Our Misguided Love Affair with Political Consensus

It’s the polarizers, not the consensus-seekers, who get the big things done.
by | March 22, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Kris Kobach, Kansas' secretary of state and the subject of this month's Governing cover story, is a polarizing figure on the right. President Obama is a polarizing figure on the left. They are polarizers because they have tried to come to grips with huge problems — Kobach on immigration, Obama on health care — that nearly all of us see but that most elected officials will not confront.

I point this out because I was struck by how frequently the word "consensus" has appeared over the years in describing Governing's Public Officials of the Year. Journalists seem to see the ability to build consensus as the epitome of political leadership, but in actuality political leadership almost never involves consensus. Consensus favors the status quo, not progress.

Make a short list of our greatest presidents, and you find that they all were polarizing figures. Lyndon Johnson achieved a great deal — the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, to name just two legislative accomplishments — by bullying, begging and bulldozing. Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the union, and he was a hugely polarizing figure — merely his having been elected caused states to secede. Franklin Roosevelt brought us through the Great Depression and transformed the economic machinery of the nation. He was famously hated, and to some degree he reveled in it.

The creation of the Federal Reserve, Social Security, the income tax — all were the result of protracted and bitter legislative battles and court cases, much like those around immigration and health care today.

Many politicians and pundits who rail against things as they are secretly want nothing to change. They gain a great deal of influence or make a great deal of money excoriating their enemies and decrying the state of the nation, but if their enemies were vanquished and the nation prospered, their reason for being would be taken away. If your celebrity and your wealth derive from screaming about illegal immigration, the last thing you want is comprehensive immigration reform.

But as Alan Greenblatt writes in his profile of Kobach, even his critics grudgingly recognize that he "has been an innovator in creating a role for states and localities to step in to once the feds failed to act on immigration." Or as the president of a business-backed group that sees immigrants as making important economic contributions put it: "I disagree with him 100 percent, but he's a very important and influential voice."

As mayor of Kansas City, I was embroiled in controversy, and I got to watch Kobach's career — and his willingness to take up polarizing causes — up close. In one fight, I sued the city council over its ordinance banning my wife from City Hall. When a lot of powerful people were shunning us, Kris came to our home, sat at our dining-room table and offered to help us develop a strategy to keep her in City Hall if we lost the lawsuit. (We won.)

When you seriously work to change the status quo, as Kris Kobach has, you will be called crazy. I can assure you that, just as Obama is not a socialist or a Muslim, Kobach is not the cartoon character he has often been made to seem. Whether or not you agree with his policy positions, this is what real political leadership looks like: Working to solve problems rather than just milking them for political advantage.