Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s campaign headquarters are modest and efficient. There are a few people on their laptops — sending emails, Tweeting, writing press releases, tracking donations — surrounded by yard signs, bumper stickers, and other marketing materials. The space suggests one thing: utility. There’s a sobriety and a relaxation to it at the same time. In other words, Dean and his team take this campaign seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously.
There’s some excitement in the room, too. After all, in just five or six days, polls showed Dean gaining four points from behind his Republican opponent, Bill Lee, narrowing the gap from 13 to just nine points. In a race like this, every day and every single point count.
Neither man — Dean nor Lee — comes from the radical wing of his party, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have stark disagreements and differences. Dean has decades of political experience, running and winning races for Nashville’s public defender in 1990, 1994, and 1998, and, of course, for mayor of Nashville, a role in which he served from 2007-2015. His opponent is a political outsider and successful business-owner offering Tennesseans an alternative to what some might call “politics-as-usual.”
They disagree, or at least have different priorities, on healthcare and medicaid, education, immigration, guns, and much more besides.
It’s easy in our mind-bendingly fast-paced, national politics to believe that Americans are bitterly divided, and then to import that sense of division into any and all political disputes or races. But Dean - and this is to say nothing about Bill Lee - just isn’t interested in the overzealous showmanship of national politics. “I’ve always looked at politics and government service as a way to try to make people’s lives better,” Dean says. “My involvement in politics has really been through service.”
In a lot of ways, pragmatism guides Dean’s approach to that service. He challenges much of the common wisdom of today’s politics in how he approaches complicated issues, not by pointing at or yelling about the partisan gulf, but by assuming the best of individuals and remaining realistic about human beings — and our limits.
Frankly, Karl Dean just isn’t convinced that we’re as divided as pundits and news anchors and political leaders suggest. Obviously, there’s no denying the data: the poles of American political life are farther apart and more extreme. But do those polarized sectors of society represent or speak for all or even most Americans? All or most Tennesseans?
“I’m old enough that I was certainly aware of what was going on in the country in the late 60s and early 70s, during the Vietnam era, during Watergate,” Dean says. “This is certainly not the most divisive period of American politics in my lifetime.” He added, “I feel like Democrats and Republicans can still talk to each other, still get things done.”
Dean says that he isn’t minimizing the need for greater civility in political life. It’s just that he thinks we need a broader, historical perspective. “It’s always good for people to reach across the aisle, to work together, to be less rigid, to be less ideological,” he says.
Suspicion of ideology narrates Dean’s approach to politics, it seems. It’s somewhat unusual for a politician to eschew ideology and decry inflexible party loyalty. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite of how so many politicians behave. “I feel like people are just rigidly in their party,” Dean said, with a sense of regret.
Gerrymandering, according to Dean, has played a role in creating these rigid structures. Artificial, ideological echo-chambers create environments void of compromise and understanding, and gerrymandering goes a long way to ensuring those echo-chambers remain intact.
“You have all these safe districts, and the extreme - either left or right - is going to prevail, and the parties don’t have the need to compromise as much or work together,” Dean says. “I think that is certainly something we should encourage: having the parties try to work together.”
Dean has done that sort of work before. As a mayoral candidate, he ran a nonpartisan race and had to find support from every direction, and that attitude continued once he actually served in the role. “When you’re the mayor, you’re not thinking, ‘What’s the Democratic position on garbage,’” Dean says. “It’s, ‘How do you get the job done?’”
According to Steven Novella, academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, “Ideologies reinforce the worst aspects of our tribal nature, separating the world into us and them – those who have seen the Truth, and those who are mentally deficient or deprived so that they are condemned to wallow in ignorance and confusion.”
“If you look back at past governors, for the most part, they’re moderates, people just trying to get something done,” Dean says. “They could work with both parties, and we have a tradition of actually alternating the party [for governor].”
For Dean - who praised Ned McWherter, Howard Baker, Phil Bredesen, and Bill Haslam as exemplars of Tennessee’s tradition of political pragmatism - that’s a positive thing, and something worth treasuring and defending. “Nobody has all the answers,” he says. “I’m one of those people who tends to read writers who talk about the need not to get sucked into any belief system or ideology that tells you that they have all the answers, because no one does.”
Overcommitment to a party line or ideology is corrosive and unimaginative, and in leaders, it produces division and animosity. “You’ve got to be a lot more open, you’ve got to be willing to hear a lot of different opinions,” says Dean. “There’s a lot to be said for a pluralistic society - variety, diversity, all of those things are good. But once you start thinking that you have all the answers, or that your party principle or your ideology has all the answers...that there’s a set law for anything - you’re going down the wrong path.”
Ideology doesn’t serve us well. No one has all the answers. Diversity of opinion and experience belong in the room together so that we can come to informed decisions about the best way forward. This mentality falls far afield from the demagoguery of the political polarity, and it isn’t some sort of deconstructionist or nihilistic, squishy centrism, either. Karl Dean obviously has convictions. He’s talked openly about his policy positions and his intentions as Governor. It’s just that, ultimately, he holds the means with an open hand.
“The best guide to the world is experience; the best guide to the world is knowing what has happened before, and due to human nature, what could happen again,” Dean says.
Dean’s suspicion of ideology and blind party loyalty come out of that realism regarding human nature. He points to Isaiah Berlin as one of the most brilliant political thinkers of the last century. Berlin famously remarked: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
Dean reiterated Berlin’s point: “You have to understand the crooked timber of humans. No one is perfect. Everything is flawed. But you’ve got to value human dignity, human liberty, and if you do that, and understand the limitations of what we can do, we’ll be alright.” Dean also cited Reinhold Niebuhr who, similarly to Berlin but with more theological language, explained the condition of humanity in line with the Christian tradition. “Man is ultimately sinful,” Dean says, “but we do our best and we need to value the individual, understanding that we’re never going to be perfect...Those who believe there is a way to perfection through some sort of economic, political, whatever theory inevitably are wrong. There is no perfection.”
This is a word of caution, for the naive utopian and the hopeless cynic alike. The warning for the optimist is to remember that human beings are imperfect and, as a result, cannot hope to build the perfect society. The warning for the cynic is that a realist view of human nature should not lead to complacency. Rather, we should recognize the truth about humanity, and with that understanding as a foundation, work toward justice, individual liberty and stability.
It’s not only a word of caution, though. It’s also a word of freedom, and maybe even absolution. If human beings are imperfect and if society is imperfectable, arriving at a less-than-perfect solution — a trade-off, and one that falls short of the Platonic Form — is not failure. We can rid ourselves of the notion that we are, in every scenario, engaged in a struggle between good and evil, between righteousness and wickedness. Instead, we are usually looking for the best move in a world that offers us only moves of compromise and cooperation, and we are therefore relieved of the anxiety telling us to win at any cost. That’s good news. And for Karl Dean, it’s the only way forward.
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