I liked one thing Nikki said the other day

This story, by our own Meg Kinnard, was one of several that featured the word…

The day that I posted that item about Joe Biden, I had meant also to post a good word about Nikki Haley. Or to be more specific, a good word about an even better word she used.

Having anyone use such a word, especially in such a context, is a rare thing, and one that deserves to be encouraged when such an occasion arises.

So, a few days late, here you go. I’m referring to something she had to say on the subject of abortion. See if you can find the word:

Haley said Tuesday that she does “believe there is a federal role on abortion.” She added: “I want to save as many babies and help as many moms as possible. That is my goal. To do that at the federal level, the next president must find national consensus.”…

Yeah, the word is “consensus.” I would fully explain why that word is key if I had time. And it would take a lot of time, because the reasons it appeals to me are so alien in this ones-and-zeroes age in which we live. It would take so many words that lately I’ve been thinking about writing a book about it. But if I were a betting man, I’d lay heavy odds against that book being written. I don’t know when I’d find the time, between the commitments I have at the moment. Especially since I have another book sketched out in my head that I would write first. I don’t know when I’m going to get to that one, much less the consensus one, which is far less fully formed.

But it’s there. And I thank Nikki for reminding me of it.

Perhaps I should explain that I don’t see consensus as key to solving our abortion problem alone. Consensus is something we need on many, many issues, from guns to the national debt limit.

But abortion does provide a particularly stark example. The challenge is, how on Earth do we get from this small thing of an otherwise unimpressive candidate using the word in a speech — in this case, to try to recapture some of the moderate appeal that taking down the flag won her several years ago — to the point at which we have the consensus to which she refers?

I don’t know. Which is a good reason why if I get time to write a book, the other one is coming first. I’ve got that other one pretty well mapped out.

But I’m increasingly sure it’s what we need. And abortion is a good example of why we need it. I don’t see any other way of approaching it that gets us to where that issue — and others — stop tearing our country apart.

I don’t know how else even I, personally, can get to where I feel that we’re on the right track.

You folks who’ve argued vehemently with me over the abortion issue for years probably think ol’ Brad is pretty pleased now that Roe is gone. But I’m not. You see, while I am most definitely and clearly opposed to legalized abortion on demand — to human lives being made subordinate to other individuals’ “personal autonomy” — I’ve never been able to feel at home with the way folks on “my side” approach the issue, either.

And I’ve always seen it as destructive to think of the issue in the terms in which it has been framed in our politics for the last five decades, with both sides embracing the notion that “if we can just elect a president who will change the court so that a majority of justices vote our way, the problem is solved because then we can just cram it down the throats of those bastards on the other side.” Excuse the language, but a big part of the problem is that too many of us now view those who disagree with us in that way.

Consequently, I’ve never made an electoral decision based on such thinking, but millions of others have, and I’ve watched our representative democracy — which is supposed to be based on the deliberative process — crumble away as they have done so.

So what do I mean by “consensus?” Well, that’s hard to explain, especially since most people who read my words have been conditioned to think in ways that preclude understanding it. One thing it is not is numbers. You don’t think in terms of, If I can get five votes for my side and the other side only has four, I win. Consensus is about getting the group to think, Is this something all of us can live with?

It’s the way we got through our morning meetings every day when I editorial page editor at The State. My goal was always to guide discussion of each issue to a position that respected, to varying degrees, the views of everyone in the room. That may sound like a recipe for incoherence, but it wasn’t. We took very clear and strong positions. We just didn’t leave dissenters figuratively bleeding on the floor in defeat. The advantages of this approach ranged from enabling us to move on amicably to the next difficult issue — not a small thing when you have so many issues to consider — to helping us arrive at solutions that were more practical because they might appeal to a broader range of readers.

I didn’t invent this approach. I had actually first encountered it when I served on the parish council of the church we were attending in Tennessee in the early 80s. Our priest didn’t want us to vote on issues. He urged us to seek consensus instead. A lot of us thought this was kind of nuts, but I ended up being impressed with how well it worked.

This idea will engender all kinds of strong objections, and I’ve heard most of them thousands of times. Hearing them again will likely just persuade me even more that I’m on the right track here. Most of the objections — such as, “You just want to force everyone to think just like you!” — will be wildly off-base. But I know what I’m saying is a little hard to follow, in the America of the 21st century. Which is why so many people will reject the premise of this post entirely. Not everyone, but probably most people.

I grew up in what was probably the most consensus-rich time in American history. My favorite examples, which I often cite, tend to include that stunning series of accomplishments when LBJ was president — the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and so forth. Sure, LBJ was a masterful politician, but he was blessed with a country that, for all its differences, was open to a good argument.

There were still vestiges of this in evidence in the later decades of the century, showing up in Reagan’s amnesty on immigration, and the all-too-temporary banning of assault weapons. But try accomplishing such things in an era in which, for far too many in our country, “amnesty” is a cussword.

Of course, it’s more than a process or a strategy. It’s more an attitude among the population involved in the process. And how do you get people to have that attitude? How do we get from here to there?

Well, I don’t know. And Nikki Haley doesn’t know, either, which I suppose is why she didn’t take questions after that speech. But I appreciate her using the word…

14 thoughts on “I liked one thing Nikki said the other day

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, I’m not presenting the way we worked on the editorial board as a model for solving the world’s problems, or even trying to suggest that it was perfect, even within that narrow framework. And not everyone agreed that that was how we worked.

    Nina Brook, one of my associate editors in those days, is a person I very much like and respect. So I’ll share with you what she used to say to me: “We don’t arrive at decisions by consensus. We just do what Brad wants to do.” And I would just smile and say, and what could be wrong with that?

    I can see now someone might interpret it that way, since the way it worked was that I’d take everybody’s views, and then state a position that (I thought) showed respect for all those views. The person assigned to write the editorial would take notes on what I said, and write the piece that way.

    Was that consensus, or was everybody just ready to move on, because they all had a lot of work to do? I can’t be 100 percent sure, but I am sure that consensus was what I was seeking, and I tried very hard to set forth a position that considered what everyone had said, so that it was something they could all live with. And I relied on the fact that these were not shrinking violets, but smart, assertive people who were not afraid of me (as Nina’s comment indicates).

    Of course, it’s a long stretch from something working in that atmosphere under those deadline pressures and getting it to work in our current society. Which is why I say I don’t know how to get from here to there.

    I just told the story as one of several examples of experiences that have led me to believe in consensus…

  2. Barry

    People have different inherent values regarding abortion and those values are reflected in their abortion stance as much as any issue.

    This is a good political issue for Democrats at this point thanks to the Republican Supreme Court and extremists right wingers. I’m ok with that – especially over whatever goes for “consensus” these days.

  3. bud

    The senate passed the Medicare authorization act 68-21 in 1965. A solid majority but not really consensus. On the other hand the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed 88-2. (It was unanimous in the House) That is very much consensus. Most people regard Medicare as a resounding success. The Vietnam war, on the other hand, is now regarded as a misguided failure. So maybe consensus really isn’t all it cracked up to be.

    As for abortion, Nancy Mace is trying to forge some type of compromise. Good luck Nancy.

  4. Barry

    The more I see what is happening in Florida, and other states- including South Carolina to some degree, I increasingly believe consensus on most issues is impossible.

    As my wife and I talk about frequently, we live in a time where many people’s basic values are different – polar opposite in many ways.

    We have found our basic values are very different than people we use to consider friends even 5-6 years ago. It’s one reason our local church participation has basically ended.

    I think we can thank the politicians and cable entertainment organizations that first seek to divide people over cultural issues instead of trying to find any common ground. They have succeeded greatly in tearing people apart. Those folks are more popular than ever and are more empowered than ever. That’s fine. It is what it is.

    Consensus is impossible when you are going to pass laws that discriminate against other human beings based on factors like race, or sex, or gender, or national origin – or because your religion tells you something that my religion doesn’t.

    To other issues where consensus is impossible…

    Today we learned that a billionaire paid for the family member of a Supreme Court Justice to attend private school. That Justice never reported that huge financial benefit.

    Oddly enough, my employer had our associate general counsel just teach our required annual training regarding conflicts of interest, business ethics in the workplace, and a review of company policy prohibiting the acceptance of gifts or anything of monetary value from anyone.

    I also learned that our company prohibits the giving of gift cards to a coworker or a customer. So I asked the question if I could give a $25 Lowes gift card to my supervisor at Christmas and was instructed that I could not. (Neither could a group of employees donate money to give a present or gift card to our supervisor).

    It’s not new- but it’s interesting what some high profile, powerful people can get away with- in this case Republican Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – which if someone else did the same thing they would be fired immediately.

    1. bud

      When I first started working in state government in 1978 ethics rules were pretty loose. Road contractors sponsored a golf tournament complete with significant prizes. Over time an ethics code evolved that prohibited even nominal gifts like ball point pens. No one would have dared accept a meal from any type of contractor. Not sure gifts between coworkers was an issue. Im sure big gifts to the boss would have been a problem. The bromance between Thomas and Crowe is clearly unethical. Yet the Republicans are defending this. Given this how is there any hope for consensus? And no, the 2 major parties are not equivalent. The Dems are just not as corrupt.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        “When I first started working in state government in 1978 ethics rules were pretty loose.”

        Loose? You mean there were RULES?”… 🙂

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Possibly not — if something like “work hours” still existed. But I assure you that you are unlikely to see me comment at 2:42 a.m. 🙂

  5. Ken

    Consensus about abortion already exists. It has existed since 1973. Polls since then have consistently shown a majority in favor of abortion remaining legal to one degree or another. Banning abortion has never held a majority – not once in the intervening half century. That’s what anyone could call a solid consensus.

    As for the rest, consensus is not the goal we should be seeking, because we as a nation are not actually polarized – meaning: split into two opposite poles. The challenge to comity and social order comes not from both ends of the political spectrum, but from only one: the minoritarianism of the right. Rule by minority is by its very nature authoritarian. So, the chore right now is not to seek consensus with the right, it is to oppose the creeping authoritarianism coming from that quarter.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yep, there sort of is a consensus. And neither a total ban, nor Roe, is consistent with it. Roe certainly wasn’t…

      And most of the energy and most of the words that we have heard for fifty years have been about one or the other, ones and zeroes. You see an occasional story that says, “Here’s where the public really is on this…” But such stories are quickly forgotten, and don’t affect the debate.

      You know why? Because our society’s political conversation leaves no room for such things as consensus on ANY issue. Many things and many people are to blame for this — and news media are among the worst. The tendency to cover EVERYTHING as though it were sports — there are only two teams, and the only thing we care about it is which of these two options wins, and which one loses — has long been a cancer on journalism, and it gets worse every year.

      Our political system was built for deliberation — for good-faith debate between contending positions, working toward results that the society as a whole can live with.

      But almost nothing anyone does or says in politics these days acknowledges that in anyway. Which is why it’s good when anyone — even someone I have no plans to vote for for anything, much less president — brings up the word “consensus”…

      1. Ken

        Glad you accept that pro-choice is the majority view in the US.

        On the other hand, while you personally may not aim to see women hurt by the anti-abortion campaign, the problem Is, women (and others) ARE being hurt by it on a daily basis, and, what’s more, this is an INEVITABLE consequence of that campaign. There is no way that it can operate without causing harm. This is the consequence of attempting to force a perfect world logic onto an imperfect world. Which is one of the fundamental moral flaws of the anti-abortion movement. It’s the same kind of misguided logic that led to Prohibition. And it’s the same sort of logic that was at work in Marxist-Leninism, which resulted in a dystopia, not a utopia. In a perfect world, abortion would not be necessary. But in an imperfect one, it is.

        You, for one, are fond of pointing to how complex people are. The anti-abortion movement ignores and attempts to by-pass those complexities. But experience demonstrates that shortcuts to the ideal lead instead to dysfunction and harm, as we are seeing across this country now.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Once again… I take the trouble to say something to you in good faith, as carefully as I can, and you come back with something I did NOT say. Which means I either have to write it all out again, lest someone misunderstand what I said because of your mischaracterization, or just not run your comment — upon which I receive a series of complaining emails.

          I’m just not going to do it anymore. I’m approving the comment above just to give me a platform for saying that.

          Oh, but I will say this also: Yes, I am indeed “fond of pointing to how complex people are.” Which is why I could never agree with a position that holds that the highest moral good is that which serves an individual person’s “autonomy” over any other consideration, include the lives of other people. But of course, in pro-choice rhetoric, you will seldom see even the slightest mention of the existence of those others. Because that would, you know, complicate things…

          1. Ken

            “there sort of is a consensus. And neither a total ban, nor Roe, is consistent with it.”
            – you

            Sorry, but that sure sounded like an endorsement (i.e. “pro,” as in: favoring) of SOME sort of choice. So your outrage at being misrepresented is misplaced.

            So … then you’re not in favor of ANY degree of choice whatsoever?
            Please clarify.
            And if you favor any degree of choice, on what moral grounds do you reject other degrees of choice?

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I can’t imagine what needs clarifying. You just quoted it: “And neither a total ban, nor Roe…”

              Do you not see that “nor Roe,” means, “nor the pro-choice position,” which regards Roe as holy writ?

              Do you really think that, as you say, “ANY degree of choice” is the same thing as “the pro-choice position,” which is basically to condemn anything that in any way challenges or limits the “autonomy” of the individual?

              In the ones-and-zeroes game, which you keep defending, you don’t get to claim ALL the positions between yours and the opposite of your extreme as being on your side.

              Finally, this was not a discussion of what I am “in favor of.” It’s about the issue of public opinion, which you brought up in a comment. And the post itself wasn’t about what I think, either. It was about the need to find ways to work together to arrive at consensus decisions.

              Anyway, I’ve had enough of this insane arguing over things I neither said nor suggested. This discussion is over. If you wish to continue, find another place to do it. I’m going on to the next topic….

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