In 1868, Congress crafted the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment codified the requirements for citizenship and granted that status to former slaves freed after the Civil War.
It formalized the concept of federally protected civil rights (which could not be infringed upon or denied by individual states), and provided constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law. The amendment did not however guarantee the right to vote for African Americans, and fell far short of providing equality for all U.S. citizens.
Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a leading abolitionist who backed full and absolute civil rights for all, supported the amendment despite its shortcomings. When asked why he appeared to be abandoning his long-stated belief in full equality, he indicated that nothing better could be accomplished given the political situation, and moreover, “I live among men and not among angels.”
We are no closer to living among angels today than Stevens was in his day. Yet we seem to have abandoned the pragmatic approach to change that Stevens demonstrated 150 years ago.
It is probably a given that those who live successful and purposeful lives have values, principles and ideals they use to help guide daily activities. These standards are referenced (conscientiously or not) when decisions need to be made.
We do this in our personal lives and we expect elected officials to do the same when pursuing their goals. But universal principles are few and far between, and values are clearly in the eyes of the beholder.
As long as we embrace a democratic form of government, we need to require our elected leaders to acknowledge (and in some cases accommodate) values and principles that may be in conflict with their own. This is more than just compromise or a means to reduce legislative gridlock. It is an expectation that political maturity and common sense exist in those we elect to represent us.
Unfortunately we see the “my way or the highway” approach driving much of today’s political discourse. One would think that ardent supporters of amnesty for undocumented immigrants would universally praise the executive order driving changes in immigration policy. Instead we see the action criticized by some of these supporters because the executive order provides temporary relief from deportation for “only” 5 million individuals.
We would likewise expect that a proposed $400 billion tax break bill (an actual bipartisan achievement by the much maligned U.S. Congress) be eagerly accepted by all. Instead it is threatened by a veto because while it would make most of the existing temporary tax breaks permanent, it didn’t include a specific tax break for low-income families.
Politicians win elections by defining their values and principles and by providing a vision of how they would apply them to the challenges facing our nation. Politicians gain credibility by not only remaining true to that vision but by having the courage to accept that a straight path to their goals may not be possible.
They become successful leaders when they demonstrate the ability to map a journey that ultimately arrives at the desired destination but may have detours and include unnecessary baggage that others insist is needed for the trip.
Our elected officials need the integrity to stand for the values that got them elected. But they also need the courage to apply those values realistically, practically and successfully in this world we inherited from Thaddeus Stevens — a world of men, not angels.
James Byrne is a former U.S. Army officer and semi-retired telecommunications engineering manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.