Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Process vs. Outcome in Politics

I came across this article in yesterday's New York Times, which got me thinking about a lot of larger issues:
Inside the Conservative Push for States to Amend the Constitution
For most folks, this is an article about amending the Constitution to limit the size and scope of Federal government. Or it's an article about conservatives using their dominance of state legislatures to push a particular conservative agenda item, the Balanced Budget Amendment. People who identify as conservative may see this story as a hopeful one; people who identify as liberal or progressive will likely see it as a cause for alarm.

I see it as a story about the political process.

In conversation I will sometimes claim that there are "outcome people" and there are "process people", and that I'm a "process person". The dichotomy probably isn't perfect, and to the extent that these categories mean anything at all I suspect that there isn't a very even balance. I think a lot of people are "outcome people", and that "process people" are relatively rare.

There's a lot that's interesting in this story about how a process of amending the Constitution via the states would work. You can read this throughout the article linked above - these are interesting questions, largely since nobody's ever done it before.

But there's a part of this that really saddens me. My reaction doesn't come from the fact that the issue in question - the outcome - is a conservative issue. I believe most economists when they say that a balanced budget amendment would be a bad thing. But the prospect of a conservative "victory" in this arena is not what concerns me.

What does is the reminder that there are plenty of people in our political system who are unelected, extremely powerful, and willing to do absolutely anything short of murder to get their way. The Koch Brothers have become poster children for this problem, but at least they're visible about it. There's a lot of "dark money" floating around trying to influence political outcomes, money owned and controlled by very small numbers of people.

I find this distressing because for these people, democracy is simply one tool among many. If they can use their money, their influence, or their media savvy to obtain a policy outcome that most people don't really want, that's fine with them. They don't care if they have to lie, commit character assassination, distort the facts, make stuff up. They don't care what everyone else things. They don't care about convincing a majority of their fellow Americans. They think they have The Right Answer, and by God they're going to impose that answer on the rest of us come Hell or high water.

This phenomenon doesn't just exist on the right, of course. There are folks on the left who think the same way, who would be gleefully lie and cheat and play games to obtain the outcome they think is best. Trump and his minions have argued that the Clinton campaign will cheat, but the particular form of cheating they're afraid of - voter fraud - is ridiculous (or, as my friend Steve Saideman calls it, #voterfraudfraud). But that doesn't mean there aren't folks out there willing to lie and make stuff up across party or ideological lines. Witness the odd political bedfellows in the anti-vaccine movement.

It is this phenomenon, more than the prospect of this candidate or that candidate winning (yes, even Donald Trump - see this piece for my previous thoughts on that subject), that disturbs me. It's this willingness to put outcome over process - which really means putting outcome over people and relationships, because that's what process is.

There's been a lot of talk about how polarized our politics are, but I don't think there's much appreciation for what that really means. It's not just that we move closer or farther apart on some linear spectrum of policy preferences. Polarization goes beyond disagreement; at a certain level it becomes demonization. We come to see the people on the other side as Evil, as Traitors, as Monsters. We crossed that line a long time ago, and have gotten steadily farther and farther away from it since. Donald Trump's campaign actively encourages this movement; visit a Trump rally and see the t-shirts that people are wearing, listen to the things they are chanting in the crowd.

This is why Trump's "second amendment" comment shocked so many. At minimum, he was flirting with inciting violence against his political opponents - suggesting that people with guns could use those guns against candidates or judges they don't like. The choice of violence over democratic process is the ultimate betrayal of the political system, the Original Sin of politics.

There are many steps short of violence, of course. There are the lies, the distortions, the character assassinations ("Hillary is terminally ill!") People like to say that "politics is a contact sport", as if using a bad metaphor excuses the morally indefensible.

For all that people talk about the intersection between religion and politics (and in our country, particularly Christianity and politics), here is a viewpoint I almost never see. The reason I find all of this so saddening is that this kind of "politics" - the kind that will do anything, slander anyone, commit any sin in order to "win" - fundamentally contradicts the basics of Christianity as I understand them.

In my faith tradition, we are taught that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. That we have a responsibility to respect the dignity of every human being. That God so loved the world that he sacrificed himself for us. That the greatest commandment given by God is love.

There are lots of reasonable discussions about the details and niceties of how one best loves one's neighbor. But all of those discussions are light years away from what happens in our politics. The campaign to amend the Constitution isn't about love, it's about Winning. It's about Being Right. We have an entire presidential campaign that, so far as I have been able to tell, has not one drop of love in it. It is fueled entirely by hate, anger, fear. The other campaign is better, but only by contrast. Not much love there either.

The thing is that in politics, we think that the Outcomes are the most important thing. What policy we have, what law gets passed, what regulations are created or repealed - these are of the highest political priority. But these hardly matter at all to anyone who takes the basic tenets of Christianity seriously. Laws will change, policies will change, regulations will change. Obamacare was created, and it has not brought about the end of the world. If next year a Republican President and a Republican Congress replace it with a new health care system, that won't end the world either.

What does matter, if we take the Gospels at all seriously, is how we treat each other. Indeed, the Gospels scarcely speak of anything else. Jesus' sole foray into the political arena was to tell his followers, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's". Focus on what's really important.

This is why I'm a Process person. Because process is all about how we treat each other, how we work together, how we agree and disagree and discuss and argue. Process is where Love lives. Outcomes, like the grass, wither and pass away; only Love endures.

This is why I am so uncomfortable with political campaigns and electoral cycles. They drive all of the love from the public square and replace it with anger, hatred, fear, greed - the whole range of human sin. They tempt us to replace our faith with what C.S. Lewis called "Christianity and".

When November comes, I will vote. Between now and then, I will look for signs of love.

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