Former Senator Jeff Flake Reflects on National Political Climate

Former United States Senator Jeff Flake addressed the School community this past Monday.

Former United States Senator Jeff Flake addressed the School community this past Monday. His speech confronted the issues within America’s current political climate and emphasized the importance of “searching for the better angels of our nature,” a theme derived from former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s speech at his first inaugural address. Flake, who grew up in the small town of Snowflake, Arizona, served six terms in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, before retiring in 2018. During his time in Congress, he chaired the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law and the Subcommittee On Africa And Global Health Policy under Foreign Relations. Flake later spent three years in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia on behalf of the U.S. government. He is currently a resident fellow at Harvard University.

Flake’s community and family have greatly influenced his approach to politics throughout his life. He reflected on his appreciation for his father’s bipartisan views which shapes his own political outlook. His mother kept a notecard on the refrigerator door, reminding him and his siblings that they should “assume the best, look for the good”—a piece of advice that has accompanied him throughout his adulthood. Flake never viewed politics as a form of divide, and it shocks him that “in today’s environment, it’s difficult to turn on the television or radio without being alarmed by the vitriol and cruelty that accompanies virtually every discussion of politics.”

As a former member of Congress, Flake proposed amendments to lift the travel ban on Cuba. His views, however, were opposed by many Republicans. In one instance, a Republican sitting in his ‘side of the aisle’ expressed a jeering remark. Unexpectedly, senior Democrat David O’Keefe from Wisconsin advocated for Flake, despite rarely sharing similar views. While O’Keefe’s gesture represented bipartisanship, Flake acknowledged that “sadly, in today’s very polarized environment, such inner party generosity is rarely found. If there’s a good political fight going on, the inclination is to pile on, not break it up.” For example, when Flake helped a fellow Democrat stand to applaud for former U.S. President Barack Obama because her gunshot wound inhibited her movement, a large portion of Republicans “didn’t see [his act as a] humane gesture, and instead, they saw someone who was consorting with the enemy.”

Flake recounted a second formative experience of his career: Two years ago in June, he and a group of Republicans were playing baseball in Alexander, Virginia, when a round of gunshots dislodged the field. His fellow colleague was shot in the hip, while many were scarred both physically and emotionally.

Reflecting back on that moment, Flake said, “I remember time standing still and wondering, why us? How could someone see a field of middle-aged men playing baseball and see the enemy?” His experience that day contributed to his mixed emotions on America’s political culture.

According to Flake, if not bipartisanship, “the only real alternative to getting along is to being completely alone.” “I’ve tested that alternative and it’s no picnic,” he said, referring to his time in isolation on an uninhabited island, attempting to survive without food or water for a week.

Flake concluded by prompting students to actively seek unity and tolerance in political discourse. “Let us all, each of us, elevate our discourse and not succumb to the extreme partisanship that teaches that our political opponents are our enemies; they’re not. Let us always assume the best and look for the good,” he said.

Expressing her view on Flake’s message with respect to the School’s initiative to increase understanding amongst community members, Assistant Dean of Students History Master Emilie Kosoff H’88 ’96 ’00 ’18 P’19 said, “These days, I think we’re often quick to criticize others and slow to praise. [Flake’s] a Republican, and I may disagree with that, but we have to understand where he’s coming from. As a faculty, we’ve been working on how to listen and understand each other more, and if we do a little bit more each, I think we can make a good community even better.”

Similarly, President of the Young Democrats Cate Levy ’20 said, “I think we live in a very polarized campus, and the biggest problem is that some of these issues aren’t just political—they’re moral. Oftentimes, when people debate certain topics that are controversial, they feel like they’re being personally attacked if someone disagrees because it has to do with their own belief system.”

Reflecting on the many progressive speakers who have visited the School, Chris Delaney ’20 said, “Though Flake may register himself as a conservative, I would say he’s more of a centrist.” Despite his appreciation for Flake’s diplomacy, Delaney would like to “have more conservative politicians come to campus” so that students can be exposed to speakers across the political spectrum.

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