Michael Schmid ‘21
“Assume the best, look for the good.” That was the phrase written on a three-by-five notecard and hung on the fridge in the childhood home of retired Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. It was a mantra the former senator, who began his career in Washington as a congressman, said that his mother lived by. And it is a mantra that he says he has carried with him throughout his life and his career. Senator Flake believes that such an outlook is lacking in Washington and is symptomatic of the broader issue of incivility in public discourse.
Senator Flake was invited to speak this past Friday at the Rotunda Dome Room on Main Grounds for the Joseph Smith Lecture on Religious Liberty sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies. His lecture was titled “Searching for the Better Angels of Our Nature,” referencing a line from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address in which our sixteenth president called for civility. Senator Flake wondered whether the country is as divided as it has been since the onset of the Civil War, and he worries that at times it appears that our nation has “sidelined our better angels for good.”
Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon Studies at UVA and a distant relative of the invited speaker, provided introductory remarks before the senator was formally introduced by D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Thomas B. Griffith ’85. Professor Flake introduced her second cousin once removed as “the man in the much-maligned middle,” as the retired politician has attracted enmity from both sides of the aisle at different times during his political career. Senator Flake has rankled conservatives at times who perceive him as falling out of line; he has also drawn the ire of liberals when they believe he acts in contradiction to his image as a bipartisan politician. Perhaps this was never more clearly on display than during the contentious confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, when Senator Flake managed to incur animosity from both groups at various stages of the confirmation process.
The former senator noted that he received a flurry of angry responses when he tweeted kind words about Senator Tim Kaine after the Virginian was selected as Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 Presidential election. Similarly, Flake caused a stir among some conservatives when he crossed the aisle during President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address to sit with Democratic Representative Gabby Giffords from Arizona. Representative Giffords was recovering from serious injuries after being shot the previous year, and Flake assisted her as she stood to applaud. Senator Flake stated that many Republicans perceived him to be supporting President Obama as he was often the only Republican standing during the Democratic applause lines. Conversely, he incurred a negative reaction after he tweeted that he did not agree with Representative Rashida Tlaib’s blunt remarks on impeachment proceedings, which included an obscenity directed at President Trump.
Senator Flake pointed to changes during his time on Capitol Hill that he sees as indicative of a decline in civility. One such example was the rapid decline of “pairing votes,” in which a Senator or member of Congress will abstain from voting on a matter because a counterpart across the aisle, who would have voted contrarily, was unable to be present for the vote. Senator Flake recalled that Chris Coons, a Democratic senator from Delaware, abstained from voting on advancing the nomination of Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State to the full Senate floor out of deference to Republican senator Johnny Isakson who was unable to be present for the vote.
According to Flake, the only alternative to getting along is being alone. A vivid example of solitude he had experienced was his trip to the remote Marshall Islands where he stayed for a week by himself with only survivalist tools at his disposal. He returned to the Islands approximately five years ago with Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, with similarly austere accoutrements. He stated that whenever he finds it difficult to be civil and he feels he is ignoring the better angels, he thinks of the alternative.
When asked by an audience member about factors he believes have led to a decline in civility, Senator Flake placed blame with, among other things, current campaign finance rules, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and the drawn-out election periods. As far as particular solutions, Senator Flake stated his opposition to eliminating the filibuster, crediting the Senate rule for being the “only mechanism” that forces parties to come together to produce thought-out, enduring legislation. Furthermore, he declined to fault the two-party system for creating an inherently antagonistic clash between two camps that leads to tribalism. Rather, he generally prefers the two-party system, but believes that it has worked in the past because when the political pendulum swung too far in one direction, if one party became too far outside the mainstream, the pendulum would swing back. Now, he questions whether our current political culture has reduced that elasticity which he believes once provided balance.
Yet largely absent from the retired senator’s lecture were policies in which he believed there was hope for compromise. At times, the unspoken assumption behind Senator Flake’s words were that if one says and believes the right things, current political divides can break down. When asked where one finds the hope that the country will rediscover its better angels, Senator Flake pointed to our nation’s history of overcoming fractious times in the past, as well as a realization that there are decent people in Washington attempting to do good work. After quoting a story from the Book of Mormon, which emphasized that incivility should be returned with comity and compassion, he quipped that if harsh words were exchanged between Senators Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnel, few in the audience would believe that the two of them could set aside the uncivil words exchanged and hash out a compromise immigration bill. Yet such a framing belies the depth of the ideological rift between the two men. Beyond coarse words and occasional insults, a massive philosophical and political chasm remains on the issue.
As the senator noted, issues did not fall neatly along party lines when he began his political career. Today, sharp tones are accompanied by even sharper disagreements over fundamental issues that are deeply held among politicians and members of the public. The divide, it seems, goes deeper than uncivil rhetoric and extends to diametrically opposed views on key issues with little apparent room for compromise. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the senator’s anecdotes focused on symbolic gestures and kind words rather than on how to address finding legitimate agreement on deeply contested policy points. Throughout the night, he returned to his support for lifting the travel ban with Cuba that was largely unpopular within his own party as the evidence of his substantive bipartisanship. Overall, however, the senator appeared to be focused on the singular ability of unifying rhetoric to snap back to a more civil time and bring together those with ideologically opposed views.
Senator Flake expressed a hope that the country will return to its “old ways” where compromise is essential and people operate on “shared facts and shared values.” His optimism reflects the adage that adorned the refrigerator in his childhood home. For Senator Flake, to “assume the best” means, perhaps, believing that an increase in comity is the path to finding the better angels of our nature.