Alyssa Rosenberg has a very simple but profound observation today in the Washington Post about the use of the word “resistance” to describe basic civic duties like calling our elected officials:
We should be wary of adopting a renamed version of civic engagement that seems mostly intended to make ourselves feel good and brave about doing things we should have been doing in the first place. Meeting our basic obligations as citizens is not the same thing as revolutionary action.
Gregory Wolfe has a great tweetstorm on the related subject of why it is more appropriate to use the word “oppose” rather than “resist” when it comes to democratic action.
I think this is a really important point to make, and not just because of the possible consequences of poor semantics that Rosenberg talks about. I got some pushback on my previous post because some folks felt like Trump was simply the best possible choice out of the two, no further discussion required. However, I think that simply getting to the point where voters in general (and evangelical Christians in particular) felt like they had no other option but to vote for Trump demonstrates our diseased conception of politics and our severe deficiency of civic virtue. If the office of the President is so important and powerful to us that we are willing to hitch our political train to orange-colored crazy train, we have vastly underestimated the strength every other political resource available to us. (Oliver O’Donovan discusses some of those resources in a marvelous interview here.)
I think these instincts are related: on the right, a willingness to compromise with Mammon Incarnate because he will give you what you want politically; on the left, a need to make the boring work of political engagement sound like Princess Leia LARPing. The connection is that both sides have no category for the routine cultivation of civic virtue; the only meaningful political motivation is existential dread. There were (and are) some reasons Trump or Clinton would legitimately induce existential dread, for sure, but that doesn’t negate the massive middle space of reading, going to meetings, calling and writing to elected officials, protesting, canvassing, and (most importantly) praying.
People generally need some kind of narrative that compels them to do things which are not in their immediate self-interest. Most other cultures throughout history have had a thicker set of social mores and cultural pressures that shaped these narratives, but nowadays in the West radical autonomy has corroded most of those mores, for better or for worse. If there’s no cultural script for exercising basic duties to our fellow citizens, then the only way to get people to participate is to ratchet up the intensity of the appeal. Trump really is a toxic, incompetent person and needs to be opposed– but there will be more Trumps and more Clintons if we don’t learn to cultivate the character necessary to ward off these problems in the first place.
I don’t know what the national narrative ought to be for cultivating this character. If radical autonomy and the buffered self underlie most of our personal and social narratives (which I think they do), it is difficult to imagine how to create a milieu in which we feel obligated to each other. Most leftists seems to be working from the presumption that all of our main obligation to one another consists in paying sufficient taxes for the state to meet whatever needs a fellow citizen might have, which doesn’t seem to take seriously any political or pre-political obligations we might have to one another (or which institutions might be better or worse for meeting those). The right, on the other hand, talks up the important of character but has failed to meaningfully articulate how it might be cultivated. Furthermore, conservatism itself is poisoned through and through by a spirit of radical autonomy; it cannot distinguish between true liberty and license to neglect others. For either side, civic engagement is far too often merely about ensuring their side wins.
I think evangelical Christians in particular would do well to develop a vision for politics that is at once broader and deeper, yet less given to intermittent moments of intense activity. Rather than a frenzy of false dichotomies and existential despair every 2 or 4 years, we have to cultivate sustained habits of informing ourselves, engaging with our neighbors, communicating with our leaders, and working towards a variety of projects (mostly local) for the common good. Rather than following the cultural script about the need to acquire and then use as much political power as possible, we should focus on being faithful and present. Brad Littlejohn emphasizes that Christian politics is not about particular policies, but priorities. I couldn’t agree more.
Part of the discussion should also be why people have lost the civic virtues in the first place.
My guess would be that people have found it increasingly difficult to effect meaningful change through their own actions, and a pattern of frustration and resignation set in, and civic virtues were un-learned over time, due to lack of positive reinforcement, i.e. success.
Instead, the place where the important decisions are increasingly outside of the reach of the common citizen.
Not even the federal government is as powerful as it used to be.
The power has shifted to multi-national corporations, with no democratic, multi-national institutions to keep them in check, and prevent them from pitting nations against each other.
I believe if we had these institutions, and people could rely on an effective multi-national infrastructure to deal with their grievances, civic virtue would return.