What would it take?

A friend posted an interesting question on Facebook to challenge the church sign that proclaims all are welcome.  I think she got it from a church publication.  Anyway, it goes, “What would it take to convince me that I can walk in uninvited and participate in what they are doing?”  Someone responded with another question: “Where does that sense of feeling uninvited come from?”  Two very good questions.

I’d like to start with the second one.  Speaking for myself, I feel a tinge of apprehension anytime I’m invited to a new place among new people, wondering if the invitation is genuine, and whether sincere acts of welcome will be found once inside.  There is mild anxiety that it will be filled with people who know where they are, have been there often, and who exhibit a sense of ownership that excludes newcomers until they have been vetted according to the customs of the place.  By contrast, I enter in a state of ignorance and vulnerability.  Entering a new place uninvited, and a sign out front is not really an invitation, it’s an advertising slogan, but I digress.  Entering a new place uninvited exponentially explodes such apprehensions and anxieties.  Brené Brown may preach the value of allowing one’s self to be vulnerable, but she pushes against a lifetime of working hard to avoid being vulnerable in a culture that treats it as a personality defect.

I’m not lacking in social skills.  After a lifetime of going into new places among new people, I can do it with as much self confident bravado as anyone, but it doesn’t prevent those inside emotions from being present.

Church represents a special problem.  It claims to be a public place, but it’s really a private place where one brings one’s most intimate vulnerabilities to be placed before God in the presence of others who, no doubt, are not nearly as vulnerable.  It’s easier when one has gained a sense of familiarity with what is going on, who is there, what is expected, and how safe it is (or isn’t).  For a newcomer, none of that is present.  The risks are high.  For some of us, being assaulted by a welcome that is more prying than welcoming is an enormous hurdle to get over.  Second to it is the stony welcome of raised eyebrows commencing the vetting process check list of acceptability.  Church is, after all, the lair of the self righteous, at least in one’s imagination, which is abetted by bible stories about religious leaders, and what we learned in school about Puritans.

So when a church hangs out a sign proclaiming that all are welcome, maybe supplementing it with a rainbow flag, is that a genuine invitation or a bait and switch trap?  “What would it take to convince me that I can walk in uninvited and participate in what they are doing?”  I had an experience of that many years ago, long before the thought of becoming a priest entered my head.  Having screwed up on an important breakfast meeting invitation, I found myself wandering around the Upper East Side in the general direction of the subway.  An Episcopal Church appeared.  It’s doors were open.  A sign out front said Morning Prayer was about to begin.  I figured it might be a good idea to sit in the back nursing my failure while the office was being celebrated.  It turned out to be a small group meeting in a chapel.  The leader said they would wait for me to get settled before they started, and if this was a service unfamiliar to me why not just relax and enjoy it.  Would I like some coffee?  And they got on with Morning Prayer as if I had always been there.  Afterwards there was time for handshakes, and a thank you from them for joining their time of prayer, along with an invitation to come again.  I never did, but I never forgot because it wasn’t a welcome to their little prayer meeting in their parish.  It was a welcome into the body of Christ wherever it might be experienced.

What would it take?  It takes a welcome that is fully aware of the anxieties and apprehensions of being the stranger in a strange place without making them the target of attention.  Most greeter and welcome programs begin from the point of view of those already inside.  It’s the wrong place to start.  Start from the point of view of the stranger, the newcomer.

Loyal Opposition and Good Faith

As I wrote several years ago, traditional conservatives are great at serving as the loyal opposition.  They keep traditional liberals from going off in too many directions with too many poorly thought out ideas.  They are cautious and don’t want changes thrust on them without first being fully examined.  They are wary of using the coercive power of government to limit individual freedoms while being equally wary of recognizing new freedoms (or rights) for those from whom they had been withheld.  It’s not all bad.  It keeps us from straying too far afield.  But when it comes to governing, traditional conservatives stumble.  Other than lowering taxes and holding the line on non-defense spending, they don’t have much of an agenda.  In spite of their touted business sense, they’re not good at running large, complex organizations.  Still, interregnums of traditional conservatives holding the reins of power often give the nation domestic breathing room needed to prepare it for the next surge in vitality, in whatever way vitality is measured.

Traditional liberals understand the value and use of government to address pressing economic and social needs.  Contrary to Mr. Reagan’s quip, government is not the problem, it is an important part of the solution.  They recognize that many of today’s conditions and issues may once have been local or state concerns, but are now matters requiring federal attention.  However, they are committed to employing the power of government within the context of a private market system in a society that highly values individual and local rights and freedoms.  Traditional liberals are said to be poor managers, but they know how to run governments surprisingly well.  Decades of traditional conservatives and liberals working with each other while against each other helped give us a century of growing social and economic prosperity, even through the toughest times.

Do we have any traditional conservatives and liberals anymore?  Is there such a thing as the loyal opposition?  There are few signs of such creatures at the federal level, and they are not easy to find in my state capital, maybe yours too.  Traditional conservatives have been displaced by the political bullying of tea partiers and hard core libertarians who simply don’t want government to mess around in their lives.  They appear clueless about the interdependency that holds society together, and blind to the dystopian future the realization of their fantasies would unleash.  Traditional liberals have been vilified as leftist, statist socialists, leaving them fulminating over the misuse of language, effectively sidelining thoughtful attention to the work at hand.  Emboldened hard core leftists are no more ready to negotiate in good faith with others than their right wing counterparts.  They’re twins in many ways, twins like Esau and Jacob.

Loyal opposition and negotiating in good faith, what does that mean?  Loyal opposition means, to cite Canadian lawmaker Michael Ignatieff’s 2012 address at Stanford, “The opposition performs an adversarial function critical to democracy itself… Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law.”  Loyal opposition strives for the well being of the people as served by the state, with the understanding that the other side is also committed to the same good end – even if misguided.  Negotiating in good faith is to honestly seek agreement with the other side without deception or malicious intent.  Anyone familiar with “the prisoner’s  dilemma” knows that deception and retribution are often elements in negotiation, and yet acting in good faith can take that into consideration without losing the trust needed to reach agreement.

Good faith was brutalized in the aftermath of Vietnam.  Under G.W. Bush, good faith was tested beyond its limits of endurance.  With the advent of the Obama administration, the door was opened for members of the opposition who had no intention of being loyal, and no intention of negotiating in good faith.  Without over analyzing, eight years of that was enough to prepare the ground for a person seeking high office who had built his life on intentional deception and retribution, who had no understanding of loyal opposition, and no interest in negotiating in good faith.  His desire to deconstruct the federal government’s role in society may appear similar to hard core libertarian ideology, but he has no affection for the their mythical paradise.  It’s all about creating conditions in which his style of doing business can succeed without interference from the pesky rules imposed on him by traditional conservatives and liberals working together for the well being of the nation and its people.

So where do we go from here?  There are still traditional conservatives and liberals in substantial numbers serving in the halls of congress, and many of our state legislatures.  It’s time for them to say ‘Enough!’  Let the so called freedom caucus throw its tantrums, but ignore them.  The same for the few on the far left, which, by the way, does not include Bernie Sanders who is not the far lefty he is reputed to be.  It’s time for negotiations in good faith for the well being of the nation and its people.  If we have to live through an entire four year Trump term, it means using every tool to fight for the protection of American democratic values.  As of today, that seems unlikely, but not impossible because there are people of good faith on both sides who want something different.

Is that all we need?  No.  There’s an addendum.  There’s a reason the right wing has been able to garner as much support as it has.  There’s a reason the left wing has found its voice.  The federal bureaucracy has, like many major corporations, forgot that it is in the business of customer service.  For the most part, the programs it administers and regulations it enforces provide needed services and protection from danger and abuse.  We need the programs and the protection, but when administering them becomes and end to itself, when the customers becomes obstacles or targets, then public support disintegrates, public opposition escalates, and it’s not loyal opposition.  Reframing government service as customer service, and making it stick, has got to be a high priority.  Otherwise the bad guys might win.

Do not hide it from your children

“What our forefathers have known, we will not hide from our children,” so sang the psalmist (Ps. 78).  He, or she, goes on to praise the groundwork needed for generations yet to be born to know the story.  We are not too far from Passover (April 10-18) when observant Jewish families will do that when they once again sit down to dinner and rehearse the story of their deliverance, prompted by a child’s age old question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

It is something we Christians have not done well, and it may be one reason why so many “Nones” have arisen.  I was a boy in Sunday school in the 1950s when churches were packed.  What happened?  For one thing, Sunday school was a silly waste of time during which inquiring minds were set to doing crafts as they listened to stories no more believable than fairy tales told by teachers who knew little more than what was on the page of the book they read from.  Why should it be a surprise that these children grew up to treat their religion in a cavalier fashion, passing on to their children, and the children after them, an accelerating disinterest in church, and no interest in Christianity?

Two things made a difference in my life.  One was my dad, the spiritual leader of our family who insisted that we would attend church, in spite of my disdain for Sunday school, and even in the summer.   A blessing was offered at each meal, and the moral teachings of the bible were to be taken seriously.  No Puritan he, his was a gentle, unsophisticated faith that lived comfortably with the habits of ordinary life including laughter, singing, cocktails, parties, dancing, card playing, golf, cigars, and black licorice.  It wasn’t unusual to spend some part of an evening with mom at the piano, dad leading the singing, and the music a mix of cowboy, gospel, and pop.  Christianity was not a religion stuffed into a box reserved for Sundays.  It was unceremoniously incorporated into everyday life.  No fanfare.  Just there.

The second was the pastor of our (Lutheran) church during my teenage years.  A stern Scandinavian, he was determined to bring us to confirmation and beyond through lectures suitable for entry level college teaching.  He didn’t pander to our immaturity.  Not that we agreed with everything he said.  Stern as he was, he was open to probing questions.  He was a little old fashioned.  For him there were few after Luther who had anything useful to say.  He was more than prudish when faced with our hormonally driving teenage urges.  That may have been because, as a chaplain during the war, he had seen more of what that could lead to.  In any case, when I finally ended up in seminary at age 50, I was surprised to recognize as strangely familiar some of what the faculty taught.  It came from Pastor Ranum all those years ago.

What’s the point?  The point is that it’s the bounden duty of adult Christians to tell the story so that it will not be hid from the generations to follow, and to tell it in depth, challenging intellectual capabilities, not dumbing it down.  Within the family, no matter how family is defined, it is a story that must be incorporated into daily life, not as a barrier to keep out “the world”, but as a way to enter the world in all of its wonderful complexities.  In a sense, it is a story about who we are to be unconsciously woven into the fabric of ordinary living.

Maybe we could learn something from our Jewish brothers and sisters.  Liturgical churches set aside Maundy Thursday as a special day of worship to remember the gift of Holy Communion and the new commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us.  It prepares the way for a fuller celebration of Easter.  Many congregations include a meal, certainly not an imitation seder, but an appropriate remembrance of the Last Supper.  Maybe that meal shouldn’t happen in the church fellowship hall.  Maybe it should be a family meal during which a young person asks “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  We Christians have our own story of deliverance to tell.  We need to tell it over and over again so that it will not be hid from our children.  It needs to be told not in the church but outside the church because that is where it must be lived.  But what story are we to tell?  That’s were priests and pastors come in.  Who are they if not the ones called to teach others about how to tell the story?  To be sure, they are primary tellers of the story, but even more important, they are primary teachers of others about how to tell the story, and why the story must be told.  We are coming up on Maundy Thursday.  It’s only a few weeks away.  What a good time to teach others how to tell the story.

Reflections on Ten Years of Country Parson

I’ve been writing Country Parson for almost ten years.  It would be nice, I sometimes think, if I had a large, loyal, enthusiastic readership.  As it is, it’s a small group of regulars, with an occasional burst when an article headline grabs attention through Google searches.  A few readers come through The Christian Century blog network, of which I am an contributor.  Every once in awhile I check Google Analytics to see where traffic comes from, and it’s clear that scammers in Russia and China have tagged Country Parson as a site to monitor.  What a waste of computer power that is!

Blogs are curious things.  Although there are tens of thousands of them, only a handful continue for more than a few months.  More often they are momentary tries at recording an important event or interest in one’s life.  When that’s done, it’s done.  Even fewer are published regularly with fresh articles week after week.  Like Country Parson, they are essentially one author journals, which, let’s face it, can get pretty boring.  How much of one author’s writing can anyone take?  How arrogant to think it’s worthwhile for others to know what one thinks.   At least newspapers are filled with a variety of columnists to choose from.  Moreover, bloggers have no editors or fellow columnists to set reasonable standards and challenge what is being said.  The very few that have large followings tend to be written by people who consider themselves to be D.C. insiders, Wall Street gurus, or noted spiritual leaders, and have convinced audiences that what they say is important to know.  I’ve read a few of them over the years, discovering that they are merely reincarnations of old time Hollywood gossip mongers.  It’s one part entertainment, and one part ego pandering to politicians who can’t wait to see “what they are saying about me.”  With a large enough following, they can exert some influence.  Columns from a Country Parson are seldom read, they bear little influence.  So why do it?

I write on theology, politics, and economics because I have years of practical (not academic) experience with them.  In a sense, they are the only things I know about.  Should my observations have any merit greater than your own thoughts and ideas?  Generally speaking, they don’t, which is not to say that any opinion is as valid as any other.  I try to offer well thought out commentary based on verifiable information.  There is no question that the gospel informs my thinking about politics and economics, and for me that makes me a progressive on the center-left.  Thirty years of experience in and on the edges of the political arena assure me that negotiation in good faith between persons of opposing views can, does, and has produced decent, workable public policy.  It can again.

With all of that said, I write, as said a couple of years ago, mostly for myself.  There is something comforting about getting words down on paper (or computer screen).  It helps to clarify my own beliefs in the context of what others have written over the ages.  If it is of value to someone else, so much the better.  I hope it is.

Working Class Resentment of the Poor

“Trump budget proposal reflects working class resentment of the poor” was the headline of a March 7 Eduardo Porter article in The New York Times.  The short version is that working class Americans are happy with the dismantling of the nanny state because they get no benefit from it, except for things like defense and national security.  They work hard, take care of their families, and are tired of those who don’t living off welfare while they struggle so hard to make ends meet.  They have a right to benefits from social security and medicare because they’re earned.  They’re not a government handout.  It’s different from sponging off the government for daily needs.  Moreover, liberal elites, who have a soft heart for the (lazy) poor, hold working class people in contempt, so who cares what they think?!  They’re the enemy.

The article, and others like it, implies that working class people believe if one is not in the working class (ill defined but generally understood) or on welfare, one is probably a (coastal) liberal elite.  It fails to recognize the core population of hard working people, some of whom are making it, or have made it, or never will make it, who are not of the liberal elite, whatever that is, yet are deeply concerned about the welfare of the nation as a whole, including issues of justice and equity.  That they may live on the coast means nothing more than location. They could just as easily live somewhere else, and probably have.  In their lives they have worked on farms and in factories, pumped gas, clerked in stores, flipped burgers, and maybe still do.  They own small businesses, work in giant corporations,  and (gasp) have government jobs.  Their politics tend to be cautiously progressive.  If there is a liberal elite, and they have held the working class in contempt while heaping largesse on the poor, shame on them.  But if they exist, they are not a large group, and, frankly, not very influential in electoral politics.  In other words, they’re a handy bogeyman, and little more.

The nation may be in need of a corrective, but it distresses me to wonder at what cost in human suffering.  Right wing libertarians, the feedstock for the working class, are certain it will all work out for the best.  Before them lies the shining image of a nation where everyone works hard and does well without government help.  The few who can’t will be served by churches and charity.  Yes, there will be some pain and fallout, a sort of social Darwinism, and we’ll all be the better for it.  It’s a romantic image, but the path chosen to get there fails to understand the nature and purpose of community built through collective investment in the common good.  Community, collective, common good: words guaranteed to raise the hackles of the far right.  What could they mean if not a threat to American individualism through socialism forced down their throats?  The working class, whoever they might be, have bought it, according to the article.

Maybe they have, but it’s preposterous for anyone, working class included, to think they have not benefitted from classic liberal government programs.  Lay welfare aside.  Working class folk, like all of us, benefit from clean water, safe food, decent roadways, safe air travel, forty hour weeks, mortgages made fairly available to all, houses built to code, clean air, effective medicines, what else?  In my community the local housing authority provides subsidies to over 1,000 households who otherwise could not afford an apartment in the private market place.  Most work full time, often at more than one job.  Some are disabled.  Others are low income elderly.  Dismantling the federally funded programs that make it possible would put them on the street.  Is that part of the libertarian dream?  I don’t know what kind of nation we would be if federal programs are dismantled, as some want to do in the name of a more free, less regulated society.  We may be about to find out.  My guess?  Not the romantic Eden of unregulated freedom imagined by right wing libertarians, but a rapid descent into second tier status as a has been nation with a deteriorating quality of life for all but the financially secure, of which for the time being I am one.

Born Again? Maybe not.

There is a passage from John 3 that comes up from time to time, including now, in which Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again or from above if he is to enter the kingdom of God.  When Nicodemus asked how one can be born again, Jesus went off on a tangent leaving both Nicodemus and us to wonder what being born again might mean.  Is one born again through Baptism, even as an infant?  Does being born again require an experience of spiritual renewal?  If one has no idea what born again might mean, are they excluded forever from God’s kingdom?

Uncertain what born from above (or again) might mean, Nicodemus asked about reentering the womb.  It’s a question that draws attention toward images of human birth, which is both misleading and restrictive.  There are many ways in which something might be born other than birthing a baby.  Moreover, being born again has become a modern day imperative enforced by inflexible rules about how it is to be done.  Perhaps it would be helpful to lay the ‘above’ or ‘again’ question aside, and concentrate for a few moments on what born and birth might mean.  Our English word is heavy with meaning that covers everything from bearing children to bearing burdens.  The Greek of John is equally heavy with meaning centering on the origins of everything in creation, indeed on the origin of the Christ in the unoriginated Godhead.  To be born is to begin somewhere and emerge somewhere else, to begin as one thing and end as something else, carrying the burden and doing the work needed to make the change.

As I write, Beethoven’s 7th is playing.  It was born in his imagination, emerging as a completed score through the hard work of putting notes to paper, reaching fulfillment in a well rehearsed performance by skilled musicians guided by expert direction.  It’s a process that takes time, energy, work, patience, and cooperation with others.  I think that’s the kind of born Jesus had in mind.  He wasn’t chastising Nicodemus for not having already been born from above or again.  He was inviting Nicodemus to enter into the process of doing the hard work of becoming a new creation in Christ, it was a call to discipleship.

It would take time and effort, but it would bring him to the recognition that the kingdom of God was at hand, near, present.  It had always been there, he just couldn’t see it.  He had always been in it, but didn’t know it.  The NRSV puts it this way, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  The kingdom is there to be seen.  It always has been.  Again, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  Does that mean baptism? Does it mean an ecstatic experience of God’s Spirit?  Or does it mean doing the work of becoming a new creation in Christ?  I’m certain it is the latter, but what is the necessary work?  Is any work needed?  Aren’t we saved by grace, not works?

Becoming new creation in Christ who can both see and enter the kingdom of God that is present in the eternal now requires the hard work of recognition, surrender, and participation in God’s work of salvation.  It’s a free gift in the sense that we cannot earn it.  It’s simply, freely given, but it’s a costly gift in the sense that in the act of accepting it changes everything.  What it isn’t is initiation into a club from which others are excluded, because no one is excluded.  Seeing and entering the kingdom of God that is near is an awakening to the reality of God’s abounding and steadfast love so profound that every person and all of creation are embraced by it.  It is an awakening that impels one to proclaim the good news, inviting others to see for themselves what has always been there, to enter into it, and to  join in sharing the good news with yet others.  It’s a process.  It takes time, effort, and patience.  It’s not magic.  It’s a mystery.

Racism, Passion, Loving Others: Lenten Discipline Part II

I ran across an acquaintance who is passionate about racism, investing as much effort as possible in anti-racism efforts.  It’s the kind of passion expressed with righteous indignation directed at those he assumes are unaware of how pervasive the problem is.  It is, says he, that very unawareness that allows racism to be so deeply embedded in the American psyche.  He heaps contempt on those who should be aware but aren’t.  Self deluded closet racists, they are.  Who are the unaware ?  Right wingers to be sure.  White men are on the list of usual suspects because they’re white men.  More important are those who do not share the same passion expressed with the same indignation.  They are guilty of indefensible ignorance in the face of a grossly blatant injustice.  They are the ones who allow the perpetuation of racism.  I imagine that gatherings of like minded people are contests to see who can be the most angrily indignant in competition for the evening’s blue ribbon.  It’s a funny scene to imagine, but I doubt she would see any humor in it because it is, she would say, not a laughing matter.  No, racism isn’t, but the image of a room full of righteously indignant people trying to outdo each other is.

It is a fatal flaw to equate one’s passion for anything as the standard against which all others can be judged, even for something as important as racism.  Using passionate indignation as a weapon to thrust at others who don’t share it, or don’t express it in the same way, is guaranteed to be met defensively.  It’s automatic.  It’s what we do.  We defend ourselves when attacked.  There are many issues that generate strong passions, but only a few generate passionate indignation, and they generally revolve around questions of injustice, oppression, and immorality.  Maybe it’s because they’re so intimately connected to life itself.  Because they are so important, there is nothing to be gained by antagonizing the very people one wants to convince of the rightness of a cause.  To be clear about it, there may be many whom one does not care to convince for one reason or another.  But there are those about whom one cares very much.  Convincing them is unlikely while beating them about the head and shoulders with accusatory righteous indignation.  A few weeks ago I wrote about a right wing vacation condo neighbor who asserted the truth of his opinions by bellowing them louder than anyone else in the room, pugnaciously demanding agreement with him.  There isn’t much difference between his tactic and that of my anti-racist acquaintance.  Neither is likely to have credence with anyone not already in their camp.

It shouldn’t be hard for either one of them to say, “This is important to me, and it should be to you also.  Let me tell you why.”  Doing that requires an assumption about the essential dignity of the other that is worthy of respect, even in the face of disagreement.  Easy advice to give, but hard to put into practice, especially when passion can override awareness of one’s own prejudices.  It brings me to my own Lenten discipline: make progress loving people I don’t like.  Loving requires that I respect the dignity of every human being, including the people I don’t like.  Respecting their dignity does not require agreeing with what they believe or do, but it does require trying to understand it without prejudice.

Is there an example of how that might work in practice?  Not long ago we remembered Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and many did it by rereading “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  In it, King addressed the clergy of Birmingham, whom I doubt that he liked very much, with stern words that nonetheless respected their dignity as persons, community leaders, and ministers of God’s word.  In many ways it was a love letter demonstrating that he had heard and understood what they believed, and was now calling them to consider a new understanding of a better way.  I wonder if my passionate anti-racism acquaintance would find greater success following King’s example?  I wonder if I could become better at loving those I don’t like if I did the same?  I wonder if my vacation neighbor, the bellicose right winger, might have something useful to contribute to the conversation if he would stop bellowing?

Advice to Center-Right, Center-Left Politicians

Political centrists have had a hard time of it lately.  Wish-washy, they are said to be. Don’t stand for anything.  That’s wrong.  It’s at the center where those who are center-right and center-left work things out to move the nation toward social and economic progress.   Friends on the far right think centrists are closet liberals who can’t be trusted.  Well misinformed by years of propaganda from right wing talk radio and television, it’s hard to know where to begin a useful conversation.  Others, who usually vote for centrist candidates, have become discouraged.  Is there any way to get them back?  Let’s consider a few options.

Democrats made a mistake by focusing on opposition to Trump to the exclusion of issues framed in language familiar and attractive to a broad range on the political spectrum.  As many commentators have already said, it cost them the presidential election.  The same was true in our local U.S. House campaign where the defeat the incumbent message was not balanced with an even stronger message about what her opponent would do to fight for the district.   Negative campaigns have become commonplace, but they don’t work well with voters who believe the system is rigged against them, unless offset by a stronger message affirming what the candidate can do for the voters.  Libertarians and right wing conservatives have managed to do that for a vocal group of voters.  Centrists have been held in check by those favoring a right wing political agenda that would do serious damage to the republic and the welfare of its people, but it promised jobs and security in an insecure world, which was enough.  The current resistance movement may fall into the same trap, relying on opposition without offering a salable alternative.  When a significant portion of the electorate is convinced that the system is rigged against them, it’s unlikely they will be persuaded by hammering on the opposition’s negative attributes while ignoring issues related to the their visceral angst.  To put it another way, in politics, proving a negative works only when one has something to offer in exchange that has been made understandable to the voters least likely to understand.

In very rough terms, there are two categories of potential voters who believe the system is rigged against them: tea party libertarians, and historically marginalized populations.  Tea party libertarians, who have seen their place in the hierarchy of society eroded, have had the greater influence in recent elections.  They blame their conditions in life on a government they don’t trust.  Dismantling it, they imagine, will restore them to their rightful place.  Caricatured as the less educated, angry, white working class, they are far more complex than that, but the caricature is not without some truth.  Their small government, give me my liberties mantra is a robust shield not easily penetrated because they are convinced that big government is, by definition, responsible for shoving them to the margins of society.  It is big government that has taken their rights and liberties, giving them to (undeserving?) others.  To set things right, dismantle big government.  But what is big government?  It’s any government beyond the village, and they aren’t too sure about the village.  They are not a large group, but they have electoral muscle and know how to use it.  Getting their vote, if it is to be got at all, requires a message that presses the case for economic and social justice for them without excluding others.  Moreover, it’s a message that must be delivered without waving the flag of intellectual condescension, something centrists are not adept at doing.

The second category includes a broad, diverse population of those whose subordinate place in the social hierarchy has been systematically enforced for generations.  While decades of civil rights laws have made a difference, the effects of centuries of oppression are not easily erased, especially in the face of well entrenched prejudice that thrives in spite of the law.  If those in the first category are vaguely, uncomfortably aware that the system was once rigged in their favor, those in second category fully understand it has always been rigged against them.  Snail like progress has helped some, but not all.  While they don’t believe government is the enemy, it has not been a reliable friend, especially at state and local levels.  They are tired of pandering candidates who promise much and deliver little.  Enough of them have become discouraged about elections to sit them out, swinging the outcome in some places.  They could vote, but why bother?  It’s not apathy, it’s electoral exhaustion compounded by state and local efforts to make voting as difficult as possible for them.

Those represented in these two groups are important because their fears, anxieties, and disappointments are a veneer covering legitimate issues.  Centrists from left to right must address them if the nation is to move forward with success in the great experiment of representative democracy binding semi-independent states together as one nation under a constitutionally defined federal government.  Appealing to those in the first category for their votes, while appealing to the second to vote, has to speak to the issues that dominate their competing worlds.

Addressing those in the first category has to start with the solution sold to them: dismantle the federal government, leaving a core military and law enforcement function to be used only to defend against threats to their personal liberties, and laissez-faire capitalism will usher in an age of thriving small businesses with robust heavy industries competing fairly to produce the best for the lowest cost.  Good jobs like the old ones will come back, and the country will be solidly grounded in the old social values.  It’s a vision with glitches many, obvious, and ignored.  Rather than naming them in supercilious self righteousness, center-right and center-left candidates must be unapologetic about the need for a big federal government.  It’s a big complicated nation in a big complicated, interdependent world of nations.  It takes a big government to manage it.  A progressive agenda that meets national problems with national solutions is not socialism, it’s common sense.

It’s not the size of government per se that is bad, it’s the impenetrable maze of bureaucratic opaqueness that is so frustrating.  For that reason legislators and executives must be fearless opponents of bloated government bureaucracies that are unresponsive to local conditions, needs, and values.  They must stop micro-managing through legislation, and encourage political decisions to be made at the lowest possible level within national standards of justice and equity for all persons.  Center right and center left legislators and executives must also be courageous protectors of human rights, liberties, safety, and ecological well being that is so easily challenged by interests more opportunistic than malignant.  There will be, of course, the usual outcry of federal overreach that must be fearlessly met face-to-face through listening sessions during which listening really happens.  Trust in government is not easily gained when one has been spoon fed years of anti-government propaganda, particularly when it heartens back to Reagan’s oft cited quip that government is the problem, not the solution.

Those in the second category never bought that line.  Government is OK, politicians are the problem, and that  may make them harder to reach. They’ve been lied to so often, let down so often, and suffered so long under the scorn of public derision for benefitting from undeserved, unearned government programs and preferences.  Listen, promise only what can be delivered, do the work, report back.  It’s a simple formula but political egos have a hard time resisting the temptation to tweak, manipulate, and preen for self aggrandizement.  I’m not hopeful most politicians can do it, but try they  must.