Protocol, Politeness, Patience and Compromise

Hacking brick is a lot harder than it looks, just like making changes to government

By Jim Elliott

It seems that almost anybody watching someone work believes they can do the job as well or better than the person who is actually doing it, especially if the person watching has never done it before. When I was hired on at the brickyard in Lewistown in 1974 the boss pointed to a group of workmen taking wet brick off a conveyer belt and stacking them on small railcars that were then pushed into the kiln for firing. This was called “hacking brick”.

“Can you do that?” he asked. “Any fool could do that,” I replied. “Then,” said he, “you are just the man for the job.”

I proved myself wrong the first day. It took agility, strength, stamina, and skill, all of which I eventually achieved. I kept at the job for six months, during which time most new hires lasted maybe a week. One guy left at the first coffee break.

If the boss had asked me if I could be President of the United States I probably would have said yes. I mean, how hard could it be? This, I think, was pretty much the attitude of the many Americans who elected Donald Trump as president. They were sick of being thought inferior to the experts in politics, in fact, they were sick of the people in politics, and here was a man who understood them. As one voter said, “He talks like I do.” He was for them. He is still for them. But the very nature of his personality made it very difficult to accomplish much of his agenda. His voters liked that he was rude to famous leaders, dismissive of advice, and didn’t take crap from people who called themselves experts. He was the exact opposite of a politician. He was more like a bull in a china shop and his supporters thought that the china shop could use a little reorganization.

Well, there are ways to do that and ways to not do that, but the voters knew as much about government as I knew about hacking wet brick, and they believed an assertive man could have his way with the United States government.

What is it that many of us don’t like about the people who run the American government? Well, they think they are elite, better than us because they have a title. But on top of thinking themselves elite, they are not good at communicating with their public. They act like they know more than we do. They don’t give the public the straight goods, and they lie or at least don’t tell the truth. They don’t listen. They are not for the American people. They are only for themselves and their political future. They don’t represent us. They represent themselves.

I know of many politicians who felt that they could shake things up if they just got elected, but once elected found out that governing was a team sport. You couldn’t change it by yourself, you needed friends to help you, and if you got in people’s faces, they would not become your friends. In short, they found out that if they wanted to change the way government worked, they had to become the kind of person that they didn’t want in government.

It is possible to wreck a government and therefore the country it serves – the country that you love – if you don’t know anything about it, don’t want to know anything about it, and think you don’t need to know anything about it. That holds true for the voters and those they elect.

Democratic governments have been around for many years, and before that there were governments run by the nobility – the elite – and they have worked because they are based on the exact things that radicals of the right and left despise; protocol, politeness, patience, and compromise. Whatever the political beliefs of radicals are, left or right, they know what they want, and they want it right now – all of it.  In the 1960s people had “non-negotiable demands.” They thought it was honesty writ large. Compromise and bargaining were looked at as tools that the elite used to get their way and so bred distrust. It isn’t much different today, just a different part of the political spectrum.

Hacking brick is a lot harder than it looks, just like making changes to government. But even so, any fool can do it, only they have to learn how it works – first.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.

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