Reagan and O’Neill Were Friendly Opponents, so Why Must Today’s Partisans Spew Hatred?

I have never in my very long life witnessed the intense hatred between political parties as demonstrated in our country today. The word “hatred” is not too strong; my point survives the exaggeration. Having a political appointment from President Reagan, I worked in Washington, D. C. with Congress and the Executive Branch virtually everyday for 10 years. The two political parties didn’t hate each other then. To be sure, there was always political disagreement, but never hatred. I personally could work with Reagan, but also with Senator Ted Kennedy—who even invited me, a Reagan appointee, to his home for a private party.

Tip O’Neill, Democratic Speaker of the House, criticized Reagan’s policies often, but he did not hate Reagan. It is said that sometimes after criticizing Reagan’s policies, O’Neill would meet with the president for a cocktail. That was the prevailing atmosphere in those days.

No more.

I no longer get mad about politics. That was not always the case in my younger years. Why couldn’t reasonable, bright, educated people agree with my arguments, I wondered then. What changed my temperament over the years? Two things: one, age and experience. I learned, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Two, I came to realize in a political or philosophical argument that both sides convey seeds of truth. Sometimes, of course, one side had more seeds than the other side. For example, I did not agree with President Obama on Obamacare. Yet at the same time, how could I oppose a person who wanted to provide health care to poor people? His intention was noble; it was simply the means of reaching that intention that I disagreed with.

When I moved recently to Oakland, California I had a mutual friend, a liberal, who wanted to argue with me about politics. I did so for awhile, only to see that he could not defend his views without getting angry. His face would get red, his voice louder, and he would pound his finger on my chest, saying, “How can you hold such a view?” I should have responded, “How can you hold such a view?” I no longer argue with him because he cannot do so without getting mad.

Today, President Trump is widely, yes, hated by adversaries. He was hated even before he was elected, and more so after his surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton. Democrats, the print media, television news, Hollywood, the music industry, university administrators—all then and now intensely dislike the man. The silent majority, meanwhile, has said little in defense of the president. To be sure, Trump is narcissistic beyond belief. He reminds of me of Oscar Wilde, who standing before the mirror, said, “It was the beginning of a life-long love relationship.”

With regard to today’s zeitgeist, I am here also reminded of the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats’ observation: “The best lack all conviction [to act], while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Also, Edmund Burke’s insight comes to mind, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” And Burke also observed about the French Revolution that the crickets in the field are noisy while the cows are content. These observations fit today’s spirit of the times.

John Stuart Mill put brilliantly what is needed in today’s political, philosophical world: “Though a silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth, and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”

I’ll not hold my breath, but I will also not get angry about it.

Ronald L. Trowbridge is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He served as chief of staff to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.
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