An Olive Leaf: In Defense of “Passionate Engagement”

By Eugene England


In this electoral season that features a climate of highly polarized political discourse, it is refreshing to remember Eugene England, a life-long Republican, with his common-sense assessments about the importance of a strong two-party political system in which both sides welcome debate and are willing to compromise. Following is an excerpt from his essay, “Why Utah Mormons Should Become Democrats: Reflections on Partisan Politics,” in Making Peace: Personal Essays (Signature Books, 1995).


My concern is that religion and politics are being entangled again in Mormonism, not among high-ranking leaders so much as among local leaders and in Mormon popular culture. It is no longer merely a joke that a good Mormon cannot be a Democrat, and Mormon Democrats are constantly on the defensive, seeming to feel a need to apologize for even being Democrats, whatever their particular views. . . .

One of the most troubling elements of this polarization is the growing Mormon tendency to find absolute or at least superior, even divine, truth in the Republican Party platform. At the practical level our system depends, I believe, on a difficult skill suited to that quality the framers called “the genius of our people.” It is the ability to energetically pursue a program or idea in the political marketplace and then calmly to accept its defeat or modification through compromise and even to lend support to the “winners” in a genuinely united community. It is a skill based on recognition that the finest truth or law or program is never the creation of one person or partisan group but rather the result of the passionate conflict and combining of ideas and proposals in a democratic context. . . .

The kind of political skill and virtue I am trying to advocate is based on the notion articulated by Milton in Areopagitica, his great defense of freedom of the press and of expression. Milton’s surprising idea is that virtue and truth are made pure and whole not by being cloistered and protected from exposure to contrary, even “evil” actions and ideas, but by the opposite: full engagement in a tempting world and a full marketplace of ideas to which we respond with reasoned criticism and rethinking and, yes, even changing our mind and compromising.

Three hundred years after Milton’s essay, Walter Lippmann . . . reminded us that our vaunted ideal of freedom of speech and political expression is not merely an abstract virtue or matter of simple neighborly toleration but an absolute practical necessity: “We must protect the right of our opponents to speak because we must hear what they have to say . . . because freedom of discussion improves our own opinions.” He points out that in our system we pay the opposition salaries out of the public treasury because like a good doctor who tells us unpleasant truths, an opponent can help us be more healthy.

Lippmann shows how dictatorships defeat themselves by liquidating or terrifying into silence the very voices that would help them avoid or correct inevitable errors. It is precisely such opposition and debate, especially concerning such a crucial matter as making war, which our Founding Fathers placed firmly in an open, contentious body like Congress, because they knew that there, rather than in the patriotic but narrow, cloistered vision of a single person . . . the best decisions would be made and most effectively changed if they needed to be. . . . As Lippmann concludes, “A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters. For his supporters will push him to disaster unless his opponents show him where the dangers lie.”

Good Democrats or good Republicans are not those who believe their party has all truth and who yearn for complete victory and one-party government control. They are rather those who seek the engagement, compromise, enlightening debate, checks on natural aggrandizement of power, etc., that the process of interparty conflict makes possible. They are like Todd Britsch, who, while he was Dean of Humanities at BYU, said to me, “I do not feel good when I have power to implement my ideas without argument and opposition. I’ve learned that without strong rebuttal and rethinking they are likely not to be very good ideas—and may be very bad ones.” Good Democrats and Republicans are those who realize that the political process is strongest when the parties are nearly equal in strength—and good Mormons, believers in our inspired Constitution and desirous of political peace and effectiveness, would work, or even change affiliations, to bring that about.