Divided. Polarized. Broken. Is the state of our politics at an all-time low? Is our grand experiment in republican government breaking apart? Our fears may overblown, yet they are hard to dismiss out of hand.
The nation faced its greatest challenge (other than the Civil War) during the economic depression of the 1930s. The crisis shook the nation to its core. Serious doubters looked for alternatives to capitalism. Millions of everyday Americans turned to…a Cowboy Philosopher named Will Rogers. His wit and wisdom, delivered in syndicated daily newspaper articles and weekly radio broadcasts, leavened the national dialogue and held out the possibility of hope. Rogers didn’t offer solutions so much as equal-opportunity wisecracks directed at leaders of both parties–and far-fetched schemes designed to produce laughs more than actual results. Such was his tongue-in-cheek suggestion, in a June 1935 radio broadcast, to divide the country in two.
It was six and a half years into the Depression. The Supreme Court had just nullified President Roosevelt’s far-reaching National Industrial Recovery Act. Millions of Americans expected Rogers to weigh in on the issue, to help them know what to think. The radio host dutifully obliged.
In his usual fashion, Rogers snuck up on the issue from the flank. The country had gotten too big, he mused. Perhaps it ought to be split up. “Let the Republicans have the East, you know–with Wall Street…. And then the Democrats take the West.” Roosevelt could follow them, he added for laughs, just so long as he didn’t bring any professors with him. Those who couldn’t decide, he suggested, could go to Huey-siana to be led by the populist former Louisiana governor, Huey Long. (Today we would give the Democrats both coasts and leave the broad middle to the Republicans, saving, perhaps, the Great Lakes states for the undecided.)
With “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-fed,” as Roosevelt would later intone, Rogers maintained both parties wanted the same thing for the country: economic prosperity. They just disagreed on how to get there. The Cowboy Philosopher may have been disingenuous–or perhaps unduly sanguine. ‘Prosperity’ is not so easily defined or agreed upon. People have their own ideas about how the world is and ought to be. A crisis only solidifies these ideas. And ideas have power.
Rogers, if pressed, might have conceded he was pushing his own big idea: common sense. For more than fifteen years he had used comedy to expose political absurdities in an effort to promote clear thinking. Sometimes he dropped all pretense of humor, as he did in an earlier, 1931 broadcast: “The only problem that confronts this country today,” he said, “is at least 7,000,000 people are out of work. That’s our only problem.” Don’t get distracted by side issues, he seemed to admonish. Keep your eyes on the prize. A growing economy would satisfy everyone, regardless of how it was achieved. Four years later, in his split-the-country broadcast, he began with hyperbole, then fell back to realism: “It’s not a–it’s not a political thing. …Both sides, I think, are equally patriotic. Neither has a corner on patriotism, and neither has a corner on brains. It’s just–what should we do to recover?”
Rogers posed the question; he did not propose an answer. Even his idea to divide the country, he admitted, was doomed to failure. The parties would never accept it, for then “they wouldn’t have nobody to lay anything onto”: nobody to blame. Human nature, he seemed to say, abhors agreement; it thrives on contention. Will Rogers understood this truth better than anyone; he had built a career on finding the humor in it.
Rogers’s message for us today is not a simplistic “can’t-we-all-get-along?” bipartisanship. It implies that we can move ahead as a polity only if we, first, acknowledge our different visions of the world, and, second, respect those views as equally honest and firmly-held as our own. When considering the question “what should we do?” (about taxes, about health care, about infrastructure), we need to start from the understanding that disagreement will dominate the proceedings and that compromise will define the result.
A healthy amount of humor won’t hurt, either.