Essays: Ted Vaggalis

Common Ground

Undoubtedly, politics in the United States has become polarized. Pundits and media experts have argued that this year’s election campaign is one of the most divisive ever. But there have been more polarized periods in our nation’s history. Think about the decades around the Civil War or the political instability of the 1960s. We forget our founders created our political system to thrive amid conflict. Spirited debate is what keeps government healthy and responsible to the governed. Even more important, Americans share a common core of political values that is strong enough to pull partisans back from the brink of disaster. This common core sustains us in times of crisis, supplying the wisdom to forge compromises and promote the common good.

The divisive 1980 presidential election campaign between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan represented a clear choice of agendas. Carter, a Democrat, represented the tradition of the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Society ideals of Lyndon B. Johnson. Reagan, a Republican, wanted lower taxes, less government, and to clear regulatory space so that business could expand. Though I was disenchanted with President Carter, I feared that Reagan would change what made America great.

As we know, Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. We did not go to war with the former Soviet Union. Welfare did not end and regulations for clean air and water were not eliminated. President Reagan fought and worked with Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, to produce a consensus both parties could accept. While maintaining his principles, Reagan always forged a consensus between the two parties.

Perhaps the most impressive moment for President Reagan was the moment when he realized that the leader of the Evil Empire (not the New York Yankees, by the way) was his ally. He and Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev were able to work out their differences that led to the end of the Cold War.

When Reagan left office in 1989, I saw that while I still disagreed with many things his administration had done, there was a lot of common ground that we shared all along. It was this common core of values that made it possible for him to be an effective president.

We can learn from our electoral past. We need to remember our history. We must recall the core of political values we share that allow our leaders to find common ground despite their ideological differences. We are committed to rights and liberties for all. We are committed to ensuring that our system is fair for everyone. Most of all, we respect the dignity of the individual and believe that our system should allow individuals to flourish. The resulting debate and conflict is how we come to build a consensus about the best way to achieve our aims. It is this that makes America great.