Thursday, March 13, 2008

Politicians Are Sometimes Admirable.

I find in many of my students' papers a frequent dose of cynicism and disgust with politics and politicians. I remember one student, when we were discussing civic engagement and getting involved in the democratic processes, who told the class, "none of these people care about my issues or want to do what I think should be done." The student came from a poor family, and was African-American, but that sort of alienation from the political process seems strong even among my middle-class, European-American students. This is a problem.

I was thinking about politics over our Spring Break, and I thought I would create a list of some of my favorite politicians. I think if people would study the people I've listed here and considered their character and the sorts of policies they have advocated, they wouldn't be so cynical and alienated. Here are my favorite active politicians:

My favorite Democrat, Green, and Independent politicians on the left.
  • U.S. Representative John Conyers, representing the 14th district of Michigan.
  • U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders, representing Vermont.
  • U.S. Senator Barack Obama, representing Illinois. (later President)
  • U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, representing Illinois.
  • U.S. Representative George Miller, representing the 7th district of California.
  • U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, representing New York. (later Secretary of State)
  • Illinois State Representative Naomi Jakobsson, representing the 103rd district in the Illinois General Assembly.
  • Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
  • Missouri State Senator Joan Bray, representing the 24th district in the Missouri General Assembly.

My favorite Republican, Conservative, and Independent politicians on the right.
  • U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, representing Indiana. (best Republican in national government since John Danforth retired in 1995)
  • Illinois State Senator Christine Radogno, representing the 41st district in the Illinois General Assembly.
  • Missouri State Representative Kathlyn Fares, representing the 91st district in the Missouri general Assembly
Making a list of my favorite politicians active now leads me to consider my favorite historical figures from the world of politics. Here are some more lists along these lines:

Top five favorite Republicans in history:
  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. John B. Anderson (Republican congressman from the Rockford area of Illinois, ran as an independent in the 1980 election, and endorsed Barack Obama for president in January of 2008)
  3. Herbert Hoover (not really such a bad president, and if you take his whole life and career into consideration he was one of the better men to serve as president)
  4. Theodore Roosevelt (would have been much higher had he been less imperialistic and racist)
  5. Dwight David Eisenhower (yeah, Adlai Stevenson certainly would have been a much better president, but I think Eisenhower did a reasonable job as president, and was an outstanding leader in many other ways. His farewell address is one of the best in the history of the American presidency.)

Worst five Republican Presidents (We’ve had many bad ones from this party. It’s difficult to narrow it down to five.)
  1. George W Bush
  2. William McKinley
  3. Warren Harding
  4. Calvin Coolidge
  5. Ronald Reagan (a nice guy, who was quite likable as a person, but I think he was an awful president, certainly one of the worst).

My five most strongly disliked Democratic Presidents.
  1. James Buchanan (A traitor) (note that John Tyler really was a rebel, who openly supported the Slaveholders Rebellion, but this was a fairly long time after his presidency, and his presidency wasn't especially horrible, whereas James Buchanan really was a failure. John Tyler also might be considered a "Whig" president since he was elected as William Henry Harrison's vice president, but Tyler was a Democrat).
  2. Andrew Jackson (Betrayed the constitution. Not as evil as generally supposed, but still pretty rotten.)
  3. Thomas Woodrow Wilson (He was very racist and had little respect for civil rights or human rights. These flaws outweigh his admirable idealism and his vision of a fair peace to end the Great War and his hopes for a League of Nation to end international conflict. In fact, most American statesmen would have proposed similarly fair peace treaties and rights for nations after the Great War; that was an American position more than a personal position of Wilson.)
  4. Andrew Johnson
  5. Martin Van Buren (Check out the Harrison-Tyler campaign song attacking Van Buren, A Miniature of Martin Van Buren. It has lyrics like these: Who like the wily serpent clings / Who like the pois'nous adder stings / Who is more base than basest Kings? / Van Buren! / Who rules us with an iron rod / Who moves and Satan's beck and nod / Who heeds not man who heeds not God? / Van Buren! ... and so forth.)

Top five favorite Democrats in history:
  1. Henry A. Wallace, vice president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt during Roosevelt’s third term, and also a Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Agriculture. I wish high school students would read his The Century of the Common Man (1942) speech as part of their American civics courses.
  2. Harry Hopkins, the “deputy president” to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
  3. Thomas Jefferson. Flawed in so many ways, and yet still a great president and one of my personal heroes since I was a boy. He led the Democratic Republicans faction against the Federalist Republicans faction, and it was Jefferson’s faction that evolved into the Democratic Party, a political party that represented much of what was worst in American society from the 1830s to the 1910s, but slowly reformed itself, especially during the 1930s and 1960s, to become a better party.
  4. Paul Wellstone, Senator from Minnesota who served in the U.S. Senate from 1991 until his death in 2002.
  5. Eugene McCarthy, U.S. Congressman and Senator from Minnesota and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1968 Democratic Party primaries.
FDR doesn’t make my list because he didn’t do enough to save the Jews before World War II and during World War II. If he had done more to give refuge to Jews fleeing Europe or had ordered the bombing of concentration camps or the rail lines leading to concentration camps he would be on the list. LBJ doesn’t make the list because of his responsibility for the Vietnam War. Without that war he would be on here.

Best and worst things about each party:
Democrats: Best thing is their emphasis on equality and policies that help equalize opportunity, including taxing and spending policies that reduce poverty and redistribute wealth. Worst thing was their historic racism and antagonism against immigration, especially in the 19th century and continuing up to the 1960s. For generations the Democratic party was “the white man’s party,” the party of lynch mobs and unabashed racism.
Republicans: Best thing is their progressive wing which advocated for environmentalism way back in the 19th century, regulation of industry (food safety and sanitation), government reforms to eliminate corruption in local politics, and has generally stood for the essential equality of human beings, including the equality of African-Americans and other immigrants compared to the native-born European-Americans. This progressive tendency was strong in the early days of the party and during Reconstruction, and it was sometimes expressed through political leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., and Fiorello LaGuardia, but this aspect of the Party has been in decline and weakening. Worst thing is their anti-labor prejudice in favor of capitalists and the wealthy. For many, the Republican Party is the “I’ve got mine!” party defending the preservation of privilege and wealth, and neglecting civic duties and responsibilities to the general welfare.

Other politicians and political leaders I admire:

  • George Washington
  • Alexander Hamilton (he pretty much ran things during Washington's presidential administration, and he's one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.)
  • Clement Attlee (Prime Minister in the UK after Churchill)
  • Robert M. LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin, Progressive Party candidate for president in 1924.
  • Eugene V. Debs, one of the greatest socialists of all time.
  • Jeannette Rankin, Republican from Montana, first woman to serve in Congress, and voted against entering World War I.
  • William H. Seward, Whig governor of New York, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State under presidents Lincoln and Johnson.

In my family history there have been some who served in political positions. My distant ancestors in the Ives family served as mayors in Norwich, Norfolk, England in the 18th and early 19th centuries. They were conservative Whigs who seem to have opposed local radical and dissident political movements in the 1760s and 1770s, but as Whigs would have joined with the radicals in opposing the war against American Independence. I had a great grandfather (John "Jack" Turner) who served on the Yukon Territorial Council around the time that George Black and George Norris Williams were Yukon Territory Commissioners. Another great-grandfather, A. B. Hadley of Curlew, Washington ran (I think unsuccessfully) for a local office (County Clerk, I think) in Ferry County, Washington. I know that Great-Grandfather Hadley's father (William Taylor Hadley) voted for Douglas in the 1860 election (he was proud to have been a Democrat, although he was loyal to the Union and served two tours of duty in the Union Army), but all the rest of the Hadley family were strong Republicans in the 1860s. My Stephens ancestors were evidently active in local Republican politics in Oregon in the 19th century.

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