I was moved by John McCain’s address to the senate this week. Shortly after casting a deciding vote to allow continued debate on health care, he took the chance to reflect on partisanship, and the importance of rising above it.
Some in the press thought it was inconsistent for him to call for compromise shortly after casting a key party-line vote, but I didn’t. He wasn’t supporting anything more than continued debate, and then asked his colleagues to keep it reasonable.
And it’s a really good speech. You can read the whole thing (thanks to the Washington Post) at the link above, or by clicking on John’s face.
A part I especially like:
Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’
I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.
Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.
My state is experimenting with some changes to our political process that might help us recover a productive middle ground. For example, opening our primary elections to voters of any party reduces the incentive to appeal only to the base. Appointing a broad, multi-party commission to set electoral districts discourages gerrymandering, improving the odds of success for any candidate willing to compromise.
Although it’ll be a while before we know if such moves work, they make intuitive sense. And as McCain points out elsewhere in the same speech, the public agenda is urgent enough that we should be trying hard to do better.
By coincidence, around the time McCain was speaking I was reading a 2014 book by Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of Inequality, that hit some of the same themes.
She persuades me that higher education belongs on that list of urgent, unaddressed public issues, too. Until reading this I’d thought of ourselves less as a symptom of political gridlock, and more as a potential cure. If we could only mint enough civic-minded alumni, we could all get on with it. Heck, some of our grads might even run for office.
But she sees politics and policy behind many of our sector’s current problems: rising tuition, rising student indebtedness, serious constraints on access and inequitable outcomes.
She writes: “All told, higher education today is becoming a caste system in which students from different socioeconomic backgrounds occupy distinct strata, and their experiences within those tiers end up making them increasingly unequal.”
Allow me to pause for editorial emphasis: WTF!?
We tell ourselves we’re in the equalizing biz, first rungs on the ladder of opportunity. But instead she describes a system that looks like this:
Because, as Mettler writes, offspring of the rich go to non-profit privates and flagships, often on scholarships, while the poor are likelier to enroll in for-profits and community colleges, incurring more debt from the former, and lower odds of graduating from both.
I’m familiar with these arguments and find them convincing, but still appreciated the book’s synthesis and case-making. Here was the epiphany:
But the crisis is also fundamentally political. We have plenty of higher education policies created in the past but they function less well than they once did, generating unintended consequences or deteriorating due to their own design features, or the impact of other policies on them.
In short, they require updating and maintenance. Public officials should be fully capable of these tasks. The problem is that the political system today has grown dysfunctional. It is paralyzed by polarization that inhibits even these routine activities. In the rare instances when government functions, it takes on the character of a plutocracy, as lawmakers join forces across party lines to represent the advantaged and neglect the needs of ordinary Americans.
It’s a thought worthy of a senator in his waning days.
Image credit: Atlantic