Epiphany: noun epiph·a·ny \i-ˈpi-fə-nē\
(1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something
(2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking
(3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
One of the things being old gives you is perspective. I’ve lived through the 60’s when so many fundamental aspects of American socio-political life changed seemingly overnight. Civil rights, women’s rights, poverty, war, sexual relations, recreational drug use, the list goes on. Everything was on the table and seemingly everywhere change was happening. It was not a pleasant time! I watched the man who assassinated a president murdered on live television at the age of 6. I wept along with the black members of my extended family for Selma and Little Rock, and was numbed in horror as Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was angered at the Watts riots triggered by police brutality. I trembled the night that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I watched the Democratic Convention in Chicago erupt into a protest that Mayor Daily had proclaimed could never happen in “his town”. I also witnessed the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Immigration reform, Tax reform, and a successful mission to land a man on the moon. No decade since has equaled the sheer magnitude and scope of societal change as the decade of the 60’s. I note this specifically to remind my liberal friends that the current election will not undo the progress that was made 50 years ago. It simply cannot – the advances made have been indelibly etched into today’s social fabric since before many of you were born.
It is also somewhat of a preface to cast my own political development against. I began life as a conservative Republican, and one of the early Goldwater “neo-cons”. I believe that there is a place for social justice nonetheless and supported all those measures. This because our Declaration of Independence contained the guidestar “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I believe the maxim that “the government that governs least governs best”. In short, my ideal government intervenes very narrowly and with surgical precision to correct broad injustices. Against those beliefs I watched as government became a tapestry of special interest captured agencies, politicians who served the interests of the few rather than the needs of the many, where laws were passed to ensure the prosperity of a few rather than the benefit of all. I was angry and felt disenfranchised. This was not the government I grew up believing in. It was not a government that did great things for all people, but more of a special interest mafia doling out favors for those who had paid the vigorish.
The Reagan administration was, to me, supposed to be the righting of past wrongs. A return to Morning in America, where the civics I had been taught would once again become the norm. While there were elements of that administration that were laudable for their attempt to rein in the juggernaut it became clear that the needed reforms were only half of what was needed. Sure, we got the tax cuts promised, but the spending cuts never appeared, the program reforms never happened, and the giant stack of tax code never got cut. The end result was a fiscal and tax policy nightmare whose repercussions are still the ire of the neo-progressives.
My epiphany happened after watching the bread and circuses politics right into the Contract with America during Clinton’s first mid-term election. I believed that its tenets were good and needed. I felt that they would truly begin to make a difference. However, my mentor in politics didn’t agree. He was a staunch Republican who voted the ticket without fail. But he was also a shrewd political analyst and an outstanding legal mind (a product of Stanford Law School in the company of O’Conner and Rehnquist). He set before me an exercise to understand the entire landscape surrounding that legislation. The goal was to understand why it wasn’t what I believed it to be, to learn that this was something else entirely, and to discover a fundamental problem with how our country had come to function. Wow, what an order! It seemed that every attempt to solve this problem met with a very cogent and firm refutation and ended up having to be tossed. I couldn’t seem to get around the problem!
Then I had an epiphany. I began to listen to all sides of the argument and became unstuck from my partisan perspective. Moreover, I found that I needed to look beyond the existence of the legislation both forward and backwards and see the path that brought it into existence and the paths that could result from its passage or failure. I worked through the analysis from this new perspective, not as a partisan trying to defend a point of view, but as if I was looking at the entire picture through a lens ground to focus history, sociology, psychology, economics and logic but blind to party ideals. It became clearer and clearer that the Contract with America was nothing more than a stalking horse whose real purpose was to divide the Republicans and provide leverage that could be used in negotiating other deals with their Democratic counterparts. It had no hope of passing. I could look at all the pieces and predict that none of them would pass into law in their form [7 of the 10 elements died in the senate, 2 others were vetoed, and 1 element was ruled unconstitutional]. In short it was a modern version of snake-oil designed to woo the gullible but effectively nothing more than a placebo, while reaping gains for the salesmen to cover their vices.
When I sat down with my mentor and went over this new analysis it finally passed muster. Indeed, the actual results proved the concept. My mentor then passed on to me these words of advice:
1. To truly understand what is going on in politics you must listen as if you have an equally vested interest in both sides
2. You must accept that both sides are valid to their adherents – each believes the other is wrong, understand why
3. You must rise above the mechanics and see the board from a broader perspective, who wins or loses is irrelevant – only the consequences matter
That is how you can understand the game of politics.
So long as you remain in a partisan reality you can never gain enough perspective to see what you must see to make sound political judgements.
This lesson came to mind recently as I read a fellow colleagues’ own epiphany. He and I haven’t so much disagreed but talked past each other, his focus has been exclusive to the wheelhouse he knows so well while mine includes elements of a broader, seemingly less scientific, perspective. It was impossible for him to understand what I was trying to say to him without feeling at least a little bit insulted or that he was arguing with an idiot. I couldn’t get through to him, he was incapable of understanding beyond his own perspective just as I once was, until this happened:
Carl V Phillips (@carlvphillips) November 12, 2016
I am confident that he understands more now, and that he is forever changed by his own epiphany. I have no doubt that this added perspective coupled with his keen intellect can move his mission forward with much greater alacrity.
I’m disclosing this for more than just acknowledging my own epiphany or Dr. Phillips’, but to leave some breadcrumbs to follow for others who, because of the recent election, may find themselves at a loss to be able to understand the landscape they now find themselves in. To these friends I say, as my mentor did to me: “The world didn’t change, everything is the same as it was before, what changed is your perspective. Where once you lived in a world where only one is right and the other wrong – you now live in a real world where there are more possibilities…”