Category Archives: 2012 election

Were the 1960s when it all went wrong?

We can all point to the decade when things really began to fall apart. Conservatives were distraught; liberals were exuberant. Anti-war sentiment, labor strikes, racial tension and ethnic conflict were provoking urban riots that led to a level of violence few people had ever seen before. The new emphasis on equality was exacerbating a breakdown in social, political and family authority. College campuses were descending into chaos, with mass expulsions the only way that school administrators knew how to respond. Church attendance, which had been high for most of the century, was plummeting, with especially the intellectual elites turning skeptically against the country’s religious heritage. Perhaps the most obvious expression of it all was the new sexual libertinism. As young people pushed the age of marriage back further and further sexual immorality, adultery and prostitution were noticeably on the rise, with illegitimacy rates reaching a level the country had never seen before. More and  more women were simply abandoning their marriages, giving expression to what one historian calls their “unprecedented social and sexual freedom.”

The 1960s were clearly a turning point in American history. And yet there is no going back. Older conservatives, those children who claimed for their parents the title of the “greatest generation,” are constantly annoying younger conservatives by their appeals to the way things once were. Younger conservatives tend to see that sort of attitude as a dead-end form of nostalgia at best, a culturally, politically, and theologically off-putting pessimism at worst. They are interested in looking forward, not backward.

But the description I just provided was not a description of the 1960s. I was talking about the 1790s-1800s, drawing from Gordon Wood’s chapter entitled “Republican Society,” in his magisterial Empire of Liberty. It is arguable that it was post-revolutionary America, not the 1960s, that witnessed the most godless period in American history. Indeed, in their classic The Churching of America 1776-2005 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have pointed out that the rate of religious adherence around the time of the Revolution hovered around 20% of the population. Church attendance rates and the general acceptance of Christian morality was higher, of course, but not as much higher as you might imagine. By Finke and Stark’s math, American church membership has steadily risen from 1776 to the 21st Century, with current rates approximately triple what they were in the days of the founding fathers.

Of course things got better already in the early 19th Century, in significant part thanks to the Second Great Awakening. By 1850 church membership had doubled and church attendance had increased by even wider margins. A plethora of Evangelical organizations and societies sought to combat sin and evil in a myriad of forms, from slavery to alcohol to illiteracy to paganism to poverty. If America ever was a Christian nation, a benevolent empire, it was in this century, the same century that saw Americans who had two very different visions for the future of this country go to war against each other in the bloodiest conflict of the nation’s history.

But there is a lesson to be learned in all of this. In 1800 you could not have predicted the Christianization of the country that would take place in the following century any more than in 1900 you could have predicted the ongoing racial reconciliation of American society that began after the 1960s. In 1980 you could not have predicted the bloodless end of the Cold War any easier than today you can predict that America will stabilize itself financially and figure out how to maintain our democracy and social commitments in the context of the welfare state.

But one thing is clear. It is not by looking back longingly to the way things once were, pessimistically writing off the future of the country as hopeless, that the individuals and groups who helped move the country forward in all of these great moments of the past did what they did. These people did not operate with the sorts of assumptions that told them they had no hope of persuading the country because the rest of the people out there were somehow too morally degenerate to be reached. They didn’t live in a bubble, seeking frantically to hold onto their own little world while the rest of it went to pot.

History is not linear, whether for good or for bad. The only sensible way forward, for anyone, whether Christian or Muslim, white or Hispanic, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, is constructive, inclusive engagement – socially, religiously, politically. There are a lot of people telling us otherwise right now (and there were a lot of different people telling us otherwise in the last decade). We need to show them a better way.

Opportunity for Conservatives in the Wake of Defeat

Conservatives are handling Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election in quite different ways. For some, the election is evidence of the fact that everything Romney said about the 47% was true. Roughly half of Americans are dependent on the federal government, have no desire to transcend this dependency, and will therefore always vote Democrat. There is nothing conservatives can do about it.

In a polemical piece that is filled with solid insights Brad Littlejohn reflects on the absurdity of this view:

It doesn’t matter that most people considered the moral sensibilities behind Romney’s remarks reprehensible.  Nor does it matter that it was pointed out on all sides that they bore no relationship to the facts.  It was simply not true that anything like 51% or 47% of the American people were freeloading off the largesse of Obama, nor that those who were freeloading were generally Obama supporters.  But that didn’t matter.  Because this fantasy provided an explanation to help rationalize what had happened.  The reason the Right didn’t win was because it couldn’t win.  It was hopeless.  Why?  Because a majority of the American people were now in the pay of the enemy.  They were bribed.  They didn’t give a hoot about the Constitution or the future of their country, so long as they received a never-ending supply of free stuff without ever having to work for it.  Rush Limbaugh declared that it was hard to win when you were running against Santa Claus.  Of course, this is pure fantasy from a statistical standpoint.  Over half of Obama’s votes came from people earning more than $50,000 a year, a demographic that did side with Romney, but by a narrow margin (53%-45%).  Not only that, but the group most likely to vote for Romney (by a 55%-44% margin) were retirees.  Freeloaders, feeding from the public trough of Medicare and Social Security, right?

A chasm of mutual incomprehension, in short, has opened up in American society.  I had hoped that the election would provide an opportunity for self-examination, for taking stock, for righting this sinking ship of a decadent society.  But on the contrary, it has seemed to only confirm the determination of conservatives to live in a separate parallel world, one in which they represent the true American and can write off a majority of their fellow citizens.  Needless to say, if conservatives want to put forward a vision for America, it will have to be a vision for all Americans, a vision that can include them, their hopes, fears, and aspirations.  By seemingly resigning themselves to the fact that they are and will be a minority, arrayed against a morally decadent majority incapable of judgment, the Right seems to be preparing for an age of factional strife in which a victorious minority can impose its will on the people.  And even for those of us who think that many conservative values would, on the whole, be good for America, that is a frightful prospect.

Littlejohn playfully entitles his post “Post-Apocalyptic Musings,” providing a theological analysis of the election from the perspective of the two kingdoms doctrine. Read the whole thing here.

Thankfully, many thoughtful conservatives are taking stock and refusing to go down the road that Littlejohn rightly rejects. In the Washington Post Michael Gerson writes,

Some conservatives have reacted in the tradition of Cicero: “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!”Rush Limbaugh concluded, “We’ve lost the country,” which he described as a “country of children.” “There is no hope,” Ann Coulter said. And Bill O’Reilly: “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”

As a matter of strategy, it is generally not a good idea to express disdain for an electorate one hopes to eventually influence.

Gerson tries to put the election in perspective (Jay Cost does a fuller job here). But he does see it as a call for a more hopeful, aspirational conservatism, a conservatism that doesn’t duck the hard issues in the name of standing on principle.

This is the conservative task over the next few years: not to preserve a rigid ideology but to reconstruct a political appeal along improved but principled lines….

The right will always stand for nationalism and patriotism. But during the Republican primaries, those commitments were expressed as the exclusion of outsiders — in self-deportation and the building of walls. The tone was nasty and small. Apart from moral objections, this approach is no longer politically sustainable….

The alternative is a vision of American identity preserved by the assimilating power of American ideals…. [I]t is more advisable than ever to make public arguments about morality in aspirational rather than judgmental ways.

The Romney campaign was a vast machine with one moving part, its economic critique. The next Republican campaign will need to be capable of complex adjustments of ideology, policy and rhetoric. And it will need one more thing: a candidate with a genuine, creative passion for inclusion.

What might this look like? People will legitimately disagree, but one factor in conservatives’ favor is that, as the pragmatist Walter Russell Mead is constantly arguing and demonstrating (see especially Mead’s series of essays beginning with this one), the blue welfare state model of American government and society is indeed falling apart. Conservative ideas are more necessary now than ever before. And yet conservatives have to take seriously trends that greatly concern most Americans: growing inequality, declining economic mobility, and lack of opportunity. There is a lot more resonance between conservative ideals and the inclinations of most Americans than the negative rhetoric so many are currently falling into suggests.

Take, for instance, The Economist‘s new briefing on poverty in America. The briefing points out that poverty in America is higher than in virtually every single rich county in the world today. Part of the reason for this, it suggests, is that for all American conservatives’ complaints about the welfare state and too much spending on the poor, American society in general leans to the right on this point:

America is unusually reluctant, compared with other rich countries, about giving cash transfers to the poor. The country has a long-standing political aversion to anything that seems to “reward” being poor; instead, it fights poverty using a progressive, if somewhat paternalistic, tax code…. America is not blind nor indifferent to the problems of poverty, even if its rich and poor increasingly live separate lives in separate neighbourhoods, and with different social mores. The poor are helped by a number of programmes, some of them now creaking under the strain.

This should help give some perspective. Contrary to some of the rhetoric, most Americans, Democrat or Republican, do not aspire to be on welfare. To be sure, they do believe in a safety net and in the responsibility of government to ensure a genuine equality of opportunity. These convictions may sometimes give rise to misguided assumptions about policy but they are not morally reprehensible. And I don’t think most conservatives have abandoned these commitments either. They simply need to get back to the work of figuring out how their principles can achieve these ends in a way that makes sense to the rest of the country.

Note also what the Economist says about the close links between social and moral decline and poverty:

Then there is deteriorating family structure among the poor. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then working on Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty”, warned of the breakdown in family structure among black families. A quarter were headed by women, he wrote in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”, and nearly a quarter of black children were, in the language of the time, “illegitimate”. Today the unmarried birth rate for Americans averaged across all ethnicities is higher than that, at almost 41%. For white women who did not finish high school, that proportion rises to over 60%.

Most poor children live in single-parent homes, and most families that are poor lack married parents. More than a third of families like Ms Hamilton’s—headed by a single mother, with no husband present—are poor, compared with fewer than one in fourteen families with married parents. Back in 1999 Isabel Sawhill, a poverty scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, warned of “a bifurcation in children’s life prospects that threatens to divide the US into a society of haves and have-nots”—a bifurcation driven largely by the immense difference in life prospects between children born to rich or poor and to married or unmarried parents.

Again, it’s not hard to see why conservatives have something to offer on this point. If anything, the media and the academy are increasingly waking up to the importance of marriage and the family for American prosperity and equality. By channeling their insights into rhetoric and policy that is aspirational and inclusive rather than negative, conservatives may discover that their concerns still do resonate with most Americans.

This country was built on traditional values like faith and family, hard work and responsibility. Its prosperity depends on the free market and small government. Its best politicians have always emphasized liberty, equality, opportunity, and the American dream. I don’t think any of this has ultimately changed (if you doubt that just consider what Europeans, or even Canadians, think of us), though at points it is certainly under tremendous stress. Rather than write off half the country conservatives should take stock, put the 2012 election behind them, and get back to the hard work of helping constructively to shape the vision of the whole country moving forward. The real work of serving your country, after all, does not take place just once every four years. It’s the stuff of life. (Plug: James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World)

Why Conservatives Don’t Get Hispanics

There is a lot of talk out there right now about the Republican failure to attract Latino voters, who voted for President Obama by a whopping 71-27 ratio in the 2012 presidential election. Although whites made up 56% of Obama’s coalition only 39% of them voted for the president, the smallest percentage in the history of any major American political party.

In a column on Slate yesterday Matthew Yglesias pointed out that the main problem is not the issue of immigration:

Pundits are quickly turning to immigration to explain the Republicans’ Latino problem and to offer a possible cure, but the reality is that the rot cuts much deeper. The GOP doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters per se. Rather, it has a problem with a broad spectrum of voters who simply don’t feel that it’s speaking to their economic concerns. The GOP has an economic agenda tilted strongly to the benefit of elites, and it has preserved support for that agenda—even though it disserves the majority of GOP voters—with implicit racial politics.

Now you can disagree with Yglesias’s judgment in that last sentence but there is no question that what he says certainly reflects the way in which many Hispanics, and others, perceive the Republican Party. I have had enough conversations with hard-core conservatives and Republican Party activists to know that there is an element of truth to what Yglesias is saying. There is a subculture within Republican circles that is nativist, uncompassionate, and arrogant. Many conservatives do live in their own bubble, living and worshiping with people who are just like them in so many ways and have trouble connecting politically with those who don’t. The culture of the Democratic Party is quite different.

Yglesias goes on,

Polling suggests that the Latino problem for the GOP is deeper than immigration. John McCain got a scant 31 percent of the Latino vote despite a long record of pro-immigration policies. The best evidence available on Hispanic public opinion, a big election even poll from Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, makes it clear that this is just a fairly liberal voting block. Just 12 percent of Latinos support a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction, and only 25 percent want to repeal Obamacare. Only 31 percent of Hispanics say they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the DREAM Act. This isn’t to say Latinos aren’t eager to see immigration reform, it’s just that the lion’s share have bigger reasons for rejecting the GOP.

This is important to take seriously. It’s not just Latinos and blacks that voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Other racial minorities, such as Asian Americans, did as well. The fact is, while Americans are evenly divided when it comes to Obamacare, most Americans recognized coming into Obama’s presidency that there was a desperate need for health care reform. In addition, most Americans believe it would be acceptable to raise taxes on the wealthy to a certain extent, along with cuts in discretionary spending and even a degree of entitlement reform. But conservatives sometimes simply deride such perspectives. There is a solid block of people who support the Tea Party affiliated Members of Congress who will brook absolutely no compromise with the Democrats on any of these matters.

All that said, I don’t think we can separate the issue of immigration from these other issues. For part of the reason why so many conservatives – those most influential in shaping the Republican primary process that drives Republicans to the right on immigration – oppose immigration reform is their inflexible attitude about these other issues. Conservatives expect people to work hard, act responsibly, and obey the law. They worry a lot about the growing demographic of Americans who don’t seem to share their understanding of what it means to be an American, and the idea that someone would enter this country illegally and then expect the same public benefits as anyone else flies in the face of that fear. It’s not that they are opposed to immigration, as they will tell you. They just think it should be done legally. You can’t give amnesty to someone who has broken the law or you will simply encourage him or her to do it again.

And yet it is all a little bit odd. How many of our ancestors (political ancestors if not literal ones) broke the law when they came to this country, or when they pushed irrepressibly westward? I’m not just talking about the occupation of lands occupied by natives who had little understanding of property ownership. I’m talking about the refusal of Americans over and over to obey the treaties their own country signed with various tribes, the insistence that even if these non-white people had been pushed off their lands multiple times already, they should be pushed off yet again. And what of the mass American migration into Mexican territory that resulted in the Texan secession from Mexico and ultimately in the huge land-grab resulting from the most unjust war in American history? (By my count the territories we seized from Mexico add up to about 130 votes in the electoral college.)

Hispanics in the United States according to the 2010 Census.

Territories seized by the United States from Mexico in 1845-1848.

My point is not to engage in pointless America trashing, nor is it to question the wisdom, virtue, and hard work on which American prosperity is built. Conservatives rightly point out that we can’t turn back the clock and make these wrongs right. As with the case of reparations to former slaves, it is far better to move on and move forward than to continually haggle over the sins of the past. Clemency is just as important a political virtue as is justice.

But then why do so many view illegal immigration so differently? To be sure, there are approximately 15 million people who are currently living in this country illegally. They have broken the law. And yet they now play a vital role in the American economy, performing hard work that many other Americans are not willing to do, contributing far more to this country than they take from it. Many of them have had children here who are now by law American citizens. All of them believe in the American dream, the same American dream that motivated our own ancestors.

Note, virtually no one is proposing amnesty any more than they are suggesting that Americans should abandon any land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the largest organization of Hispanic Christians in the country, makes quite clear that it believes illegal immigration is wrong and that justice requires that America strengthen its control over its border to prevent the continued violation of the law. The NHCLC calls not for amnesty but for reform that will allow people who broke the law in the past nevertheless to become legal residents and eventually citizens of this country, much like our ancestors regularly asked that the government recognize their own rights despite having repeatedly violated the law. As the president of the NHCLC, Samuel Rodriguez, puts it, any solution must include:

first, border protection that puts an end to all illegal immigration including the utilization of infrared, satellite and other technologies in addition to increased border patrols. Second, the creation of a market driven guest worker program and facilitative avenues by which millions of families already in America that lack the legal status can earn such status in a manner that reflects the Judeo Christian Value system this nation was founded upon. Third, an earned citizenship element that will enable current undocumented residents without a criminal record to earn citizenship status by going to the back of the line as it pertains to citizenship applicants, admonition of guilt with corresponding financial penalty, acquiring civic and language proficiency all while serving the local community.

This is not such an outlandish proposal, and given our nation’s history, conservatives have no right to consider it un-American. As Yglesias points out, immigration reform would not automatically bring Latinos into the Republican camp. But as I suggested yesterday, this isn’t ultimately about electoral politics but about virtuous political engagement. It’s about attitude, a spirit of cooperation, and the willingness to help people solve the problems that concern them most. If you don’t have this, you shouldn’t wonder why, despite your glorious political and economic principles, they wander to the other side.

What conservative surprise about Obama’s re-election says about conservatives

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2

How many Evangelical pastors will give thanks for President Obama this Sunday, even as they intercede with God to give the president wisdom and an understanding of justice in his second term as President of the United States? How many Evangelicals will give thanks for all people – all Americans – even after they have just re-elected Barack Obama to a position of authority in this country?

It is far too soon after election day to offer up any objective or balanced interpretation of the significance of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, the future of the Republican Party, or the viability of conservatism in American politics. Pundits and theorists will declare the election to be a clear verdict that the Republican Party has veered too hard to the right and that the Tea Party was like a millstone around Mitt Romney’s neck, not to mention the direct cause of the Republican Party’s failure to retake control of the Senate. Others will try to tease out just what missteps by Romney and other Republicans were most fatal. And of course, there will be a lot of talk about demographics: the old, white, male Republican Party simply cannot win without finding ways to gain the support of younger voters, Latinos, and women.

These are all discussions that Republicans and conservatives need to have. But over and above all of these questions the most striking thing about last night’s election may well be that it took conservatives entirely by surprise. Although the polling and analysis of the mainstream media turned out to be right, numerous leading conservative writers predicted with absolute confidence in the days leading up to the election that despite what the polls said Romney would win. The polls were biased in their methodology, they said, and polls have no ability to capture enthusiasm or energy. Politics is about much more than statistics and predictive models; what matters is what is happening on the ground. Americans are discouraged about the economy and too many don’t like Obamacare. Democratic voters are discouraged and fewer would go to the polls than in 2008.

All wrong. The best conservative minds in the country were out of touch with the sentiments of most Americans and with the reality on the ground. Even after it was clear that President Obama had won many conservatives refused to believe it because they had been told this would not happen. They could not understand why people would vote for Obama and thought that in the end their man – Mitt Romney – represented the spirit of America. But again, it turns out that they were wrong. As Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard:

[Obama] did one thing that surprised the Romney campaign, Republicans, and political writers, myself included.  He and his campaign delivered a massive turnout by Democratic voters who were supposed to be unenthusiastic, dispirited, and less inclined than Republicans to go to the polls.  By voting in droves, they offset the increased Republican turnout.

Last night the conservative John Ziegler offered an explanation in a column on the Huffington Post, suggesting that many conservatives have become so isolated in the bubble of their own intellectual worldview that they simply tell themselves and their followers what they want to hear, regardless of reality. In many ways this is understandable, he argued, because the mainstream media is openly biased towards the left (if you don’t believe that you were not watching MSNBC last night; there is no way Fox News leans more to the right than MSNBC does to the left). But conservatives failed to distinguish the liberal media from the science and data of polling.

In another post Ziegler got at a deeper reason why conservatives were so taken by surprise:

Conservatives like to think that there is a “silent majority” out there that the media/pollsters will suddenly show up on Election Day. There is very little evidence that this actually exists. The 2010 election deludes conservatives because they don’t seem to realize that in presidential elections the turnout is much higher, especially in the states that actually matter. Republicans only have “tides” in low turnout elections. When the “low info” voters get to the polls, Democrats simply can’t be blown out in the key states. I never understood why conservative commentators couldn’t understand that Obama’s turnout would be just fine in the states which would actually decide the election.

Although conservative strategists have long known that white voters are a shrinking demographic, history told them that whites are far more likely to vote than are blacks or Latinos, especially in a poor economy with high unemployment. And while many conservatives have long been warning that the Republican Party is doomed if it fails to win over a substantial number of Hispanics, the rhetoric of the GOP’s primary season was if anything more harsh on illegal immigration than ever before. In 2004 President Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote. In 2008 John McCain won only 31%. Last night Romney’s portion fell to around 27%. Twenty-seven percent of the fastest growing demographic in the United States.

The main point I want to make, however, has less to do with demographics and more to do with 1 Timothy 2:1-2. As I have argued before on this blog, if conservatives are going to earn the right to guide this country politically they have to figure out how to lead by persuasion, not simply by power politics. There is no moral authority in conducting brilliant strategic campaigns and hoping your opponents have low turnout. If you can’t make conservative political theory make sense to millions of hard working Christian immigrants who just so happen to be part of the fastest growing demographic in the country you don’t deserve to win regardless of how skillful you are politically. Your politics have to demonstrate a spirit of solidarity and affirmation toward all people – not simply those who are already like you. You have to learn to speak for all Americans, not just the people you judge to be real Americans.

Former George W. Bush political director Matt Schlapp is quoted as making precisely this point in an analysis offered by Politico:

Hispanics continue to grow in importance, and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: It is simply the right thing to do, and it’s mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments… It’s about simple math and basic moral decency.

Do conservatives get this? Do Christian conservatives in particular accept this as part of their moral duty? Will we continue to view every political divide through the lens of a culture war, writing off entire ethnic or economic groups as part of the other side needing to be defeated rather than engaging them as fellow citizens who might have something to tell us about their own welfare, let alone the welfare of this country?

Note, my point is not to criticize conservatism nor is it to criticize Christian political theology. On the contrary, it is that in a democratic society any political perspective loses its moral credibility if it ceases to take seriously the need to treat other perspectives with dignity and respect. If we can’t explain our moral and political judgments to those who disagree with us even while they often share our faith, if we don’t trust them even while we demand that they trust us, why should we expect them to cede to us any moral or political leadership?

Again, do conservatives get this? I’m not sure. In the National Review Kevin Williamson writes:

The lessons of Ohio are that Barack Obama is a skillful demagogue, that the ancients were wise to number envy among the deadly sins, and that offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This is what Oakeshott had in mind when he wrote that liberty was something that many people simply are not equipped to “enjoy as an opportunity rather than suffer as a burden.”

So according to Williamson Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% were right all along. Most Americans are just greedy and selfish and there is nothing we can do about it.

Or take Matthew Schmitz’s comments on the First Thoughts blog:

Gallup’s recent polling finds slightly more than half of Americans identifying as prolife, and while support for gay marriage continues to increase, the issue motivates far more conservative than liberal voters. There’s a large intensity gap that should continue to tip the issue to the right for some time even if current trends hold.

Hmm … where have I heard that sort of logic before. Most don’t agree with our perspective but we care more so we can defeat them at the polls even if we cannot persuade them.

These comments do not sound like the expressions of lessons learned. They sound like a continued refusal to recognize that the American people, in a free and fair election, chose President Obama to continue to lead this country over the Republican Mitt Romney, chose Democrats to serve as United States senators in states thought to be solidly conservative, and endorsed same-sex marriage despite strong campaigns to prevent it.

Conservatives can view this data as a simple condemnation of their opponents and pat themselves on the back for standing for the truth even as their country (as they see it) falls apart. Or they can take it as a sharp rebuke that calls them to begin again the hard work of re-engaging the American people, hearing and taking seriously their concerns even as they try to make sense of how conservatism might best help address those concerns. The American people are open to persuasion, I firmly believe. Few people really think this country is on a sustainable path to prosperity. But if conservatives are ever going to lead it in a different direction, they will have to do a better job persuading the rest of the country that they actually deserve it.

When we enter the polling booth are we still Christians?

In his latest article at the Daily Caller Brian Lee asks whether or not it matters if a president has orthodox Christian faith or not. Lee answers the question by comparing the Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney to America’s first three presidents: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. His conclusion, on the basis of sound historical scholarship and the rejection of wishful thinking, is that these towering figures, the beloved Founding Fathers, give us plenty of evidence to demonstrate that they were not orthodox Christians. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams explicitly denied cardinal tenants of the Christian faith, while there is no evidence that George Washington ever participated in the Lord’s Supper in his life.

Lee concludes,

[I]n God’s providence, the men who shaped our nation’s founding and served as its heads of state for the first 20 years of its existence managed to accomplish great things, despite their apparent rejection of God’s saving work in Christ. What does this tell us?

The work of statecraft is not the work of salvation.

That’s a relatively mild point to make, but given how many Christians seem to assume they can only support political causes or candidates that are explicitly Christian, it is a necessary one. If your primary concern in today’s election is to vote for a professing Christian then there is far more evidence in Barack Obama’s favor than there is for Mitt Romney or for Washington, Adams, or Jefferson (if they were alive and running). Yet Lee’s point reminds us that we are not going to the polls to choose the leader of the spiritual kingdom, or even the ultimate Lord of the political kingdom. Rather, we are choosing the President of the United States for the next four years.

Yet Lee’s point is not, and this needs to be emphasized, that we should leave our Christian faith, or the authority of Scripture, outside of the polling booth. He writes,

Surely, Christian faith, and all that it entails — confessing the truth of God’s Law, one’s own sin and the saving work of Christ — informs one’s view of the civil magistrate and the just execution of its highest office.

In a previous article, arguing that pastors should not politicize from the pulpit, Lee made this point even more clearly:

In our hyper-politicized age, the line between religious and political speech is an exceedingly difficult one to draw. Teaching on the morality of war and peace, on social issues including marriage, life, and finance are inherently political…. One care barely open one’s mouth on a moral question of the day without giving political offense, and no one would suggest God’s word has nothing to say on these matters.

Lee’s point is crucial. The advocates of the two kingdoms doctrine, from the beginning of its history, have consistently argued that civil magistrates are obligated to rule according to the principles of justice as revealed in natural law and Scripture. Martin Luther, despite caricatures of the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine that are largely based on a distorted version of the doctrine from the Nazi era, raised the standards for Christian statesmanship so high that he insisted that a Christian prince will be a “rare bird in heaven.”

This might surprise critics of the two kingdoms doctrine, and in fact, it may surprise some of its most vocal proponents, some of whom seem to view the two kingdoms perspective as a “movement” designed to isolate religion and politics from one another rather than as a theological distinction intended to guide and qualify Christian political engagement. The two kingdoms doctrine is not a movement, it is not the possession of a few self-appointed spokesmen (myself included), and it does not require pastors to be silent on what Scripture says that is relevant to politics and civil government, let alone Christians to bracket off their Christian faith when they go to the polling booth.

In fact, despite appearances in some of the polemics that rage across the Internet, I think most Reformed people get this. Most of them embrace the substance of the two kingdoms doctrine as a reminder that the kingdom of God proclaimed in Scripture is never to be confused with cultural and political institutions that nevertheless are ordained by God and hold legitimate claims over Christians in this life. I’ve tried to demonstrate this over the past few months by identifying numerous theologians who invoke the two kingdoms distinction in their writing (i.e., John Bolt, Richard Phillips, Justin Taylor).

(Election Day in Philadelphia, 1815)

This week I received a mailing from a Presbyterian church in Atlanta in which the pastor, who I’m quite confident would not identify himself as part of any sort of “two kingdoms” movement, offered his congregation pastoral advice regarding today’s election. The pastor carefully reminded the congregation that government is ordained by God to rule in accord with justice, but he warned the congregation not to conflate Christ’s spiritual kingdom with the political earthly kingdom. Why not? Because when we conflate the two kingdoms we tend to assume that politicians and states have the obligation of using their coercive power to advance the spiritual cause of the kingdom of God. Worse, we fall into the danger of identifying America as God’s special nation, analogous to Israel. The pastor went on, however, to remind the congregation that Scripture does teach us standards of justice that government is bound to respect and defend, such as the sanctity of life and of the institution of marriage, and that they should keep these standards in mind when voting.

Most Reformed Christians agree with this I think. We might put things somewhat differently, we might highlight different biblical principles of justice, and we might hedge our reminders in more or less qualified language. But nearly all of us agree that pastors should avoid politicking from the pulpit even while they should not refrain from speaking to us the whole counsel of God. They should not extrapolate from Scripture simplistic guidance for contemporary American politics that was never intended by the divine or human authors, but they should call us to put on the mind of Christ, using the wisdom and revelation God has given us as we take our opportunity to help ensure that the government God appointed to punish the evil and reward the good does in fact keep that mandate. They should remind us, in good two kingdoms fashion, to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, that all these other things may be added unto us.

Which Group of Technocrats Are You Voting For?

In his classic defense of free market economics, The Road to Serfdom, F. A. Hayek explains why the expansion of government control over a complex society inevitably shifts power from representative democratic assemblies to boards or bodies of technocratic elites. Democratic assemblies are designed to operate, within limits, on the principle of majority rule. Yet majorities in large bodies can only be effectively forged on the basis of general principles or laws; they are impossible to maintain in the context of the management of a complicated society or economy.

Why? On any given issue requiring management there is an infinite variation of possible policies, each suiting the needs or interests of different parties. Inevitably a representative assembly does not divide merely into two general segments, each seeking to gain the majority against another, but into innumerable factions. The result, as Americans witness constantly in their own government, is gridlock. And the solution to gridlock is the assigning of the particulars of legislation to technocratic elites (i.e., lobbyists and lawyers) who design a policy that will be enforced by another body of technocratic elites (i.e., bureaucrats). As Hayek puts it,

The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions… The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts – permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies…. ‘It is common ground that the present parliamentary machine is quite unsuited to pass rapidly a great body of complicated legislation.’ (104).

Case in point: Obamacare. The average elected representative in Congress had very little influence over the particulars of the policy; most probably didn’t even know the details of what they were voting for or against. And yet the problem is not with President Obama and the Democratic Party. The same tendency is observable in Republican legislation like President Bush’s signature Medicare Prescription Drug legislation. Any piece of legislation seeking to expand federal control or management of something as complicated as health care or the economy requires the rule of experts.
One need not be a libertarian to accept Hayek’s basic insight on this point. And of course, it is by no means clear what Hayek’s alternative would look like in practice, particularly in a country committed to federalism like the United States. What is appropriate for a body of elected representatives at the local or state level is not necessarily the same as what is appropriate at the federal level.
But Hayek’s perspective is at least worth pondering. From his perspective the unpopularity of Congress today is less the result of the tendency of power to corrupt, or the irresistible need for the politician to do what will get her or him reelected, than it is the effect of the American people having given Congress a mandate it cannot possibly fulfill.

The fault is neither with the individual representatives nor with parliamentary institutions as such but with the contradiction inherent in the task with which they are charged. They are not asked to act where they can agree, but to produce agreement on everything – the whole direction of the resources of the nation. For such a task the system of majority decision is, however, not suited… There is no reason why there should be a majority in favor of any one of the different possible courses of positive action if their number is legion (105).

The delegation of particular technical tasks to separate bodies, while a regular feature, is yet only the first step in the process whereby a democracy which embarks on planning progressively relinquishes its powers… The belief is becoming more and more widespread that, if things are to get done, the responsible authorities must be freed from the fetters of democratic procedure (107-108).

Alexis de Tocqueville warned that when democracy went down this road it would spawn a massive interest group of government officials, bureaucrats, and associated elites whose interest would gradually diverge from that of the people. Tocqueville would not be surprised by the contemporary political battles between public unions and populist reforming governors such as that which took place in Wisconsin this past year. Yet Joel Kotkin points out that both President Obama and Governor Romney represent a set of elites seeking to manage the country in one way or another.

The middle class, we’re frequently told, decides elections. But the 2012 race has in many ways been a contest between two elites, with the plutocratic corporate class lining up behind Mitt Romney to try and reclaim its position on top of the pile from an ascendant new group—made up of the leaders of social and traditional media, the upper bureaucracy and the academy—that’s bet big on Barack Obama.

Kotkin interprets the Tea Party as a populist reaction to the increasingly authoritarian and technocratic character of American government. Yet he by no means conflates a President Romney with the Tea Party.

Of course, Romney himself is the very opposite of a populist. As president, he would offer four years of technocratic, corporate power. Yet at the same time, a Romney administration—contrary to the claims of Democratic operatives and at times also the mainstream media—would not embrace the savage worldview of Pat Buchanan, Sara Palin, or even Rick Santorum. It would be establishmentarian in a “sensible shoes” kind of way.

So what is the choice facing American voters? Hayek would tell us that we have given our democracy an impossible mandate: the management of the most complicated economy in the world. In this case we might want to moderate our hopes for what any politician can achieve. After all, when we go to the ballot box we are not usually voting for particular rules or policies. For most of us we are simply choosing which party, with all of its technocratic expertise, will do the least damage. Good luck with that.

[Note: I am not as cynical about the upcoming election (or some of the issues at stake) as this last paragraph may suggest. I am simply trying to put some things in perspective. Consider it a nod to the book of Ecclesiastes.]

Why are Evangelicals fudging on the gospel to promote Mitt Romney?

On Sunday in the Aquila Report Bill Evans made some interesting claims concerning Mormonism in his attempt to persuade readers that there is a Christian position in the upcoming presidential election – a position that requires voting for Mitt Romney.

Evans writes:

While Mormons are not Christians in the traditional creedal sense of the term, I also have little doubt that there are Mormons who are looking in faith to Christ for salvation. In addition, the argument can be made that Mormons are closer to biblical truth on some issues than many liberal Protestants.

Scott Clark has a thoughtful analysis of Evans’s claim at the Heidelblog so I won’t offer that here. What strikes me is how so many Christian conservatives, from Bill Evans to Billy Graham, feel the need to soften their criticism of Mormonism in order to justify voting for Romney.

Part of what puts Evans, at least, in this position, may be his off-handed dismissal of the two kingdoms perspective. Christians who do not conflate the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world have less trouble justifying voting for a candidate who approximates their understanding of justice regardless of his or her religion. To be sure, they do give up the right to claim their perspective on the election as the Christian one, a concession Evans is loath to make.

For a much better perspective on the upcoming election – one grounded in the two kingdoms perspective – see Richard Phillips’s article published by the Aquila Report yesterday. Phillips argues that the church should proclaim the political principles taught in Scripture but should avoid entanglements in politics itself. Why?

The first [reason] is the doctrine known as the spirituality of the Church, which means that the Church is an institution of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and His spiritual reign, and as such should avoid distracting itself by entanglements in the secular realm of politics (see John 18:37).

I have no problem with a Christian making an argument that people ought to vote for a particular candidate for various reasons informed by the Christian tradition. But I don’t think we should dilute our understanding of Christianity or the gospel to do so. Compromising Christ’s lordship for (the possibility of) four years of Republican possession of the White House doesn’t strike me as being the best trade.

Romney and Obama largely ignore the most important issues

Amid all the drama of the presidential debates it is striking to notice what issues garner little attention, whether from questioners or from the candidates. When the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare it was widely suggested that it had turned the 2012 presidential campaign into a battle over the future of health care. That has hardly been the case. Likewise the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate suggested that the unsustainable path of welfare, pension, and entitlement spending on which the United States (like the rest of the rich world) is set should be a focal point of the debate. That hasn’t happened either. For Romney, the focus has been jobs, jobs, jobs. For Obama the tactic has been to make voters think Romney will be the rich man’s president.

The main reason for Romney’s focus on the economy (and Obama’s focus on Romney) is obvious. There is no better ground from which to make voters look past the areas in which they disagree with you than to convince them that you will lead the nation to prosperity and economic health. When unemployment has been hovering around 8% for as long as it has, this political strategy is a no-brainer.

And yet the fact remains that the growing debt of the United States – and the unsustainability of its commitments in the form of health care and pensions to an aging population – is the single greatest threat to the future prosperity of this country. Despite Romney’s rhetoric, the deficit and debt cannot be fixed by closing tax loopholes and restoring the nation to econ0mic prosperity, and despite Obama’s suggestions, increasing taxes on the rich and decreasing military spending will not solve the problem either. Nor are those conservatives right who blame the problem on things like Medicaid, or provision for the poor.

The reason why the United States is on an unsustainable spending path is because of its commitments to the middle class and to the wealthy. The problem is not the redistribution of wealth to the poor, but the redistribution of wealth to those who don’t need it. Consider the picture as portrayed by The Economist:

In the rich world the cronyism is better-hidden. One reason why Wall Street accounts for a disproportionate share of the wealthy is the implicit subsidy given to too-big-to-fail banks. From doctors to lawyers, many high-paying professions are full of unnecessary restrictive practices. And then there is the most unfair transfer of all—misdirected welfare spending. Social spending is often less about helping the poor than giving goodies to the relatively wealthy.

That picture is quite general, but in another article The Economist outlines the problem more concretely:

For all the conservatives’ insinuations of loafers living on handouts, America spends less than half as much as the average OECD country on cash transfers for people of working age. At the same time benefits in kind, such as state provision of education, health care and housing, gobble up a large and growing share of America’s budget. But according to the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, over half of all entitlement spending flows to the elderly and around 40% is spent on health care. The poor do not get much of a look-in. Around 10% of the total goes to the richest fifth of Americans, almost 60% to the middle three-fifths and only 30% to the poorest fifth.

If you combine tax expenditures and entitlements, America’s efforts at redistribution look even more perverse. The government lavishes more dollars overall on the top fifth of the income distribution than the bottom fifth. As Irwin Garfinkel, Lee Rainwater and Timothy Smeeding point out in “Wealth and Welfare States”, a book comparing America’s safety net with those of other countries, the federal government “spends” four times as much on subsidising housing for the richest 20% of Americans (via the mortgage-interest deduction) than it spends on public housing for the poorest fifth.

For all of Obama’s criticisms, on this point Romney is on to something. As The Economist notes, most of the deductions and loopholes Romney wants to eliminate not only reduce the efficiency of the tax system but currently favor the wealthy.

But Americans who are seriously concerned about the future fiscal health of the country might want to ask themselves, why do the richest Americans need housing subsidies? Why should programs like Medicare, or on the state level, like public education, offer expensive benefits to those who don’t even need them? Why should retirees begin to reap public benefits when they are still healthy enough to work (because the retirement age of such programs is based on the life expectancy of several decades ago)? Why does the government transfer massive wealth from the young (in the form of debt, because they don’t have it) to the old (in the form of pensions and health care, whether or not they need it)? And why does a system that directs more public spending to the middle class and to the wealthy lead conservatives to bear so much resentment to those who actually depend on a certain measure of government support?

In short, Americans should not buy into the assumption that big government is the result of care for the poor, nor should they take seriously the rhetoric that the United States government has unfairly favored the poor over against the rich. The interference of the government in the economy, government tax policy and regulation, and the close ties between money and legislation has consistently skewed the free market in favor of the wealthy and the powerful, even as it has sought to provide a minimal safety net for the poor. We should be able to talk about this problem – and the sustainability of our current track – without our conversations devolving into class warfare. As The Economist concludes,

The second lesson is that governments can narrow inequality without large-scale redistribution or an ever growing state. The 20th century’s most dramatic reductions in income gaps took place when governments, by and large, were smaller than they are today. Large, rigid welfare states proved unsustainable. But there was also a successful progressive prescription for reducing income gaps and boosting mobility by attacking crony capitalism, investing in the young (especially by broadening access to education) and creating a safety net for the poorest (particularly through unemployment insurance and pension schemes). Worryingly, governments in some of the countries where inequality has risen most seem to have forgotten that.

[Note: this post is the sequel to yesterday’s post on inequality.]

Can a Christian vote in good conscience for Mitt Romney?

In an article on the Aquila Report in August  Jason Cunningham made a case as to why Christians should not vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Throughout his piece Cunningham makes numerous assumptions that dictate his ultimate conclusion, but we need to question these assumptions.

For instance, Cunningham writes,

Leaving aside the fact that by any historical definition Romney is not a “conservative,” or why we would want to ‘conserve’ any aspect of the political environment today …

Cunningham claims to leave aside these questions but the very fact that he raises the latter one is astonishing. Does Cunningham really think there is no aspect of the political environment today that is worth preserving? Does he really think that Romney stands for nothing positive? Presumably not. Presumably this statement just reflects rhetorical frustration with Romney and the conservative movement today. On the other hand, perhaps Cunningham’s criteria for assessing American politics is what is the problem here:

… the political environment of the moment does not set our standard for leadership, God does. Why do we look to Scripture for our standard of leadership both in home and church but leave civil government to pragmatics and compromise?  Said another way, we eagerly support candidates for political office that would be easily dismissed and disqualified in other institutions.

We look to Scripture for our standard of leadership in the church because the church is ordained by God and derives its authority from Scripture. But things get complicated when we consider the family or the state, institutions grounded in creation and in the Noahic Covenant, not in Scripture. To be sure, Scripture teaches standards of justice and righteousness for leadership in the family and the state. But while these standards are rarely met, we do not exclude from institutional leadership those who fail perfectly to meet them.

For instance, Scripture calls a husband to serve his wife and to sacrifice himself for her after the example of Christ and his love for the church. No nonbeliever can meet this standard. But we do not as a result say that nonbelievers may not marry. In fact, we encourage them to marry, both for their sake and for the sake of our society. The alternative would be nothing less than disastrous socially, economically, and morally.

The state is really not so different. Scripture calls a political ruler to submit himself or herself to Christ’s lordship, and to serve their people in a manner consistent with justice and righteousness. But no person perfectly meets this standard, and certainly no nonbeliever can meet this standard. Should we therefore say that nonbelievers cannot hold political office? Was the constitution wrong to declare that there should be no religious test for such office?

Cunningham would respond here by distinguishing what God may bring about by his providence and what Christians should support:

There is a big difference between God using wicked pagan rulers for His purposes and God’s people ‘asking’ for one by casting their vote for a known pagan, anti-Christ worshipper. The prophet Habakkuk was incredulous at the thought of God using the Babylonians to punish them but it appears in the case of America, we are self-consciously asking God for Babylon to rule over us. The only place we find Israel asking for a king is in their disobedience and lack of faith by wanting to be ‘like the other nations’. Peace and freedom are by-products of obedience, faithfulness, and repentance, and these will not be accomplished by asking God to give us Cyrus over Nebuchadnezzar.

It is obvious here that Cunningham views America as being in a situation analogous to ancient Israel, and he therefore expects us to evaluate our leadership on the same basis as an Israelite was supposed to evaluate his or her leadership: the Torah. He seems to think that the goal of Christians should be to establish our own political nation in which nonbelievers are excluded from positions of political authority. As he puts it,

If Christians demanded more from their candidates and withheld their votes from those that do not seek to uphold righteousness according to God’s law, the bar would be raised and the doors opened for true Christian statesmen to take office.

But is the gospel call upon Christians really to take over the nations, working hard to ensure that only we attain positions of political power, or is it to serve them, witnessing to the love of Christ by seeking the welfare of our neighbors in the city in which we live? As Jesus himself said, “The kings of the nations exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). Paul describes pagan civil government as appointed by God for our “good,” to carry out wrath on those who do wrong. He commands Christians to pray for those in political office, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Peter reminds Christians that their obligations to “every human institution” are fulfilled in the call to serve, using our freedom as an opportunity for service, and keeping our conduct honorable such that we will not be a scandal to the nations, but that they will rather glorify God for our good works (1 Peter 2:12-17).

In his commentary on Jeremiah 29:7 John Calvin comments on Jeremiah’s exhortation to the Jews in exile to view Babylon as their own country, praying for and contributing to its peace and prosperity. Declaring that Christians are to think similarly of their own governments he writes, “they ought to have deemed their union [with Babylon] such as though they were of the same body. For by saying that their peace would be in the peace of Babylon he intimates that they could not be considered as a separate people until the time of seventy years was completed.”

The criteria by which we are to evaluate political candidates are not found in the Old Testament laws concerning Israel. They are found in the call of Jeremiah and of the New Testament to serve our neighbors by seeking their good. If we have the opportunity to choose political rulers, we should choose those who will do justice for all, enabling all to live in peace and quiet.

Under certain circumstances, this might involve voting for Christians. But in other circumstances, it is possible that a non-Christian might achieve these ends more effectively. The point is, we should choose the candidate who is most likely to contribute to justice and peace. Refusing to vote for any candidate who is not perfect hardly serves this end. It leads, rather, to political apathy, division, and gridlock. Christians who insist that they will only participate in the political process if they can choose godly Christian leaders are not displaying an attitude of love and service to their neighbors. They are displaying the desire to lord it over them.

Cunningham asks, “Why do we look to Scripture for our standard of leadership both in home and church but leave civil government to pragmatics and compromise?” We are open to pragmatics and compromise in political affairs because love for our neighbors demands this openness. A servant does not insist on his own way. Rather, a servant pays attention to the “political circumstances of the moment” and seeks to emulate the way of God by serving his neighbor in a manner appropriate to those circumstances.

There may be perfectly good reasons not to vote for Mitt Romney in November. But the fact that he is a Mormon is not one of them.

[Note: this post is re-blogged – with a few minor changes – from August 27, in response to the request of some readers for my thoughts on this subject.]

Biden, Ryan, and the State of American Politics

It’s easy when watching presidential and vice-presidential debates simply to treat the affair like one would treat a sports event. Root for your candidate’s victory and ride the ups and downs, the give and take. It’s also interesting to step back and consider what the debates say about American politics.

At Via Meadia Walter Russell Mead suggests that although the vice-presidential debate last night might not matter much in the long run, it does tell us something about the state of American politics.

Yet for all that, something got done and the debate effectively conveyed the current unsatisfactory state of American politics. The Democrats have a system that they like but don’t know how to preserve; the Republicans think change is needed but aren’t very clear about exactly what they want to put in place of the Democratic system now crumbling around us. The Democrats think the world is a mess, don’t really know how to fix it and would like to cut the defense budget; the Republicans think the world is a mess, don’t really know how to fix it and think we need a stronger defense.

This is typical Mead fare but I think there’s a strong element of truth to it. David Brooks puts his own spin on a similar point, suggesting that the debate can be interpreted as reflective of a generational divide:

[Biden] entered the Senate in 1973, back when the old Democratic giants from the New Deal era still roamed the earth. Every sentimental tone of voice, every ebullient and condescending grin brought you back to the kitchen tables in working-class Catholic neighborhoods of places like Scranton, Pa., Chicago, San Francisco, Providence, R.I., and Philadelphia.

That was a time, much more so than now, when there were still regional manners, regional accents and greater distance from the homogenizing influence of mass culture. That was a culture in which emotion was put out there on display — screaming matches between family members who could erupt in chest-poking fury one second and then loyalty until death affection the next.

In contrast Paul Ryan:

Ryan hails from a different era, not the era of the 1950s diner, but the era of the workout gym. By Ryan’s time, the national media culture was pervasive. The tone was cool, not hot. The meritocracy had kicked in and ambitious young people had learned to adopt a low friction manner. Ryan emerges from this culture in the same way Barack Obama does.

This is a generation armed with self-awareness. In this generation, you roll your eyes at anyone who is quite so flamboyantly demonstrative as the vice president.

What do Americans want? Obviously the younger generation has a leg-up when it comes to the future. Brooks argues that it also has an advantage when it comes to independents.

What do independents want most? They want people who will practice a more respectful brand of politics, who will behave the way most Americans try to behave in their dealings: respectfully, maybe even pausing to listen for a second. To them, Biden will seem like an off-putting caricature of the worst of old-style politics.

This is not just an issue of manners. It is: How are we going to practice the kind of politics that will help us avert the so-called fiscal cliff? How are we going to balance the crosscutting challenges, like increasing growth while reducing long-term debt?

After the debate many people pointed out that Mitt Romney was just as aggressive with Obama as Biden was with Ryan, and that on the other hand Obama was polite and professional in the same way as Ryan. But while it is true that Romney was aggressive, he was not aggressive in a way that came across as condescending or disrespectful. Indeed, many viewers found that Obama’s dispassion communicated the same sort of arrogance and loathing as did Biden’s passion. And if there is an element of truth to what Mead and Brooks are saying it may be that leading Democrats seriously underestimate the degree to which the country is unsatisfied with the same liberal rhetoric and commitment to the status quo that has been coming from the Democratic Party for decades, without any evidence that it can help the country solve its most serious problems.

Both Obama and Biden, like the media and academic establishments at large, still seem to think conservative political theory, with its commitment to low taxes and small government, is largely the property of Tea party wackos and fundamentalist Christians. And so they don’t really take it that seriously. The electorate is not convinced either, in part because the Republicans don’t always clearly communicate their alternative to the Democratic approach and in part because they are still trying to figure out what that alternative would look like. But the electorate is much more open-minded than are the Democratic standard bearers on this point. Independents recognize smugness when they see it. They can also see when that smugness lacks the record of success that might otherwise make it understandable.

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