Political news in the past few months, sparked a memory of a Holy Ghost Prep special faculty meeting in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The topic was discipline — or the lack of. I was Assistant Headmaster and one of my responsibilities was discipline. The meeting was called because many of the senior faculty members were upset at student behavior or they didn’t like my style. Whatever, we were having a meeting. The old guard took seats in the back of the room (on the courtyard side, across from the current main office). A younger, more progressive group sat in the front seats (I admit I encouraged this group to both sit together and speak up). Then there was a group in the middle. Amazingly, each group had about 1/3 of the faculty.
The older, traditional, more conservative, back of the room faculty spoke first. They were angry. Something needed to be done about discipline. Historical, it was pretty simple. Misbehave and you were thrown out of the classroom; serious infraction and you were expelled from the school. The administration needed to do something about the current situation.
Eventually the younger progressives in the front of the room began to speak. Controlling student behavior was more complex. Teachers had to take responsibility for their classrooms. Serious discipline cases had to be reviewed. Students should be given a chance to explain their behavior. Everyone needed to be involved in the solution, not just the administration.
Maybe it’s obvious. But the 1/3 in the middle of he room would decide which side of the debate prevailed. In this particularily meeting at Holy Ghost Prep, the middle went with the younger progressives. HGP established a discipline code and a discipline committee to review cases. Teachers were expected to deal with classroom problems before referring them to someone in administration.
The meeting and and outcome is a footnote in HGP history. I am pleased that the progressive philosophy prevailed. But I think, more importantly, I learned a valuable lesson. The 1/3 division of the faculty provide a model for looking at political discourse in the United States. It may not always be equal thirds but there is the left, right and middle. Liberal, Conservative and Middle. When I taught political science classes, I would draw the political ideology continuum on the board and have students place their name on the line.
In the past two decade in American politics, those in the back of the room, the hard line conservatives have been talking loud. The middle went with them for a while. There was some worry when Gingrich started talking some extreme policies like dismantling the Department of Education. Most people believe in education. George Bush bounced back bing the compassionate President supporting education. But Bush wasn’t totally liked by the hard line conservatives. Clinton played to the middle. The tag “liberal” had become a liability.
More recently Obama was able win two elections. His first rival, John McCain, made a major mistake in reaching to far to the right with Sarah Palin. The middle shifted toward the left and the country was ready for a President with some African roots. The traditionalists on the right were horrified. Obama was labeled a socialist. Policies that conservatives had supported became tainted if Obama touched them. The conservatives however were well organized, some of their policies were attractive to the middle but their success (I might say arrogance, ideological purity, and unwillingness to compromise) lead to an increasing vocal far right minority who took over the conservative voice. For years I chided moderate conservative Republican friends at Holy Ghost Prep, “The Republican Party is being destroyed by the fanatics.” They smiled and I think agreed.
The current shift of the middle leftward shouldn’t be a surprise. When the right gets too strident, the middle pulls leftward. I remember James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, who claimed the country was made up of “liberals and Americans,” made a joke about “a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple,” wanted to sell off federal lands and gut environmental protection, claimed religion as a justification for his policies. Time magazine labeled him among the worse cabinet members in history; he drove the middle toward the left; membership in environmental organizations boomed.
I saw the current shift of the middle leftward 10 years ago. More students at HGP (traditionally Republican, conservative) were placing themselves in the middle or slightly to the left on the political ideology continuum. Many of those that self identified as conservatives worried about welfare recipients, too much federal government, traditional morality, but they also supported environmental protection, civil rights for all, and other more leftward policies. In a Greater Philadelphia Partnership exercise with about eight classes from public, private, city and suburban schools, 95% said they didn’t care if gays got marriage. Five percent said it was against their religion. Those kids are voting today.
With the election of Obama (he’s not a Americans; he’s a socialist), the right has gotten increasingly strident and self-righteous. Look at the last Presidental election. The far right candidates made a circus of the Republican primary. One crazy front runner after another, Michele Bachman, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum. I was a Republican committeeman in Yardley when Santorum was endorsed for his first Senate run, I was one of two in the county who voted against him. I wonder how many of those committee people would endorse him as a Presidental candidate today. Mitt Rommney and other moderates were pushed toward the right and the middle voters moved leftward.
The current shift leftward is seen in recent Supreme Court decisions on the Afforable Health Care Act and Gay marriage. It’s seen in the campaign of Berrnie Saunders. In the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house and othe sites. National polls have have shown the public becoming more liberal — immigration, marijuana, attitudes toward big business, and a variety of moral issues.
But the conservatives are still being driven by the far right, a few of them are total crazies. In the past few weeks, Donald Trump has gotten more press that any other Republican candidate, giving more moderate Republicans an apoplectic attack. I lost count of the Republican candidates, some of them are Rick Santorum (my friend), Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindel, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, and of course, Jeb (let’s not mention the Bush name, not loved by the far right and suspected by some in the middle) — a woman, African American, two Hispanic, I believe. Is the Republican Party changing? It seems as in 2012, the more moderate conservatives in the group are being pushed rightward (the base it’s called) and the fringe candidates eat up media time and money and push the middle voter toward the left.
Its unfortunate. We need a discussion between conservative and liberal ideology. I remember in college talking about how the real far right and real far left meet. Political ideology is a circle not a continuum. Our democracy is founded on discussion, debate and yes, compromise. My Republican mentor, Ed Burns, during my doctoral work in Harrisburg, said he knew he had a good bill when no one was completely satisfied. Legislation required compromise. I believe as with any statement that strong, there are exceptions — sometimes no compromise — but we need to be careful.
The excitement over Pope Francis is another indicator of the shift of the middle to the left. Wait till he talks to the United States Congress! Just as Obama’s election fired up the far right politically; Francis’s election has conservative Catholics worried. Witness the reaction to the firing of Mike Griffin at Holy Ghost Prep and Margie Winters at Waldron Mercy Academy. Traditional conservative Catholics are defensive; liberal Catholics are enraged. But the middle moves left. The firings go to far. Alumni at HGP and Waldron have been supportive of Griffin and Winters. Philadelphia mayoral candidate, Kenny (a Catholic) blames the men of the Archdiocese. Might we say old, white, conservative men.
I am a child of the 1960s. I grew up in the Republican middle of the road, fairly conservative Eishenhower years. Ike read westerns and ate TV dinners. Americans were recovering from WW II, there were many weddings, births, moves to the new car suburbs. Consumer spending fueled a growing economy. But the Civil Rights movement (fueled by that Supreme Court “Brown” decision outlawing segregation) and Vietnam Nam began to mobilize the left. It was labeled the New Left, a coalition of African Americans, college students, and some old left activists.
I remember going to meetings of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in Boston. Every once in a while you’d meet an older guy who is was said was a card carrying communist. I vividly recalled a lecture at BC given I believe by the Jesuit, John Courtney Murray. There may be many good things in Murray’s bio but at this lecture, he was critical of student protesters claiming that they had been trained in communist camps and he pointed to a United States map with pins stuck in it. I raised my hand. No questions please. “But, Father, my political views are based on reflection and readings of Viet Nam history, I have never been to a communist training camp.” No comments. I believe Murray was distraught about Daniel Berrigan land othe left of center Catholic peace activists who were taking protests beyond non violent discussion.
Increasingly as the 1960s progressed, disenchantment with Viet Nam spread to the mainstream. There were peace candidates and a general cultural shift to a more progressive, liberal political philosophy. It spread (or infected depending on your perspective) areas of morality — Roe v Wade in 1973, the women’s movement, the modern environmental movement, experiments in education, the war on poverty, Medicare, and the list goes on (another blog).
The bottom line is that in the 1960s, the middle moved to the left. Even Pope John XXIII, guided the Catholic Chruch through the reforms, changes of Vatican II. And like today conservative Catholics were horrified. No more Latin masses? The right began to re-emerge. Confusion during the Nixon years, Viet Nam dragging on, detente with China, and then Watergate. It took Reagan to court and win the middle, “the silent majority.” He was successful. The middle shifted right.
It seems in American politics, the middle shifts back and forth, left and right, the pendulum swings. I won’t predict how deep or long the current shift to the left will last? Although I identify as a liberal (have never abandoned the label, Bill Clinton), I don’t endorse the idea that all liberal policy is good. As previously stated for a healthy Republic (what’s a Republics?), we need both conservative and liberal views. What we don’t need is control by the extremes. It seems the Tea Party has faded into history (when did you last hear them mentioned in the news), but conservatives to rebound will need to abandon the “crazies” — you know who they are.
I must admit I suspect (maybe hope is a better word) that the move of the center to the left lasts a few years, maybe a decade or so. Maybe the movement will even spread to my Alma Mater, Holy Ghost Prep, that I believe has leaned to far to the right in recent years. Maybe HGP needs an open faculty discussion — one third in the back, one third in the front and the crucial middle third. Which direction would they move? Stay turned.
Where are you?