Channeling Our Inner Garfield

I watched last night’s final presidential election debate, and all I could think throughout was “Chris Wallace for President.”  As we thankfully near the end of this political season, senior analyst Keith Davis reflects on a book he is reading while drawing some comparisons to contemporary times.  We hope you will enjoy.


”There is no horizontal Stratification of society in this country like the rocks in the earth, that hold one class down below forevermore, and let another come to the surface to stay there forever.  Our Stratification is like the ocean, where every individual drop is free to move, and where from the sternest depths of the mighty deep any drop may come up to glitter on the highest wave that rolls.” 

 – James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States

I am about halfway through an excellent book about the assassination of President James A. Garfield called Destiny of a Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard.  The book covers the rags-to-riches story of a highly popular and selfless leader who agreed, very reluctantly, to serve his country as president and ended up paying the ultimate price as a result.  I am finding that Garfield’s story, although tragic, is also quite inspirational, with several lessons that might apply to contemporary America.  Foremost among those lessons are that: 1) our country can only reach its full potential when all of its citizens feel they have the opportunity to succeed and achieve the “American dream”; and 2) the process of enduring tragedy and shared national sacrifice can very often lead to positive outcomes such as widespread patriotism and unity.

Garfield was a Union general during the Civil War, and his compulsion to serve reflected his deep-rooted belief that slavery was an inherent evil that must be rooted out.  Following the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union victory, Garfield remained highly troubled that the freedmen were still treated with the same contempt and as second-class citizens without the most basic civil rights.  Garfield wrote, “Is freedom the bare privilege of not being chained?  If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion, and it may well be questioned whether slavery were not better.  Let us not commit ourselves to the absurd and senseless dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage, the talisman of liberty.”  As a result of these beliefs, Garfield took a rather hard line against former Confederates, aligning himself with the “Radical” faction of the Republican party for its support of harsh punishment for rebels and its insistence on swift and absolute equality and civil rights for former slaves.

Garfield recognized that the healing process following the war would not be complete unless and until equal status was granted to all the country’s people.  All citizens, Garfield believed, should have equal opportunity to succeed.  Anything less would perpetuate anger, resentment, and unending conflict.  More importantly, he believed that equal rights under the law were morally right.   As he rose from Republican Congressman from the state of Ohio to eventually become the President, though, Garfield adopted a more conciliatory stance toward the former confederates.  Perhaps Garfield realized, like Otto von Bismarck, that “politics is the art of the possible.”  Or maybe he simply realized that instituting harsh, vengeful punishment, and prohibiting Southerners from participating in economic prosperity were counterproductive to the cause.  My suspicion is that it was more of the latter.  Europe certainly learned this lesson many years later after imposing the crippling Treaty  of Versailles on Germany after WWI.

Civil rights for African Americans and other minorities have obviously improved vastly from the years following the Civil War.  However, it has also become quite obvious that over the past several years, many groups have felt increasingly disenfranchised and closed off from opportunities to succeed in this country.  Inflation-adjusted incomes for middle-class families have stagnated for the past 20+ years even as those at the top have seen their incomes and wealth multiply.  As the income/wealth gap has continued to widen, discontent has manifested itself in many different forms.  We have felt for several years now that the increased political polarization in the country has its roots in rising economic inequality.  It’s likely that a spirit of political collegiality will return only when the economic playing field becomes more level.  This is not political commentary, and we are not suggesting any widespread redistribution of wealth in this country.  We are simply highlighting the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, and we believe that a continuation of this trend will very likely hinder our economic prosperity as a whole.

It’s hard to imagine an event more polarizing than the Civil War, which lasted four years and cost the lives of more than 620,000 soldiers.  In contemporary America, we have nothing that can compare with the loss and despair associated with that conflict.  But this is not to say we haven’t suffered our tragedies.  During the aftermath of 9/11 it was easy to see the positive effect that national tragedies can have on patriotism and unity.  In fact, President George W. Bush’s approval rating leapt from 50% to about 90% immediately following the attacks.  Differences were set aside, and nearly everyone joined in the common cause of defeating the perpetrators of the attacks.

But an usual political response accompanied the military initiatives to defeat terrorism.  Rather than asking us to pull together and sacrifice in the common cause, President Bush told us to go out shopping.  Rather than raising taxes to fund the war(s), he cut tax rates, especially for the wealthiest Americans.  As hordes of troops were sent overseas to “fight ’em over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America,” our leaders were effectively asking us to ignore the war(s) and go about our daily lives as if nothing happened.  The Fed cut interest rates to below 2% for three years and the country went on a spending spree.  In fact, for the last 20 years the knee-jerk policy response to any economic setback or national tragedy has been to turn on the easy-money spigots. This has sowed resentment as it has inflated asset prices, thereby benefiting the owners of assets above all others and exacerbating the economic inequality.

Somewhere along the way the notion of shared sacrifice was lost.  Perhaps it happened when the Federal Reserve (beginning with Greenspan and continuing today with Yellen) and other central banks determined they had the power to eliminate business cycles through monetary policy.  Or perhaps it happened when our President cut taxes and implored us to go out shopping in response to the 9/11 attacks.  Whatever the case, Americans have not had to endure much suffering together as a people for quite some time.  I’m simply suggesting that maybe the key to reducing political polarization, to reducing the contempt for politicians, banks, business leaders, and the rich, and to unifying the American people, lies in the act of collectively enduring hardship.  I’m not talking about just the bottom 99% but also the 1-per centers.  What we need is a hard reset and sharp change in course so that we restore opportunity, upward mobility and access to the American dream for all Americans.  Imperative to this process is the need to reduce the growing sense of entitlement that 20 years of poor government and central-bank largesse have wrought on the public at large.  Where is the leader who tells us to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  We need less entitlement and more collective sacrifice after being conditioned to expect to get whatever we want from government.  Our leaders are not elected to keep us from enduring any and all suffering, however minor.  Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten our vices and virtues mixed up.

My sincere hope is that we won’t need to endure another major national tragedy to heal the divisiveness and restore a collective spirit of collegiality, mutual respect, and patriotism.  But sometimes it feels that way.  Whatever the answer is, it seems to me we could sure use another effective leader like James Garfield right now.  Garfield, a unifier and pragmatist, would tell it to us straight, and he would be a proponent for solutions that expand opportunities for all in equal proportions.  Garfield in 2016!