The myth of political principles

I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised that Mitch McConnell would vote for Donald Trump as president on 2024. I assume all the handwringing and outrage among pundits is largely performative. Of course Mitch McConnell is going to vote for the Republican candidate in 2024. All of the incentives of American democracy as it is structured right now lead him to no other plausible outcome.

Here’s the key thing to understand about politics just in general: principle is not a consideration for decision-making. Or, if it every is, it comes into play way down the list of decision factors, behind things like self-interest, party loyalty, interest group influence, electoral impact, and a plethora of others. Conservative/progressive/liberal/libertarian/identarian principles very rarely come into the calculation when politicians make decisions about voting or public statements or when it comes to what to support or not support. This is true on the right and the left. Principles are just simply not luxuries politicians feel they can indulge, aside from a few iconoclastic personalities who rarely are able to muster support across a wide base (Bernie is the only moderately successful principled politician in recent history.) Principles are for the rest of us, and its up to us to figure out which party’s quest for power best benefits the principles and causes we might support.

And honestly, this is how the Founders designed our system to work. Those who crafted the Constitution understood that human motivation is very rarely principled, but instead is guided by baser instincts, and thus they put together a system replete with checks and balances and guardrails and funnels and other methods of channeling and focusing the various motivations of politicians towards the responsible use of power in a way that benefits the Republic.

I think our political culture has lost that plot, and this reaction to McConnell’s declaration of support is just another example of how our perceptions and expectations about politics are misguided. We need to stop reacting to our political leaders – and trying to influence our political leaders – like they are responsive to arguments about principles and values and ideas. Instead, we have to remember that what they respond to is arguments rooted in power and self-interest and electoral incentive. Is it the most virtuous system out there? Far from it. But we can either do politics in the world as it is, or as we wish it would be. I know which one Mitch McConnell has decided to operate in.

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The President should have been removed from office.

Over the past days, weeks, and months, as the impeachment process has moved forward from a probe, to hearings and fact finding in the House of Representatives, to the beginnings of the Senate trial, one thing has become readily apparent: President Trump has abused his office and his power in order not to benefit the nation, but to personally benefit himself and his political prospects in the 2020 election.

It is clear from the evidence presented – all the transcripts, the text messages, the phone conversations, the memos, the testimonies, the emails – that President Trump was intent on attaching his own unilateral conditions to Congressionally-appropriated foreign aid funds – specifically, the condition that Ukrainian officials would announce investigtions into the son of potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden. It’s clear that the Trump administration had no interest in what these investigations actually uncovered, in the pursuit of corruption, or in whether the investigations ever actually happened. What they wanted was the mere announcement of an investigation for PR reasons. By having Biden under the pall of an investigation in a foreign country, Trump and his political team believed they could tilt the 2020 election further in their favor.

This is the textbook definition of abuse of power. The President wasn’t trying to protect American foreign policy or economic interests by asking for an investigation. He wasn’t acting on intelligence from his own national security teams. What President Trump wanted was for the US government – the government you and I pay for – to be used to score personal political points in his favor. He used money that had been appropriated by Congress, and held that money up, in defiance of his Constitutional duty as executor of funds, in order to try to damage a political rival in an upcoming election. This is abuse of power. This is the use of political office – use of the public trust – in order to further himself, and himself only.

Abuse of power is, and should be, an impeachable offense. Our Founders, in crafting our form of government in the Constitution, were very clear in their fear of a tyrannical executive power (just like the one they had escaped from), and in their intent to constrain the worst excesses of any executive office from abusing that power. This is why they included an impeachment clause, and why they left the conditions of impeachment slightly vague and open. They foresaw the fact that they, in the late 18th century, could certainly not predict the various ways office holders might use and abuse their office in the future.

What the President has done is not just “politics as usual.” He is not engaging in actions akin to former presidents. Yes, politicians use the prospect of foreign aid to extract promises from foreign actors quite often. But the promises they are extracting are promises of action that furtherss a policy objective of the United States, not of themselves personally. Often, foreign aid will be predicated on the commitment from the receiving nation to hold fair and free elections, or to open up free markets, or to withdraw from hostilties of some sort, among other priorities. But what President Trump has done in this instance is predicate those funds on a promise made to him personally, for his sole benefit. This is a perversion of national resources in the pursuit of political interest. This is not normal.

Beyond his actions, this President and his administration has resorted to the historic tools of authoritarians and demagogues. Rather than answering in good faith the claims and arguments of their critics, they have resorted to tearing down the one of the most crucial features of any democracy: the free press. Attacks on the media stand in for actual answers that contain substance. The media becomes a convenient scapegoat and straw-man for any authoritarian. Attacks on the values of truth and honesty are attacks on the life blood of participatory government. When our leaders feel the need to obscure and confuse about their actions and words – when they go on television, and tell blatant, shameless lies in the face of all evidence – they have shown that they are unable to defend their own actions on this merits. They create their own truth, their own version of reality, and do everything they can to keep their followers from having access to or trust in traditional sources of truth and integrity. Our Founders understood the importance of education, a free press, and free speech; this administration has launched all out attacks on all three.

Despite the faults it has, and the tendency among some to absolutize its words and ideas, the US Constitution is a remarkable governing document. Specifically, Americans can and should treasure the ideas of self government, and within that, of a national government wherein the interests and passions of individuals and specific interests are not held to be more important than the needs of general welfare of all people. Our Constitution, when read in its best light, is written to ensure that everyone is placed on a equal footing with regards to governance and decision making. It was written in the ominous shadow of tyranny, monarchy, and executive overreach. It was written in order to ensure that the lives of regular, everyday citizens would not be devalued in comparison to the most powerful. While we as a people have always struggled to live up to the great potential contained in our founding documents, that should not obscure the high ideals contained therein.

Thus, any American who claims to be in favor of our Constitutional form of governance, who claims to be concerned about the depredations of centralized government, and who values the ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality, should recognize that the actions of our current administration with regards to Ukraine strike at the heart of these ideals. The President is perverting our most cherished common values in his actions and his words. Rather than pursuing the common interest, President Trump has elevated himself above the rest of us; his actions and words show clearly that he doesn’t believe himself to be a servant of those of us who pay his salary and who he is supposed to be working for. Instead, he believes we, and our government, are here to serve him, and somehow, in doing so, our common interest might be touched.

Constitutional democracy only works with trust and with integrity among those who are entrusted with power. This President has failed to hold this trust, or to act with integrity. As a result, it is past time to remove him from office, and begin the process of healing our wounded civic character. Our democratic future depends on our ability, at this moment, to defend it. We are at an inflection point in history, and we can either choose to defend our democratic heritage, or continue down the path towards authoritarianism dressed up in the veil of constitutionalism. Despite the failure of the Senate to do the right and proper thing yesterday, we as a people should spend the time between now and November making the case for removing this President from office at the ballot box.

Christianity and Democracy: A Statement of (ever evolving) Values and Priorities

Over the last few years, I have spent a large amount of time thinking about the interplay of public form of Christian expression, and modern liberal democracy in America. During that time, I have had ideas spanning the range of ideas from those in support of full Christian involvement in regular politics, to complete withdrawal from political engagement by people of faith. This idealogical drift has been the normal result of a seminary education; I have had the time and freedom to explore widely, to find what it is I really think and believe about a variety of topics. This interplay of Christianity and democracy is just the one most at the forefront of my own priorities.

Recently, I have drifted towards an ethic of radical difference; that is, I have been deeply influenced by the post-liberal ideals of people like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, in believing that the church must be an alternative polis to that of the world. The church has a duty not to the structures of worldly power, but instead to the creation of a radical alternative to the commons ways of the world. The association of the faith with any one party, ideology, movement, or position is a dangerous and heretical perversion of the radical love and acceptance of God as exemplified in Christ.

For too long, I have seen up close the perversion of Christianity into some bastardized form more reminsicent of culturally conservative American politics than that of the Way of Christ. This always has and always will make me intensely skeptical of the interplay of Christianity with politics. This is a healthy skepticism, I believe, and I don’t see myself shedding my ethic of radical difference when it comes to the role of the church anytime soon.

On the other hand, I have a strong background and interest in American politics, and the workings of our nation and government. The hardest thing I find for myself time and again is my ability to hold some sense of pride and loyalty to our Constitutional form of government, without that shading over into some form of idolatry. I actively eschew both public and private shows of patriotism, including my daily decline to say the Pledge of Allegiance with my students. My faith is more important to me than any national identity, and I understand well that my family in Christ shows no partiality for national origin or ethnic background. Its for this reason that one of my absolute favorite parts of the Bible is Paul’s refrain that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The unity of Christ’s body is a first order priority for all Christians, and any other calls of allegiance from worldly structures and institutions must come a very, very distant second.

Nevertheless, I have always believed in the the importance and power of democracy as a form of governance. I have been very clear here, and in my academic work, that I understand the dangers and shortcomings of democracy, especially in its inability to impart moral and ethical guidance on its adherents, and of liberalism writ large. The classical liberal emphasis on individual actualization and freedom from any authority as the ultimate good is inherently at odds with some of the most basic tenants of Christianity. But I also recognize that our Constitution, and the form of government it prescribes, is an amazing creation, and one of the best statements of ideals formulated by humanity. Our inability as a people to live up to those ideals should not sully the good to be found in our governing document.

I also have a long held admiration for, and deep fascination with, our Founders and the ideas they advanced, formulated, and fought for, both on the battlefield and in the legislative chamber. While I reject any idea that they were somehow divinely guided or inspired in writing our Constitution, I do not deny their monumental achievement and the lasting impact they and their ideals had on our world. Yes, they were sinful, and shortsighted at times, and trafficked in some of the worst practices and ideas of their time as well. But they were also visionary, and they articulated a view of human dignity and possibility that they often failed to live up to, but which has been an inspiration to millions fighting for freedom and dignity around the world ever since. It is no coincidence that words of Jefferson, Madison, Henry, Washington and Franklin have been echoed freedom fighters everywhere from Vietnam to El Salvador.

I am writing all of this to say that I am still actively struggling with how to write as someone who is simultaneously a Christian who believes in radical difference, and also an American who believes in Constitutional values of governance. These past three years have been an especially formative time of struggle and thought, as I have observed the effect of Donald Trump on our world, our nation, and the values of freedom, democracy, and liberalism. They have radicalized me as a person of faith, pushing me away from Christian-backed political engagement. They have also crystallized for me how deeply I believe in the power of democracy, in the value of free speech, in the importance of the rule of law.

Going forward, I want to not only write about faith as a standalone interest. That has been where I have been over the last few years, and it has locked me into a frustrating time of writers block and timidity at the keyboard. I have shied away from public writing because I have been terribly unsure about how to write about my faith in light of the political, cultural and social issues and happenings that animate and engage me. I am trying now to shade back towards my previous commitment to comment on politics and current events in light of my faith, and as a result of it as well.

Am I going to get it right all the time, in terms of staying true at all times to my competing commitments and values? Not at all. There are times I will most assuredly shade into the overtly political, or times I shy away from commenting because I’m worried about subverting my faith. But I need to try. I want to write about how what I find most important and powerful about Christianity and theology; I also want to write about what’s happening politically, how I feel about it, and about my belief in the efficacy of our constitutional democracy, and my admiration for and fascination with the history of our national founding and those who participated in its construction.

One last word, which I believe to be perhaps the most important for me at this point: I have strong policy beliefs and positions, regarding everything from health care and inequality, to LGBTQ+ issues and (especially) our looming environmental crisis. I will write about these, and present my views rather unashamedly. What I won’t be doing, however, is endorsing or supporting, publicly, any one party or politician. While I have a background in Democratic Party politics (including formerly as a paid staffer for the party), I am not writing here as a Democrat. When my views align with any party, that is not an endorsement of that party. And the intense critical attitude I have towards our current administration is something I am committing to having no matter who the next president is (even if its my preferred candidate, who will remain unnamed here.) That said, I am someone who more often than not (but not always!) will be classified as “liberal” or “progressive” as it’s understood today, and as a result, I am more critical of conservative politics and positions, especially their moral and ethical underpinnings. But again, these criticisms, when I make them, do not constitute an endorsement of the opposing party or position. I’m sure I won’t always be read with the charity and good will I am hoping for in this case, but by writing it here, I am hoping to have something I point back to as a statement of values of sorts in the face of criticism.