Monday, May 9, 2016

Beyond Fear: A Very Different View of American Presidential Politics

I was quite surprised to discover that the post I wrote last week, "Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump", has rapidly become the most widely-read piece I've written a long time. In just two days it shot to the top 5 most-read posts on my blog, probably because a number of my FB friends shared it with their networks. Apparently I struck a chord.

I want to continue some of those thoughts from last week because of a confluence of two things. First, a desire to continue the "fear" theme in the post about a possible Trump Presidency. A lot of the subsequent FB chatter about the piece focused on the probable costs of Trump being President, and the various bad things that will happen. Some of these went to significant levels of detail in their predictions, in areas from foreign policy to judicial nominations.

Reading through these discussions made me realize that I hadn't expressed my intended point very well. A part of my argument, it is true, is that a Trump Presidency in reality will likely not be as bad as his worst critics think, much as the Bush and Obama Presidencies were not what their enemies foretold. We never did get Chuck Norris' "Thousand Years of Darkness" by re-electing Obama, and Dick Cheney didn't throw all of his political enemies into concentration camps.

What I meant to say - but didn't articulate very well - is that my decision not to be afraid of the future is not predicated on my ability to predict it. Yes, I have certain hunches about what will or will not happen. Some of those hunches are informed by actual expertise in the study of politics. But as my friend Steve Saideman pointed out recently, even experts get stuff wrong. I recognize that my ability to predict isn't very good. None of us predict the future well, and we tend to project a mishmash of our hopes and anxieties. Confirmation bias is everywhere.

What I should have said but didn't is, I choose not to be afraid not because I know what's going to happen but simply because I choose not to be afraid. I am humble about my ability to predict the future, and completely clear about my ability to affect it (near zero). I don't know what will happen in or after November. Given that situation, fear to me is a choice - I don't have to be afraid, so I choose not to.

There are some things I would like to see happen and some I would like to see not happen, but in the present there is nothing I can do about either. The strength of my preferences doesn't affect the outcome either - whether I mildly dislike The Donald or hate him passionately doesn't make any difference. My choice not to fear is likewise not an indicator of how I feel about Trump or his policies. I find the man and his politics despicable. But I don't have to let his awfulness ruin my day.

This is a position based not at all in politics, but in basic philosophy and self-awareness. The world cannot make me afraid; fear is my response to the world around me. I'm sure there are other circumstances in which I would have much greater difficulty controlling the temptation to fear. Today, for me, is not one of those. I can't speak for anybody else, but that's where I am.

The second event that sparked this particular blog post was a brief blurb I heard on the radio from Trump himself, who told a campaign rally "We're going to go after Hillary." In itself, this was not all that remarkable - had Cruz, or Kasich, or Jeb! been nominated, I imagine any of them would have said the same thing, quite possibly using exactly those words. The issue here isn't Trump, it's our politics in general.

We've been talking for decades about the increasingly personal level of attacks by candidates (and the rest of us) against their opponents. Historians have pointed out that there are ample cases from the 19th century of what we would regard as far more vicious attacks on opponents' character. So one candidate simply saying "we're going to go after" another isn't news.

And that's what strikes me - from a Very Different View - as troubling. Politics has become - perhaps has long been - combat. It's a contest of winners and losers. This is true not only on the surface, in terms of the mechanics of elections, but deep in our DNA. When Karl Rove talked a dozen years ago about a goal of creating a "permanent Republican majority," Democrats were distressed only because they were on the other side - not because the very notion itself, of one side "permanently" defeating the other, violates some very basic principles. We're so steeped in our own broken politics that we can't even see it anymore.

We see this in common political discourse, especially on the internet. How often do we run across a headline in which Person X "destroys" Opposing View Y with a few well-chosen words? This is, of course, verbal nonsense - no rhetoric on my part can destroy anything least of all an idea or a candidate. Yet we casually bandy about this idea of "destruction" every day.

The point here is that, despite our gut feeling otherwise, politics doesn't have to be this way. Communities can, and do, run themselves in far less confrontational and far more inclusive ways. The best examples are local, possibly because it's easier to treat other members of the community like real people when you're in close proximity to them and can interact with them in more authentic ways. Demonization of your opponents requires a certain distance. But distance does not create demonization, it only allows it.

Diversity plays a role here as well, but not in a deterministic way. At this point there's pretty much universal agreement that identities are socially constructed - you're not born being part of any particular kind of group so much as you're raised into a shared set of assumptions. Boundaries can be shifted and changed over time, usually by adopting different practices, patterns, behaviors, and norms.

Without quite realizing it, we have evolved our politics around a single norm: win for "our side" at all costs. This assumes a host of things, including the notion that "winning" is the best thing and that it makes any sense at all, and that we have "sides". This is not the only way to deal with differences of opinion, but we have come to think that it is. This, it seems to me, has become our biggest blindness.

We don't do this as much on an interpersonal level. I don't assault everyone I meet who disagrees with me, either verbally or physically. I know a few people who do, but in general we regard this as boorish behavior. But somehow, we reward and celebrate it in our politics.

So what's the alternative? Any different sort of politics has to start with fundamentals. Our current political habits are built on a set of mutually-reinforcing habits, beliefs, and unexamined norms. To borrow from the trite-but-true, if we want things to be different we have to think differently.

So what needs to change? Let me propose a few basic tenets:

1) All people are people - complex creatures with a dizzying array of characteristics, identities, and life experiences. People are not "Democrats" or "Republicans" - these categories don't define individuals.

2) All people deserve respect as people. This doesn't mean we have to agree on everything, be alike in all ways, or like everything about each other. Respect presumes certain assumptions of both attitude and behavior - we understand in general what it means to "treat someone with respect", and it certainly includes not harming others.

3) Insofar as is possible, politics should be the search for mutual solutions - that is, finding ways of establishing rules and distributing resources that are as close to consensus as can be reached, and that benefit everyone or nearly everyone. A corollary to this is that no one perspective and no one ideology has all of the "right" answers.

If we take the term "politics" out, this is how a great many of us lead our everyday lives. We tend to interact with individuals as individuals, and when we do lump people into undifferentiated categories we usually regard that as a bad thing. We tend to try to treat each other with respect, and when that doesn't happen we regard it as universally inappropriate. And outside of a few structured fields of endeavor, most people most of the time prefer to seek mutual solutions instead of trying to "beat" the other person. Workplaces built around that kind of competition tend to be very bad, both for the people who work there and for the work itself.

I realize that all of these assertions are from my own point of view, and that some will argue with me that "people aren't really like that". This is a debate as old as philosophy itself, and is difficult to gather data on. I'm likely not to convince people with a pessimistic view of human nature. But I have seen enough instances of this in my life to know that it's possible.

What does any of this have to do with one politician's unremarkable comment about "going after" his opponent? That comment shows just how far our politics has gotten away from the tenets I suggest above. We do not search for mutual solutions. We don't respect others. And we tend to reduce complex individuals (either public candidates or simply strangers whom we do not know except that they are on "the other side") to simplistic categories, and then condemn them en masse as such.

Despite being a lifelong student of politics, I dislike most of what we call "politics" for this very reason. We have discarded (to borrow Lincoln's phrase) the better angels of our nature and marinated ourselves in our own worst instincts. We are all poorer for it.

In this regard, the anger and frustration so often written about in this election cycle are entirely understandable. Every two or four years, we are told a Grand Lie: that if only our side wins, if only this or that candidate gets elected, if only the other side is defeated, all will be well. Things will be wonderful. Our nation will be Great Again.

This is nonsense. Our problems will not be resolved if Democrats win all the contests, if Republicans win all the contests, or if the result is some of each. We will be no closer to better mutual solutions; but we will in the meantime be a lot more anxious, and lot more distrustful of and compassionate towards our neighbors, and many of us will be frustrated and angry because "we" "lost".

This is a radically different way of looking at politics, and as such I expect it either won't make sense to many or will strike many as hopelessly naive. I can only point out that our current system of elections and parties seems to be making things worse, not better - and by "things" here I mean not only the overall outcomes of our society but us as individuals. We are, as persons and as a people, worse off because we do this to ourselves every few years.

Radicalism in politics is nothing new, but much of what passes itself off as "radical" is really quite tame. Genuinely radical is telling people to stop judging their neighbors and to attend to their own failings instead (Matthew 7:3). It is telling people to love their enemies (Luke 6:27, Matthew 5:44). It is suggesting that we lay down our lives for each other, not for our own good (John 15:13). Somehow, this kind of radical gets left out when folks suggest that their Christianity informs their politics.

Do I have a solution? Of course not. I pointed out above that I have zero ability to affect the outcomes of our nation. And propounding a solution would be beside the point anyway - saying, "I have the answer" would make me no different from the hordes of huckster politicians and pundits who sell us their wares, trying to make us believe that if only their ideas are adopted, everything will be great. I can't create a good solution; only we can.

This, then, is the conversation I long for: a conversation between people, as people, who can take each other seriously in our own wants, desires, experiences, hopes, and dreams. A conversation aimed at one goal: the discovery of things we agree on, the solutions that help all of us. A conversation in which there are no winners and losers, only participants and citizens. There is no room for that conversation in our current politics. Perhaps we can build one elsewhere.

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