Addressing ways to heal a wounded republic in the aftermath of what some have called the most divisive election the United States has seen in recent generations, political science professor Jim Sleeper ’69 said the nation must find unity in “small-r” republican values.
At a panel discussion Wednesday in Branford College before about 30 people, Sleeper threshed out what he considers to be the universal values for which a republic stands and how he believes Yale cultivates these in future leaders. He also advised students on how to develop their leadership skills and voiced his “controlled pessimism” about the current state and future of American politics at the talk, co-hosted by The Politic and the Political Science Department.
The Politic is an associated publication of the Yale Daily News.
“What I hope we can talk about tonight is where and how our concerns do overlap about the changing nature of politics itself now and the ways we can manage, or won’t manage, to keep a republic amid those changes,” Sleeper said.
Student panelists Keith Urbahn ’06 and Brett Edkins ’06 joined Sleeper in the discussion. Sleeper stressed the role of the University in fostering republican values such as respect for moral parameters and the tempering of ideology for the public interest.
“The purpose of a Yale education has been to cultivate and strengthen those ‘small-r’ republican virtues in leadership and citizenship: how to exercise power with restraint, with an inner conviction about the moral limits of power,” Sleeper said.
The cooperative interplay between the political left and right is central to building a strong republic, he said.
“Just as a healthy person walks on both a left foot and a right foot without being especially conscious of the instant when he or she is putting all the weight on one foot or the other, so a society has to walk on the left foot of social provision and equality — without which neither the individuality nor the communal bonds which conservatives honor could exist — and the right foot of personal liberty and responsibility — without which any leftist social reorganization would reduce persons to clients, cogs or worse,” Sleeper said.
He lamented the polarization of politics and urged students to examine their political convictions and affirm them “honestly, through choice and reflection, not by being stampeded to them though force and fraud.”
“The best leadership comes from people who’ve tested themselves morally and experientially on the way toward power,” Sleeper said. “You have to take stock of your own commitments and then break out of the context in which they were formed.”
Sleeper advised students to seek the experiences of people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. He challenged conservatives to “go down and out” and work for Wal-Mart and urged liberals to work for a major corporation or a faith-based initiative in a “red-state” or an “inner-city, white-ethnic community.”
When asked about his opinion on the future of American politics in light of the red-blue divide, Sleeper described his position as “controlled pessimism,” adding that he felt the nation is on a “downward spiral.”
“The situation is not hopeless, but the burden is getting to be a heavier and heavier lift,” Sleeper said. “It’s gonna take more and more effort.”
Alex Dadok ’06 said he was impressed by the quality of Sleeper’s arguments.
“He has exceptionally good ideas,” Dadok said. “People just get polarized. It is important to look under the surface of any issue and try to find common ground, rather than antagonize. This is especially true for the Democratic Party. They need to repackage their image if they want to win elections in the future.”