Is any group in America today more reviled and detested than professional politicians? I recently spent a week driving through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Ohio interviewing blue-collar Americans about politics. I learned a lot, but by far the loudest and most consistent message from these interviews was contempt for professional politicians. Recent national opinion polls confirm that most Americans simply no longer believe that elected officials, including those from their own party, are honest or can be trusted even to try to do what’s right for the country.
These beliefs are having profound consequences. To take only the most obvious example, by far the most dynamic force in U.S. politics today is the Trump movement, and much of Trump’s appeal derives from the fact that he’s “not a politician.” Of course this phenomenon is nothing new: running “against Washington” accurately labels earlier presidential campaigns from Carter to Reagan. But it’s gotten worse: A recent Pew survey found that now a majority of the American public believes that “ordinary Americans” could do a better job of solving the country’s problems than elected officials.
This isn’t right. Whatever the problems in our politics—and yes, there are many!—something is deeply wrong in any society in which the governed hold the governing in this much contempt. I’m not sure of everything we’ll need to do as a society to fix this problem, but I do have one idea. It involves remembering something distinctly undramatic that happened in a little college town in Kentucky. In 1962. Involving a 39-year-old guy from Mississippi. Who wanted to be Governor one day. And who taught me Sunday School.
In April of 1962, William F. Winter of Grenada, Mississippi, was serving as state tax collector, a post to which he had been elected in 1959.1 Previously he had served three terms as a state legislator. He was visiting Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, he told the assembled students, as “a practicing politician seeking to discuss compromise in politics.” He titled his remarks “In Defense of the Practical Politician.” Both his argument that day and his subsequent political experiences in Mississippi seem startlingly relevant to today, when Americans seem unified about nothing except that we all disdain the “practical politician.”
He told the students that he did not come to Kentucky “espousing compromise” as a “cynical, smoke-filled room, money-under-the-table concept,” but rather “as that process that has reason as its chief constituent and that permits order and progress to be substituted for impasse and frustration.”
Ever the politician, he flattered the students by reminding them that Kentucky, perhaps largely by virtue of its geography, “has provided so many of America’s tempering and conciliating voices,” including Henry Clay (“whose name has become synonymous with the fine art of compromise”), Kentucky’s “native son” Abraham Lincoln, former Chief Justice Fred Vinson, and former Vice President Alben Barkley. Such leaders
were not grim, narrow-minded fanatics insistent on every letter of their position as if it were providentially inspired. These rather were reasonable men, conscious that they did not have all the answers and willing to concede to others the possibility that they, too, might be at least partially right.
Winter then carefully interrogates the concept of compromise. For starters, is all compromise beneficial? No. The readiness to compromise is essential to serving the public interest, Winter argues, but whether any particular compromise is worthy or unworthy depends on the “sincerity, intelligence, and honesty” of the individuals involved, exercising judgements “for which no manual can be written.” There is no formula for compromise that can guarantee success.
Is compromise typically an easier course of action for the politician than its opposite? No. Compromise on important issues involves “more real anguish” for the politician than “any other area of political experience.” For “what legislator worth his salt has not lain awake at night and wrestled with his conscience as he pondered the eternal problem of expedience versus judgment?”
Winter knew first-hand whereof he spoke. In 1962, he was a moderate in a state in which the very word “moderate” had been successfully transformed into a term of vilification and abuse. For example, the Governor of Mississippi at the time was Ross Barnett, an extreme racial segregationist. His campaign song (I remember hearing it often as a child), “Roll with Ross,” included this verse:
He’s for segregation 100 percent
He’s not a moderate, like some other gent
He’ll fight integration with forceful intent
His campaign brochure (Dynamic Leadership—To Keep Segregation and Improve Our Standard of Living) boasted: “Ross Barnett is OPPOSED to ‘moderation’ in any form.”2
These were winning slogans in Mississippi in 1962. So William Winter, the moderate reformer who wanted to be Governor one day, knew very well the stress and anguish experienced by the politician who must constantly calibrate when, and in what ways, to speak out even for “moderation,” much less the progressive change that the reformer in him sought.
Is standing up for “judgment” over “expedience” worth losing the next election? For Winter, the question was a hard one. But he argues that political expediency “should not automatically be made a matter of reproach” and insists: “It is not merely cynical to say that a defeated politician can’t help anybody.”
Is “any politician who ever concedes anything lacking in courage?” Winter argues that often “the very opposite is true.” In many cases, “perhaps most,” the
willingness to compromise involves great courage…. Some of the most courageous public officials I have known have been the quietly dedicated men of reason who have worked under the most unrelenting pressures to gain acceptance of unpopular but necessary agreements, while bombastic orators denounced them as traitors or worse.
Is logrolling and political favor-trading—the stuff of which many political compromises are actually made—bad for our democracy? No:
A dam in Wyoming or an air base in Texas is usually worth more to a President in the enactment of his program than the hoopla that attends the adoption of his party’s platform…. Let me mention that I emphasize this without apology. It is simply one of the most effective working tools that a political leader has….
Finally, does American politics suffer from too many career politicians? Would our government be purer and more effective if it were more frequently led by political outsiders? No. Our history shows that success in politics is quite different from, and usually “more difficult” than, for example, success in business or the military. That’s why “the most effective political executives and legislators have been by and large the men who have come out of politically oriented backgrounds.”
Therefore, when all is said and done, we Americans
owe much to the practical politician and the adjustments he brings to the inexact science of government. If he is less than certain, it is because he knows, with Holmes, that certitude is not always the test of certainty. If he is less than an intellectual, it is because he knows that not all answers are found in books. If he is less than perfect, it is because he is dealing with less than perfect men.
About five months after he delivered these remarks, some less than perfect men—men of unwavering commitment to principle who believed that compromise is treason and that moderation is cowardice—decided that the U.S. Supreme Court had no authority to require the University of Mississippi to enroll James Meredith, a young African American. One of those men was Governor Barnett. In a series of emotional public appeals—“We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them, never!”—the Governor urged white Mississippians to gather at the University in force to prevent Meredith’s enrollment. Mississippians responded, and on the night of September 30, 1962, two people were killed and several hundred were injured in what amounted to a state-sponsored riot on and around the University campus in Oxford, Mississippi.
William Winter, privately appalled by the Governor’s behavior, was among the small number of Mississippi officials who publicly criticized Barnett. Yet his criticisms were mildly stated and almost always indirect. For example, in a March 1963 speech in Vicksburg, he observed, without mentioning the Governor by name or the Ole Miss riot specifically, that “very few mobs ever spontaneously and automatically form.” But “regardless of what motivates unthinking men to take the law into their own hands, it is the clear and unmistakable duty of Southern politicians to see that it does not happen.” He then called for new political leadership that would
appeal to the best that is in us—not the worst; to our higher selves not our baser instincts. Only in this way can our section [of the country] diminish some of the tensions that have already caused us so much grief and even now threaten more…. [Mississippi needs a leader who] can successfully turn his people from a preoccupation with the race issue and the supercharged emotions of anxiety, fear, and hate….
For new state priorities, Winter favored improved public education and economic development. For the “ever-present problems of race relations,” he urged a search for solutions “other than the bull-whip and the shotgun.” The speech’s overarching theme was that “the South will be able to prosper and progress only as it increasingly finds common cause with the nation of which it is and always has been a vital and irreplaceable part.”3
This way of talking, as uncontroversial as it may seem today, was not particularly popular in Mississippi in 1963. Winter had to work as “practical politician” in Mississippi for 17 more years, almost certainly experiencing more disappointments than joys and even on good days usually having to settle for a glass half full, before finally achieving, in 1979, his goal of being elected Governor of the state.
What can we learn today from William Winter’s words and actions in “defense of the practical politician”? First, we can recognize that this practical politician did what he could, as often he thought he could, to improve the lives of Mississippians. He was consistently decent, honest, empathetic, and intelligent during years in which those qualities were not widely noticeable in Mississippi politics. He worked hard with countless fellow citizens over many years, and often under extremely trying circumstances, to begin to replace “impasse and frustration” with “order and progress.”
On the race issue—the first and in some ways only issue of Mississippi politics—William Winter as a practical politician made a limited but real difference. The historian Charles C. Bolton, assessing Winter’s early career, finds that, after the 1959 state elections, “Winter stood as one of the most-recognizable statewide officials who represented the racially moderate position in Mississippi politics.”4 Assessing Winter’s role in the state in the late 1960s, after his first (and unsuccessful) campaign for Governor, the historian Joseph Crespino describes Winter in 1967 as “a moderate reformer who represented the earliest incarnation of the New South Democratic leadership” that in the 1970s would include Governors such as Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Reubin Askew of Florida.5
Serving in the state’s most important office from 1980 to 1984, Winter was certainly one of Mississippi’s best Governors of the 20th century—in part because he had worked hard for, and won, the support and respect of the great majority of the state’s black leaders. Since leaving both office and the pursuit of office in the early 1990s, he has embraced racial healing and racial justice as central personal priorities. Today he is a still-active leader of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and the nearly universally acknowledged senior leader of Mississippi progressivism.
The great Mississippi writer William Faulkner once suggested that the artist’s goal is to put “a scratch on the face of anonymity.” Faulkner surely made his scratch. In the realm of Deep South politics in the second half of the 20th century, so did William Winter, and I don’t know of many others who can make a better or more honorable claim.
What traits most define this man and this career? I can think of three—all three of which seem to be in short supply and held low regard today.
First, William Winter is a grown-up. He has an adult character structure, reflective of qualities such as the capacity to cooperate with others, the recognition of one’s own limitations, the willingness to see issues from different sides, reasonableness, and the strength of character to hold in check the natural human tendencies toward narcissism and selfishness. How are these qualities faring in our public life today?
Second, William Winter was a depolarizer. His whole approach to politics was based on the idea that, despite our deeply felt and often painful differences, we can find ways to live together and make progress together. Arguably today’s most significant political trend is polarization. Regarding the race issue, Ross Barnett’s days are over. But regarding the values of compromise and political realism, the Ross Barnetts of this world—“He’s no moderate, like some other gent”—are growing in number and riding high and sassy.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, William Winter was a professional politician, a lifelong insider. That meant that if he wanted to keep his job, or gain a better one, he had to focus not solely—and often not even mainly—on the merits of issues, but also on the realities of power and the chances of winning the next election. For the professional politician, issues matter, but so do interests, which means that much of the stuff and glue of everyday politics is transactional, consisting of bargaining, trading, and deal-making. Unlike the activist or amateur politician, who is often fueled by passion, a professional politician is required by his circumstances to maintain a measure of detachment. Today’s front-page crisis is important, but so are the institutions and the interlocking relationships that will remain in place after today’s front-page crisis is over.
The story goes that in 1787, as Benjamin Franklin—by most accounts, one of the wisest of Americans—left Independence Hall on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
It turns out that wisdom is not a cornpone notion or a synonym for “intelligent” or “good.” In recent years, a small but substantial academic literature has found that wisdom is its own thing: a distinctive quality of mind and heart, rare and invaluable and not like anything else. In 2009, a couple of scholars surveyed this literature and found that several traits appear again and again in definitions of wisdom.6 Prosocial attitudes and behaviors that reflect compassion and concern for the common good. Pragmatic knowledge of life and the use of that knowledge to make socially constructive decisions. An ability to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, and to see multiple points of view. Emotional stability and mastery of one’s own feelings. A capacity for reflection and self-understanding.
The list reads like a description of William Winter. More important, it reads like a description of his Practical Politician. What are a republic’s prospects, one is forced to wonder, if its voters and politicians turn away from wisdom?
Read William F. Winter’s “In Defense of the Practical Politician.”
Read William F. Winter’s “The Problems of Southern Politics.”
Listen to the first episode of David Blankenhorn’s podcast, Better Angels, where he talks to William F. Winter.
1If you think that serving as Mississippi’s top tax official in those days was a snoozer of a job, you’d be wrong. For starters, there was no salary. The tax collector was paid a commission on the taxes he collected. Moreover, part of the job was to collect a black market tax on liquor, the sale of which was prohibited by state law but widely practiced nonetheless. Such a lucrative and corruption-friendly job arrangement (let us count the ways!) had led Winter, as both the Governor’s appointee and as a candidate for the post, to call for its comprehensive overhaul—a change that he and other reformers had achieved by 1963.
2See Berri Gordon, Ross Barnett and Racism (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 2015).
3William Winter, “The Problem of Southern Politics,” remarks delivered at All Saints’ Junior College in Vicksburg, Mississippi, March 27, 1963.
4Charles C. Bolton, “William F. Winter and the Politics of Racial Moderation in Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History (Winter 2008).
5Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 211.
6Thomas W. Meeks and Dilip V. Jeste, “Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview,” Archives of General Psychiatry, April 2009.