On Sunday, a week or ten days before the United States government was due to shut down, I watched future liberals learn to compromise.
I observed this in West Virginia, at a rural retreat camp being used by an organization called Learn-Serve International. LSI is a non-profit that runs excellent programs for high school kids in the Washington area. During the school year, it trains them to become social entrepreneurs, forming ventures to address problems they themselves identify and feel passionate about. During the summer, LSI takes kids on trips to Zambia, Paraguay and Jamaica,where they live in communities with acute poverty and do volunteer work. I was the LSI faculty sponsor when I was a teacher at Central High, and now I do some volunteer work for the organization.
On this particular Sunday, I took some pictures for LSI to use on its web site.The 2013-2014 LSI Fellows, about 50 sophomores and juniors, were getting their first immersion into LSI's philosophy and teaching. They slept out in tents or under the stars. They helped each other traverse ropes and did other physical team-building challenges, including a very complex leap-frog game. Indoors, they talked about who they were as individuals. They talked about what bothered them in society. They planned imaginary joint ventures to raise money to aid a hypothetical cause.
Learn-Serve Fellows are a diverse group. They come from private, charter and public schools. Some are from immigrant families without a lot of money. Some are from the sort of established Washington families that used to be called cave dwellers, because they'd been around forever. They come in all hues--black, brown, yellow, white. And, of course, they're kids, still breaking in their adult bodies and still trying out adult personalities. Some of them, as I watched, were like nervous turtles, sheltering in their hoodies. Some were brash, confident talkers. But gradually even the little turtles stuck their necks out and participated.
As they worked through their training exercises, two themes emerged--cooperation and compromise. The kids had to work together with people they might otherwise have never encountered. Where they had differences of taste, style or opinion, they had to find common ground. This notion was specifically taught by the training staff. The kids had to learn to compromise. And they did.
Learn-Serve, I should note, does not have an explicit political agenda or ideology. It doesn't purport to be a liberal organization, much less an admirer of the Democratic Party. Its ideal of service to society and the world is non-partisan. But I would be disingenuous to suggest that LSI is just as likely to be training the next generation of Young Republicans as liberals. It isn't. When you take a bunch of kids who volunteer to join a very diverse service organization, then ask them what pisses them off, you're not going to find many who say that what pisses them off is the way the government harasses the oil industry. LSI hasn't, in my experience, had any kids who say they're vexed because their family's tax dollars are wasted on food stamps. You get kids who want to do something about pollution, or hunger. You get kids who want to help the less fortunate. You get, in short, liberals in the making.
And organizations like Learn-Serve teach them to cooperate and compromise, to value the opinions and desires of others, even if they disagree with them. There was nothing exceptional about this, among liberals. I might not even have noticed it had I not been listening to discussions about the government shutdown on the radio as I drove up that morning. Cooperation and compromise are ingrained in liberal culture.
Maybe that's one reason Republicans in Congress think they can steamroll the government into defunding Obamacare. The Republicans lost the White House and the Senate in the last election. They won the House only because they're so successful at at gerrymandering House districts. You would think this modest electoral record might cause the Republicans to think they needed to compromise with the majority to get some of what they want. You would think that if they were truly conservative and they wanted to roll back Obamacare, they would do it the conservative, constitutional way. They'd wait until they'd won enough elections to control the government and then repeal it.
If you thought that, you would be wrong. The Republicans are going to shut the government down and refuse to pay the country's lawful debts in an effort to get what they did not earn at the ballot box. Maybe they'll hold their breaths until their faces turn blue, too.
Cooperation and compromise are not part of the Republican culture any more. I'm not sure why this is so, but I suspect part of it is the influence of religion on that culture. Religion divides the world into believers and infidels, the righteous and the damned. When young future Republicans go off to church camp, they're not taught what the kids at Learn-Serve are taught. They're taught to deal with disagreement by either converting it or smiting it.
This gives the Republicans some major advantages. When they control most of the government, the Democrats, liberals that they are, instinctively cooperate and compromise. That's how Ronald Reagan got tax cuts for the wealthy. That's how George W. Bush got the No Child Left Behind Act and the police-state provisions of the Patriot Act. When the situation is reversed, and the Republicans control, say, one chamber of the legislature, they block whatever they can block and throw lots of tantrums. Liberals are like a guy who brings his fists to a knife fight.
Too bad we can't require that all Congressmen spend a weekend retreat with Learn-Serve International.