Is there a place for civility and rational debate during the heated political discourse of our times?
Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, believes the answer is a resounding “yes.” He shared his thoughts on the topic and a broad range of other issues in a public forum held at Lyon College on Thursday, Sept. 26.
Clark, a retired four-star U.S. Army general and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, was on campus as part of his “Renew America Together” initiative, focusing on civility and the major concerns Americans face now.
“We hear that this is the most divided American electorate and the nastiest politics in anybody’s memory, some people say it’s worse than that period before the American Civil War,” Clark said.
Clark’s thesis, however, is just the opposite. He argues that meeting people from across the country, it appears we “mostly agree on most everything.”
There may be a difference in priorities or intensity of feeling, he said, but the divisions in the American populace are fewer than one might think. The media and members of both political parties make their existence possible by stirring up differences rather than focusing on common values and interests, according to Clark.
“The question is, what are we really interested in?” Clark asked. “Is it the issues of the moment, gun control, immigration, abortion?”
“Or is it the longer-term issues like climate change, how to manage the ascent of China, how to get financial security, how to deal with a world that needs U.S. leadership . . . These are the questions we have to resolve.”
Clark foreshadowed that unless American democracy solved these challenges, “they’ll be addressed and solved some other way.”
Beth Anne Rankin, owner and president of Beth Anne Productions Inc. and a former Miss Arkansas, joined Clark in the discussion.
Rankin, who ran as a Republican for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 and 2012, joked she was grateful neither she nor Clark were making their appearances as candidates for office.
The two found common areas of agreement throughout the course of the discussion. Both agreed, for example, that the viciousness of the 24-hour news cycle, a beast that has to be fed constantly, is such that it contributes to “the perception we are more divided than we really are,” said Rankin.
The two likewise found common ground in their concern about the soaring national debt which, at more than $22 trillion, is at the highest levels ever. Clark said, however, that as crucial as it is to address the national debt, he would not put it above such issues as student access to quality preschools or a college education, or maintaining a source of income for senior citizens.
Both also concurred that the role of money in politics has left a negative impact, especially dark money, with anonymous donors hitting nearly $150 million in the 2018 election cycle alone. Each also found agreement in the need to create a nation of “lifelong learners” who can find retraining at local universities and colleges, so that Americans better adapt to the rapid pace of technological change.
“I do agree with General Clark, these jobs are changing, and our workers of the future are going to have to be resilient,” Rankin said. “We need to create a mindset of resiliency. Because, otherwise, life is going to be disappointing.”
Aside from the issues, Clark conceded that no contemporary politician has been a better communicator, especially in the age of social media and on Twitter, than Donald Trump.
“Now you may not like what he says, or you may love it, but it’s quick, it’s pertinent, it’s on target,” he said. “He’s got an opinion on everything . . . and it doesn’t waste a lot of time.”
The event concluded with questions and answers from the audience who filled the auditorium for the evening’s discussion. Audience members ranged from veterans of foreign wars to current Lyon students and faculty.
Clark’s non-profit Renew America Together was created to promote and achieve greater common ground in America by reducing partisan division and gridlock. Its stated mission is “to revitalize public and political discourse by teaching and promoting civics, citizenship and civility.”
The Lyon College Division of Advancement hosted the event, which was moderated by The William Jefferson Clinton Professor of International Politics at Lyon College, Dr. Bradley Gitz.