Several years ago in a New York City restaurant, my husband and I visited with our friends Elder and Sister Walker, a Latter-day Saint missionary couple. We had come to New York to visit our daughter, but we were glad for a chance to meet up with the Walkers and discuss, not Church growth, but rather partisanship and politics.
Sister Olene Smith Walker (BS ’53) had served in the Utah State House, then as Utah’s lieutenant governor, and later became the first woman to serve as Utah’s executive-in-chief. I greatly respect her work, and when I served as a state senator, I especially enjoyed the occasions when Governor Walker would come to the senate floor during informal moments, sit with a few of us, and chat about different bills she supported or opposed.
Olene and I had actually been opponents in 2000 as lieutenant governor nominees on the ballot. I was the Democratic candidate. She was the Republican—and victorious—candidate.
After Olene left office as governor in 2005 and moved to St. George, Utah, the Church News ran a feature on the former governor, highlighting her new focus as a ward Primary president. Olene and her husband, Myron, went on to serve as public affairs missionaries in New York City with an emphasis on making friends and building bridges with ambassadors to the United Nations.
Catching up with Olene and Myron in the Big Apple, it was clear that Olene was focused on her present work while remaining committed to lifelong involvement in politics and the notion that finding common ground with others is the best way to solve problems.
Over the last several years we have seen resistance to this notion and a rise in extreme partisanship contribute to a decline not only in our public discourse, but also in our ability to create good public policy and move our country forward.
For many public servants, partisanship seems to have taken precedence over the motives that drew them to political involvement in the first place—to promote the public, or common, good and to improve the lives of Americans.
Looking at the controversial, adversarial nature of politics today, we might ask, who in the world would want to get involved? The partisanship, the bickering, the ridicule, and the name-calling are all legitimate reasons to think twice about jumping into the political arena. These unsavory by-products also dim our hopes of making a positive difference in our government, communities, and society.
More than 14 years ago, on his way out of office after serving nearly 25 years in the U.S. Senate, John Glenn noted in an interview with Time magazine that there was greater partisanship in Washington than there had ever been. He added,
I worry about the future when we have so many young people who feel apathetic and critical and cynical about anything having to do with politics. They don’t want to touch it. And yet, politics is literally the personnel system for democracy. We’ve got the finest democracy in the world, but it’s also one of the most complicated. Not everyone needs to run for public office, but every time someone drops out of the system it means they in effect give their franchise to somebody else. . . .
If you say politics is so dirty you don’t want anything to do with it, what you’re really saying is that you don’t want to get dirty from democracy.
President Barack Obama, in an address to University of Michigan graduates in 2010, said
Politics has never been for the thin-skinned or the faint-of-heart, and if you enter the arena, you should expect to get roughed up. Moreover, democracy in a nation of more than 300 million people is inherently difficult. It’s always been noisy and messy, contentious, complicated. We’ve been fighting about the proper size and role of government since the day the Framers gathered in Philadelphia. We’ve battled over the meaning of individual freedom and equality since the Bill of Rights was drafted. As our economy has shifted emphasis from agriculture to industry to information to technology, we have argued and struggled at each and every juncture over the best way to ensure that all of our citizens have a shot at opportunity. . . .
. . . What is amazing is that despite all the conflict, despite all its flaws and its frustrations, our experiment in democracy has worked better than any form of government on Earth.
So I ask, in terms of making a difference in government and society, do the pros of political involvement outweigh the cons?
I believe the answer is yes.
And to fully engage in politics in a democracy that functions on a two-party system, you may need to affiliate with a specific party.
It is unlikely that any one party will encompass and represent all of your beliefs. You will need to select the party with which you most identify. For me that is the Democratic Party; for Olene Walker, that is the Republican Party. We are still friends.
As Church members, we sometimes get caught up in society’s tendency to demonize not only a particular political party but also those who belong to it. Some come to equate alignment with one party to alignment with gospel principles without recognizing there are good Democrats, good Republicans, and good Libertarians who are also good disciples of Christ.
In a 1998 Salt Lake Tribune interview, Elder Marlin K. Jensen noted that “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of all major political parties.”
I believe that partisanship—in the sense that we claim a political party and work within the structure of a largely partisan system to participate in the process of government and engage in robust, civil dialogue—is compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, partisanship—in the sense that we demean, belittle, and separate ourselves from those who hold differing political views and that we place party success ahead of the common good—is not compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For the personnel system of democracy to succeed, we must find ways to actively and effectively engage in the political process. We need to find ways to debate issues, tackle challenges, and find solutions together. As we run for office, sit on boards or commissions or volunteer on campaigns, we can employ politics as a constructive means to address the challenges we face in our country.
Can we engage in politics without becoming negatively partisan? Yes. Politics is not a bad thing. Partisanship need not be a bad thing. Remember, politics is the personnel system of the democracy that we love. Is getting involved in politics worth occasional discomfort? Yes. Our democracy is worth it. Can we improve the quality of our political dialogue? Yes. We can practice being more civil.
Becoming more civil may require that, from time to time, we change the radio station or television channel, broaden our daily news diet, and listen to people who may disagree with our points of view. As we work to understand other perspectives, we may just get a taste of where the other side is coming from and occasionally find common ground upon which to build.
After serving as U.S. senate majority leader and then as Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff, Howard Baker stated in an address to the U.S. Senate, “I continue in my long-held faith that politics is an honorable profession. I continue to believe that only through the political process can we deal effectively with the full range of the demands and dissents of the American people.”
He added, “The founders didn’t require a nation of supermen to make this government and this country work, but only honorable men and women laboring honestly and diligently and creatively in their public and private capacities.”
Karen Hale is a former Utah state senator and vice chair of the Utah Democratic Party. This article is adapted from remarks she gave at a BYU panel discussion on partisanship on Jan. 24, 2012.
Campaigning for Civility, by Mark DeMoss
Religious Democracy, by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
The Work of Civility, by Judge Thomas B. Griffith (BA ’78)