It was a tribute to Mulgrew Miller by members of his quintet at Lincoln Center. My wife and I were there because we’d brought our 13-year-old grandson, a budding jazz saxophone player, to see great jazz. Miller’s quintet met that standard, and it included a saxophone to appeal to our grandson.
A thought came to me as the quintet played Lorenz Hart and Richard Rogers’ “It’s Easy to Remember.” In the typical jazz fashion, the group leads with the melody, each instrument participating. As the piece went on each member takes a turn improvising, inventing melodies and lines over a chord progression played by rhythm section and accompanying instruments.
Throughout, each member of the group stepped forward as the others moved back to accompany the soloist following norms about when the soloist starts, how long the solo lasts and when it ends. Norms suggest how one solo links to the following solo, how to reinterpret the melodic line and how other musicians have interpreted them.
As I sat listening to “It’s Easy to Remember” I thought, “This is how politics used to work.” There were norms beyond the written constitutions, laws and rules about how politicians interacted to govern a society. Norms built over decades allowed politicians to work together to govern from differing interests, perspectives, and values. Such norms are designed to make governing possible and violence less likely.
Years ago, I read Alexander Bickel’s 1975 book, The Morality of Consent. Bickel taught at the Yale Law School and wrote extensively about constitutional and political topics. With conflict inevitable, institutions have the capacity to mediate conflict in societies, but “only when there is forbearance and continence on both sides. It threatens to break down when the adversaries turn into enemies, when they break diplomatic relations with each other, gird for and wage war.”
Bickel quoted Edmund Burke, the great British conservative, who in 1775 urged conciliation with the American colonies by observing “every virtue, and every prudent act is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose to be happy citizens, than subtle disputants.” Later, in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Burke wrote of political actors whose politics derive “not from convenience but on truth and they profess to conduct men to a certain happiness.” This was written 250 years before cancel culture.
Balancing inconveniences, though, requires good faith and willingness to accept and learn from diversity. Many of the norms of legislative bodies and political campaigns encourage this comity. In debate on the legislative floor, one cannot directly address another member, either by name or word. Instead, one addresses the speaker or chair to lower the interpersonal temperature. In campaigns, there once were things one did not say because campaigns ended but communities didn’t. This is why one concedes when one loses, graciously and once the vote is clear.
It’s also true that political processes need to be inclusive of diversity and account for differing interests. Voting, either in a legislative body or an election, does not decide issues. Consent does. Whether it’s the Fugitive Slave Act or Prohibition, or a raft of other governmental fiats, the lack of consent undermined them eventually and caused more damage to the community in the process.
During my formative years in politics, I had the honor of serving as a mayor of Mercer Island. In my case, being mayor meant I chaired our council, and our city’s executive was our city manager. We had a council of seven, neatly split into two blocks, one of four and one of three. On any difficult issue, outcomes were predictable. The majority won, 4-3. Afterward, the four went to a local, historic watering hole for a beer. The three went to a Denny’s for red wine.
Having lived with this situation for four or five years, the city manager and I concluded we needed to take the council away for a weekend and try to build some bridges. Worried about the optics of our small-town council going off to a ritzy retreat, I asked the city manager to find a “low cost” facility.
We ended up at the Pilchuck Lodge for a weekend in February. The plan was to do some team building and give directions to the staff for the city’s capital planning process. In planning for the discussion, the city manager and I realized that at least one long-term councilmember had never succeeded in getting a priority project funded.
Our seven councilmembers were elected at-large by the same Mercer Island constituents, so unlike district-based elections, it’s easy to make the case that each councilmember represented a majority of our city. That realization directed us to the goal for the retreat – that each councilmember should have at least one priority project.
In the end, each councilmember had projects on the resulting list and over the next six years the city delivered more capital projects than in the first quarter century of its existence. The retreat began a process to change our council culture to deliver value to all our community, even those who did not belong to the prevailing majority. Later we had a series of 4-3 votes without the usual suspects lining up on each side.
At the end of the evening, I recessed the council meeting to reconvene at the historic watering hole. No one went to Denny’s.
Over the ensuing years, we joked we made decisions using the “fist rule.” One signaled one’s opinion on an issue by raising a hand with fingers extended:
- Five fingers extended: Best idea I’ve ever heard.
- Four fingers extended: Great idea – let’s go.
- Three fingers extended: Yeah, OK.
- Two fingers extended: We need to keep talking.
- One finger extended: We need to keep talking a lot more.
- The fist raised: Let’s step outside.
We never had a fist raised during my remaining six years on the council. Our councilmembers reinterpreted the melodic line and the improvisations developed stronger policies with the staying power for implementation and continuity. The politics now worked, smooth as jazz.