In The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold: mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
He did not have in mind the kind of centrism so popular in recent political history, the avoidance of hard choices and strong leadership. He had a more important center in mind, the kind of center that is hewn out of the marble of human experience, the garment woven of sacrifice and honorable compromise, the foundation upon which a viable and noble society might be built.
And he did not dismiss the chaos of anarchy; he diminished it as the alternative to the hard business of governing a complex community. Anarchy is easy if you do not care about its results.
The center for early 21st century America, as Yeats would have it, is composed of years of struggle to control the spread of nuclear weapons, two decades of debate over an agreed platform for environmental protection; an agreement that the least of these—the elderly, children, the disabled, and the poor—would have a semblance of a safety net; a never-ending and never quite successful search for a just system of taxation; an approach to relations with other nations based upon wise and skillful diplomacy rather than bellicosity; a role for government much like the cattle driver of old who prevented the stragglers from getting left behind.
The formation of this center has not come easily. Almost all of it required compromise between liberals and conservatives, left and right, protectors of tradition and pioneers in innovation. In no democracy ever formed, including particularly our own, has compromise on fundamental issues such as the role of government been simple.
Changing times require new coalitions to be formed and often old coalitions to remain steadfast. Life is a river that constantly ebbs and flows. Policies and programs are required to adjust to new realities. Principles must remain constant.
Wars and depressions bring us closer together. Absent one or the other, most Americans choose to go their own way and not be bothered by the gritty business of governance. Easier to mock those who do that business, and try to do it well, than to get one’s hand dirty in the sausage- making of compromise and coalition.
Thus, when things threaten to fall apart and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, those who have spent much of a lifetime at the gritty business of governance in the interest of forming a center that will hold find it difficult to observe the admonish to “give them a chance” when their announced purpose is to shatter that governing center.
No one has been more intense in condemning the combination of prerogative, privilege, and power that has descended on our Government in recent years than the aging idealist who writes these words. But that bath water can be thrown out without endangering the baby in the center whose life we hold dear.
Corruption must be condemned and eradicated, but the years of progressive compromise on basic governing programs and the principles upon which they are based does not have to be destroyed in the process. Giving new leadership a chance becomes problematic when senior officials are nominated to lead agencies and departments whose core functions they oppose.
There is every indication even before it enters office that the new Administration intends to use public anger at corruption as an excuse to dismantle decades of hard-won progress toward a more just and fair society.
In virtually every arena of human progress since Franklin Roosevelt a government is being formed composed of those whose announced intentions are to dismantle and reverse that progress. To sit quietly by while such a process is going on is, for many of us, a betrayal of our beliefs, our ethics, and our very patriotism.
As we well know, Yeats proceeded in the poem to describe what happens when the center does not hold: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Shame on all those of both Parties and a range of ideologies who have corrupted our Government through access purchased with campaign contributions and the greed of special interests. They have contributed mightily to the destruction of trust in government that has brought us to today.
But that corruption and that distrust cannot be the excuse for dismantling an array of policies and programs at home and abroad that have made us a better nation, that have justified our world leadership, that have made us at our best an example to aspiring people around the world, that have brought us on occasion near the shining city on a hill.
Resistance to those who destroy the governing center and our noblest ideals is our only option. It is our duty and, for some of us, a right we have earned.