The most popular book in America right now is the inspiring true story of a 4-year-old boy who visited heaven during his emergency appendectomy. Upon recovering, young Colton Burpo told his parents about how he had met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." His father, an evangelical pastor, was astonished. The boy's story couldn't possibly be the product of a dream or his imagination -- after all, there are "rainbow colors described in the book of Revelation, which is hardly preschool material," and Colton described Jesus as having marks on his hands and feet. How would a 4-year-old living in a pastor's house have picked up that information?
You may have had this experience recently: As you watch someone from the opposing party on television saying something you know isn't true or holding fast to some plainly immoral position, you ask yourself, "Just what is wrong with them? Are they stupid, or do they just not care?"
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (AP Photo/M.P. King, Wisconsin State Journal)
Both Democrats and Republicans tend to believe that their opponents are more efficient, organized, and ruthless than their own side is. This may partly be a result of each side's belief that, in a fair fight, they wouldn't lose -- the American people must surely vote for their opponents only when manipulated into doing so. But the fact that the left and the right are each envious of the other side's skills doesn't mean that both sides are, in fact, equally skilled. The unending battle between the two parties isn't only a matter of who can devise a clever argument or air the most memorable ads. It's also about conflicts that take years or even decades to play out, ones more lasting and fundamental than the outcome of today's legislative debate.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin represents the new right's unwillingness to compromise. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
You may recall from your junior high history textbook that Henry Clay, who served as a senator from Kentucky, secretary of state, and speaker of the House of Representatives during the early and mid-19th century, was known as "the Great Compromiser." This honorific was bestowed upon Clay in recognition of his role in a series of legislative compromises that delayed the Civil War by a few decades. In the end, of course, the war happened anyway. Fortunately for Clay, he was already dead, no doubt having departed for the great deliberative body in the sky, secure in the knowledge that his carefully wrought compromises had spared the country a bloodbath.
In 1852, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Life of Franklin Pierce about his friend and Bowdoin College classmate who was running for president. If they wished, Hawthorne wrote, Americans could elect Pierce's opponent and "retard the steps of human progress," or they could "put their trust in a new man, whom a life of energy and various activity has tested, but not worn out, and advance with him into the auspicious epoch upon which we are about to enter." The biography might not have caused quite the sensation of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, published two years earlier, but the book about Pierce, which arrived in the heat of the campaign, no doubt persuaded at least some voters that Pierce was just the kind of man to guide the country into that auspicious epoch.