May 25, 2012
I attended Harvard as a graduate student, so I like to check in on what is happening during commencement week. One of the speakers at Harvard's graduation this year was Congressman Barney Frank, who apparently graduated from Harvard with quite a few degrees.
Graduation speeches are always a challenge, and they can be memorable or sleep-inducing. Though I didn't attend the commencement, the wonders of modern technology (i.e. "Youtube") gave me access to his speech (as well as Andy Samberg's which was certainly more entertaining).
One point made by Frank has really stuck with me, and it is the notion that idealism and pragmatism are not opposites, and they are both highly needed today. There seems to be a significant tension today between these two issues and it occurs on both sides of the aisle to some extent. There are liberals who will not vote for Obama because of their ideals and the fact that he has caved in on some liberal issues. There are conservatives who will not vote for Romney because he is not ideologically pure on conservative issues. There are elected officials who will not vote on any issue that requires compromise, even if it is disastrous to our country.
Now its a free country and people are free to vote for whomever they want, or to not vote at all. I understand the sentiment of those who bow out because they cannot find a suitable candidate. But the question Frank raised, "Compared to what?" is really an important one. We are a very heterogeneous country. I will likely never vote for a president with whom I totally agree. There will always be issues near and dear to my heart that will not be popular among the whole of society. Should I not vote because of this?
It is easy to blame the politicians and say "they're all bums", as I hear so frequently these days. The highly polarizing environment of Washington is distressing, and it is standing in the way of the progress of our country. But I think this view is a cop out. They aren't "all bums", they are people we elected to represent us. So to a large extent, we are responsible.
When voting for a President, Congressional candidate or a specific issue such as healthcare, debt reduction or financial reform, it is important to ask ourselves "Compared to what?". What is the alternative? What happens if we don't vote for this person, issue, or reform? What happens if we stomp our feet and refuse to budge. This is the essence of leadership: making the difficult decisions.
At the root of this question is the reality that we cannot always get everything we want, and instead we sometimes need to compromise. It may not be pretty, and it certainly isn't perfect, but if it moves us in the right direction, then it may be worth it.