At 2 o’clock this morning, as the electoral college map began to firm up, my wife and I both received a text from our eldest son, who is away at college. It asked, simply, “What’s happening?”
That’s a good question. Here’s my attempt to answer it.
Much of the media coverage over the past year has focused on how divided we are as a nation. There’s no doubt that the divisions are deep and real. But what is it that divides us?
In a normal election year (not this one), most of the debate and disagreement hangs on policy positions. But I’ve never believed that policy is the divider. For one thing, people change their minds on policy all the time. For another, we’ve all had the experience of talking to someone who’s at a very different place on the political spectrum, expecting to disagree on everything, only to find something that we’re able to call common ground.
The division must be based on something deeper.
Maybe it’s background or world view, in other words how we perceive the world and the issues we’re facing? That’s pretty fundamental stuff, isn’t it? But, if that was the source of our political divisions, we’d divide ourselves based on background or upbringing. In that case, how is that I – a white, European, middle-class male – find myself in almost total political agreement with my colleague who is a black woman from a working-class background in the deep south of the US?
I’d like to suggest something else. I believe the key divider is none of the above. I believe it’s this: when you think about politics, when you prepare to vote, when you discuss social issues or civics, what question are you asking?
Do you ask Question 1, which is “What’s in it for me?”, or – to be fair – “What’s in it for me and my family?”
Or do you ask Question 2, which is “What kind of country do I want to live in?” Depending on the issue, the better question might be “What kind of community / society do I want to live in?”
Personally, for as long as I can remember, I have been a Question 2 person. That’s where I start. What kind of country do I want to live in?
I absolutely do not claim any moral superiority associated with asking this question. And I have no idea why I start there. I just know that I always do. Perhaps it’s because (like the losing presidential candidate) I was raised a Methodist. Perhaps it’s something else entirely. I do not claim to be Mother Theresa, that’s just where I start.
In reality, of course, for most people, there’s an element of both. I certainly consider political issues based on what I think the impact will be on my family and myself. But that question is secondary, it’s not where I start.
Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first female leader (yes, America – it’s now 2-0 on that score) infamously said there’s no such thing as society, just a collection of individuals. Whilst I don’t agree with that sentiment, it’s useful in this context.
Thatcher’s point – I think – was that there was no need for political leaders to guess in an abstract way what the optimal outcome was around a given issue. All that was necessary, in her view, was that each citizen acted in their best self-interest, and the sum of those actions would determine what was best overall. Hence, no need for a concept of society.
This might be superficially attractive, but it misses a fundamental reality of modern life: inter-dependence. Let me explain what I mean.
In terms of economic issues, it’s fairly obvious that we are inter-dependent. My expenditure (or part of it, at least) is your income, if you are a merchant, say, from whom I buy something. But you are also a consumer, and your outgoings, in turn, become income for someone else. And so on. Multiply that by millions, and you have an economy.
If we think about it, we’re just as inter-dependent socially as we are economically. Let me take a risk by trying to illustrate this by means of an issue that has become associated recently with the Vice President-Elect (heaven help us), who is currently the Governor of Indiana.
Let’s say I go out today to achieve three things: I want to register my marriage, book a room at a B&B and order a wedding cake. Assuming that I have the money and the merchants have the availability, all should be well. Unless the three merchants in question discover that – for the purposes of this story – I’m gay and, on that basis, decide not to do business with me.
Think for a moment about how that might feel. I dare say I would feel offended at being snubbed for a reason that – from my perspective – is none of their business. Not to mention that I am going home with no cake, no registration and no room.
A very specific example, perhaps, but this is how social inter-dependence works. I can only go about my business if you go about yours. Multiply that by millions of daily interactions and there, Mrs. Thatcher, you have a society.
One of the recent tragedies of middle America has been the prevalence of so-called religious freedom legislation, which has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with abusing faith to justify prejudice.
Let me explain what I mean. As a devout and practising Christian and member of the Episcopal Church, I enjoy complete religious freedom in the US. I can worship in my chosen church, and no one – either government or individual – has the right to stop me.
But my religious freedom must necessarily begin and end with me. Why?
Let’s say that you choose to live as an atheist, or a Muslim, or anything else that’s different from me. If I want not only to observe Episcopalian norms, but also insist that you observe them as well, then your freedom must necessarily be curtailed. Hence my freedom must begin and end with me, and yours must begin and end with you. That’s the only way we can be harmoniously inter-dependent.
In other words, the only way we can live inter-dependently in a complex society is by respecting others as much as we respect ourselves. This is, I believe, why Christ himself said, in Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”. Christ is not simply asking his followers to be nice people. He is demonstrating a deep understanding that eluded Margaret Thatcher: we are all inter-dependent.
Apparently intelligent people have told me that everyone must have the right to refuse to do business with anyone else and that, if they choose to do so on allegedly religious grounds, that’s their business alone. Those that argue as such need to explain to me how that argument is different from certain English pubs in the early 20th century displaying signs in their windows that said, infamously, No Dogs No Blacks No Irish. Of course, the deep south of the US has had even greater troubles along those lines.
In essence there is no difference. If you want to reserve the right to treat anyone else as a second class citizen, as having less value than other people, can you write that belief up on a sign that you would be prepared to display on the outside of your house or business? If not, why are you persisting in hanging on to the prejudice?
A brief point on respect. We are told by many people in the US today – not least the President-Elect (heaven help us) – that there’s a problem with so-called political correctness. If only we could cut out all this PC nonsense, they argue, we’d make so much more progress.
The opposite is, in fact, true, for the following reason. The term political correctness is and always has been a code for something else. And the something else can be paraphrased along these lines: I’m about to say or do something that disrespects another person or group of people, and I want you to give me a free pass to get away with it.
I have news for these people, including the President-Elect: the answer is never. You’re never getting a free pass. Why? Because some of us want to see everyone treated with respect. Why? Because we’re Question 2 people. Because we care what sort of society we live in.
Anyone who thinks this logic is the sole preserve of nutty progressives should check out the US Declaration of Independence, the second paragraph of which begins, “These truths we hold to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. Why, then, should anyone be given less respect than anyone else?
While I’m on the subject of the President-Elect, he has said many times during the past year that his campaign has similarities to Brexit. By which he means, I think, that both are populist uprisings and both were unexpectedly successful. True enough.
But I’d like to suggest that the two are similar in a couple of other ways. In both cases, societal problems, with little or no evidence, are blamed on scapegoats who are always The Other: someone different from me. Someone who can be disrespected from a distance.
And, also in both cases, voters have eagerly opted for outlandish solutions which are not, in fact, available in real life. In the UK, leave campaigners are not going to get the benefits of the single market without freedom of movement, any more than their US counterparts are going to get a border wall paid for by Mexico. Both policies are fantasies that will ultimately leave voters feeling cheated.
Finally, a point for my son, his college friends and other young people that are reaching voting age. Here in DC, take a visit to the Korean war memorial, and you’ll see carved there the famous mantra Freedom Is Not Free. Having served my country (albeit as a civilian) in Afghanistan, I know for sure that that’s true.
But here’s something else that’s not free: diversity and pluralism. If we want to live in a diverse, pluralist society, we have to fight for it, every day. That means voting. It might mean voting for someone who is not your ideal candidate.
There’s very little that’s ideal about politics. It’s far from perfect. You have to know what you believe in and you have to fight for it. After what happened in the early hours of this morning, those of us who believe in diversity and pluralism and respect are going to have to fight harder than ever.
Which brings me back to my son’s question. What’s happening?
Are we asking “What’s in it for me?” Or are we asking “What kind of country do I want to live in?”
Here’s what’s happening:
We’re asking the wrong question. In doing so, we’re getting what we deserve, which is the wrong answer.