Progressive Failure to Communicate With the Voters They Need: a one person anecdotal case study

Progressive politicians and liberal interest groups have a blind spot that costs them votes and elections. They’re enthusiastic about warning of the danger right wing candidates pose to democracy, and they’re right about that.  They’re enthusiastic about rebuilding conditions needed for local and national success, and they’re right about that too.  But progressive leaders don’t listen well between the lines to working people who are tired, frustrated, and worried that the little they’ve worked so hard to build up is in jeopardy.  They express it in ways that can sound reactionary and ill informed, but listening between the lines reveals deep wants and anxieties that need to be addressed because they’re also the people whose votes progressives need to win elections.

As an anecdotal case study, consider a long time acquaintance, a young family man who had been successful win the building trades.  From framing to finishing there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do well.  It’s an unpredictable way to make a living, so about fifteen years ago he went to work in an old fashioned, blue collar, unionized job.  He’s the kind who gets his hands dirty working on things that merge strength and skill with high technology.   There aren’t many jobs like that these days and he’s glad to have one. 

He’s an intelligent guy with world views well formed by a lifetime of exposure to the virtue of individualism, the value of small government, the unfair burden of taxes, and the laziness of those on welfare.  He takes the benefits of post war liberalism for granted.  His entire life has been submerged in Reagan era propaganda that for him set the standards for the way things should be.

He’s worked hard to care for his family and has little respect for those who don’t.  He believes government handouts are mostly a waste of his taxes, and is largely unaware of government programs that help underwrite his employer and others in the region.  He’s been told often enough, and so believes, that the government doesn’t care about blue collar workers.  Likewise, he’s been convinced government is loaded with untrustworthy, self dealing politicians who favor the rich and elite.  He believes people in the upper classes, intellectuals, and elites in general have disdain for folks like him who work with their hands.  Why does he believe it?  The media have said so for his entire life.  

His experience and everything he’s heard add up to a conviction that if one doesn’t stand up for one’s rights and freedoms, they’ll be taken away.  The thing is, he’s no MAGA hat wearing Trumper.  He’s not into conspiracies.  He’s not easily persuaded by right wing news sources, but he watches Fox and listens to talk radio.  Whatever being woke is, it’s unlikely he will ever be woke.  He doesn’t think or care much about race or racism.  He does think and care about street crime and violence.

He’s one anecdotal case study, but my guess is that he’s legion, and can’t be easily pigeonholed into blue or red boxes.  He’s certainly not a right winger.  On close examination his legion is maybe center right, if there is such a thing. 

When he makes his political voice heard, liberals argue with him about how misinformed and prejudices he is.  They talk in generalities about what’s just and good for the country, but not about how that can be just and good for him.  And therein lies the problem: what does he think would be good and just for him?  Why not ask him?

He wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t want to be coerced into doing it.  People like him were the backbone of the Democratic Party only a few decades ago.  Open the door, give him good reason to enter, invite him in, but don’t shove him through it.

What might progressive thought leaders do to improve their chances of gaining votes from people like him?

The vaccine issue is illustrative. When government engages in anything that directly affects one’s person, it has invaded personal space at the most intimate level.  However good the policy, it must tread a careful balance between force that limits freedom and invitation that nourishes it.  Folks who believe they’ve been disregarded or disempowered by government office holders abusing their powers don’t like to be bullied.  Liberals have been long aware of that regarding the non white population, but the same dynamic is at play among many who identify with the working class.  The difference between acceptance and rejection is in the words used and the actions that give the words credibility.

If there is one thing my anecdotal case study holds dear, it is the Constitution, and his understanding that he has a constitutional right not to be told what’s best for him and his family.  Of course that’s not what the Constitution is about, but that’s not the point. The point is that one’s desire to do what’s best for one’s family is a deeply held value, a worthy value.  Policy proposals need to be presented as means to improve the ability to do what’s best for one’s family.

It’s all reasonable and obvious, but recent campaigns seem blind to it.  Liberals promote grand schemes and big policy initiatives, each of which may be vitally important to the future of the nation.  But they avoid explaining in concrete, tangible ways how their plans will benefit real lives.  Perhaps most important, unless the liberal agenda can be presented as preserving and protecting individual rights and freedoms, the wary will consider them suspect.

Can Acclamation Trump Democracy?

I came across an extended essay on the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt while reading Giorgio Agamben’s book, “The Kingdom and the Glory: A Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government.” It was startling to recognize the similarity between Schmitt’s counsel on how to usurp nascent German democracy and contemporary American right wing libertarian activism. Trump rallies of MAGA hat wearing followers is the most public manifestation of domestic anti democratic sentiment , but perhaps not the most powerful or influential. Power and influence flow from money and skilled political operatives who know precisely what they’re doing – people who have read Schmitt and have affection for his thinking.

Agamben observed that, “Schmitt opposes the individual vote by secret ballot that characterizes contemporary democracies to the immediate expression of the united people that characterizes pure, direct democracy and, at the same time, links in constitutive fashion, people and acclamation.” (Agamben, 171) To put it in terms Hannah Arendt might have used, Schmitt opposes voting by secret ballot in favor of the mob’s acclamation of support for a leader and ‘his’ policies.

In his own words, Schmitt wrote the following: “Individual secret voting, which is not preceded by any sort of public debate procedurally regulated, annihilates precisely the specific possibilities of the united people. In fact, the real activity, capacity, and function of the people, the center of all poplar expression, the original democratic phenomenon, what even Rousseau indicated as being a real democracy, is acclamation, the cry of approval or rejection from the untied masses.” (Schmitt, cited in Agamben, p171)

“This scientific discovery of the acclamation is the starting point for an explanation of the procedural direct or pure democracy. On must not ignore the fact that, wherever there is public opinion as social reality and not merely as a political pretext, in all decisive moments in which the political meaning of the people can be affirmed, there first appears acclamations of approval for refusal that are independent of the voting procedure, because through such a procedure their genuineness could be threatened, insofar as the immediacy of the people united, which defines this acclamation, is annulled by the isolation of the single voter and by the secrecy of the ballot.” (Schmitt, cited in Agamben, p.172)

Schmitt never recanted. He went on to a post war academic career supporting the efficiency of autocratic government under a democratic veil that enables private enterprise to operate freely, within constraints they set for themselves. The messiness and unpredictability of American style democracy is inefficient, and creates obstacles for those who know the better way.

The acclamation Schmitt celebrated is not the same as massive protest movements such as we’ve seen in Washington, D.C., nor in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, nor in the sometimes violent local protests scattered around the country. For the most part, each of them intended to raise public awareness about injustice, and put pressure on the government to change direction. None of them intended to overthrow the government. None of them meant to replace democratic elections with mob rule by acclamation.

The January 6th insurrection was an attempt to overthrow the government by replacing a democratic election with mob rule. What it lacked was the ability to organize acclamation. A recently released FBI report said as much: there was little evidence of central planning or control. Both are essential to the generation of acclamation. Trump’s rallies are an attempt to generate mob acclamation of Trump as the nation’s only legitimate leader, but lack the central planing and control to make it happen. It’s something skilled operatives like Steve Bannon are keenly aware of, but they can’t overcome Trump’s desperate need for adulation, and his inability to understand how acclamation is different. Lucky for us.

The closest we get to acclamation is at the end of the presidential nominating process when party conventions unveil a well planned, organized and disciplined celebration of the nominee intended to unify the party faithful behind one acclaimed leader. Voices chant their acclamation in unison as balloons fall and rousing music blares. What Schmitt understood was, that kind of acclamation could be pulled off on an even grander scale to overcome troubling secret ballot elections that are not easily controlled. Sham elections are good enough. What is important are massive, well planned, orchestrated and disciplined demonstrations acclaiming in one unified voice the legitimacy of one national leader. Such acclamation doesn’t require a majority of the people, only enough people to generate momentum difficult to stop.

It’s hard to believe that America’s democracy might not be as durable as thought, but those who have learned from Schmitt think he had some good ideas about how to organize the masses behind them. Libertarian ideologues (Heather Cox Richardson calls them “movement Republicans”) favor government limited and controlled by the right sort of people who know the right sort of ways to run the country. While catering to the desires of the “common man,” their version of libertarianism has little regard for the common good, and not much use for the “common man” whom they believe to be both gullible and malleable. Combine that with adherents of trumpism, who desire government authority unified under a strong, charismatic central leader, and the stage might be set. With enough momentum it could become a threat to the American ideal of universal suffrage democracy electing representatives to a government structured with strong checks and balances. Could it really happen? A July, 2021 George Washington University poll suggest that 22% of Republicans have little confidence in the integrity of upcoming 2022 midterm elections. An astounding 47% are willing to contemplate the need for “patriots” to take matters into their own hands if need be. The Trump GOP may be a party in numerical decline, but it still attracts millions, and millions can become the mob gifted operatives need to subvert elections in favor of orchestrated acclamations. Especially if enough others can be convinced that the integrity of election systems is in doubt.

English is a Messy Language: be careful when using it.

English is a messy language.  Consider for instance a simple word like ‘major’.  It helps define a musical key (what’s a key?).  A major is a concentrated area of college study.  It’s something of importance.  It’s a military rank above lieutenant and captain, but a major general ranks below a lieutenant general – go figure.  You can come up with your own and better examples.  The point is, we have to be careful about explaining the meaning of words we use, even simple ones, if what  is said and written is to be understood clearly.

What about the word Christian? Using it in an inappropriate generalized way can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. The accepted Christian creeds (Apostles and Nicene) inscribe a very large circle enclosing an enormous number of ways in which the faith can be expressed. Each denomination or non denominational church has particular ways they hold to be true for them, but they cannot assert their particularities are true for Christianity as a whole. Not that some don’t try.

It’s not easy for the secular press to understand that when Christian voices are raised in the public arena.  A case in point: the local paper carried an article recently about a school board in a nearby city that acceded to requests from parents to modify a certain policy they opposed  The policy is irrelevant at the moment.  What is relevant is that the parents anchored their opposition in the name of their Christian faith, leading the paper’s article to imply that the parents spoke for Christians in general.  How were reporters to know differently?

The policy in question had no precedent in Christian historical theology or doctrine.  The parents’ opposition was based entirely on secular social standards they hold dear, and which they ascribe as biblical.  Why a public school board would buckle to satisfy the religious preferences of some parents is an important question, but not the one this column is about. My denomination, and many others, would have no problem with the board’s policy, and would deny that the parents’ objections are in any way biblical.  We don’t deny the right of those parents to hold their views.  We do deny that they speak for the greater body of Christ.  They can speak only for themselves, as I can speak only from my tradition.  I can speak about other traditions, but not for them.  Neither can I, or they, claim to speak for the church catholic.  It’s unfortunate that the secular press appeared unaware of that, but we should not be surprised.  

It would have been better had the reporter written something like, ‘A group of parents objected to such and such a policy on religious grounds related to their Christian beliefs, which are not uniformly held by all Christians.’ It may have been better, but it’s unlikely. The greater burden is on us to speak clearly with well defined words that don’t pretend to carry more truth than they can bear.

I know it’s tempting to want to know the policy and have an argument with it.  It’s equally tempting to have at the issue of public education favoring the religious preferences of one group, or, for that matter, any religious group.  But for the purpose of this column, I simply want to ask that we, the collective we, reflect on the need to be careful and clear with the words we use when communicating with others.

Race, History & A PEW Report

The vitriol flooding social media and libertarian political advertising over Critical Race Theory is troubling.  Angry voices define it as something it isn’t, and are disinterested in engaging in reasoned conversation about it.  They simply condemn CRT as an evil encouraging race based hatred further driving racial divisions.  It works with some portion of the electorate, further convincing them that anything labeled liberal or black friendly is destroying the nation. 

Hysteria over CRTdistracts from a more subtle reality explored by an August 12, 2021 PEW report: “Deep Divisions in American’s Views of Nation’s Racial History.”  It examines American attitudes about whether it’s a good thing to teach a more comprehensive history that includes more about the non white population.  The report also examines attitudes about whether society is structured to make it difficult for non whites to enjoy the same rights as whites, and whether there has been significant progress to make things better over the last fifty years. 

On whether American history should include more from the perspective of non white peoples, about 46% of Republicans say no.  On the other hand, 79% of Democrats say yes.  More detailed shading is offered with scales in steps from conservative to liberal for each party, but the difference between those who identify with one party or the other is significant.  Perhaps more significant than easily recognized, 54% of Republicans are OK with a more complete version of our history. 

Differences are more pronounced on the question of whether America’s laws and institutions have systematically made it more difficult for non whites to enjoy the fullness of American rights and opportunities.  Asked if major and minor fixes are required, only 21% of Republicans says yes.  Democrats offer a resounding 73% yes.  Black respondents were more convinced that major fixes are needed than were whites, regardless of party.  At the same time, hispanics and asians agreed work was needed but were more ambivalent about how much. 

Has the nation made racial progress in the last fifty years?  71% of Republicans said yes, compared to 29% of Democrats.  What about the continuing problem of white privilege? On the whole, Republicans don’t believe there is any white privilege.  

The data give me guarded hope that useful conversation can take place across the political divide.  If over half of those who identify with Republicans think it’s OK to teach a more comprehensive American history, we have something to work with, even as some are caterwauling about CRT.  That came through for me in an exchange with a very conservative friend who is adamantly opposed to whatever CRT is, but understands why a more complete version of history is important, and isn’t threatened by it.  All he wants is for the good and worthy parts of the stories we treasure to be preserved.  There is much that is good and worthy, but he’s afraid it will be trashed.

The question of systemic racism is more problematic.  Obstacles to full access to American rights and privileges are deeply embedded in laws, regulations, and standard practices, in spite of constitutional amendments and civil rights laws.  That’s just fact, but it’s invisible to a wide swath of the white population, especially to those who have struggled hard against odds of their own to make a decent life.  Moreover, hispanics and asians don’t share the same slavery heritage as black Americans.  American Indians were not considered in this study, which is itself emblematic of how invisible they can be even to those who care.  A problem that some deny exists, and is all but invisible to others, is not a problem easily resolved. 

The flip side is the question about how much progress has been made in resolving racial issues in the last fifty years.  Republican leaning Americans think we’ve made a lot of progress, so much so that it’s hard to see what’s to complain about.  They’re not dismissing the need for progress.  It’s not a negative.  It’s a good thing, and they believe we’ve done well at it.  Democrats overwhelmingly think the opposite. We have not made much progress at all.  It’s not uniform.  Blacks and more liberal whites think little progress has been made.  Asians, hispanics and centrist Democrats are a bit more optimistic.   The point is, it’s hard to convince someone that more needs to be done if they believe they’ve already done a lot.  How much is too much?

The way forward will require each side to give up some of the political weaponry they most like to use.  I hope we’ve learned that yelling insults and curses at each other doesn’t work.  When both sides have honed their Saul Alinsky and Roy Cohn tactics to a fine edge, and they’re the only weapons in their kits, absolutely nothing of value can be accomplished.  Let me put it this way: we need a lot less of Jim Jordan of Ohio and a lot more of the late Barbara Jordan of Texas. 



Barbara Jordan: M.C., TX 18, 1973-79

Wisdom: What is It & Who has It?

What is wisdom?  It seems to be a popular question these days.  I signed up for a William & Mary lecture series to be held later this fall on the tradition of American wisdom.  Curiously, a friend on the other side of the continent told me about wanting to develop a curriculum on wisdom for a continuing ed. program in his area.  Coincidently, wisdom is the subject of lectionary readings for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  Not only do we want to know what wisdom is, we also want to know who is wise.  Is there anyone?  The psalmist has his doubts (Ps. 14 & 53).

It seems timely, given today’s political environment, to ask who is wise? What wisdom do they have? Until recent years, the nation generally attributed a degree of wisdom to political leaders, educators, clergy, the judiciary, etc., but that’s changed. A January 2021 Gallup poll placed members of Congress below car salesmen as the least trusted occupation. Corporate executives, lawyers and journalists weren’t far ahead. Clergy were in the middle. High trust was attributed to the medical professions and grade school teachers. Nurses were at the very top. University faculty weren’t in the survey, but given the current anti intellectual environment, I doubt they would have been high on the list.

Trust and wisdom are not the same thing, but they’re related because trust is a measure of confidence in the honesty and reliability in the services provided.  Wisdom, whatever else it is, is radiated by the wise through their honesty and reliability in what they say and do.  Honesty and reliability in what?  Given the high regard for nurses, it has to do with caring for the welfare of the other.  Empathy might be another word for it.  That’s a start, but scripture more often describes wisdom for what it is not.  Proverbs 9, for instance, says to be wise requires laying aside immaturity, at least according to the NRSV.  The RSV says simpleness, the KJV says foolishness, and the translated Masoretic text says thoughtlessness.  Immaturity, simpleness, foolishness and thoughtlessness are not manifestations of wisdom.  It makes sense.  People who are immature and thoughtless in what they say and do cannot be trusted to be honest or reliable, especially about caring for the welfare of the other.  They lack empathy.

If honesty, reliability and empathy are possible signs of wisdom, on what are they anchored?  As a Christian, my understanding of wisdom must be anchored in God as revealed in scripture, tradition and reason.  Scripture says ”the fear (respectful recognition) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (Ps. 111, Proverbs 4, 9, Sirach 1 ).  Don’t get too doctrinaire about what fear of the Lord means.  Among the world’s wisest in our times is the Dalai Lama, whose Buddhism doesn’t require a god, yet God seems to be present with him and through him.  God will work through whom God will work. 

The book of Wisdom adds that the beginning of wisdom is a sincere desire for instruction (WoS, 6).  The desire to learn is motivated by curiosity about the world and how it works.  It’s a process in which new information leads to changes of mind as greater understanding is gained.  What is held to be sure and certain is to be held provisionally.  That’s uncomfortable for a great many people, but wisdom calls us to trust in God alone as eternally true, and dare to live with confidence in a provisional world. 

To honesty, reliability and empathy, we can add curiosity and the desire to be instructed as descriptors of wisdom.  Wisdom might be summarized as the understanding to think and do what is right in the way of godly love.  It’s also a growing willingness to be held personally accountable for one’s words and deeds, as illustrated most clearly in the life of Jesus, and through his disciples as they matured in their faith. 

Wisdom is made known by people who act wisely.  It can be studied as a subject in its own right, but the discussion will always come back to how it is displayed in the lives of real people living real lives. 

Troubled Times, Camelot & The Light of Christ

It’s easy to forget that the great Christian voices of the past, whose words have given strength and courage to others, lived in times of turmoil, violence and corruption. Nevertheless they carried the light of Christ as best they could, bringing a bit of the kingdom of God with them as they went. The lights they shined, shine still. It’s a reminder that, as today’s bearers of the light of Christ, we too are ordained to bring a bit of the kingdom with us wherever we go, regardless of the conditions we encounter. It will not cure the ills of society, but it will offer an oasis in which a part of the kingdom can be experienced. The little we do today might even provide spiritual nourishment for future generations.

In an odd way, carrying the light might be easier for Christians in other countries that have not enjoyed the abundance of good things we have. Abundance easily taken for granted breeds complacent hubris, a sense of entitlement that displaces the need for God, and has little regard for redemption, salvation, and the promise of life eternal. God’s kingdom becomes an irrelevancy. It’s not the entitlement of the rich or the younger generations. It’s the entitlement of being Americans, citizens of the richest, most advanced democracy in the world – the natural model we believe all others should follow.

The idealized image of America has been fraying about the edges for decades, but these last few years have begun to shred it in earnest. Complacency has given way to collective anxiety that can’t be blamed entirely on secularization. Some fault adheres to a complacent body of Christ, and to some who believe accepting Jesus doesn’t require following him. At the turn of the 20th century, popular Christian proponents of the Social Gospel were enthusiastic about merging Christian ethics with technological developments that would erase poverty, establish peaceful harmony, and flood the nation with the goodness of God’s kingdom experienced more fully than ever before on earth. They meant well, and weren’t entirely wrong about the Christian obligation to work for a more just society, but reality intruded with wars, corruption, bigotry, and economic depression. Still, hope lingered, and there were a few post war years when it seemed like they had been successful. Life was good, churches were full, nominal Christianity was the de facto religion of the country; what could go wrong? Camelot had come to America.

Behind today’s discontented apprehension about conditions in society is a mythologized memory of the time when The United Sates of America was an oasis of prosperous tranquility in the midst of the roiling chaos affecting the rest of the world. It was a fictional time documented by popular radio and television shows in the post war years. Long gone, mostly forgotten, the images they created were seared into the American psyche. If Camelot ever existed, it was in post war America. A film retrospective of the Kennedy White House years, released not long after his death, dared to claim them to be the epitome of America’s Camelot era.

“A law was made a distant moon ago here:

In Camelot, so the story goes:

July and August cannot be too hot.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In Camelot.

The winter is forbidden till December

And exits March the second on the dot.

By order, summer lingers through September

In Camelot.

Camelot! Camelot!

I know it sounds a bit bizarre,

But in Camelot, Camelot

That’s how conditions are.

The rain may never fall till after sundown.

By eight, the morning fog must disappear.

In short, there’s simply not

A more congenial spot

For happily-ever-aftering than here

In Camelot.”

(Camelot, Alan Jay Lerner)

American Exceptionalism is another name for Camelot, our national birthright, but it’s eroding from under us. We collectively fear we’re experiencing the decline of American world hegemony. Even our treasured democracy appears to be teetering on the brink of libertarian authoritarianism. Has the current administration saved it, or simply delayed its eventual collapse?

The U.S. has the world’s largest, most prosperous economy, but prosperity is not equitably available to all. We’ve engineered a permanent underclass, and made the middle class more difficult to enter or stay in. We pay more and get less for health care than any other industrialized nation. We have the highest maternal mortality rate among first tier countries (Commonwealth Fund, Nov. 2020). Our kids are less well educated. Our aging infrastructure is held together with rubber bands and duct tape.

Hard core libertarians controlling the Republican Party are disinterested in the nation’s collective well being, and see government as the enemy of freedom (for selected people). They favor (democratic) autocracy of oligarchs over guaranteed universal suffrage. They label everything liberal as socialist, by which they mean Castro like communism. A few strident voices on the left provide them with adequate ammunition to manipulate a population for whom they have little genuine regard.

What are Christians supposed to do? The Book of Common Prayer’s version of Psalm 4 reads in part, “Many are saying, Oh that we might see better times.” A prayer in the Morning Office pleads with God to give peace in all the world because only in God can we live in safety (BCP, 97). Other prayers implore God to take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; and unite us in the bonds of love (BCP 815). They’re deeply heartfelt prayers that come close to implying we’ve given up, and want to shift the burden to God to do something about it.

Jesus was crucified as a threat to empire, but empire could not kill the Word of God made flesh, nor prevent him from completing his work on earth. Peter, Paul and James were executed by the empire, but the gospel spread anyway. The Body of Christ has persevered through millennia of hard times when life was “nasty, brutish and short.” In each generation there were followers of Jesus who boldly bore the light of Christ, proclaiming peace, healing, justice and reconciliation to the people and their leaders – courageously holding the powerful to account, whether civil or religious. Twentieth century proponents of the Social Gospel were fearless in confronting social evils, and influenced the liberal consensus creating the foundation for good times misunderstood as Camelot. The fight for civil rights was led by Christians following in the way of Jesus.

We follow in their footsteps. Not all are called to heroic service, but all are called to not lose heart. We are called to carry the light of Christ as we are able, doing what we can to exhibit a bit of the kingdom of God in the places and among the people where we are. Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14), he meant, trust God, trust me. Trust the Word of God and bear the light of Christ.