How My Mind Was Changed: Thoughts On the 2020 Election

If you clicked on my somewhat purposefully deceptive title in the hopes that I will be voting for your candidate, you will be disappointed. Neither candidate seems fit for power, but I do want to quickly outline how my views have changed on politics since the last election, specifically on ideology and on the necessity of politics in general.

From 2016 To Now: An Ideological Shift

Leaving college, I was more or less the average Republican voter. If you asked me who I admired most in politics I would have said Senator John McCain, though I also harbored a sympathy for Senator Rand Paul’s blend of conservatism and libertarianism.

Then 2016 happened. I left the GOP because, by February, I looked around and saw a process that simply didn’t represent me. The nomination of Trump, with all its ascendant ugliness was incredibly disappointing. But more importantly, it made me realize how ideologically shallow the GOP was. After years of being lectured to by “the base” about how this or that policy was unacceptable since it wasn’t party orthodoxy, the very same base wildly accepted a candidate that was totally heterodox. I simply opted out.

But being some bitter never-Trumper didn’t seem to fit me either. I don’t really wish to judge those who have pulled full ideological and partisan 180s – sometimes there are catalysts that force us to reexamine everything. It happens. But personally I didn’t see the point in changing everything I believed on economics, foreign policy, jurisprudence, social issues and beyond simply because of the hypocrisy and shallowness of others.

While 2016 did not induce me to morph with the tribe or find a new one, it did make me reexamine my politics. If GOP orthodoxy shattered so easily, then what good was it? Why was I beholden to it if those who were its loudest proponents don’t have anything to say about it? (For instance in 2020, the GOP decided to do without pretense, forgo having a Party Platform and just to endorse whatever Trump does, thinks and says. That’s the ideology. Have fun). Additionally it was clear there was something deeply wrong in America.

Americans are angry people. A recent NBC/WSJ poll found that Americans are mad at and scared of the political system, the economy and each other. One pollster called it a “deep and boiling anger across the country, engulfing our political system.”

I remember writing in November 2016 that “Trump v. Clinton does not happen in a country with a healthy civic culture.” Americans are not only consumed with anger but are alienated from their work, disassociated from their neighbors, and increasingly lack even a shared vocabulary to resolve our ethical and political questions. Class tensions make this worse. The well off see half the country as “takers” and “moochers.” The poor and lower middle class see the rich as uninvested in America, as they are sheltered from economic and social decline.

In light of this, I wanted to re-examine what I really thought. For myself, as a Christian, I went back to my faith. The Old Testament has a lot to say on governance, society and politics. The New Testament is full of political theology as Christ and His apostles minister in a land governed by far away elites. More and more I wanted to know how Christians in the past faced political unhappiness, social inequity, lawlessness, recession, pandemic, and imperial decline. I found answers in the works of Augustine, the medieval Church, John Calvin and Richard Hooker. I could see their influence in colonial America, the Revolution, the Civil War and onwards. I also began diving into the history of conservatism. I dug up my old (lightly read) copy of The Conservative Mind from my Concordia days with Dr. Dan van Voorhis and other related writings.

In these I found a conservatism that was, at times, dramatically different from the one see now or any other time during the 21st century. These writings and others made me think differently in a few ways.

For starters, I became even less enamored with the promise of populism and mass politics. Frankly I have no idea how anyone looks at American mass politics and thinks, “Yes the problem here is there’s not enough people involved. Let’s get more.” That being said, our elites are much worse. Between the Trump siblings and Hunter Biden, can there be more of an indictment of America’s political and economic elites?

Secondly, I became less enamored with free market capitalism. Too many conservatives confused the means with the end. They chatter away about economic “freedom” while American consumers and producers are preyed upon by corporate actors who often promote politics directly contra to our own goals. Conservatives used to not have such rose-colored glasses when it came to the market. Like other conservatives before, I realized the state also has its rightful sphere say to ensure that the market strengthens families and communities, not weakens them.

Thirdly, it seemed obvious to me that conservatism lost its way on national security. The post 9/11 era emboldened an unserious love of war. Two (three?) ruined countries, six trillion dollars, 7,000 American lives, and nearly half a million dead across the world later and some still can’t get enough of it. Again it seemed that we forgot the conservative virtue of prudence, caution and suspicion of war. While this means I can’t vote for Trump as he is “the most militaristic person ever,” (his words), this also rules out Biden and indeed most Democrats. Biden and Kamala’s policy seems to be “Don’t worry, we’ll manage the failure with more respectability.” Why should anyone who dislikes Trump’s aggression vote for the same people who brought you failure in Afghanistan and illegal war in Libya?

None of these changes require some radical ideological shift or a “tear it down” mentality. Much of American governance has historically worked. The private market is still the best way to promote prosperity and the American led international order is immensely preferable to international anarchy or some sort of Chinese hegemony. But it’s clear there is something deeply wrong in American politics. After four years I can see why a lot of people voted for Trump or simply just stayed home. If you look around, see your community in shambles, why vote? Why not blow it up? My sympathy doesn’t translate to support for the Trump administration but it takes a fairly ideologically blinkered person simply refuse to see how some got there.

Where To Go? Why Politics Still Matters

Being politically homeless is frankly depressing. For me, the choices in 2020 are even worse. On the one hand, you have a man who is morally unfit for power, who corrodes the public trust, who has been repeatedly accused of assault, who almost purposefully bungles America’s policy in the midst of a pandemic while simultaneously throwing away every opportunity for serious national conservative reform. Afghan withdrawal? Populist economic reform? No, but here’s another tax cut and some red hats. On the other hand, you have an incredibly old candidate whose entire approach to governance is “Don’t worry about the fact I was in power for decades, while all of this came to a boiling point. We’ll maintain the same decline but we’ll do it with a bit more propriety and the media will cover a bit more for us. Here’s a West Wing reunion special. Remember that? That was fun.” Oh yeah, he’s also been accused of assault.

In 2016 I was so nihilistic about this newfound political unalignment that I wrote some screed on Facebook about how I was done with politics forever. Like many screeds it felt good and probably should’ve been left in the drafts section. It is easy to look at everything I just wrote; the anger, the hopelessness, the despair and just check out. Why bother? My vote is cancelled out by 120 million other people. Who cares?

I don’t think this is an option. I was wrong then, when I imagined some interior exile from politics. We don’t have to surrender into total hopelessness. More broken societies than ours (Rwanda and Northern Ireland, for instance) have repaired their civil societies. If normal life can return and a common good actualized in genocide or decades of political violence, then Americans can rebuild a country that is less spiteful and fearful. For those us who are Christians, it’s not a choice. In book of Jeremiah, God tells His people as they are exiled and all hope is lost,

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare

This is where we have been exiled. We don’t have the right to withdraw away from it. This isn’t saying you have to vote for either Biden or Trump in a few weeks. But you don’t have a right to check out of politics. Whether or not you are interested in politics, it is very interested in you. When your friend loses their job, when you are unsure if you can afford a child or a home, when your cousin is scared to keep their unborn child that’s politics. When your neighbor down the street comes back to the homefront angry and perplexed, when you notice friendships dropping off over social issues, that’s politics. It’s inescapable. We have a shared life together. You can’t avoid it.

Seek the common good of your family, friends and neighbors. Sure, vote. Call and write your representatives to tell them how pissed off and disappointed you are. Can’t hurt. But more importantly, make sure you know your neighbors. Join groups. Donate to those in need. Volunteer time, blood, energy. Demagogues, grifters and politicians feed on apathy but primarily alienation. Political organization and reform has its place but a healthy politics is often downstream of a healthy community. Maybe your vote won’t get you good politics but your daily choices can help create a good community.

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