When I reach across the aisle, does someone reach back?
Jeff Flake earned a bachelor’s in international relations in 1986 and a master’s in political science in 1987, both from BYU. He represented Arizona for six terms in the US House of Representatives and one term in the US Senate, and he was known throughout his political career for his ability to reach across the aisle.
During Fall 2020 semester, Flake served as a visiting fellow at BYU Marriott’s Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics. In this position, he spoke in multiple classes in the MPA programs, MBA programs, and Political Science Department. He also met one-on-one with students and was a guest speaker for other campus events.
On 12 November 2020, Paul Edwards, director of BYU’s Wheatley Institution, hosted a webinar in which he spoke with Flake about improving civility and decreasing polarization in politics. Following are excerpts from that conversation. These opinions and views are not necessarily endorsed by Brigham Young University, BYU Marriott, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of which maintain a strict policy of political neutrality and do not support any party or candidate.
Edwards: Before we start, I want to read a couple of quotes from your book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, that illustrate what we’ll be talking about today:
“The secretary of defense, former marine general James Mattis, was asked . . . what worried him most. Unexpectedly for a man in his position, he said this: ‘The lack of political unity in America. The lack of fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments.’”
Former secretary of defense Bob Gates, when asked about the biggest threat to America, said, “I think the biggest threat to our future sits in Washington, DC, and not someplace else. The rest of the problems of the world wouldn’t worry me if we had a functional government. And if we had a Congress that could begin to address some of the long-term problems that the country has. I mean, the reality is our problems are deep enough in every category that none of them can be resolved during the course of one presidency or one Congress. So you need bipartisan solutions that can be sustained through more than one presidency and more than one Congress. And we don’t see any evidence of that in Washington.”
It’s fascinating that these two aren’t identifying foreign nations; they’re saying incivility, a collapse of institutions, and institutional disfunction in Washington, DC. You wrote this book a few years ago. Do you see any improvement on that score?
Flake: I wrote the book in 2017, and I think that any problems that were identified in it have been exacerbated since. So we find ourselves in a tough position now.
Edwards: Some people believe that a lot of the challenges we’re facing come from a crisis in confidence in our core institutions. In your book, you try to elucidate what you call core principles of conservatism. What are those principles, and how do they relate to the health of our democratic institutions?
Flake: I grew up as a conservative in Arizona, where people like Barry Goldwater were defining the principles of conservatism—limited government, economic freedom, individual responsibility, free trade, strong American leadership across the globe. I think those are the animating principles that have guided conservatives for the past few decades. But there are other elements of conservatism that are not necessarily principles but values, if you will. Edmund Burke, known as the father of modern conservatism, talked about temperance and restraint being the chief virtues of conservatism. He was concerned at people who were rash or illogical or acted with rage or intemperance.
A conservative, at heart, is one who has a healthy mistrust of concentrated power but confidence in institutions—one who seeks to preserve the institutions that exist and to honor those norms that undergird institutions. What’s concerning today is that institutions are challenged and the norms that support those institutions are challenged as well.
Edwards: Is this new, or is it something that’s been creeping up over a period of time?
Flake: I think it’s been creeping up for a while. Let me back up a little and talk about the Republican Party, which I’m familiar with because I’ve been a lifelong Republican. In the 1990s, the party was driven far more by ideas, like the Contract with America. I think that’s what helped the Republicans finally recapture the House of Representatives. They really pushed principles more than anything. But by the time I got to Washington in 2001, the party—and the Democratic Party as well—seemed to rely more on using the levers of power to keep office and maintain the majority. It moved away from the power of ideas and the art of persuasion.
I think part of the problem is politicians’ propensity to overpromise—to say, “Here’s what we’re going to do,” when oftentimes you can’t do that in a legislative body. You have to persuade, you have to bring people to your side, and it’s infrequent that any one party will have majorities to push its will. But as parties try to push rather than persuade, that’s led to more alienation on the part of the citizenry. I think we’re at a point today that we haven’t been in for quite a while.
Edwards: Your point about persuasion is interesting. Looking again at the quote from Gates, he notes the importance of bipartisan solutions because of their enduring nature. As you look at the Senate, which has sometimes been called “the greatest deliberative body,” what are some of the threats to that particular institution of our federal government?
Flake: We’ve seen some of them play out already in regard to the Senate’s role in advice and consent in what’s called the president’s Executive Calendar—the appointment of judges or the president’s cabinet and other officials. Up until 2003, that was subject to the same cloture and filibuster rules as pieces of legislation. But no senator ever would think of filibustering the president’s Executive Calendar. For example, no matter how controversial a Supreme Court nominee was, all it would have taken is for one senator to stand up and require a sixty-vote margin to move that nomination to the floor. But no one ever did it. The filibuster was there, and it hopefully tempered a president’s nominations. That started to go away in 2003 as each party began to kind of one-up the other party. Now it’s gone.
One big threat we have going forward is that if a party has a majority in the Senate, that party might decide to get rid of the legislative filibuster. Then the Senate would become a majoritarian institution, just like the House. I think that would be tremendously damaging to the prospect of bipartisan legislation.
George Washington famously referred to the Senate as “the saucer that cools the milk”—that the passions of the House would be blocked by a more deliberative body. It helps that the Senate has six-year terms. But this notion that you have to get sixty votes is also extremely important; otherwise, the Senate and the House would just bounce back and forth between majorities trying to undo legislation that was passed by the previous majority. That’s kind of the cycle we find ourselves in, but it hasn’t been cemented yet. I think it would be, if we were to lose the filibuster.
Edwards: What about the argument that trying to reach those kinds of thresholds has led to gridlock in trying to implement important programs? For example, the Affordable Care Act is a sweeping piece of legislation that failed to receive bipartisan support. Why should we worry about supermajoritarian bipartisan consensus?
Flake: There is no doubt that it has led to gridlock. But a sixty-vote margin is not a bug in the system; it’s a feature of the system.
Let’s look at the example of the Affordable Care Act. It passed when Democrats had sixty votes in the Senate, and part of the act was enacted under rules of reconciliation, which allow the Senate to move ahead on certain budget-related items. But what’s happened since? Democrats lost their majority in the Senate, and Republicans have been trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act ever since.
There are other pieces of legislation that Republicans might put forward, but Democrats would try to repeal them as soon as the political pendulum swings—and it does. So we’re much better off as a society when the Senate is slow. That gridlock is usually music to the ears of a conservative who believes in limited government.
Edwards: It’s no secret that you’re kind of a lightning rod because of your vocal opposition, as a Republican senator, to a Republican president. How would you describe your relationship with the GOP?
Flake: You know, I’m a lifelong Republican, and I hope to remain a lifelong Republican. The Republican Party has been, more than the Democratic Party, the vessel for conservative policy, and I think it can be that in the future. In Arizona, we have a reputation for being independent minded, and my constituents tolerated me for eighteen years, even though I had views that may have differed from theirs on issues like immigration, refugee policy, policy toward Cuba, or whatever else. But, for whatever reason, we have become a lot less tolerant of differing views. We need to get back to a point where we can accept differences and work together in areas where we agree.
Just as an example, when I first got to Congress, President George W. Bush had just been elected. His first initiative was No Child Left Behind, which I thought was far too much federal intrusion into local education policy. I opposed it vocally. One of the next big initiatives was the prescription drug initiative. Mike Pence and I led the opposition on that, and it passed very narrowly. It was a heated debate; the president and his team were not happy with me. And then on Cuba policy, I passed legislation that President Bush wouldn’t sign, and that was frustrating for both him and me. But when I ran for the Senate, George W. Bush—who was then a former president—came and did a fundraiser for me in Arizona because I was with him on issues like tax policy and immigration. We got along. That probably wouldn’t happen in politics today.
Edwards: There is an interesting grassroots effort by some groups to get Republicans and Democrats to sit down with one another, to get past feelings of contempt, and to form genuine friendships. In what ways do you think conservatives feel misunderstood by liberals, and what would you like liberals to know about your worldview?
Flake: I think a major misunderstanding is that, because Republicans tend not to favor bigger-government solutions, we are somehow uncaring about issues of poverty or inequality, when we just see a different way to achieve those ends. I would argue that most populations post–World War II have largely followed the American free-market, limited-government model. You’ve seen untold prosperity—lower poverty rates than we’ve ever seen in the world. So that’s the misunderstanding that always eats at me: that just because we don’t favor more government solutions doesn’t mean we don’t see that these are real issues we have to deal with.
Edwards: Federalist Papers No. 10 discusses the threat that factions pose to a republic. Are modern political parties like these factions?
Flake: Well, frankly, modern parties have served to tamp down factions. If I look into my own party, during the 1950s and ’60s, there was a movement called the John Birch Society. It was kind of conspiratorial, and they believed, for example, that Dwight Eisenhower was a closet communist or that fluoride in the water was a form of mind control. The Republican Party made a concerted effort to try to tamp down that faction. It was really pushed by people like Barry Goldwater, who was the party’s presidential nominee in 1964, and William F. Buckley Jr., who provided the intellectual heft for the party. They were concerned that a faction might consume a party that needed to appeal to a broader electorate. So parties can provide a function to tamp down factions. But I think parties can act as a faction as well.
Edwards: In your book, you tell an interesting account of sitting in a State of the Union address with your colleague from Arizona, Representative Gabby Giffords. Could you give us some background about her and tell us about that moment, and also about the motto you had in your home growing up?
Flake: In January 2011, Gabby Giffords was shot by a gunman as she greeted constituents at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, and she was gravely wounded. She was shot in the head and she lost a lot of her ability to stand, and she still suffers from that. But a year after the attack, she had recovered enough to come back to Congress, and she was at the State of the Union address. I was close to Gabby—we’d worked together on a number of issues—and I sat with her. She wanted to stand when President Obama would deliver his applause lines, so I would help her up because she couldn’t stand on her own. It left me, a lone Republican, standing among a sea of Democrats. My phone immediately started buzzing with text messages and emails from angry people who wanted to know if I was standing because I agreed with President Obama. And I looked at those and thought, Our politics are pretty bad when someone makes a kind gesture, and it’s interpreted that way. But we’ve become so partisan.
You mentioned our family’s motto. My mother had a three-by-five-inch card that stayed on our fridge for years. It was stained with cookie dough and vegetable oil and everything else, but written on it was “Assume the best, look for the good.” I saw that practiced as I was growing up, and you can find that motto in almost all of my siblings’ houses now.
I think it’s a good motto for politics as well. I think politics works best if we can assume the best and look for the good. We can argue strenuously on policy without assuming that our political opponents are our enemies. That idea is rampant now, particularly if you look on social media; we need to tamp it down, because there are a lot of good people in Washington on both sides of the aisle, trying to do the right thing. Our incentives are misaligned—there’s little incentive politically for compromise. I’ve mentioned before that it used to be that reaching across the aisle would get you plaudits and now it gets you a primary. Until our political calculus changes, we’re not going to have the type of politics we need.
The above are excerpts from a webinar held on 12 November 2020. Paul Edwards, director of BYU’s Wheatley Institution, spoke with former US Senator Jeff Flake.