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Now for Some Political Soul Searching
Matthew Lee Anderson
"We look for Democrats and Republicans to put the people before the politics.” So Mitt Romney said in a concession speech that Twitter instantly dubbed as “classy.” And it was: short, gracious and appropriately deferential not only to the man who had just defeated him, but to the clear and undeniable will of the majority of the people.
Presidential election seasons are peculiarly divisive times in American politics. And that’s not all bad. The goal, after all, is election and that means beating out the other guy. But that sort of aggressive partisanship has to be subordinated to the actual work of governing, as Romney indicated in his concession, unless we want to continue down the road of a more starkly polarized country. For my money, I do not—and few people do. The gaps between left and right on many issues are significant, but so are the challenges before us. And intellectual and policy creativity, of the good sort, can be furthered by getting people with different first principles in the same room to reasonably discuss possible points of agreement. It is hardly surprising that a polarized politics has lead to what amounts to intellectual stagnation on both sides of the aisle.
Still, as happens most every four years in American politics, one side ends the night in cheers while the other begins the process of reflecting on the possibilities that will never be actualized. We call it “soul searching,” and while it is generally kept to the losing party it should be a practice everyone pursues. For how we reflect upon elections will determine whether we will move forward from them effectively. For those who lose, bitterness tends to fester and harden into angry resentment, which is how parts of the conservative media have conducted themselves in the past four years. It’s a short-term strategy, resentment, and it ends up reinforcing the self-congratulatory and blinkered disregard of facts that happen in an echo chamber.
For those who win, though, the temptation toward political pride is just as real. Though we may not hear much of it this time, it’s popular for politicians to claim a “mandate” when they win, which is code for suggesting the 51 percent that elected them provides justification for ignoring the 49 percent.
Differences will remain, of course. And we should argue about them, as President Obama ably said in his genuinely excellent remarks last night. If I may speak as a Christian who is a conservative, the President’s positions on life and the pressures his administration are putting on religious liberty are issues which I plan on presenting a very loud opposition to. But the great experiment of the American republic is that it's able to enfold opposition into the social fabric by keeping it permanently loyal. We discuss and argue about where we disagree precisely because of what we have in common: our care, our concern, our interest in the flourishing of the place we call our home.
In a polarized society, those points of commonality are fewer, to be sure. But the genius of the American democratic tradition is that a history of reasonable disagreement provides its own foundation for discourse and common ground. In order to be a united people, we need traditions that can provide a sense of stability and order to our social framework. We don’t have many such traditions that are properly national. But if we look backward, we see one of the most prominent is a tradition of disagreeing and arguing, without picking up and moving when we don’t get our own way. Remembering and retelling that history would be a good starting point for a nation attempting to solve its very pressing problems.
Even while the arguments must be had, though, the goal should be the soft coercion of persuasion so we can hopefully stave off the firmer coercion of a government’s decision. And here we have the deepest problem with our American social order: as polarization has deepened and echo chambers have become more prominent, attempts to persuade seem to have fallen by the wayside. Much of our public discourse is directed toward reinforcing what the faithful already know, rather than attempting to convince those who disagree. Just as such closed circles lead to intellectual stagnation, they also lead to rhetorical stagnation—people don’t have to find new ways to frame their ideas because everyone already agrees.
As Christians interested in speaking in public as Christians, we need to be at least as sensitive to the manner of our speech as our conclusions. The reality is that a divided public is a permanent feature of American political life—the accommodation to that is why the founders established the American government how they did. We need not fear differences or serious and substantial disagreements. But as Christians, the guidelines the Bible lays out for speaking and listening are not just recipes for healthy relational harmony. “Be slow to speak and quick to listen” is a political good as much as a social one. If we are to dialogue with those who we disagree, we must eventually reach the point of first principles—of examining and questioning the presuppositions that make our positions different. But that is a process that must be done slowly and that demands a careful and interested ear.
Where we go from here as a country is an open question. But it is in the face of such openness that Christians are called to pray, to look to the providential hand of God and to entrust themselves, their society and their leaders into his loving care. And through such a posture, we can as Christians begin to cultivate the sort of cheerful opposition or affirmation of our leadership that makes room for reasonable disagreement—even as we still fight fiercely for the common well-being.
Photo of New York City skyline taken by Lisa Bettany. Used with permission.
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