MIDWAY — This hasn’t been a good month for those of us who see politics, public life, civil discourse, mutual respect and compromise as essential to human progress. A new poll confirmed that the American public is more politically polarized than ever, and as the poll was being released, Kentucky lost three people who showed how public life is supposed to work.
The poll by the Pew Research Center found polarization in many ways: 39 percent of us hold a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative values, down from 49 percent in 2004 and 1994; many more people now say they are consistently liberal or conservative; and a lot more say they have a “very unfavorable” view of the other party: 38 percent of Democrats say that, up from 29 percent in 2004; 43 percent of Republicans say so, more than double the 21 percent in 2004.
The bigger jump among Republicans reflected the figures that I found most disturbing: Asked if the other party’s policies “are so misguided they are threat to the nation’s well-being,” 36 percent of Republicans said that of the Democratic Party, and 27 percent of Republicans said that of the GOP. (The question wasn’t asked in earlier surveys.)
Why are we polarized into political tribes? Some political scientists blame the gerrymandering of districts that puts a premium on base turnout in primary elections. Journalists like me often blame the rise of partisan media that give people opinions they want to hear instead of the facts they need to hear, and the human nature that seeks out information that confirms, not challenges, our world view.
What can we do about polarization? Don’t expect much help from Congress and the state legislatures, which wallow in partisanship like hogs in slop. We must do most of the work ourselves, partly by supporting those who set good examples — like three very different Kentuckians who passed this month, all leaving important legacies.
• Laken Cosby, who died June 11, was anything but a polarizer as a member of the Jefferson County school board and its first African-American chair. Cosby had been a civil rights activist and housing director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, and the board was wrestling with busing and desegregation issues, but Cosby was a calming force, said Bob Schmitt, who served with him.
“It was a very, very, very sensitive time” in the mid-1980s, Schmitt recalled. “He was a very able listener. … He was always open to suggestions, to questions people had, and was always positive; I enjoyed working with him.”
Cosby was soft-spoken and methodical and could “pull people together to solve problems,” said civil rights leader Raoul Cunningham. He said Cosby’s most visible legacy may be St. Stephen Church, where his son, the Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby, is senior pastor after building it into a huge institution that does many good works. His father’s real estate skills were key to assembling the church campus, Cunningham said.
• Nelda Barton-Collings of Corbin, who died June 13, was a partisan, but not a polarizer. Yes, for 28 years she was Kentucky’s Republican national committeewoman, and its “Mrs. Republican,” as Committeeman Mike Duncan of Inez, a former national party chair, called her. But she was also one of the state’s leading businesswomen, and first female chair of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, in 1990-91.
She helped Corbin lawyer Terry Forcht, a Louisville native, assemble a group of banks that grew into the conglomerate Forcht Group of Kentucky. “She had a vision of that and was able to work with the comptroller of the currency as kind of an insider … knowing that it was possible to do, that the national bank charters were out there and were available,” said Duncan, himself a banker. But she may be remembered most for the infectious personality that drew people to her, and into politics.
“She had such a cheerful, upbeat, positive personality, that wherever she went she was remembered,” Duncan said. “When she was younger, she was the life of the party,” and George Shultz, treasury secretary for Richard Nixon and secretary of state for Ronald Reagan, “said Nelda was one of his favorite dance partners.” Her legacy, Duncan said, is “one of inclusion and bringing people together.”
• Pamela Papka Sexton, who died of cancer June 12, was a mover and shaker behind the scenes as wife and adviser to Robert Sexton, the historian who helped create the influential Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in the mid-1980s and ran it until his death in 2010.
“There wasn’t much of anything he did that he didn’t run by her,” said Cindy Heine, who was Bob Sexton’s chief lieutenant. “She was a really powerful influence, I think, in his thinking. They really were an incredible thing: thoughtful, caring people who really cared deeply about education in this state.”
Pam Papka, as a mother concerned about her children’s public school education, was among those who helped create the Prichard Committee with Bob Sexton before she married him. And she was a Renaissance woman — a writer, poet and artist, roles made clear in the celebration of her life last week at Midway Christian Church, one of the most evocative memorials I’ve ever attended.
Friend and writer Susan Brown told the mourners, “She knew everyone in Lexington, and she knew who to contact when problems needed to be solved … The world is a better place for her having been in it and we are better people for having known her.”
From the church, we went to a reception at the Holly Hill Inn, presided over by co-owner Ouita Michel, a daughter who has become a nationally regarded chef and promoter of local food. Much of her inspiration and guidance came from her mother, so what she calls “community supported cuisine” is part of Pam Sexton’s legacy too.
Sexton, Cosby and Barton-Collings led very different lives, but had at least two important things in common: bringing people together to work for the greater good, and leaving legacies that will far outlive them. In an era of polarization, they are examples to follow and exalt.
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.