Will John Boehner, President Obama master art of humility before 'fiscal cliff'?

John Boehner and President Obama continue their 'fiscal cliff' tussle over tax increases and spending cuts. But negotiating requires a healthy dose of humility. America's Founding Fathers, especially Madison and Franklin, knew this lesson well. We should look to them for guidance.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner winces while talking to a reporter at the Capitol Dec. 18 on the way to a closed-door meeting with House Republicans as he negotiates with President Obama to avert the 'fiscal cliff.' Op-ed contributor Kyle Scott touts James Madison's humility when he justified his 'change of heart' on the First National Bank he had previously opposed 'by saying that the bank was what the nation needed.'

John Boehner and President Obama continue their tussle over tax increases and spending cuts that would be part of budget deal to avoid the fiscal cliff. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are eager to concede ground, lose face, or give up what their parties stand for. To some extent, each side has a vested interest in protecting their position, as doing otherwise means they could lose the support of voters, prominent positions within their party, or financial backing.

Beyond politics, each of our officials generally has a committed view of what’s right, just like most of us. What we all need is a healthy dose of humility. The general public, opinionmakers, and elected leaders need to realize that they’re not as right as they think they are, and they need the other side to help show them where the weakness in their view lies. Those who were responsible for founding the nation and its early success knew this lesson well. We should look to them for guidance.

One of the most divisive issues early in our nation’s history was the national bank. Championed by the first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the debate over the national bank divided George Washington’s administration. Hamilton was on one side, while Washington’s Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and his ally in Congress, James Madison, led the opposition. In 1791, the first national bank was established, and the first party system began to take shape, with Jefferson and Madison going one direction and Washington and Hamilton going the other.

Madison was elected president just as the 20-year charter for the national bank was set to expire. This was his chance to end what he thought was a destructive and unconstitutional institution. But war with Britain was imminent, and his treasury secretary advised him to reauthorize the bank so the US could finance the war. In 1814, Congress passed a bill chartering the second national bank, and Madison vetoed it. But when Congress tried again in 1816, Madison signed it. Madison justified the change of heart by saying that the bank was what the nation needed. He acknowledged that his opinion was against the majority of the nation’s and he had no right to violate the will of the voters and their representatives in Congress.

That is humility.

Looking to another Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin shows us how we can act, if not become, humble.

By changing his manner of speech, Franklin was able to demonstrate how humility makes one more sociable, even if that humility is only superficial. For instance, Franklin found that when he positioned his argument in more conditional terms, rather than being assertive and inflexible, he was able to interact in a more positive way. By Franklin’s own account, he was outwardly humble because he found that people were more receptive to his arguments when he used phrases that connote humility such as “it appears as if” or “perhaps we can say,” rather than positive assertions that connote pride such as “it certainly is” or “it is undeniably so.”

By speaking humbly he not only became more agreeable, he also became far more persuasive.

Changing one’s manner of speech is one thing – a kind of first step in the path toward humility. But recognizing that one’s cognitive capacities are limited and one’s views may be fallible is a step most don’t take. It is the step lawmakers must now take, however, following in the footsteps of Madison. With humility, reconciliation could be possible, even over the most divisive matters.

Kyle Scott teaches American politics and constitutional law at the University of Houston. His commentary on current events has appeared many national and local media outlets.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Will John Boehner, President Obama master art of humility before 'fiscal cliff'?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today