At a community group with my church, and a small group with the CCO, there were conversations about relativism and the resurgent tribalism in America. Members of both who participated in the conversation were dreading the impending 2020 season, which starts before even Christmas decorations are up in stores.
The reason for this dread is simple: the vitriolic, destructive 2016 season which saw people break off years-long friendships because of who they voted for and in some cases, they stopped talking to family members as well. Oddly, exit polls demonstrate that neither candidate was actually well-liked. As Ben Shapiro elaborates in the introduction to his book The Right Side of History. “The exit polls show that on the day of the 2016 election, just 43 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton; 38 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. Only 36 percent of voters thought Hillary was honest and trustworthy; 33 percent of voters thought Trump was. 53 percent of Americans said they would feel concerned or scared if Clinton won; 57 percent of Americans felt that way if Trump won.”
And yet, Shapiro observes, both of these woefully unpopular and inherently unlikeable candidates received millions of votes, and we know this same battle is coming again and will likely be even more vitriolic in 2020. But there is a separate concern that I think is becoming apparent as the DNC “Anyone But Trump” train prepares to leave the station: no part of the discourse whatsoever is honest, useful, or deep. Both sides fire endless volleys of insults as a substitute for a poor understanding of the issues at hand beyond their Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity cultivated echo chamber. It has gotten so bad, that polls demonstrate how many Americans don’t even talk to people of opposing viewpoints anymore.
The running theme in the political climate is how vitriolic, stupid, shallow and absurd it seems to be. Everyone is aware that their candidate is personally unlikeable, but because it’s “their team”, they defend it to the death, and will apparently choose it over their families and friends. In defending the sociopath while attacking the demagogue or vice versa, any claim to this being a morally guided decision is lost.
It is easy to blame the media. However they, as Edward R. Murrow would say, “did not create this situation, they merely exploited it, and rather successfully”. Social media seems to indicate we would be perfectly willing to gut each other without their assistance. The media, which a few years ago were facing lean years were it not for division and turmoil, now have their own ready-made batch of clapping seals ready to regurgitate passionately the Least Common Denominator arguments that a calm, thinking electorate would’ve doomed them to the dustbin of history. As everything has become more political, without agreeable rules of engagement, it is clear that we would’ve provided our own fuel, and may even desire that the media fit our worldview and support our thoughts. Just so we know that “those people” are the crazy ones and they just don’t know it yet.
With all of this, we are left to conclude that Americans on both sides are personally each committed to continuing down this path. Why? Because there is no redemption in the secular, political world. The Right or the Left is not merely “your political home” it is “your family” and don’t you dare betray the Family.
We have a choice, it seems. Either “those” people are our mortal enemies, or those people are and “these people” are, and we become vagabonds. We have no home, and find ourselves in the ghetto of moderacy, while those in the shiny glass houses continue to fling shit at each other as well as those of us in the ghetto. And we all want platitudes easily mend the gap.
Immediately following every election, there is one call to unite as a country, which feels as much a platitude as anything else in the aftermath of a disaster. We may as well be told to “love our neighbor”, “live every day as if it were our last” and “know that we’re all Americans first”. The problem here is that after 10 months of vitrolic and sometimes violent sectarian squabbling, saying “we have to unite as a country” without telling people exactly what to base that on. This is what platitudes are meant for: they’re magic words that are supposed to turn the Grand Canyon into the Great Plains. Further, there is no secular guide to forgiving beyond “Just Do It” thanks to the self-esteem movement of the last 30 or so years. And there seems to be a rigid and low, limit on what we will forgive.
And there really is no good reason for us to love our neighbor after an election. We woke up, went to work, hung out with our “real” friends, fought off that sneaking feeling that something was wrong, blew off the feeling it was our fault, and then had dinner and went to bed. Why would we possibly want to associate with those horrible people “on the wrong side of history”?
The reason: because look what awaits us in the future. It’s no secret that Donald Trump could be a lot better as a president. By the way, I’m using the actual Donald Trump as I see him, not the Red Baron, “tyrant” caricature CNN and the rest of the elite Democrats see.
He has failed, like every president who promises to do so, on improving infrastructure. There is, somehow, a 836 billion dollar backlog of infrastructure projects, approximately 1.2 times our military budget. I’m not saying that number should’ve been extinguished, but it should be a hell of a lot lower than it is. Further, he has allowed the Patriot Act to continue and the security-theater known as TSA, while it is a bit more efficient, still has warehouses of new gear that remain unused. The problems facing the country that have plagued us for years and sometimes decades continue to go unaddressed.
Despite this, Trump is going to be the Republican candidate in 2020. Scarier still is the fact that the front-runners of the Democratic Party are front-runners on apparent charisma and being anti-Trump but not on any philosophical depth or noteable intelligence. First, thank God, AOC is not old enough to run. Beyond that is Robert O’Rourke, the failed Texas Senatorial candidate who gives off the vibe of Apple keynote stable Craig Federighi than a serious political force. There’s Corey Booker, who despite a wonderful bipartisan bill on prison reform is known more for his outbursts at the farcical Kavanagh hearings, Kamala Harris, same deal. Elizabeth Warren is just kinda “there” ever since her Native American card was revoked, and then the returning Bernie Sanders appealing to socialists, a worldview for which a solid grasp history and economics is an obstacle.
So we have ourselves running headlong towards a scenario where Americans are emotionally invested in their politics more than their people, both sides posses the philosophical depth of a teaspoon and enough anger to serve as an energy source, and are preparing to burn the country to the ground and blaming the other for the fire surrounding all of us. All of this being done with more passion than it already is being done with.
For millennials, I believe this is a product of the public school system and the platitudes we grew up with. Specifically, this emphasis on “changing the world” and “leaving the world better than you found it”, to put our whole being into something “greater than ourselves” which if you think about it, is not a hard bar to meet. A marriage is something “greater than yourself” and therein lies the problem: a marriage is too small. A family is too small. A circle of friends that consists of about 15 people is too small. We need to change the world. Otherwise, what are our lives but dust in the wind? We need to be influencers, we need to be agents of change, at the core of it all, we need to be relevant in the context of some great movement on par with the only powerful historical parallels we were ever taught: Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage. Further, everyone who disagrees with us is the only other powerful historical parallel we were ever taught: A Nazi.
Is it not ironic that, despite all this political tribalism and fighting for the good of the country that we seem to be wildly unhappy? It appears that while many seem on the outside to have found a purpose, this purpose has not bettered their lives, and they are perpetually offended by everything and pounce on every out of context, 15 second sound byte that comes up. Even 10-15 year old Facebook/Myspace posts aren’t immune from the hunt. And they haven’t even achieved anything. What has become of political boycott targets Home Depot, Yungeling, Target, Sonic, Kroger and most notably Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A? They don’t seem to be doing to poorly, do they? The best these people can point to is taking out the Mozilla Firefox CEO because he supported Prop 8 in California a decade ago, when they’re not fallaciously targeting Colorado bakeries or Indiana pizza joints and that’s not exactly something to be proud of.
But alas, what else is there for the secular world to find joy in? Everything, as Solomon observed long ago, is meaningless, unfulfilling and temporal. You can lose the job you love in an instant (in this culture over a tweet), you can lose love for your job after a few heavy days. A political movement is ever-ongoing, and one that doesn’t seek any deeper knowledge than they already march with is self-sustaining. But if dethroning one CEO 10 years after the “sin” is a “major victory”, it isn’t productive and this fact will eventually reveal itself, if it hasn’t already.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon eventually accepts the absurd situation of life, and finds that there is nothing better for someone than to “eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil” (Eccl. 2:24). So many fail, or appear to fail, to find satisfaction in their work. It seems like they’ll only be “happy” in the achievement of some magnum opus that they do not realize may take decades or lifetimes they don’t have to achieve, if it is achieved at all. We mustn’t find our joy in “changing the world” or appointing ourselves the spokespeople for a certain people group, but rather in the work of doing what we care about, because that may be all we have.
And that leads me to one last point, this idea that to not be politically engaged to the hilt is a form of privilege and as the phrase goes “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”. I am paying attention, these words demonstrate that. I have observed that anger has gotten us into a great deal of trouble and will continue to do so. Anger has given us failed boycotts, shallow discussions, a lack of personal philosophical depth, broken friendships, broken families, hair-trigger emotions, and has destroyed the concept of redemption for ourselves and our political opponents. It hasn’t fixed anything, it has only made the situation so toxic that, as we all observe at some point, a “good” person, whatever that looks like, wouldn’t dare run for office.
And so, what is the solution? How do we fix it? After all, have I not spent the last 1500 words noting that others have said “unite as a country” without saying exactly how to do that? Well, you’re not gonna like the answer, at least some of you won’t. You see there is no deeper secular call to unite as a country. It’s all platitudes. More to the point, there is no secular call to look around at the absolute havoc that we have wreaked on ourselves, each other and our country. For, “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Eccl. 1:18). There is no looking around and matter-of-factly going “welp, we made a mess, time to clean it up.” Before looking across the aisle at the person we’ve beaten to a pulp for at least 2 years with a chirpy “Hey…truce?”
There is a reckoning that must take place first. We must recognize the damage that has been done, which is immense, and our hand in it, which is also quite considerable. Those who have, as Gallup polls indicate, and as one Slate article encouraged, cut off family and friends off for primarily political, and largely emotional reasons need to work to rebuild that bond. We need to see the media’s bias, which we’re all apparently aware of to some degree, as a problem and actually act on that by shutting them out or taking in sources with a different bias. We need to learn to debate productively, and further we need to put less of ourselves into being “right” at all costs.
As far as I can tell, the path to that only comes through Christ. Again, there does not appear to be any secular call for any of the above because to the individual, actually having to face the immense destruction they caused over time and work toward the unenviable task of repairing it is almost irrational. Just like that, they are dependent on others for forgiveness and the important work of reconciliation. And while both sides need forgiveness, neither is willing to offer it.
For anything to begin, therefore, both sides must look outside of themselves and each other toward God. In a talk at the CCO’s Jubilee conference in February 2019, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren observed the “both/and” dichotomies facing people in conflict. People are both victims and victimizers, they need to be forgiven and need to forgive. “The tendency in our culture now is to say that we are good, we don’t need a savior or a redeemer. But the problem is those people. And I don’t know your “those people” are, maybe…the problem is conservatives, or the problem is liberals…the problem isn’t just out there, in those other people” it’s us. However “you need God’s grace as much as the person you think is most evil, or most misguided.” Warren states that the doctrine of sin would tell us that we have more in common with that misguided soul than we do with Jesus and the fact that both sides are responsible for this mess confirms that. Confronting that fact by ourselves without hope for redemption can only make us hopelessly exclaim “how on Earth can we repair this?” It is far easier, and more temporarily satisfying to just continue bashing those “other people”. And yet, it isn’t a stretch to imagine, that once we set our hearts even slightly towards seeing the scale of the disaster, the satisfaction of the attack might just become smaller than it already is. It will take far longer to repair than it did for us to destroy, and we’ve been destroying for a long time. Complicating matters is that we cannot start by looking outward and a passing glance internally is insufficient. “This isn’t really me”, one might say. “I wouldn’t mean to cause this.”
Except we would. Further, we did, willingly. We chose to seperate from family and friends over politics. We chose to put so much anger into politics. If 2016 has shown us anything that could be described as positive, it has done away with the idea that we are good by ourselves.
Therefore, the inward being must first be confronted and tamed and that is something we cannot do ourselves. There is no inner peace we can find, there’s no self-help book that will lead us to whatever our best life looks like now, this not a “do-it-yourself” project. This requires a knowledge that we are loved as people, irrespective of our politics and our destructive tendencies. It requires a guide that understands that we will fail on the way, and it requires something else working in us to improve ourselves. In short, it requires God. When we consider the years that we have been called (and calling, but leave that aside for a moment) heartless, cruel, bitter, homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic, intolerant, heartless, lawless, racist, hateful, angry, harsh, mean-spirited, Hitler, Nazi, irredeemable, hopeless, lazy, indifferent, cold, calloused, and God only knows what else, to say nothing about whether or not the accusations are true (which they probably weren’t), they were passionate and repeated, and they were primarily how we identified “those people”. To forgive that is, on its face, irrational. And yet, for anything to get better, we need it to happen. We require the “love that surpasses understanding” (Eph. 3:19). Despite all of this, as Jesus himself declares in Mark 3:28, that hope is still offered to us freely, if we just come to Him. We must become aware of and confront our own brokenness and know that we have hope for redemption for ourselves and those we have hurt. Oddly, the first step on this road, is to find someone else who can help you on that path, because this too cannot be done on one’s own (a fact I personally need to learn to accept. The “introvert” thing really isn’t an excuse).
This turnaround alone will not itself change everything overnight, there is no quick fix here. However it will begin to change ourselves and the political world for the better, something that hasn’t seemed possible for a very long time.