Lesley Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Michael Illuzzi writes about Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., who will address Lesley's Boston Speakers Series on April 2.
Friday, March 28, 2014
Like his two sons serving in the U.S. Navy under a Democratic administration, who don’t ask what the political affiliation of the president is, former Utah Governor Huntsman explained that he didn’t hesitate either when President Obama asked him to be ambassador to China. Huntsman’s biography and political career raises an important question: What does it mean to “put my country first” in an age of inequality, nine-second sound bites, gridlock, gerrymandering and increased partisanship?
Jon Huntsman’s biography certainly exemplifies a life of service to the country. He became an Eagle Scout at the age of 15. Now 53, he has already served under four presidents: as a staff assistant for Ronald Reagan, as ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush, a U.S. deputy trade representative under George W. Bush, and as ambassador to China under Barack Obama. He served as governor of Utah from 2005-2009 and was named chairman of the Western Governors Association and managed to leave office with approval ratings over 80 percent.
While all this public service has produced a very long public record to evaluate, if you search for Gov. Huntsman’s political career there is one word that dominates the discussion: “a moderate.” As the American Conservative journal has rightly pointed out, however, this title is a misnomer. On fiscal and tax issues as well as gun rights, groups like the Cato Institute and the National Rifle Association (NRA) have ranked him more conservative than many traditionally well-known conservatives. Why then is Huntsman derisively labeled as a moderate? What accounts for the label of moderate being cast at Gov. Huntsman as an aspersion?
Huntsman has the temerity to believe, as he puts it, that “civility can co-exist with facts.” He accepts the science of global warming, the need for the Environmental Protection Agency, and the need for real diplomacy and negotiation in foreign policy. Yet, this position of basing political policy on a combination of strongly held values guided by the available facts about the world has become so unorthodox that Huntsman does not fit in with our almost cartoonish stereotypes of conservative and liberal, to which our political leaders are all too often willing to conform or at least pretend to conform. It says a lot about the perversions of our political culture when taking positions consistent with the principle that “civility can co-exist with facts” is courageous. It is in this political environment that Huntsman has argued, “I think we’re going to have problems politically until we get some sort of third-party movement or some alternative voice out there that can put forward new ideas.”
Yet, perhaps the problem goes even deeper than electoral processes and the spin machines of the major parties. In 1893, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote:
“The nation is a unit. That which makesYou an American of our to-dayRequires the nation and its history,Requires the sum of all our citizens,Requires the product of our common toil,[….] Lower the nation’s conscience by a hair,And you are less than that you were before!You stand here in the world the man you areBecause your country is America.Our liberty belongs to each of us;The nation guarantees it. In return,We serve the nation, serving so ourselves.”
It is possible the notion of unity and common purpose talked about by Perkins Gilman no longer resonates in a culture inculcated with cynicism and withdrawal from the public sphere. When Congress has approval ratings under 13 percent and civility among these representatives degenerates into vulgar name-calling among the leaders of the two Houses, perhaps the very idea that any person would “put their country first” sounds quaint or even quixotic. Yet, the whole premise of a democratic republic relies on a presumption that we rule each other, in other words, by serving the nation we serve ourselves. At this moment of political frustration, we look forward to hearing Gov. Huntsman’s new ideas for reviving old, but not quaint, ideals.
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