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Angus King represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.
When I was young, my father instilled a value in me that has guided my life’s work: You can (and should) learn to disagree without being disagreeable. In the last two weeks, the U.S. Senate lost two legends — former senators Mike Enzi and Carl Levin — both of whom embodied that principle. As I mourn the loss of my friends, I find myself reflecting on their legacies to glean what insights we can, in an effort to rebuild the Senate’s spirit and effectiveness, back closer to the governing body they served in for decades.
In some ways, the two men had little in common. Enzi, a staunch conservative Republican from Wyoming, and Levin, a liberal Democrat from Michigan, didn’t often agree on issues of policy. But if you look closer, you find important similarities. Both were extremely hardworking, extraordinarily kind and deeply devoted to their constituents. And critically, both were willing to hear the other side out — which is woefully outside the norm during a political era that is increasingly defined by conflict.
I learned invaluable lessons from both men. Enzi taught me one of the principles that has guided my work in the Senate, the 80-20 rule. It’s a simple concept: If you’re working on a difficult public issue, work on the 80 percent where you share common ground and put the 20 percent where you disagree aside. Under Levin’s leadership, the Senate Armed Services Committee set the standard for how our work should be conducted by emphasizing seriousness, thoughtful consideration and respect to all.
Even when my opinion differed from Enzi’s or Levin’s, they were never overbearing or condescending. Each conversation, each dispute, was rooted in good faith and based upon principle.
Sadly, their approach is becoming ever rarer in the U.S. Congress — and indeed, in the nation at large. One of the problems with modern American politics is that we don’t merely have opponents any longer; we have enemies. We’ve converted those who we disagree with to people we demonize and say are bad people — “they’re evil!” They aren’t. They have different views, different values and perhaps different priorities. But to convert opponents into enemies poisons our democratic system and undermines our ability to work together for the common good — because if you make someone into an enemy, they will remain an enemy, even when it comes to an issue where you might agree.
This divide creates a disincentive for folks to reach across the aisle — and risks the careers of those who do. An example: I was having dinner with Enzi one night, and he mentioned that he was concerned about the possibility of having a primary opponent in the Republican primary in Wyoming. I was incredulous. I said: “Mike, you’re one of the most conservative senators here. How can somebody possibly get to your right? What will they charge you with?” And his answer was as profound as it was disturbing. He said, “They’ll charge me with being reasonable.”
An environment that punishes the reasonable for seeking accomplishments through compromise isn’t just dangerous, it’s antithetical to the very nature of America. When you can lose your job for being reasonable — listening, trying to solve problems instead of just talking about them, and yes, accepting compromise — we’re in trouble.
Democracy is built on compromise, as 535 elected officials from different backgrounds and different corners of the country come together to do the people’s work. Obviously, we have different values and priorities, but we have to find a way to come together, and reach agreement in order to avoid the type of gridlock that continues to frustrate our constituents. We’ve done that in recent months, with a historic bipartisan infrastructure bill that will pave the road to new opportunities, but it is critical that this type of negotiation and good faith becomes a regular occurrence, not a once-in-a-generation exception.
I have yet to encounter a human problem that can be solved without compromise. Nobody — especially no politician or political party — has all the answers. We are made better by listening, debating, and coming to a consensus. I have a friend in Maine that has a big sign in his office that says “All of us are always smarter than any of us.” I think that’s a profound observation; each of us has wisdom to contribute, and wisdom to learn. But first, we have to listen to other people, even though we may not agree with them.
I’m saddened by the loss of these two great citizens, senators, and friends. I’ll miss them both — not only for who they were, but also for what they taught me. Their legacy is secure. Now, it’s on the Senate, and the country as a whole, to live up to their example.