As a young boy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was notoriously prone to fits of rage. One notable story describes him becoming so overcome with anger at being barred from trick-or-treating with his older siblings on Halloween that he charged to an apple tree and punched his knuckles bloody. His mother treated his injured hands and shared advice from a Biblical passage with the young future president; “He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.”
At the core of the passage are the virtues of self-control and responsibility, and it will serve us well to reflect on these principles in our time of might-makes-right political squabbles.
Both sides of our political discourse are increasingly giving themselves over to the dangerous sway of characterizing all matters of public policy as existential threats to the Republic. As a result, complex issues become deceptively simplistic and the humanity of those with whom we disagree is lost.
Look no further than the unfortunate public fight between Republican Rep. Paul Gosar (AZ-4) and his siblings. Following the appearance of Rep. Gosar’s siblings in an attack ad from his Democratic opponent, Rep. Gosar took to Twitter to continue the flames of their family quarrel. The incident has shown the poor and regrettable results of reducing people — even family members — to two-dimensional stand-ins for whatever “One Big Thing” we currently define as the greatest evil of our time. This loss of perspective severely impairs our ability to address consequential issues that have long-term implications.
It is important to remember when exploring the apparent novelty of how conflict-ridden our politics have become, that intense disagreement is neither new nor a bad thing. I have previously written here that disagreement “is the clearest way to identify where you agree with someone, where you do not, and what can be done about it.”
What we need to reevaluate is the way we disagree, and the secret to disagreeing well is by practicing the virtues of self-control and responsibility. True consensus cannot be formed to address complex, pressing issues without robust disagreement grounded in these principles.
It is critical that responsibility in particular is applied to the reckless spending and indifference toward debt that have unfortunately become a fact of life in Washington. In a recent interview, Pursuit’s founder Dr. Tom Coburn reminded that “the debt number is $21 trillion, but that’s not the important number. The important number is the unfunded liabilities due over the next 50 years.” That number, Dr. Coburn continues, is $144 trillion in future debt the federal government is legally obligated to pay.
If those figures are not intimidating enough, subsequent generations — millennials in particular — are the ones expected to pay for this impending financial mess. Meanwhile, Congress is too busy reacting to the latest “One Big Thing” threatening to end American life as we know it to thoughtfully develop innovative solutions to complex public policy problems.
Similarly, Washington Post senior congressional correspondent Paul Kane noted “if Democrats retake the House in November’s midterms, it will be the first time in more than 70 years the majority has flipped without deficits or government overreach playing some key role in creating the backlash to the party in power.” Congress’s preference for instant, superficial gratification through inflammatory soundbites and widespread indifference to the nation’s fiscal plight stand tall as examples of what politics turns into when majorities of its participants spurn responsibility.
In his book Crisis of Responsibility, David Bahnsen identifies that the decline of responsibility has normalized “walking away from obligations without concern for personal integrity or collective economic impact.” We need self-control to keep our worst impulses in check and we need responsibility to remain accountable in our obligations to present and future generations.
To avoid the injustice of making future generations answer for the recklessness of the present, lawmakers in both parties will need to heed Mrs. Eisenhower’s counsel that “he that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.” Above all, they will need to rediscover the erstwhile virtues of civic self-control and fiscal responsibility. Putting an end to generational theft depends on it.