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The Great Divide: Fundamental Transitions in American Politics

  • Date: 12/14/2002
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenz (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • entlemen, members of the class of 2002, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates in the arenas of arts and sciences, nursing, fine and applied arts, and community service and technology.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and technologies.

    And you have discovered that learning is a continuous and exciting process, and that life's experiences will continue to instruct you along the way.

    As a citizen of our great country, your education will help you to examine the various moral, ethical and economic issues that are presented to us in the political process . . . That is, assuming that you have learned at least to participate in our democracy.

    This morning, we recognize an individual who has served his country, his community, and this University well. Most recently, as Chairman of The University of Akron's Board of Trustees, Gene Waddell provided strong leadership that enabled the beneficial progress that we now are enjoying. The full record of Mr. Waddell's accomplishments will be recited in a few moments, but it is fitting that we use this occasion to reflect on the American political process.

    Just a few weeks ago, on Election Day, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by John Steele Gordon suggesting that our politics "has entered a period of fundamental transition."
    (John Steele Gordon, The Next Great Divide, The Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2002,
    p. A22)

    He wrote, "The U.S., like most countries that derive law and politics from England, tends to conduct its politics with two major parties, one on each side of the great dividing issue."
    (John Steele Gordon, Ibid)

    Those "great divides" have occurred throughout American history and have affected our nation both through their presence and their absence.

    So, let us review Mr. Gordon's chronology of three great divides and see what emerging great divide may shape our country in the near future.

    The first great divide, according to Gordon, really has never gone away and that concerns "...the size and the role of the federal government." Jefferson and his followers wanted less government, and Hamilton's Federalists wanted more.
    (John Steele Gordon, Ibid)

    The second great divide occurred in 1824, creating a regional split in our nation. Tariffs were the issue. The North wanted high tariffs to protect its industries from British competition. The South wanted low tariffs to aid its dependence on cotton exports and a heavy importation of industrial goods.

    Of course, this North-South division over tariffs became much more complex, and so strong were our regional differences that we had to fight a Civil War to settle them.

    The third great divide, according to Gordon, developed as a result of the Industrial Revolution. It was the division between capital and labor. That divide and the ensuing Great Depression eventually led to a political agenda that began to address the issue of poverty and greatly improved our standard of living.

    As we sit here today, there is no apparent great political divide - witness the many commentaries suggesting that Democrats are sounding like Republicans, and vice versa.

    However, as I mentioned earlier, great divides affect us by their presence, as well as their absence, because when the prevailing issues that define American politics change, those issues do not always reflect clear and defining differences; sometimes they simply are arguments at the margins. When that happens, it becomes difficult for a party to establish its political niche, and then, campaign rhetoric tends to be reduced to personal issues, innuendos and attacks.

    Regrettably, "In each period, (when there were) . . . no great principles at stake, American politics (were) marked by elections with no clear winner, and nasty, often personal political attacks."
    (John Steele Gordon, Ibid)

    At the end of the Civil War, for example, political parity brought about malicious campaigns and an 1876 presidential election that failed to generate a clear winner. The House selected the president that year.

    Gordon also suggests that the 2000 and 2002 election campaigns became "nasty and personal" because there was no great divide.
    (John Steele Gordon, Ibid)

    Yet, the political cycle surely will generate issues that will lead to another great divide. And so we may well ask . . .

    What will it be?

    There are some signs that it may relate to the undeniable process of globalization and the resulting threats to American dominance.

    "This is not surprising," writes Gordon, "since we are well along in a revolution, wrought by the microprocessor, that is at least as profound as the Industrial Revolution. Add to that . . . the forces of external threat (from terrorist factions), (which are) greater than at any time since the nation's earliest years, and you have a ‘security' revolution as well. So given America's birth in rebellion, its long isolation and its economic clout, one clear issue - globalization - suggests itself as terrain for a new divide."
    (John Steele Gordon, Ibid)

    To understand how globalization may cause a shift in American politics, consider the new European Union and how it transcends national boundaries as a result of common social and economic interests. That situation, alone, will have much to teach us about our nation's place in an increasingly global society.

    To be more specific, Gordon suggests that . . . "How, and how quickly, to cede (U.S.) sovereignty to global regulatory bodies might well become the next great divide in American politics."
    (John Steele Gordon, Ibid)

    He suggests that our economic sovereignty, our global economic "clout," will surely be diluted, while our sovereignty of security will remain strong, as we continue to act unilaterally to protect our own interests.

    Politically, this may be a new period for great ideas and substantive debates, rather than one of fear mongering, political innuendo and character assassination.

    It is in that type of political environment - one of reasoned and informed dialogue on substantial issues - that democracy shines and America is at its best.

    So, as you now close this chapter of your life, your education has equipped you with the tools to play your part in history.

    I hope that you will continue to learn and that you will fully participate in the process by which our world will build a better future.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere - I salute you, the Fall 2002 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!

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