"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
-- Abraham Lincoln
Taking politics out of a political system is like taking chicken out of chicken pot pie. What you're left with isn't what it's designed to be.
It would indeed be naive to suggest participants in this nation's republican form of government we both celebrate and complain about refrain from political behaviors. Angling for influence, seeking power, building coalitions that both include and exclude others -- it's all part of governing, hopefully to create a better tomorrow.
Indira Gandhi, the late prime minister of India, said "Politics is the art of acquiring, holding and wielding power." And yet obtaining power fails as a gauge of success. The philosopher Plato, more than 2,500 years earlier, suggested "The measure of a man is what he does with power."
Thoughts of such comments arose with recent news events, not the least of which was the Benton County Republican Party's selection of two people to serve as county election commissioners, who perform the underappreciated but vital work of organizing and conducting elections in each county. Six members of the Republican Party ran for two GOP seats on Benton County's three-member commission.
These commissions are populated by two members of the majority party -- in Arkansas, that's the GOP -- and one member of the minority, the Democrats. Nevertheless, commissioners with integrity (most we've observed) take seriously that elections are nonpartisan events in that their fairness and accuracy take precedence over any political considerations.
Such selections don't usually make big news, and this one was true to form. But it provided some interesting perspective related to power and its use. Randy Alexander, a former one-term state representative and unsuccessful candidate for other offices, sought to be selected as a commissioner.
In pleading his case, Alexander told the Republican Committee that election commissioners try too hard to be nonpartisan in their work. If parties are involved in selecting election commissioners, then those commissioners ought to adhere to the best interests of the political party that appointed them.
"I will never do nothing illegal or immoral, but when there are options allowed I will choose the option that most benefits the party," Alexander said.
Despite the parties' involvement in appointments, election commissions in the state's 75 counties are public bodies doing the public's business. The sad part about Alexander's perspective is that it undercuts what Arkansans deserve in their public officials: a devotion to the needs of all Arkansans, not to the party that got them into the public office they hold.
Our system of government relies on parties, primarily the Democrats and Republicans. To have a reasonable chance at election to public office, people have to engage in the politics of those parties. But whether it's Mike Beebe, Asa Hutchinson or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Arkansans need public officials who are authentically devoted to what makes life better for the people of Arkansas. That means they are representatives of the people first, with their party membership coming in second or third place, or beyond.
In the case of election commissions, the job is about accuracy of results and fairness in access to the exercise of one's right to vote. The conduct of elections must not be partisan.
Alexander isn't alone these days in having an unreasonably skewed perspective about the conduct of the public's business. Just consider the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives debacle Republicans and Democrats just put the nation through. Gamesmanship rooted in the needs of political parties outweighed moderation that could have been more productive in the long run for more Americans.
From time to time, though, there are signs of hope.
Last week at a legislative forum by the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce, three-term state Rep. Cindy Crawford of Fort Smith said she didn't plan to run her own specific bills but participate in the many other bills being debated.
"My vision is that we get along, that there is civility, that we work together and that we don't become Washington, D.C.," she said.
In Washington, D.C., last November's election put the U.S. House of Representatives into the hands of Republicans, but just barely. Arkansas' delegation there is fully Republican, but the slim margins in the House mean little will get done without some cooperation.
Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, whose largely southwest Arkansas congressional district extends into Northwest Arkansas, said some issues will happen only if there's some collaboration with Democrats.
"I don't want to just pass bills that we can get through a Republican majority on the House side; I want to pass bills that we can put on President Biden's desk," he said. "I will continually work with Democrats here, and Democrats and obviously Republicans in the Senate on those bills we can get bipartisan and bicameral support."
Rigid dedication to partisan politics, the kind that worries more about who came up with an idea rather than whether the idea has any merit, doesn't serve anyone's interests unless their interest is simply to be obstructionist. Clearly the speaker showdown reflects the reality that some people are more devoted to obstruction than even their own party. Let's hope those folks remain the smallest of minorities in either party.
If it seems we're leaning heavily on Republicans, we're glad you don't misunderstand. In Arkansas, members of the GOP is undoubtedly in charge in both state government and in our federal offices. Certainly in Little Rock, Democrats have little capacity to wield power over what gets passed or not. They just have to settle on wielding influence to whatever extent they can.
The key at the state Capitol or in Washington is to remember every elected person there is a representative of a certain number of citizens, regardless of their party affiliations. Parties can't (and shouldn't) be ignored, but they also should not dictate every vote.
When Republicans have a good idea, we'd hope Democrats would support it. And the same holds for Republicans when the Democrats propose something wise. A game of chicken is not often a productive approach to governing.
Sometimes it's wise to check partisanship at the door and do the public's business, content that achievements in the name of advancing Arkansas and the nation are more than enough reward.