffman won her race and was promoted. The new subcommittee chair was announced.
It was Senator John A. Cade.
You have to understand: Senator Cade was not just a Republican. He was the Senate Minority Leader. He was also a massive ex-Marine who sometimes wore short-sleeved dress shirts to show off his tattoos. It was rumored he kept a skull in a drawer in his office; he referred to it as the last bureaucrat who lied to him.
And he was going to be my new boss. He’s who I would sit next to during budget hearings involving health, education and social service agencies. We would go over budget strategy, review legislation, write floor notes. We would be together a lot.
I remember the first time he called me into the office to talk about his expectations. I was 25 years old. I was terrified.
He announced that the thing he hated most was surprises. He wanted in-depth budget briefings before our committee hearings. He wanted to be prepared, ready. He wanted to do right by the people of Maryland.
“That sounds good,” I squeaked. It was the start of my learning, of challenging my beliefs about this new Republican boss of mine. Senator Cade did not want to waste a single taxpayer dollar. At the same time, he also cared deeply for Marylanders who were struggling; as a child of the Depression, he knew what hard times felt like.
What he insisted on was accountability. If he thought state money was getting swallowed by bureaucracy, he tried to cut it. If he thought it was truly helping the poor, the disenfranchised or hard-working Marylanders, he supported it.
The Senate President, Mike Miller, was no dummy (as evidenced by his record 29 years as Senate President). Senator Miller appointed Senator Cade to a leadership position not just because the man was a budget expert. He was good for the state of Maryland.
My new boss was also a masterful politician. He was still the Minority Leader of his chamber; he had to balance the interests of his party, his fellow committee members and his constituents. I staffed closed door meetings that involved just the politics David Brooks describes in his article: committee members negotiated and traded and worked for consensus on a variety of issues. There were some meetings held without me.
It wasn’t always pretty.
Senator Cade and his fellow committee members argued vehemently and passionately for what they believed. Sometimes my boss pounded tables. Guess what else happened? The committee passed budgets and legislation that created more community-based programs for the developmentally disabled. They funneled grants to the arts and regional theaters. They supported rural and urban mentoring programs for youth. Senator Cade led a major effort, with Delegate Hank Heller (a Democrat), to increase funding for community colleges by tying it to the university system. All the while he opposed tax hikes — except those few times he didn’t.
Senator Cade only made me cry twice.
The first time was in June of 1996, when I went to tell him I was leaving the General Assembly to go work for Montgomery College, a local community college. He told me I had been part of something really important and he didn’t want me to go. But if I had to, I was going to a good place. And then we both got teary and pretended not to be.
The second time he made me cry was when I heard this news five months later:
John A. Cade died Thursday morning at age 67, in his 14th year as Senate Republican leader, his 22nd year as a senator and after more than three decades of public service. He was a pivotal player in the State House, one who cared deeply about making a difference for people. That is what mattered most to him. (From an editorial in The Baltimore Sun, “Giant in Annapolis Sen. John A. Cade: GOP leader dissected budgets and bureaucrats, but cared for people.” November 17, 1996.)
He is still a presence in our state. There are scholarships and buildings named for him. The Maryland General Assembly, still majority Democrat, voted unanimously to name the Maryland community college funding formula after Republican John A. Cade.
I wonder what Senator Cade would think of the state of politics today? I think he would bluster and pound a table, then call people together and figure out how to get to work. I hope he would disavow Trump, just like Maryland’s current Republican Governor Larry Hogan, who says he will not vote for Trump. (Thank you, Governor Hogan.)
David Brooks has it right:
The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”
We Democrats and Republicans can disagree vehemently on a variety of issues. That is the very nature of democracy. But what we have to do, what we have to ask of our elected leaders, is that they choose to embrace politics. For the good of our country and our children.
As for us, we need to vote. And when we do, let’s choose people who will come to the table and participate in this great and messy democracy. It truly is a thing of beauty.
I just never dreamed it would feel so fragile.