Election 2022: sanity for the win, and a personal political program

I’ve been sitting with the election results for the last week, pondering on what I think they mean, and how I interpret the results, free from the passions of election night and the immediate days after. And there were passions! Despite my very conscious and deliberate withdrawal from politics, as both a vocation and an obsession, I still am possessed by that person who majored in political science and worked in politics. Election night is still like the Super Bowl, and I get a thrill from tracking results from across the country. Its not necessarily about cheering for winners and losers (although I do certainly have preferences for outcomes), but it is more the process of vote counting and tracking legislative control and such. It is still a lot of fun for me! I had a great time watching the coverage, geeking with Steve Kornacki over the numbers, and monitoring specific races on my phone throughout the night, and the days after.

That said, I think Tuesday was by and large a heartening night, whether you are on the left or right and free from the extremism/radicalism of the edges. Andrew Sullivan, as usual, captured the feeling I share with him very well: “Which is to say that in this still-functioning, high turn-out unpredictable democracy, sane American voters just gave both parties a winning path back to the center. Whoever gets there first will win.” Andrew’s basic point is that the sane center asserted itself, rejecting both Trumpist, democracy-threatening right wing extremists, and out-of-touch, far left progressives, by delivering a close result and pushing back on the worst candidates and ideas on both sides, for the most part. Read his full piece for more details on where that pushback happened.

I think this is right take away from last Tuesday. Everyone agrees, even the former Trump media apparatus: Trump was the big loser of 2022. His candidates were shelled, his push to discredit democracy is being rejected, and other voices in the Republican Party are asserting themselves. Meanwhile, on the left, voters seem mostly comfortable with a sane, calm equilibrium, providing a wake up to the party this year, but also retaining some confidence that Democrats are the saner choice for America. Its up to the party to take the hint, especially in candidate choice. Biden should make it clear he is not running again, just like he vaguely promised in the last campaign. The Party has some emerging, reasonable voices out there, in the pragmatic mold of Barack Obama (Josh Shapiro, anyone? Keep an eye on the new governor of Pennsylvania.) Focus on pocketbooks and economic fairness, punt on the culture war, because the GOP has proven it is willing to take the most unpopular stances across the board and shoot itself in the foot time and again on everything from abortion to marriage to family autonomy. Don’t fight right wing extremism with left wing extremism. Being a sane voice isn’t a capitulation or cowardice; its the right move in a pluralistic democracy with a 50/50 split where you need to – in fact, I would argue you have a moral imperative to – appeal to as much of the electorate as is possible.

I am revealing my preferences here. I no longer work for the Democratic Party, nor do I identify with the Party beyond the designation on my voter card. But, I will never deny, I am a person of the left. I generally want Democrats to win, because I broadly agree with their policy choices, especially on economic and poverty issues, while still at this point holding them at arms length. I think this is a healthy attitude to take on politics, especially as I start to come out of the “political detox” I’ve been on over the last couple of years. In the wake of the election, I was reflecting on my own political commitments, and how I understand myself as a voter and citizen. Because, despite my theological commitment towards Hauerwas/Yoder/Anabaptist thought, and my growing rejection of the assumptions underlying a large chunk of modernity, I still understand that I am part of this polis called America, and I don’t feel like completely abandoning any attachment or commitment to it, and most importantly, to the people around me who are also a part of this grand fabric. Local issues concern me a lot more these days, especially on education and building strong, sustainable communities, but as I said above, I’ll never be able to escape the itch I have for politics, and I acknowledge that passion and also the inclination I have for it. Surely there is a path to goodness found in it for me.

So where have I come down on those aforementioned political commitments? Here is the basic gist of the notes I have been writing down:

  • a commitment to a politics that is class-based first and primarily, rather than any understanding of race, gender, sexual orientation, cultural or ethnic boundaries, or especially ideology. This has historically been the project of the left, and the turn away from a politics of class (and especially of the working and lower classes) towards essentializing narratives around identity and the political commitments that demands has been a huge detriment to the left in America.
  • farm-and-labor socialist policies, in the very best mold of figures like Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette, and Henry Wallace. This is NOT the socialism of the Squad, of the modern Social Democrats, or even of Bernie Sanders, despite my admiration for him and the work he has done to reduce the stigma of the title “socialist.” This is also not a Marxist socialism, but like I said, is more in the mold of the old farm and labor parties of the Midwest in the late 19th/early 20th century, with a tinge of the populism of folks like William Jennings Bryan (minus, of course, the racism.) This builds on my first bullet point, as a class-based politics that advocates for working, middle class, and poor folks is what I think is the best kind of politics, especially in a nation and world with a growing gap between the elite and rest. Which brings me to my next bullet
  • anti-elite, anti-wealth, anti-corporate. Not because money is inherently bad, not because of jealousy, or a desire to make the poor the rich, and the rich the poor. But because everyone should have enough; not too little, and not too much. Elitism and wealth strike at the very heart of democracy and the kind of equality and pluralism that is at the heart of the very best understanding of the American ideal.
  • in favor of democracy. I know it is in vogue these days to be a defender of democracy, especially on the left in the face of an anti-democratic right. There is also a strong contingent on the left, however, that is critical of democracy, especially if that democracy includes the voices of the “problematic.” But I do think democracy is a good thing, not for the outcomes it brings, but because of the voice it gives to all people. For me, democracy is part of my anti-elite, anti-wealth ethos. Everyone should have a voice equal to every other one. For this reason, I believe in political democracy, and in policies and programs that amplify the voice of all people, including expanding voting rights. I also support economic democracy, including policies that limit wealth accumulation, and give voice to workers in their work places.
  • pragmatism of idealism. All day, every day. I perhaps should have put this bullet (or perhaps second, behind the next bullet to come.) I do have strong ideological political commitments, stated above. But, pragmatism should color any ideological system. People have to come first, and a commitment to democratic norms and to what is popular and feasible among working people should be a strong factor in any politics. With that in mind…
  • moderate, calm, and rational politics, over and against extremism and radicalism of all kinds, left or right. I abandoned politics largely because I’m so sick of the extreme, the radical, and those who reject any form of compromise, conversation, acknowledgement of good intentions, or the inherent and equal rights and value of those we disagree with. Extremism is no virtue, especially in a democracy.
  • finally, a healthy skepticism of government and the power it can and does wield. This commitment puts me at odds with many of my fellow travelers on the left, especially in America’s current political culture. Democrats and the left have become the party of the institutions, of the status quo, and of the government. This is a distinctive quirk of the post-New Deal world and the success of the left in the first and middle part of the 20th century, and I get that. But its a dangerous place for the left to occupy, and I think it would behoove many of this side to remember that, historically and also contemporaneously, government has been a locus of elite power, and that often in defending the role and prerogative of government, we have done the work of defending elite power structures and maintaining a status quo that benefits a few at the expense of the many. Yes, programs like Social Security and Medicare have historically been powerful programs that lifted up the working poor; but to treat them like God’s own policies, in need of defending at all other costs, is a bad place to be in for the left. We would do well for a strong dose of healthy skepticism, and even a healthy, positive, local-focused type of libertarianism, not of the type that has been commandeered by the radical right, but that which has for a long time been the place of the left in a world where right wing and elite powers ran government and other institutions.

None of these political commitments, however, come before my identity as a Christian, and the ideological, political and social commitments that ties me to. In a choice between the two, my faith always wins, and I am at a place where it is very important to me to not dress up any worldly political position or choice in religious clothes. That is a danger that the Christian left and right in this country largely forget and/or don’t worry about, and I intend to keep pushing back against it, especially on the left, my home and thus the place I feel I can speak to more effectively.

So, does any of this mean I will be writing more about politics here? I honestly don’t know. Maybe. I got through phases where politics are more interesting to me, and then longer ones where they aren’t. So no telling. But I guess I wanted to lay down a marker, to remind myself and my readers that politics aren’t completely unimportant or uninteresting to me. But if I am going to engage in them here, I needed some guardrails and understandings in place, for myself more than anything else. I intend to keep this post in the front of my mind when I write about politics, and if I don’t, I hope you, my gracious readers, will redirect my gaze and push back against my worst impulses.

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The Weimar dynamic

I don’t agree with most of Andrew Sullivan’s diagnosis about this week’s elections, but this paragraph is eye-opening:

The Weimar dynamic is a simple one. The left and right polarize; the middle collapses; inflation takes off, unnerving everyone and discrediting government; and at some point, as liberal democracy breaks down, voters are asked to choose between the extreme left or the extreme right.

May you all have some moderate, measured, and non-inflammatory choices in the voting booth today.

everyone is a radical now

I’ve recently subscribed to David French’s really good Substack newsletter (named The French Press – kudos to David for such a pun!) He’s the first real conservative writer I’ve added to my daily rotation, unless you consider Andrew Sullivan a conservative (I don’t; he’s much too middle of the road, in a good way.) David wrote this last week a very perceptive post on the extremism of the culture wars that I can’t recommend enough, and that I’ll write a few posts about here. While I certainly don’t see eye to eye with David on the substance of a lot of political issues, I like reading him because temperamentally I think we are so similar – the same way I view Alan Jacobs, another conservative-ish writer who I value greatly. We all hold strong positions, but we do so in an even keeled way – temperamentally conservative, while not necessarily being politically so (at least in my case.)

What really jumped out to me in his piece was his identification of something I have felt myself over the last couple of years: the rise of the conflict between extremism or radicalism and moderation, over and against the classical conflict between left and right. Here is David:

Last month The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published a fascinating interview with Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid. The entire interview is worth reading—especially if you have interest in Israeli politics and the prospects for Middle East peace—but two sentences from the prime minister stood out as particularly insightful. “Everybody is stuck in this left-versus-right traditional dynamic,” he said. “But today, all over the world, it’s centrist versus extremist.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer. Now, to be clear, this is a strange position for me. I’ve always been conservative. In the left versus right context, I’ve always considered myself a man of the right—the Reagan right. But when the extremes grow more extreme, and the classical liberal structure of the American republic is under intellectual and legal attack, suddenly I’m an involuntary moderate. 

I identify very strongly with this. Politically, I am a creature of the left. I carry a strong commitment to a class-based, social democratic labor-leftism, and I support policies that advance the interests of the working class and minority groups within a framework of responsive, egalitarian democracy. But, I find myself occupying a place within our current political moment that is more centrist or moderate than I’ve ever been. Just a David finds himself on the outs with what constitutes the right today, I find it hard to identify with the American left in many ways. Not because I’m drifting right, but exactly because I’ve stayed pretty steady in my political commitments and watched the left drift away from me, not further left, but instead in a direction that would be more vertical on a scale of political orientations. Think something like this:

I’m in that green square, near the horizon line but just below it, and about 2/3 of the way left. The mainstream left seems to not have moved much left, but instead just further and further up the scale. Same on the right: the libertarian right is almost non-existent, while the mainstream right has moved very quickly up. In this drift, on the the left and the right, those of who have maintained political commitments- and even more importantly, have refused to be buffeted by the fickle winds of American politics – have been left somewhat homeless. Another way to put this is, mainstream politics no longer shifts along the left-right axis, but instead sees who can go vertical the fastest, and those of us committed to a debate on that left-right axis are largely shouting into the abyss.

Here is David on his view of being left behind (sorry for the long quote, but its all so crucial to argument I’m making here):

So, for example, I’m a person who believes in the traditional Christian doctrines of marriage and sexual morality. I don’t believe in sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. I don’t agree that trans men are “men” or that trans women are “women,” and while I strive to treat every person I encounter with dignity and respect, I don’t use preferred pronouns because their use is a form of assent to a system of belief to which I don’t subscribe.

That makes me pretty far right, correct? Not when the right gets authoritarian or closes its mind and heart to the legacy of real injustice. I’m apparently the conservative movement’s foremost defender of the civil liberties of drag queens. I’m constantly decried as “woke” in part because I don’t discard all of the relevant insights gained from critical race theory, I strongly oppose efforts to “ban” CRT, and also because I believe in multigenerational institutional responsibility to ameliorate the enduring harm caused by centuries of racial oppression. 

The through line is pretty simple. I’m both a traditionally orthodox Christian and a strong believer in classical liberalism, pluralism, and legal equality. I’m a believer in those political values because I’m a traditionally orthodox Christian. I want to create and sustain the kind of republic that was envisioned by George Washington at his best, a place where “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” 

I do not want to commandeer the government to “reward friends and punish enemies,” and I do want to protect the fundamental freedoms of even the most strident of my political opponents. This is not because they’ll like me if I do, but because it is just and right to defend the rights of others that I would like to exercise myself. 

Again, I certainly don’t share the specifics of these politics with David, but I share this feeling and this temperamental commitment to liberalism, even if I at times have strong criticisms of the liberal tradition1. Such much of politics today is about owning our enemies on social media, about punishing those with disagree with, and even more so, those who dissent from the orthodoxy of the moment. Its become about using the power of politics and media to control and enforce a vision of the world, not economically, but culturally. I have no problem using the levers of government to craft a more economically egalitarian and fair world; I do have issues with using those levers to force people to believe certain things. For a long time, its been understood by most people that the First Amendment forbids such things; now, that is a decidedly fringe belief, according to the new consensus among the authoritarian left and right. (Just do a search on Twitter for the term “free speech bro” to see what I’m talking about.)

I wanted to highlight this from David’s essay and write this post as a way of laying down a marker about something that has increasingly become an intellectual prior for me at this point: our politics is all extremism and radicalism at this point, and that is a bad thing. I feel left behind by this, and I think a lot of other smart people are too, especially a large contingent of normies who aren’t obsessed with politics and social media culture. Its a new Silent Majority in the making, not built around latent racism and disapproval of the counterculture, but instead around a tendency to shake our heads at all the braying idiots in our cultural arenas and a desire to live our life, for things to make a little more sense, and for our leaders to just try to make the world a little better and easier for everyone to live in. This marker is important for me because its influencing so strongly the things I’m thinking and writing going forward. Consider me a libertarian-leftist-moderate.

1 Those criticisms are theologically rooted, however, not politically. I think in politics, liberalism is about the best we can do right. But it still has shortcomings that a good theological lens brings into view.