Category Archives: Republican Party
Does Two Kingdoms Theology Make Christians into Republicans or Democrats? You Can’t Have It Both Ways
We should all be deeply concerned about two kingdoms theology. Its disastrous effects on the church are evident, are they not? Recent evidence indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Christian Right pastor Robert Jeffress, support Donald Trump and the Republican Party. As David R. Brockman warns in the Texas Observer, Jeffress “has deployed Two Kingdoms thinking repeatedly since the presidential election” to justify his support for Donald Trump. If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Democratic party, that should be deeply concerning.
But wait. Recent evidence also indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Andrew White, candidate for governor of Texas, are Democrats. As Larry Ball warns in the Aquila Report, White’s approach “is deduced from what is called two-kingdom theology.” If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Republican party, that should be deeply concerning.
These articles advance arguments I have repeatedly heard from the lips of Reformed theologians and pastors. One highly esteemed Reformed scholar told me he is convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Republican party despite its unChristian tendencies on poverty and race. Two kingdoms advocates, he believes, are crypto-Republicans. At the same time, numerous pastors have told me they are convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Democratic party despite its unChristian positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Two kingdoms advocates, it turns out, are crypto-Democrats.
I suppose a cynic would say that this is precisely the problem with two kingdoms theology. It complicates the link between the kingdom of God and the politics of this age, and so it allows Christians to support whatever positions they want, regardless of biblical teaching. Real Christians, thoughtful Christians, know which party is the Christian party. Right? Right?
So which party is it? Just how would Jesus vote if he were to become a citizen in 2018 America?
Who’s right, Brockman or Ball? Jeffress or White? Just which side is two kingdoms theology on! Christians demand to know. Partisans purport to reveal the real truth of the matter.
What if it turns out that Christians have substantial disagreements about politics precisely because neither political party faithfully serves the interests of justice, let alone of the kingdom of God? As my friend Mika Edmondson likes to say, if you have an easy time voting for either the Republicans or the Democrats because you are convinced that their policies align so perfectly with the teachings of Christianity, you have been deceived. The real tragedy, as my friend and colleague John Witvliet has put it, is that Christians feel forced to decide which part of a consistent ethic of life they will support and which part they will abandon.
I know. This is anathema for those who are so convinced that their party is the Christian party. And I know that because two kingdoms theology consistently challenges those who sanctify the politics of either the Right or the Left, articles like these will continue to be written and published. But do not be deceived. Brockman and Ball actually have much in common. They are both frustrated that two kingdoms theology refuses to sanctify their own politics.
This suggests to me that two kingdoms theology is actually getting something right, and that we need more of it, not less. It’s time for the church to stop being co-opted by either the Left or the Right. The gospel has much to say about justice and righteousness – and about politics too – but we only get it right when we seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, refusing to confuse that kingdom with America or with the policies of any political party.
It’s time for the church to be the church. If you are sick and tired of the politicization of the church – if you are eager to see the church faithfully witness to the kingdom and its righteousness as it applies to every area of life, without compromise to any political party – then two kingdoms theology is for you.
Needless to say, I have received many critical responses to my blog post of October 10, in which I warned that evangelicals should not publicly support Donald Trump due to his consistent track record of misogyny, racism, divisiveness, and demagoguery. Although I received much more support than criticism, I believe the critics deserve a response. Many of them are genuinely distressed. They are being bombarded with the argument – implicit or explicit, rational or emotionally manipulative – that as Christians they must vote for Trump.
To be sure, I was very careful not to say that a person should not vote for Trump, and most readers understood that. A vote for a presidential candidate is highly complex. There are so many issues at stake, so many factors that should inform a thoughtful Christian’s decision, that we can be sure intelligent Christians will disagree here. Each will follow his or her own conscience. And we need to be careful not to judge one another. I have thoughtful Christian friends who are voting for Trump, others who are voting for Clinton, and others who will vote for someone else entirely.
At the same time, many of my critics seem to think that to criticize evangelicals for publicly supporting Donald Trump requires me to criticize Hillary Clinton too – as if the mark of a good moral theologian is to spread moral criticism in as balanced and politically fair a way as possible. Why do they assume this? Is it because they think evangelicals who don’t support Trump must be enamored with Clinton and the Democratic party? I for myself, am well aware of the Democratic party’s flaws and of the flaws of its nominee as well. Yet somehow I’m not worried that most evangelicals have too rosy a view of Clinton. I certainly don’t think they need a warning from me on that count.
The real reason, I think, that many of these critics want to see me criticize Clinton at least as much as Trump is that they actually think there is only one faithful way a Christian can think about this election. There is one primary issue at stake – who will receive the power to make appointments to the Supreme Court, with their consequent significance for matters such as abortion and religious liberty. Beyond this simple calculation of power, in this view, every other issue pales in significance. Since only two candidates have a realistic chance at attaining power, then all votes for other candidates are wasted. We must choose between the lesser of two evils.
Note how much the power calculus drives Franklin Graham’s Facebook argument in defense of Trump (Graham’s post has received nearly 200,000 Facebook shares):
A lot of people are slamming evangelicals for supposedly giving Donald J. Trump a pass. That’s simply not true. No one is giving him a pass. I’m certainly not, and I’ve not met an evangelical yet who condones his language or inexcusable behavior from over a decade ago. However, he has apologized to his wife, his family, and to the American people for this. He has taken full responsibility. This election isn’t about Donald Trump’s behavior from 11 years ago or Hillary Clinton’s recent missing emails, lies, and false statements. This election is about the Supreme Court and the justices that the next president will nominate. Evangelicals are going to have to decide which candidate they trust to nominate men and women to the court who will defend the constitution and support religious freedoms. My prayer is that Christians will not be deceived by the liberal media about what is at stake for future generations.
Note how Graham’s argument goes. First of all, he naively treats Trump’s boasting about sexual assault as a merely moral problem, as if it did not reflect the character and track record he will take with him into the executive office (and as if it will not really affect women in this country). In Graham’s view, Trump said bad things and Trump should apologize for the bad things he said. Once he has done that, we should all forgive and forget.
Second, to Graham neither Trump’s behavior, nor, for that matter, Clinton’s track record of behavior, are relevant issues in the current presidential election. This election is about one thing: power. What is at stake? Power. Who do we trust to use the presidential power to choose judges in a way that serves our objectives? Who do we trust will use power to preserve our religious liberty? To keep us safe so that we don’t have to suffer? Nothing else matters.
Is this sentiment anything other than a lust for power? Is this Christian political engagement?
In fact, it’s an astonishingly thin and naive argument coming from such a prominent evangelical leader. It reveals how little he has learned from his father Billy Graham, who was so manipulated and embarrassed by Richard Nixon. And it reveals just how enslaved many evangelicals remain to the ideology of the Religious Right.
According to Graham’s logic, it does not matter how toxic and divisive is Trump’s effect on America’s political and moral culture. It does not matter that his demagoguery is wrecking the Republican party before our very eyes (because of Trump the Democrats may win both houses of Congress in addition to the White House). It does not matter that vocal support for Trump has so blackened the image of right-wing white evangelicalism that it has shattered its potential effectiveness for Christlike gospel witness. It does not matter that Trump’s rhetoric is tearing the moral, social, and political fabric of our country to shreds. As deplorable as all of this is (and I take Graham and other evangelicals at their word that they think this is deplorable), when a simple calculation of power is at stake, we must make that grab for power. So the logic runs.
It is this sort of logic that requires people like me to warn evangelicals about Trump in a way that we don’t have to warn them about Clinton. We are not in danger of exchanging our gospel witness for lust for power when it comes to Clinton. But we are in grave danger of doing just that when it comes to Trump. Christianity Today recently put it quite well:
[T]here is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
Again, the point here is not that you should not vote for Trump. I am not so much concerned with who Christians are voting for as I am with how they are arguing – and thinking – about this election.
As Christians we are called to witness to the lordship of Christ in everything that we do. And as Paul makes quite clear in Philippians 2, that does not mean seizing power and lording it over our neighbors, whatever the cost; it means humbling ourselves, taking up the form of a servant, and seeking justice and peace in accord with love. It doesn’t mean doing whatever it takes politically to make sure that we won’t suffer in the future. It means suffering at the hands of power as the very way in which Christ has called us to serve.
What does this mean in terms of voting? For one, it means that we need to be wary of all “lesser of two evils” calculation. The logic of the lesser of two evils argument assumes that power is our primary objective. Yet for Christians, faithful witness to Christ’s lordship is the ultimate concern. Sometimes fidelity to Christ means that we choose the path of less power, the path of greater suffering, because that is the path that love for our neighbors demands, and because that is the path that Christ himself took. You can indeed vote in good conscience for a candidate who has no realistic chance of winning. Perhaps that precisely what Christlike citizenship demands.
Second, lets at least be honest with ourselves. If you vote for Trump you are voting for Trump. If you vote for Clinton you are voting for Clinton. You are supporting that candidate, with all that he or she stands for, in light of who that candidate’s track record shows him or her to be, for the office of president. You may not personally like it, but that’s what a vote means. That’s how it is legally registered. Enough with all of the rationalization that says – I’m not voting for Clinton, I’m just voting against Trump, or vice versa. If you can’t look your neighbor in the eye as a Christian and defend your positive vote as an act of love, then you probably can’t defend your conscience before God either.
Finally, pace Graham (has he learned nothing from the last forty years?), political power is not the primary thing at stake for Christians in this election. At stake is the simple question of whether or not we will love and serve our neighbors faithfully, as befits those who claim to be followers of Christ.
But even so. Even if power was the primary concern, there are many thoughtful Christians – especially Latinos, African Americans, and women, but many white evangelical men like me too – who somehow doubt that identifying ourselves with Donald Trump and dogmatically, even stubbornly, supporting him for the highest office in the land (and the world) genuinely advances any of the causes we really care about (life, human dignity, the rule of law, prosperity, religious liberty), let alone the kingdom of God. And to paraphrase Paul, I think that we too have the Spirit of God.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse is coming under increasing criticism for his ongoing, vocal opposition to Donald Trump. Some critics are suggesting that it’s more about Sasse than it is about Trump. And more and more evangelicals and conservatives are jumping on the Trump bandwagon.
But Sasse, an elder in a Reformed church and former board member of Westminster Seminary California (who recently spoke at WSC’s commencement), is no career politician and he’s not in this for a power trip. Sasse is one of those few remaining high-profile Republicans who grasps that conservatives can do far more damage to their cause – and to their country – by attaching it to a horrible candidate than another Democratic president ever could.
The same must be said about evangelicals.
The primary problem with Trump is not that he’s not conservative or that he’s not evangelical. It’s that he consistently demonstrates contempt for his fellow citizens and for the rule of law itself. He poses demagogically as a strong man, pandering to fear and fostering visions of greatness, while offering nothing in the way of serious political leadership. Conservatives like Sasse who refuse to tow the line on Trump are not doing so because they are purists who lack a healthy dose of pragmatism. On the contrary, they are attune to the lessons of history.
Michael Gerson eloquently captured what is at stake for evangelicals in particular:
Evangelical Christians are not merely choosing a certain political outcome. They are determining their public character — the way they are viewed by others and, ultimately, the way they view themselves. They are identifying with a man who has fed ethnic tension for political gain; who has proposed systemic religious discrimination; who has dramatically undermined the democratic values of civility and tolerance; who has advocated war crimes, including killing the families of terrorists; who holds a highly sexualized view of power as dominance, rather than seeing power as an instrument to advance moral ends.
In legitimizing the presumptive Republican nominee, evangelicals are not merely accepting who he is; they are changing who they are. Trumpism, at its root, involves contempt for, and fear of, outsiders — refugees, undesirable migrants, Muslims, etc. By associating with this movement, evangelicals will bear, if not the mark of Cain, at least the mark of Trump.
Gerson grasps the fact that evangelicals’ witness to the gospel is ultimately inseparable from their public political witness. Their attempt to proclaim Christ in word and deed is contaminated by their willingness to support someone like Donald Trump, even if that support only stems from fear of Hillary Clinton. It takes an awful long time to live down the political causes you support and the political movements you publicly attach yourself – just think of the way in which the politicized legacy of the Christian Right continues to define the way in which most Americans think of evangelicalism.
Make no mistake. Evangelicals will regret supporting Donald Trump.
Never has the hypocrisy of the leaders of the Christian Right been on greater display. I think Pope Francis’s comments implicitly questioning the faith of Donald Trump were impetuous and misguided (and I think they have been misrepresented by the media somewhat as well). The pope has no business making off-the-cuff judgments about the faith of particular American presidential candidates based on their policy proposals.
But the rush of evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Franklin Graham to defend Trump’s faith makes me want to gag. We can be sure they will regret it, far more than Jerry Falwell, Sr., regretted defending segregation, and far more than Billy Graham regretted his warm alliance with Richard Nixon.
Do not forget that Franklin Graham openly speculated that Barack Obama – who in my view has made a far more credible profession of faith than Donald Trump – is a Muslim. These are men who – like their fathers – have attached themselves at the hip to the Republican Party, dismissing various Democratic presidential candidates as godless liberals determined to wreck Christian America. And yet they are thoroughly enamored – Falwell is outright seduced – by a man far more likely to wreck this country than any Democratic candidate in recent years.
Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is no conservative. And while he is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), he has openly bragged about his adulterous affairs, routinely slanders his opponents, and demagogically panders to the worst prejudices in an angry American public. Even more dangerous, he has routinely declared his intention to rule by executive order without regard to constitutional processes, as Senator Ben Sasse has vigorously pointed out. If you think President Obama’s unilateralism has threatened the constitutional order, get ready for far worse with a Republican President Donald Trump.
The blindness of many among the Christian Right is on display as they rush toward Trump as their savior while failing to grasp that he poses a far greater danger to the United States than any candidate in the Democratic Party (just read this comment thread). I sincerely hope Republicans can rally around an alternative before it is too late.
At First Things Richard Mouw joins in on the criticism of Jerry Falwell, Jr., who praised Donald Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” who “lives a life of helping others . . . as Jesus taught in the New Testament.” Mouw agrees with Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore that Falwell’s comments about Trump politicize the gospel. As Moore tweeted, “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?”
What is interesting about Mouw’s piece is that he admits that in the past Calvinists have sometimes failed to overcome that third temptation of Christ. Even more interesting is that he points to Abraham Kuyper as a helpful corrective to this tendency. For those who are used to placing Kuyper in stark opposition to Reformed two kingdoms theology, Mouw’s brief description might begin to free them of that misguided tendency. Kuyper believed all of life falls under the lordship of Christ, of course, as did the classic Reformed two kingdoms tradition, but he also argued that Christ’s lordship calls for the sort of politics that embrace a democratic religious pluralism, as have some more recent Reformed two kingdoms advocates.
Mr. Trump promised his Liberty audience that if elected he will “protect Christianity.” People who love the Christian faith certainly could do with some protection these days. But the religious freedom we long for has to come as part of a larger movement for justice that generates a more comprehensive vision for a pluralistic society. It is in the service of that broader vision that we can avoid, as Russell Moore nicely put it, a pattern of “politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around.” If Jerry Falwell, Jr. wants some theological help in understanding that vision, I have a 19th century Calvinist whom I can recommend on the subject.
Falwell is not the only conservative Mouw might have criticized for politicizing the faith. Senator Ted Cruz apparently declared to his followers, “If we awaken and energize the body of Christ – if Christians and people of faith come out and vote their values – we will win and we will turn the country around.” “I want to tell everyone to get ready, strap on the full armor of God, get ready for the attacks that are coming.”
Christians should be very wary of candidates who identify their campaigns so closely with the purposes of God and the gospel faith, just as they should be wary of candidates who needlessly alienate Muslims and those who practice other faiths. Mouw is correct. Justice is nothing if not comprehensive in its vision for a pluralistic society.
You can read the rest of Mouw’s piece here.
The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.
Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.
The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.
But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.
But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.
It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.
As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.
Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?
What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.
We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.
Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.
The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.
I’m convinced that most Americans were willing to support President Obama in a bipartisan approach to solving America’s major problems in 2013, even if that required taking off the gloves when it came to intransigent Republicans unwilling to compromise. But is the nation going to be as supportive of the president if he presses a hard-left agenda on the country, stepping down from the moral high ground of bipartisanship? CNN’s chief political analyst David Gergen writes:
On the other side of the aisle, many Republicans such as Eric Cantor were respectful of the president after his address but underneath most of them were bristling. They had expected the president to issue a ritualistic plea for bipartisanship and then to begin negotiating with them over federal deficits.
Instead, he made it clear that he will work with them as long as they agree with him and try to run over them if they resist. From the GOP perspective, Obama was virtually dismissive of the nation’s fiscal threats and wasn’t interested in true negotiations. In a tweet after the speech, scholar Ian Bremmer captured their view of Obama’s message to the GOP: “Together, we shall pursue my objectives.”
In short, the divisions in Washington may grow even deeper in the near term, if that is possible, and no one knows what will actually be accomplished.
The harder line the president pushes, the more supportive Americans are going to be of Republicans who refuse to compromise. And even liberals are surprised at just how hard a line Obama took in his second inaugural address.
Certainly the most worrisome implication of Obama’s new stance is the unlikelihood of real progress being made on the nation’s unsustainable deficit spending, and its even more unsustainable commitments in the way of health care and entitlements. Gallup’s study of poll averages indicates that Obama is presiding over an America more polarized than at any point in its post World War II history, with the sole exception of George W. Bush’s fourth year in office. That doesn’t bode well for the sort of compromise we need moving forward.
But The Economist – seemingly in doubt about its decision to endorse Obama for reelection this past year – questions whether the president even cares.
[I]t seems clear that resolving America’s deficit problems is not high on the president’s list of priorities. In fact he mentioned the deficit only once, about halfway in, and qualified that mention by immediately noting that “we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
To a fiscal conservative, that is precisely why the deficit is out of control: continuing to invest for the future, without scaling back the commitments that have been made to the retired, is a conflict that can only be resolved by big tax increases (which Mr Obama himself, as well as the Republicans, have already ruled out) or by everlasting deficits. Choices do, in fact, have to be made.
Senior Republicans now believe that Mr Obama has never been serious about tackling the cost of entitlements, the mandatory categories of expenditure that principally cover pensions and health insurance for the elderly, as well as health care for the very poor. Yet if benefit cuts are off the table, and further tax rises are as well (the Republicans agreed to tax rises worth around $600 billion over ten years on January 1st, in order to avert the fiscal cliff, and they now say no further tax rises can be considered), then the idea of any new bargain seems remote.
CNN and The Economist aren’t exactly hard right publications, enamored with uncompromising Congressional Republicans or ideological Tea Party activists. Indeed, given that conservatives have never trusted Obama, and are not likely to be surprised as he shows his “true colors,” it is increasingly those Americans (and foreign observers) who identify solidly with the pragmatism of middle-of-the-road politics who are most put off (and in some cases, having defended the president, even embarrassed) by this unabashedly ideological approach to politics. What ever happened to that Change Obama was going to bring to Washington, the new kind of politics that so energized and inspired the president’s supporters in 2008? If there has been any change, it seems, it has been for the worse.
The United Kingdom based magazine The Economist, which endorsed Barack Obama for president last year, had this to say about the fiscal cliff deal:
The tax deal enacted this week, which leaves income-tax rates where they are for 99% of households while raising them sharply on the top 1%, was indeed a political victory for Mr Obama. For the first time in more than two decades Republicans had voted for higher taxes, by large numbers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The deal raised almost as much money from the rich as Mr Obama had first sought, and he made no meaningful concessions on spending in return.
It was less of a victory for the economy. It leaves in place significant short-term fiscal tightening, while doing almost nothing to arrest the escalating national debt in the long term. Mr Obama himself conceded that at the White House: “We still have deficits that have to be dealt with,” he said, surely his understatement of the year.
The problem with the fiscal deal is not so much what the bill accomplishes. Most Americans support higher federal income taxes on the richest 1% of taxpayers, and Congress earns praise for making most of President Bush’s tax cuts permanent. It was for this reason that former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan joined most of his fellow partisans in the Senate and many in the House in voting for the bill. In a statement explaining his vote Ryan declared,
Will the American people be better off if this law passes relative to the alternative? In the final analysis, the answer is undoubtedly yes. I came to Congress to make tough decisions — not to run away from them.
I think Ryan made the right decision in terms of the vote itself. But fellow rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio, one of the few Republican senators to vote against the bill, explained his vote in terms of lost opportunity. As the New York Times reports,
Mr. Rubio, in a statement explaining his vote, warned that “rapid economic growth and job creation will be made more difficult under the deal reached here in Washington.” He added: “This deal just postpones the inevitable, the need to solve our growing debt crisis and help the 23 million Americans who can’t find the work they need.”
In the final analysis Congress’s handling of the fiscal crisis, as well as that of President Obama, has been nothing less than abysmal. In the Washington Post Robert Samuelson highlights the inability of Congress to cut spending by pointing to the perpetuation, year after year, of annual subsidies for farmers in the territory of $10-15 billion. Such subsidies made sense in days when farmers faced unusually crippling economic and environmental uncertainty as well as market exploitation in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Today, as my own friends involved in farming confirm, the subsidies are largely unnecessary handouts. Samuelson concludes,
Farm subsidies are a metaphor for our larger predicament. We no longer have the luxury — as we did for decades — of carrying marginal, ineffectual or wasteful programs. We can no longer afford subsidies for those who don’t need them or, at least, don’t need so many of them (including affluent Social Security and Medicare recipients). If we can’t eliminate the least valuable spending, then we will be condemned to perpetually large deficits, huge tax increases or indiscriminate cuts in many federal programs, the good as well as the bad.
What makes all of this most disturbing is how similar the United States’s handling of its fiscal problems is to the recent record of the European Union. Though the problems are different, in both cases, politicians repeatedly pander to short-term fixes while avoiding long-term solutions, even while everyone involved admits that such an approach is unsustainable. We seem to be voluntarily committing ourselves to the laboratory experiment of determining whether or not Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous warnings about the demise of democracy (due to the inability of elected politicians to say no to the demands of the populace, and of unelected bureaucrats to relinquish their own power) are true.
In another article The Economist warily notes just how similar is the track record of the United States and Europe.
For the past three years America’s leaders have looked on Europe’s management of the euro crisis with barely disguised contempt. In the White House and on Capitol Hill there has been incredulity that Europe’s politicians could be so incompetent at handling an economic problem; so addicted to last-minute, short-term fixes; and so incapable of agreeing on a long-term strategy for the single currency.
Those criticisms were all valid, but now those who made them should take the planks from their own eyes. America’s economy may not be in as bad a state as Europe’s, but the failures of its politicians—epitomised by this week’s 11th-hour deal to avoid the calamity of the “fiscal cliff”—suggest that Washington’s pattern of dysfunction is disturbingly similar to the euro zone’s in three depressing ways.
The Economist rightly argues that Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the flawed fiscal deal, and that contrary to the view of some, the problem is not that politicians are insufficiently principled but that they are too unwilling to compromise in order to achieve the most important goals.
Viewed through anything other than a two-month prism, it was an abject failure. The final deal raised less tax revenue than John Boehner, the Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, once offered during the negotiations, and it included none of the entitlement reforms that President Barack Obama was once prepared to contemplate…. Democrats pretend that no changes are necessary to Medicare (health care for the elderly) or Social Security (pensions). Republican solutions always involve unspecified spending cuts, and they regard any tax rise as socialism.
There is only one way to prevent the deceptively slow-burning fuse of America’s debt from ending in calamity. Both sides need to remember that they represent the whole country, not just their relative ideological constituencies. Our goal is not to build the kingdom of God, whether as liberals or conservatives understand that kingdom. No one is going to get all of what they want here. We’re just trying to sustain the economic and political stability of the United States of America.
Conservative despair at the thought of four more years of President Barack Obama has been palpable during the past month, with all kinds of hand-wringing about whether or not America is lurching to the left or even in decline. While these sorts of fears and conversations are inevitable, they often revolve more around high profile elections (i.e., the White House) or court cases (i.e., same-sex marriage, forthcoming) than around underlying fundamentals. For instance, passionate pro-lifers not closely in tune with events on the ground tend to despair about the prospects of the movement because they focus on Supreme Court decisions and congressional legislation, but they entirely miss the dramatic success the pro-life cause has enjoyed on the state level in recent years.
From this perspective the enactment of right to work legislation in Michigan yesterday is breath-taking. Imagine Massachusetts following in the way of Mississippi and passing legislation that effectively drove all abortion providers out of the state. Unthinkable? Not too long ago people would have said the same about Michigan when it came to unions. As the Washington Post reports:
The “right to work” effort illustrates the power of Republicans to use state legislative majorities won in 2010 to pursue their policy preferences, even after losing a bitter presidential election.
The defeat is devastating for organized labor, which for decades has been waging an uphill battle against declining membership and dwindling influence.
But it also strikes at the roots of a Democratic Party that relied on unions for financial support and to marshal voters for President Obama’s reelection….
Proponents call their win in Michigan especially significant because the state is the birthplace of one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, the United Auto Workers. Founded in 1935, the union organized auto workers, winning wages and benefits that transformed assembly-line work into solid middle-class jobs.
“This is really a message to every other state that is a closed union shop, that if you do it here you can do it everywhere else,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity.
(courtesy: Washington Post)
Expect more of this kind of story in the coming years. Although the Democrats will now control the White House for another four years, Republicans dominate state governments across the country. As a result, while Democratic policies may be advancing in certain respects at the federal level, Republicans are having a better time of it at the state level.
Truth be told, state governments have been polarizing, with more states under one party control (either Democratic or Republican) than at any point in recent American history. This allows both conservatives and liberals to push their agendas in their respective states, enabling ready comparison between concrete policies in different places and therefore turning the states into a laboratory for government. Ultimately it’s the long view that matters here, but the early returns suggest that the most important red states are doing much better than similarly situated blue states. Simply compare Texas with the likes of New York, California, and Illinois, and you get the picture.
As the “blue states” continue to struggle economically, more of them will follow the way of Wisconsin and Michigan (and even, to a certain extent, Illinois) and abandon the “liberal” economic policies of the past. In the long run such a shift would certainly have an impact at the federal level.
My point is not that the United States is becoming more conservative, or that the conservative movement is on the verge of enjoying consistent political success. Politics is rarely linear like that. Liberals and conservatives will each continue to enjoy their respective victories. My point is simply that things are not as bad as many conservatives seem to imagine. Neither America nor the conservative movement is in decline. Life is moving on.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the American presidency because he connected with the ordinary American. While the presidents preceding him – especially Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – tended to emphasize the things that government could not do, along with the necessary virtue of patience, FDR approached the Great Depression with a determination to make changes that would actually help people – right away. He was not only the president who spoke directly to the people in his famous fireside chats; he also presided over the most productive Hundred Days (the first three months after a president’s inauguration) in the history of Congress.
There are all sorts of things that can be said in evaluation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The President’s policy was hardly Keynsian (he was motivated more by the simple desire to put people to work than to stimulate the economy) and yet it expanded the reach of the federal government in breathtaking ways. FDR’s approach to the Constitution was cavalier and destructive of the nation’s legal (and ultimately cultural and political) infrastructure, though he was prevented from achieving his worst designs relative to the Supreme Court (about which I hope to write more next week). Economically it was World War II that ended the Great Depression, not the New Deal, and yet the New Deal may well have saved America from revolution. Many of FDR’s policies are widely supported even by conservatives today. Others were thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court already during the 1930s.
But one thing that made FDR a great president – as his admirer, consistent supporter, and eventually conscious emulator Ronald Reagan appreciated – was that he knew how to speak to and represent ordinary, hard-working Americans without pandering to base desires. For instance, in November 1935 Roosevelt spoke at a homecoming rally at Georgia Tech in Atlanta:
I realize that gentlemen in well-warmed and well-stocked clubs will discourse on the expenses of Government and the suffering that they are going through because their Government is spending money on work relief. Some of these same gentlemen tell me that a dole would be more economical than work relief. That is true. But the men who tell me that have, unfortunately, too little contact with the true America to realize that … most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, which in this case is honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral degradation. I propose to build that barrier high and keep it high.
Note how FDR – like the recent Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – criticized dependency on the federal government. But notice also how – profoundly unlike Romney – he did it in a way that was perceived as respectful and helpful to the people who were most in need.
Or take Roosevelt’s speech at the 1936 Democratic convention, only a few months before the greatest landslide election in American history (until Johnson’s even greater victory in 1964):
Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for. For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution….
Governments can err. Presidents do make mistakes. But the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
Americans didn’t vote for FDR by massive margins because they wanted handouts. They – especially southern Evangelicals (black and white alike) – voted for FDR by massive margins because they knew he would stand for them against the sorts of people who were not terribly concerned about their welfare. While they, like most contemporary Americans, may not have understood the ins and outs of economics or fiscal policy, they could appreciate the significance of having a president willing to err on the side of compassion.
Conservatives need to learn how to communicate this way. To be sure, American voters are much more sensitive today about the dangers of a government that is too “warm-hearted,” living in a “spirit of charity” that results in its own destruction. They are not looking for another New Deal (and they did not – in general – like Obamacare). But they still need political leaders who care about them and who know how to communicate that concern. A conservatism that fails to meet this need forfeits the right to govern, especially in a time as economically uncertain as the present day.