“Man, if I had the answer to that, I would not be talking on this assembly. I would be making a lot more money.”
Jeff Johnson was back this month for another high school assembly, during which he made that modest admission in response to a difficult question about race and poverty. His virtual talk, guided by questions from four students, included fascinating ideas about a host of issues; as always, its main subject was our country’s political discourse.
However, Johnson’s presentation was notably tinged with misplaced bothsideism—a way of portraying politics that creates a false impression of balance between the two sides—and an unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that Republicans are ultimately more at fault for our political polarization and division than Democrats.
“I’m concerned that there are folks in this country on both sides of the aisle that are more interested in advancing narrative than they are advancing the country,” Johnson said to the GDS high school community in the assembly, held on Zoom the morning of Nov. 11. “But I also think that there are some incredibly conscientious and principled people on both sides of the aisle.”
“On both sides of the aisle” is precisely the origin of the term bothsidesism, a style unfortunately used often by political observers determined not to appear partisan. Somebody hearing Johnson’s quote would be led to believe that the Democratic and Republican Parties are filled with equal numbers of unprincipled, power-hungry partisan hacks and virtuous politicians earnestly seeking to better the nation. But that impression of balance would be wrong.
It would also be wrong to suggest that the two major parties are equally responsible for our country’s current state of division and the corollary dysfunction of Washington (a suggestion, to be clear, that Johnson didn’t explicitly make). Studies have shown that Republicans in Congress have, on average, moved substantially more to the right in recent years than their Democratic counterparts have shifted left, a phenomenon dubbed asymmetric polarization.
Math and history teacher Andy Lipps, who before coming to GDS worked as a civil rights lawyer, concurred in an interview with me that the two sides don’t deserve “equal blame” for polarization. But, he added, “there’s responsibility on both sides to figure out how to walk forward.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like both sides are taking that responsibility seriously: While one party’s leader actively sows division, the other’s leader at least speaks of unifying the country. “To make progress,” President-elect Joe Biden said in his victory speech, “we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.”
In the GDS assembly, Johnson criticized the Democratic Party’s approach to self-promotion. “By and large,” he said, “the Democratic Party can wax poetic about what they don’t like about [President Donald] Trump. They can’t wax poetic with the same level of fervor and enthusiasm and clarity about what kind of America they want to create with a level of specificity.”
Democrats may well have a messaging problem, but if they do, it certainly isn’t that they’re not specific or clear enough about their policy proposals. One could argue that the Biden campaign focused too much on lambasting Trump, but it certainly wasn’t unable to describe its vision for the U.S. As any American who’s followed the news at all in the past few months would know, Biden’s platform involved expanding Obamacare, executing a science-based approach to dealing with the pandemic and taking serious steps to confront climate change, among other policies.
But Johnson continued: “Conservatives, for all that they are and all that they’re not, are really pragmatic as it relates to policy. And they will tell you, ‘This is what we want; this is what we don’t want. If you like it, come with us; if you don’t like it, go to hell.”
Really pragmatic? Transparent about policy? He’s talking about a party that didn’t even care to write a policy platform in 2020. A party based entirely on the whims of a single erratic, impulsive, bigoted man, so much so that its members are now willing to abandon even the most basic tenets of democracy itself to appease their lame-duck lord.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t welcome or listen to diverse political opinions, in GDS assemblies and elsewhere (we should), or that Democrats are perfect (they’re not). What we shouldn’t do is delude ourselves about the source of our politics’ ills.
Andy Lipps, who has taught at GDS for more than two decades, said the school “used to invite real conservatives” to speak to students—people like David Frum, a conservative commentator, and the late Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. “Assemblies that cause us to think about things in different ways than we would ordinarily think about them are very useful,” Lipps said. Amen.
This assembly was Johnson’s third time speaking to the high school, following a talk last school year standing before a packed audience in the Forum and a virtual appearance prior to the 2020 election. Johnson’s website describes him as “an impact architect supporting brands and institutions to harness culture and equity towards transformative social and market-driven impact.”
The format of his most recent assembly was different, though. While it was advertised as a “panel discussion,” the four students mainly just posed questions to Johnson. Lipps said “it would have been great” to have had “an actual discussion among the students” instead.
Billed as a post-election discussion, the assembly touched rather briefly on the results. Johnson said he’d voted for the Biden-Harris ticket, though naturally not without noting that he has “real fundamental issues with who both of them have been as elected officials.”
Sophomore Edie Carey decided to participate in the assembly as one of the questioners (along with the three co-heads of Student Voices) because she disagreed with some of what she’d heard Johnson say before, including his thoughts on “voting across partisan lines,” she said in an interview. “Voting for the Democrat is going to, in the long run, advance progressivism, in whatever election.”
She left the assembly agreeing with Johnson on a lot of things—his ideas about combating poverty, for instance—but continued to disapprove of his bothsidesist streak.
Elected officials “are responding to the mob,” Johnson said. “They are the modern-day gladiators and we are the spectators in the Colosseum. And we are cheering for blood and guts and gore more than we are humanity.”
But again, such demagoguery is almost entirely limited to the right. Biden’s campaign was based on appeals to our better angels and to science, reason and fact—“reasonablism,” if you will, as Johnson put it when discussing the media, followed by “I know that’s not a word.” But it wasn’t “unpopular reasonablism”; Biden won, after all.
Aside from guts enough to acknowledge Republicans’ disproportionate damage to our political discourse, one other thing was missing from the assembly: Johnson’s charming, now-classic anecdote about crossing party lines to support a Black Republican in an Ohio gubernatorial race. To Johnson, the story provided backing for the notion of approaching every political contest as a new day, a new chance to write down a list of one’s policy stances and do the math about which candidate is most in agreement with them, because someday, who knows, that may be a Republican.
But Ken Blackwell lost the race back in 2006 to be governor of Ohio. And in the world of today’s Republican Party—the party of Mitch McConnell and, above all, Donald Trump, and with them, the party of bigotry and partisan warfare, not to mention bad policy—Johnson’s idealism is misguided.
Edie Carey put it best: “The Democrats, while they have their problems, are fundamentally better than the Republicans.”