Concession speeches offer more than empty rhetoric

Posted: Wednesday, November 03, 2010

By the time these thoughts appear in print, many of us will have listened to the concession speech of a candidate we supported for public office. And since we hate losing, we probably won't pay much attention to what seems to be little more than a political courtesy. The defeated candidate's subtle contradictions between uniting and fighting aren't empty rhetoric, though. They speak to the imperative paradox of our individual freedoms.

We might imagine our nation as indivisible, but we are the product of millions of different individuals. We claim we are all equal, but we are most definitely not all alike. It is one of the great gifts from our experiment in democracy that we recognize and accept this vast beauty of human differences.

However, the countless variables which form our individual uniqueness mean we will always be more divided than united regarding the philosophies of how to govern ourselves. While it's perfectly natural to want others to live by the ideals we individually cherish, it's morally and intellectual hypocritical to expect to impose our will on those who disagree with us.

No one should understand this dichotomy better than the candidates seeking public office. Despite their many promises, they know they'll lack the power of persuasion to convince every other lawmaker that their vision is the best and only way to govern. And those who have had to accept defeat often express it best. So let's listen to the words of a few of the notable losers in recent close elections.

Two years ago, John McCain asked us to offer President-elect Barack Obama "our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences." But he ended his speech reminding us all that "Americans never quit. We never surrender".

After being defeated four years earlier, presidential candidate John Kerry asked his supporters to join him in a pledging "to try to bridge the partisan divide." And like McCain, he followed that by declaring he knows "our fight goes on."

Disagreements are a fundamental reality in all human societies. They are most prominently revealed in our deepest held ideals and convictions. There would be no reason for government at all if we could all agree on how to govern ourselves. But there isn't a soul among us who would acquiesce to the will of the majority on every aspect of how we should live.

We are united not by idealism but in the manner in which we agree to live side by side despite our differences. Although our society has occasionally broken down, far more often than not we've strived successfully to resolve our disagreements civilly rather than resort to violence or oppression. So we shouldn't be expecting to send our representatives into government to beat down the political opposition. Just as McCain said, it is their job to find the compromises will allow us to "bridge our differences."

This is the way our founders hammered out our Constitution. They had to thread the delicate balance between differing views from all across the new nation. Among the reasons they did so was to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility ... and promote the general Welfare."

And they provided for a military as our "common defense." It's interesting to consider what happens when our armed forces have been called to duty. There was overwhelming support for our leaders during two world wars, just as most people backed President George W. Bush after the al-Qaida attacks on 9/11 and in response to claims that Iraq threatened us with weapons of mass destruction.

What does it say about us if we are most united when we're facing external threats? Are we stronger as individuals when motivated by fear and anger? Does war distract us from the ugliness of our politics? Or do we set aside our differences and tolerate the loss of freedom that war forces upon us?

We don't need more wars to unite us. We're much better off remaining divided by our individual ideals. And we'd do well to accept our differences while working amongst each other to find the compromises necessary to insure domestic tranquility.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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