Friday, February 26, 2016

Who Are We?

Marco Rubio started off his opening statement to Thursday's Republican debate by making an inadvertently profound point. The 2016 President Election, Rubio said, is fundamentally not about this policy or that talking point. It's about who we are as a country, as a society. In his words, it's about "the identity of America".

I don't share a lot in common with Senator Rubio, but on this one point he is absolutely right. One reason why we are so drawn to Presidential elections - despite their being less important than we think they are - is that they represent perhaps the only truly nationwide measure of who we are as a people.

This, I think, is what is currently sustaining attention for, and driving reactions to, Donald Trump's candidacy. (Yes, I know I said I didn't want to talk about Trump. I still don't. But it's impossible to talk about broader issues without bringing him in at some point.) A lot of people see the anger, the hatred, the demonizing, the stratospheric levels of incivility, and they wonder: is this who we really are as Americans?

Vox, rapidly becoming one of the better popular purveyors of actual political science research and expertise, ran this piece a few days ago suggesting that Trump's support isn't demographic, it's attitudinal. In particular, it's predicated on one attitude in particular: authoritarianism, or individuals' inclination to authoritarian behavior and worldviews. Borrowing from the article's author:
People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.
There is undoubtedly a correlation between authoritarianism and racism, but that can miss the point. In the authoritarian view, racism is simply a part of a broader worldview of people who are inclined to pull inside their tribal walls, circle the wagons, and make sure that absolutely nothing changes. Such people are quite willing to use violence when necessary to enforce the reality they cling to.

At the root of the authoritarian worldview, of course, is fear: fear of change, fear of the other, fear of perceived threats and slights. The Vox article above notes that the other statistically significant predictor of Trump support is fear of terrorism - specifically, fear that you or someone you love might be attacked by terrorists. I've written about fear as a driver too many times to count; here's the most recent.

The thing about fear is that it is a choice. We don't always experience it as such, but people who have grappled with fear understand that we have it within our power to choose whether or not to be afraid. Some fears, of course, are instinctive: if a bear breaks down my front door I'm going to experience fear. But most of the fears being discussed in public - fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants, fear of Islam, fear of blacks (or #blacklivesmatter), fear of impending disasters political or economic - are things we visit on ourselves. Like Jacob Marley, we forge our own chains in life, link by link, until in the end they crush us with their weight.

So this appears to be what our Presidential contest is really measuring. Do we, in the soaring rhetoric of all of our past Presidents (Democrat and Republican alike), really value freedom? Are we really the Americans whom Ronald Reagan invoked when he spoke of the compassion, patriotism, and heroism of everyday citizens? Are we the hopeful, interconnected, idealistic people that Bill Clinton addressed from that same podium? Are we who we want to be, who we know we should be when we are at our best?

Or are we frightened, scared, divided, turning against one another in spite and anger and hatred? Are we mean and petty, denying each other's dignity and humanity and focusing on differences that are largely inventions of the human mind? Do we delight in the pain and suffering of others, because it makes us feel safer and more powerful?

Every great faith tradition, every philosophy, every system of thought in human history points clearly towards one of these poles and away from the other. Pope Francis today reminded us that "Deus Caritas Est" - God is love. Native American traditions have long passed down the wisdom of the "two wolves" - the struggle inside everyone of us. Mohammed referred to the "major jihad", the struggle within for self-control and virtue, as far more important than the "minor jihad" involving outsiders.

In politics, people disagree, sometimes strongly. There are significant differences in how people think our country should be run and what policies our government should adopt - although these differences are often far less than what our "leaders" make them out to be. But those differences are simply the backdrop of our daily lives, a part of the environment we live in. The real question is: how do we respond to difference? Do we feed the wolf of virtue, follow the call of God that is love, struggle within ourselves to be the best we can be? Or do we give in to our fear, allowing it to twist us to anger, jealousy, hatred, and violence?

We don't talk about this as part of the Presidential campaign, because it's easier and sexier to talk about who "won" the latest debate or which candidate is ahead in the polls. But those questions aren't the most important ones. The real question is the same one that faces us very day:

Who are we? And because of what we do today, who will we be tomorrow?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Presidential Bread and Circuses

We are already several months into the process of selecting the next President of the United States, and we've barely started. We've got another nearly ten months of yelling, screaming, and flamboyant nonsense ahead of us before, in November, we finally choose who gets to succeed Barack Obama in the White House. This process will be THE topic of conversation in the United States for the rest of the year.

There's only one problem: none of it matters. We're devoting almost all of our attention to the least important aspect of our national political system.

Put another way, Presidential elections have become the bread and circuses of our time.

This is a contrarian argument, given that we are told every four years that "this is the election that will define our era". Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had been dead for less than 24 hours when pundits began pontificating about how the court vacancy "dramatically raises the stakes" of the election. Donald Trump, who gets more airtime than the rest of the field combined, has repeatedly claimed that everything is terrible.

I've written recently about how a lot of this fear-mongering is patent nonsense. I mentioned in that post that the Presidency is not nearly as powerful as we think it is - that Presidents have to answer to Congress and to a variety of powerful interests, and that the world often stubbornly does what it wants to do despite their thundering proclamations otherwise.

But this is only part of the issue. The larger issue is one I've made reference to from time to time, and which is contained in this article by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. Their bottom line (taken directly from the article itself):

The estimated impact of average citizenspreferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level [when controlling for the impact of economic elites and interest groups]. Clearly the median citizen or median voterat the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. 
The data to reach this conclusion were compiled by looking at policy outcomes over nearly 1800 different policy issues for slightly more than 20 years (1981-2002). This is not an issue merely with particular issues like gun control, where policy seems to stubbornly cling to a particular line despite popular views otherwise. The conclusion Gilens & Page reach is that, taken as an independent force on policy outcomes, popular opinion matters not at all.

The period of time they studied included both Democratic and Republican Presidents, and Congresses controlled by each party and divided between them. Whether we put Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or anyone else in the White House next year, this pattern is not going to significantly change.
To be fair, Trump and Sanders in their own way appear to be the only candidates who make even oblique reference to this issue. Sanders promises a "revolution" to overturn the existing system, though it's not clear how he intends to do that. Trump has no apparent plan to change anything other than to replace "losers" with "winners" - though where the spoils of such "winning" would go is anybody's guess.
If the Gilens & Page analysis is correct - and I believe that it is - then arguing about whether Rubio is better than Kasich, or even whether Hillary is better than Cruz, is entirely irrelevant. Yes, Presidents bring certain tendencies with them that can marginally nudge things in one direction or another. But none of this changes the fundamental character of the system. It just doesn't matter.

Look at this another way: changing from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (a pretty wide ideological swing from one President to another) did not significantly alter the general trend towards the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few. If that change didn't matter, why do we expect a different result this time?

I have no doubt that this view might anger a few people. We want to believe that what we see in front of us is meaningful. We want to think that our choice of candidate is consequential - after all, the candidates and the media all tell us that it is. Moreover, we have such a wide range of choices this year that it's easy to find some that we like a lot, some we sort of tolerate, and some we can't stand. There's something satisfying about that.

This is not to say that people shouldn't develop candidate preferences, or that they shouldn't care about who wins the Presidency. It does suggest that they shouldn't care too much, which is to say very much at all, nor should they expect the outcome to have a substantial impact on either their own fortunes or the fortunes of our country. If what we seek is real change that broadly and systemically alters the direction of the country and the welfare of the population as a whole, we need to stop paying attention to blowhards standing behind podiums at debates and start paying attention to ourselves and each other.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Politics, Theology, and the Destructive Power of Outcomes

To start - if you haven't read the following article from this past Sunday's NYT, I strongly recommend you go do so now:
Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me
The article is beautifully and poignantly written. It makes clear problems in both American culture and the "prosperity gospel" in particular that I could never articulate so well.

I want to use this piece as a starting-off point for a distinction I make all the time, one that explains a lot of frustration I have with the current state of both political and social relations in America. I frequently make the argument that there seem to be two sorts of people: process people and outcome people. I am a process person. What follows is what I mean by that, and why I think it matters.

This distinction, like all such distinctions, is really a matter of degree. Process people do care about outcomes, and a great many outcome people also care about processes. But in general, when I talk about process vs. outcomes what I mean is this:

• Outcome people are focused primarily on goals. How we get there is less important than that the right outcome is achieved. The most important battle for outcome folks is therefore not how we do things, but what it is we are trying to do. Success is understood when we reach the proper outcome, or fail to do so.

Process people are concerned primarily with how things happen. That can lead some folks to be extremely doctrinaire about rules and procedures, but in general this view stems from the belief that how we do things not only influences the outcome we get this time, but casts a long shadow into the future. We therefore need to be careful about how we treat each other in the midst of doing things today to try to achieve our goals, whatever they may be. To borrow a popular phrase, success for process people is a journey, not a destination.

Donald Trump is an outcome person. He knows what he wants, and doesn't care what process he has to follow to get it - he's a "get it done" kind of guy.

Ted Cruz is an outcome person when he talks about "carpet bombing" parts of Syria in order to get rid of the Daesh/Islamic State movement. It doesn't matter how many lives are lost, just so that the final outcome is the removal of the threat.

Most members of Congress, in both chambers and in both parties, are outcome people most of the time. The latest incidence of this comes from individual Senators (including Mitch McConnell) indicating that they will oppose any nominee for the Supreme Court put forward by President Obama. The only outcome that matters is that the next Supreme Court justice be nominated by someone else, presumably on the hopes that someone from a different political party will be inhabiting the White House at that point.

There has been lots of speculation about the "angry electorate" in this year, and you don't have to go far to find polling data indicating that most Americans don't think much of their government. Why is a harder thing to put our hands on, and I won't engage in speculation on that point. I only have an N of 1 - me - and so I can only explain why I find the current political situation so horribly dysfunctional. It's precisely because all politics is now about outcome, not process.

Hypocrisy in Washington has become so ubiquitous that we no longer even notice it. We expect that elected leaders will say one thing when they are in power, and then say the opposite when the other party is in charge. Why do they do this? Because all are "fighting" (I use the term with reservation, because it's a bad analogy) for the outcome they want and don't care what they have to do or say to get it.

This goes beyond lamenting the days when "compromise" was not a dirty word in politics (though I do miss the apparent ability of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill to not only get along, but actually get things done). I think that the failing is not just political, but moral and spiritual as well.

When we become fixated on outcome, it changes our whole orientation. We come to rationalize our actions and our judgments about the world in light of what we want. We engage in wishful thinking to selectively edit the facts around us to fit with what we hope to achieve. Worse still, we begin to demonize and dehumanize people who have different ideas. We move quickly from seeing such people as competitors to seeing them as the problem. Not for nothing do Roger Fisher and Bill Ury devote nearly 1/4 of their bestselling book Getting to Yes to talking people out of this particular corner.

Once we've demonized those who disagree, fear sets in. We become afraid that we might not get the outcome we now so desperately want. We channel that fear into anger and then hatred towards those who we think are standing in our way. They are "destroying America". They are evil. They must be stopped, whatever the cost.

We see all of this on display especially in Presidential election years, since fear, anger, and hatred are effective tools of political mobilization. Whether they are more or less effective tools we no longer know, because they are all we see. They are the very atmosphere we breathe. Just as the fish cannot tell that it is wet, knowing no other condition, we are rapidly losing the ability to see just how afraid and angry we are.

Although the symptoms of this disease are political, the root cause is moral and theological. The author of the article cited at the beginning carefully traces the extent to which an outcome-based theology (one focused on the accumulation of wealth and the assignment of credit or blame) distorts both the gospel of Christianity as well as individuals' behavior. Here we can bring another noted Christian writer to bear - C.S. Lewis:
"(God) wants men to be concerned with what they do; our (the Devil's) business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them". (The Screwtape Letters)
It is very difficult to hold onto basic Christian theology for long and to simultaneously believe that the worldly outcomes over which we are so highly concerned - who gets appointed to the Supreme Court, what foreign policy we should adopt, what our economic strategy should be, who gets elected President - matter all that very much. It is nearly impossible, in my view, to do so and justify behavior that we would otherwise acknowledge as sinful in the name of achieving this or that thing in the short run. As Keynes famously noted, in the long run we're all dead.

This is not to say that we don't have preferences about things, or that we don't continue to develop our ideas to make them better and to produce better outcomes. In fact, we spend far too little time talking or listening to each other about what better means in that context. So this is not an argument that all Christians should withdraw from the world, or that we shouldn't care at all about outcomes.

It is to suggest, however, that a theological point of view (one which might be shared by adherents of other faiths) demands a different perspective. Nearly all of our moral understandings - the theologies and philosophies developed and refined over millennia - have to do with how we treat each other as human beings. This is ultimately a process issue. Our moral obligations are to our own actions, our own behavior, how we treat others.

This explains why (paradoxically, given what I study) I am so repulsed by modern politics. It is almost impossible to find anyone, of any political stripe, who is not so obsessed with this or that outcome that they are not ready on a moment's notice to discard basic notions of human decency and the obvious realization that, when this round of "fighting" is over we will still have to live with each other. The reactions to Antonin Scalia's death this past weekend - the almost immediate argument at the nomination of a successor - were simply the latest tragic example.

I don't know what the solution to this problem is. I know what it isn't. Our problems will not be solved when we elect the right President, or when the right party is in power, or when the right policy is passed. All of the "solutions" on offer are illusions, snake oil designed to sell the salesman. There is no end of the rainbow where all of the "right people" have won and everything will be "great again".

The only path I see to change for the better is for people - not parties, not institutions, but individual people - to let go a little of their cherished outcomes and to pay a little more attention to process. By which I mean, to begin to consider each other as people, as humans worthy of respect and decency, and to act accordingly. When people adopt this perspective, even imperfectly (for all of us are imperfect), behavior changes. Insults cease, shouting diminishes, snark and distain are replaced with thoughtfulness and listening quiet.

Do I know how to bring this about? Of course not. All I can do is control how I treat people every day. The outcome that is our politics, or our society, or our community is beyond my fixing. But that is precisely the point. Lewis was right - all I can do is concern myself with what I do, and leave the rest to God.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Drowning Bunnies, Firing Faculty - For What? RANKINGS?

There's been a lot of Sturm und Drang about an unfolding disaster at Mount St. Mary's College in Maryland. The current focus is on the college president's decision to fire a tenured professor for "disloyalty", which is pretty much guaranteed to bring down the wrath of the scholarly community. Anytime the AAUP and FIRE agree on something, you know you have a problem.

Lost in the current uproar, however, is the idea that started the whole argument, which had something to do with freshman retention. What caught national attention was the president apparently saying to a group of faculty, "This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can't. You just have to drown the bunnies ... hold a Glock to their heads."

Talking about students as bunnies to be drowned is no way to win faculty favor either. Behind the unfortunate choice of words was an apparently concrete goal the president had established, which was to have 20-25 freshmen leave the college before Sept. 25. After that point, they would have to be reported as "dropouts" and would count in the retention data. Before that, they would disappear off the books.

Now, this is a terrible thing - admitting students and then, within the first few weeks of the semester, trying to get some of them to leave. The president and the Board, which is apparently backing him, have been roundly criticized for such a plan. What I haven't seen, however, is anyone asking why? Why would any college want to do such a thing?

The answer lies hidden in an early Chronicle article written about the controversy (before people started getting fired). You can find the article here; the key point is this:
Late in September, at an impromptu meeting that included Mr. Newman [the president], Mr. Murry [a key faculty member], and several others, Mr. Murry said the president "explicitly argued that getting students to leave was necessary in order to prevent a drop in the rankings." The discussion, he said, "involved proposals for both convincing students to voluntarily withdraw and using involuntary dismissal." Mr. Murry said Mr. Newman also asked him for a list of freshmen who could be encouraged to leave.
There's the key, right in the middle of the paragraph. All of this - the unfortunate metaphor of "drowning bunnies", the angst and drama about a student survey and various strategies for freshmen retention, the subsequent firing of a provost and two faculty members - all of it is in the service of propping up Mount St. Mary's position on a US News list.

Henry Kissinger was famously quoted as saying that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small (a variation of Sayre's Law). This case seems to be the ultimate vindication of that observation - lives are being ruined because of a rating in a publication that means less and less each year. And for all of the college's other transgressions, this to me seems the greatest sin.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Don't Feed the Trolls

Unlike some of my more internet-active friends and colleagues, I don't have a very high profile in cyberspace. Yes, I write this blog, and occasionally contribute to another one; in neither case do I usually get much more than 100 readers. I'm not on Twitter, much less do I join things like Twitter Fight Club. I left my penchant for internet argumentation behind a long time ago, back when arguments were conducted on Usenet.

Because of this, I don't encounter internet trolls very often. I am especially unlikely to be the target of one. This blog does have a comments section, which I keep moderated (mostly to keep the spambots from filling the comments with links). But it rarely gets used, especially by people inclined to disagree with me in an unpleasant fashion.

So when I do get trolled, it's something of a novelty to me. This past week, somebody with a very different opinion apparently stumbled across one of my old posts (you can see the original post here) and decided to take umbrage with this retort (presented in its entirety and unedited):
"sticks" and "running away"? Are you kidding me? I'll keep my guns so anyone breaking into my house will have holes in them instead of me running away while my 6 year old tries to fight them off with sticks since she can't run as fast as an adult, thank you. You are clearly a moron.
Since I regularly encourage people to consider the ideas of others, I feel bound to do the same here. So setting aside the tone and the obligatory epithet, let me engage this particular bit of debate to see what we might learn from it.

There are two things that strike me as interesting about this response:

1) The poster assumes a specific threat scenario in isolation and insists on having a gun to deal with that scenario. In this case, that scenario is home invasion with intent to harm. If this person were more familiar with my work, they would know that I have acknowledged that guns are, in fact, a useful tool for self-defense in that setting. But I can't expect people to have read everything (or even anything) I've written before.

What's interesting about this particular threat assumption is that it is one of the most widely cited justifications for owning a gun - defending the home against someone breaking in with intent to harm. While such things do happen, they are exceedingly rare. Most burglars break in with intent to steal, and would rather not encounter anybody, because encountering people is always dangerous - that's why most home robberies occur while the occupants are away. You can see the relevant statistics, compiled by the US Department of Justice, here. Out of all home break-ins, the number of incidents of violence where the criminal was armed with a gun is a small fraction of a small fraction.

Even given such long odds, it might be reasonable to keep a gun at home to deal with those rare cases - if the presence of the gun did not also make other dangers more likely. But we know that having a gun in the house increases the odds of all sorts of other events, including suicides and accidental shootings. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about a father who thought apparently very much as this commenter did. The child he presumably wanted to protect is now dead by his own hand. Alternatively, what happens to the life of this mother or father if that 6 year old gets ahold of the gun? (Or if there's a younger sibling?)

If medical science offered a vaccine that was 99% effective against a very rare disease, but which increased your likelihood of dying from many other things, how many of us would take it? In medicine we weigh risks and benefits. This particular response suggests an unwillingness to do so, and an assumption that one particular kind of threat (home invasion) can be dealt with in isolation from all of the other potential side effects of having guns available in the home.

2) In addition to the rational and tactical calculations at play here, there is a moral calculation that I continue to find deeply troubling. It's contained in this fragment:
I'll keep my guns so anyone breaking into my house will have holes in them instead of me running away
The subsequent clause about leaving the 6 year old behind to fend for herself is classic troll-bait. Clearly no parent is going to abandon a child, but will stand and defend that child with whatever is available. Let's leave that aside for a moment.

The moral calculation here is this: if you break into my home, I am justified in killing you. I'm not interested in whether this is a legal defense or not, but whether it constitutes an effective moral justification.

My unease with this calculation starts with a point both unassailable and very difficult to acknowledge: the person breaking into my house is a human being. Yes, that person is transgressing some very fundamental rules. And yes, that person may have intent to do me harm - or he (or she) may not. But none of this takes away the person's basic humanity.

For those who share the Christian faith, this is a particularly difficult test of the Gospel's clear injunction:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew)
I do not know if the person who offered the comment above claims to be a Christian or not. I know that there are plenty of Christians who go to church on a regular basis, and who hold these same scriptures to be the Word of God, who would nevertheless agree with the commenter that it's appropriate to put  (lethal) holes in the home invader. These views, to me, simply aren't compatible.

Moreover, the Old Testament reference made here by Jesus is often itself misunderstood. The original language in Exodus 21 ("eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot") was intended not as a statement of vengeance but as a limitation on humanity's tendency to mete out disproportionate vengeance. A modern American version goes something like this quote from the movie The Untouchables:
You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That's* the *Chicago* way!
Limiting retribution in proportion to the harm suffered was, for the ancient Hebrew culture, a moral advance. It insured that no one would, in anger and fear, cause greater harm than had already been caused.

In this light, killing in response to a home invasion is (pun intended) moral overkill. It fails the moral test of proportionality which exists, in some form or another, in nearly all major world religions and philosophical systems. It is, as I have argued elsewhere, barbaric.

So while I can see to some degree where this particular troll is coming from, I cannot agree with any of the ideas he or she presents. They are, as I have said so many times before, rooted simply in fear - fear of a vividly imaginable (if highly unlikely) threat which leads to anger, hatred, and dehumanization. Others who share that fear will likely find the commenter's ideas laudable. I hope many of us can escape the same fate.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

I take the title of this post, of course, from FDR's first inaugural address in 1933. As I pointed out recently, FDR uttered those words in a time of far greater crisis than anything the United States now faces.

But in this presidential campaign season, most of we hear about is what we should be afraid of. Already I am seeing dire warnings from both Left and Right of how our country will collapse if this or that candidate is elected. There is plenty of rhetoric, both from candidates and from partisans, about "disasters" and our nation "going off a cliff". It's enough to call to mind Chuck Norris' prediction four years ago of "1000 years of darkness" if Obama were re-elected. (I've not yet noticed any unusual amounts of darkness in the last four years...)

This is not to say that we don't have challenges. And it's not that I don't have preferences among the candidates - I like some and dislike others. I'm not interested in discussing those things, at least not here, because there are plenty of other people already doing so. Where I see the national conversation lacking is in the arena of anyone willing to call bulls**t on the increasingly extreme predictions of apocalyptic futures if some candidate wins this or that electoral contest.

So that's my aim here - to call BS on all of the "sky is falling" rhetoric, from whatever side and direction. You should not, in fact, be afraid. Here are several reasons why:

• Terrorism is not the existential crisis that politicians want you to think it is. By now, anybody who cares about facts knows the numbers: you're more likely to be killed by furniture than by terrorists, your odds of even being near a terrorist attack are lower than your odds of being struck by lightning, etc. To the raw data, political scientists can add perspective: all of the anti-Western terrorists in the world put together don't have a measurable fraction of the military power of the US. That's not to say they can't cause damage - they can, and they often do, usually to each other first and foremost. But given the geographic scope and range of the terrorist organizations involved, their disparate and often contradictory goals, and the general resilience and strength of modern wealthy societies, there's just no way these clowns can put a dent in our existence. They can kill a few people and blow up a few things, but that's it. They cannot credibly threaten America or "our way of life". We are not 100% safe against everything, but we are safer than nearly any society in the history of humanity.

• The Presidency is not nearly as important, or as powerful, as we think it is. Sometimes I think the greatest punishment for Donald Trump would be to elect him President and then watch him implode in frustration as he realizes just how limited the power of the position is. No matter who becomes President next, that person will have to deal with Congress, the Supreme Court, and the array of interests and preferences held by various sectors of society. Gilens and Page (2014) have pointed out that the preferences of the masses don't have much effect on policy; outcomes tend to be more in line with what the rich and powerful want. Those same forces will be at play in 2017 just as they were in 2015. That's not to say that we might not prefer some policy directions over others, and it's certainly not to argue that Presidents don't matter at all. But it is far beyond the capacity of any President to destroy the United States or bring down 1000 years of darkness. A bad President can cause a lot of damage, but again this doesn't rise to the level of an existential crisis.

• Regardless of who takes the Presidency in 2017, some bad things and some good things are going to happen over the next four years. Whoever sits in the Oval Office will have limited ability to stop the bad things from happening, and will likewise have limited ability to make good things happen that weren't going to happen otherwise. Most of the effects are marginal. The George W Bush administration's response to Katrina was bad, and it made a very bad situation worse - but Katrina was coming regardless. Francois Hollande was powerless to stop the Paris attacks. And despite badly overheated political rhetoric, Obama is not to blame for the financial crisis (neither, except in a marginal way, was George W). Chances are good that whatever happens, the US will deal with it - sometimes well, sometimes poorly. We must, of course, do our best to meet every challenge. But our survival, either as a country or as a population, does not depend on who sits in the White House.

• Lastly, as electoral seasons heat up there is always a hefty infusion of religious rhetoric that comes along for the ride. In the United States in particular, many people are guided in their voting choices by their understanding of their faith - in particular, their Christian faith (being the majority religion). For those who would invoke Christianity in the name of supporting this or that political position (what C.S. Lewis' devil Screwtape derisively referred to as "Christianity and..."), remember that the more you sound the alarm of fear the farther you are moving from the Gospel you supposedly profess. "Do not be afraid" is the single most repeated commandment in the Bible. The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are chock full of exhortations to put aside fear and to trust in the provenance of God. They also remind us of the superiority of spiritual concerns over material (or political) ones. There is no theological justification for fear, especially fear of this or that political ruler. Paul did not fear the Roman Empire, a far more powerful and draconian system than any we could face. Prophets and apostles throughout the Bible moved amongst tyrants and ruthless kings. What possible claim can you make to be afraid of a Bernie Sanders or a Ted Cruz?

There are issues of importance facing our society - as there always are. Political leadership can make a difference, but rarely if ever can it remake the world entirely. This is not "the most important election of our lifetimes", and it certainly is not "a turning point in our history" - any more than last year was, or two years from now will be. ALL moments in history are turning points. We are much better off - we make better decisions and we become our better selves - when we face each of those moments without fear. So set aside the "sky is falling" BS, move the fear to the back burner, and engage the issues and candidates from something other than panic and dread.