On my way to work today, I saw an ad joking about some celebrity’s potential presidential run in 2020. These kinds of statements used to be funny: wouldn’t it be amazing if Kanye/The Rock/Bud Light/Katy Perry/Spuds McKenzie were president? We wouldn’t have to listen to boring know-it-all policy wonks anymore and we’d have somebody in the White House that we Like! But now that we’ve established that the American electorate has such a taste and tolerance for celebrity candidates—not only regardless of qualifications but that Lack Of Qualifications Is Celebrated—is the era of actually qualified leaders effectively over? The system is corrupted enough, when data shows a direct correlation between campaign spending and votes—establishing that the candidates with the most money or the richest backers tend to perform better. Then once we introduce celebrity into that mix, how are experienced policy makers going to compete—unless we the people make a serious choice about who we are willing to let lead us? If we do choose a celebrity—after all, even George Washington was a kind of celebrity in his day—will we at least not lose sight of the need for effective experts in policy, not just inspiring figureheads?
One interesting but concerning aspect of the Senate race in Alabama (which, as of this writing, looks like it is narrowly going to Jones), has been the sense that this is a kind of referendum on evangelical Christian values in US politics. I’m not going to debate what makes for Christian values—conservative and progressive Christians look at this somewhat differently, and I think you can guess where I fall on that spectrum. But what I will debate is whether “Christian values” is something that has any place in a political platform at all. Please hear me out. It’s not that I don’t want virtuous leaders to put their beliefs into practice—I assure you, I DO want them to apply their beliefs to their public work. Please. We need virtue in office. I do not believe that the separation of Church and State means that politicians have to leave their beliefs at the door. I hope that every Christian voted into office is the best Christian they can be (likewise for Jewish politicians, Muslim politicians, Humanist politicians…) But we can’t legislate morality. We can’t legislate away what we think is bad behavior, whether it’s the injustices we fight on the left or on the right side of the political spectrum, and its a political trap to believe that we can. If Jesus thought it would be valuable to become an earthly king to pass laws that made people behave, he would have done it, and could have done it, but he had history to show him that trying to force nations to behave well through the law had been an abject failure. His place on earth was not as part of the empire, but among the people. The only way to change people is to change their hearts and minds. Even the strongest legislation can’t change what people believe on the inside, and that is where action starts. Anyone who wants society to change is better off teaching, telling their stories, making art, or otherwise serving the community through their example, not through their support of politicians who would write it into empty law. It’s the difference between the old idea of being the change we want to see in the world, or the increasingly troubling phenomenon of holding our nose to vote for morally compromised politicians who promise us they’ll write our desired change into law. Besides, if we empower one religious group to legislate its morality, what is to stop another group from doing the same? First it’s the Methodists, then the Mormons, then the Muslims, then…well, you get it. Isn’t that kind of religious tyranny just what the first American settlers came here to get away from? How about if we just elect someone who won’t drive us into the poor house or get us killed, and the government can leave the preaching and proselytizing to us? In short: America, let’s please stop trying to become a theocracy. Let’s be free and, if we feel so moved, find other ways to make converts to our beliefs or points of view.
Throughout America's brief history, liberal and conservative voices have served to balance each other's excesses. Both are important in steering the American ship going forward.
But if liberals are going to gain any traction in making new converts and regaining some power in the next election, they--we--are going to have to make it clear what positive values and initiatives they stand for, not just tearing down conservatives (literally and figuratively).
From the top of the political hierarchy--whether that means the Democratic Party gets its act together and regains its position as the standard-bearer of progressive values or some other group takes on that mantle--to those of us on the front lines of Social Media, arguing with strangers and Uncle Bob alike about American values, we have to be seen as standing for something positive, active, and actionable--not merely the ones telling everyone what they can't say or do.
Many of us know that progressive values are American values.
Liberty means freedom for everyone, including people of every race, color, belief system, gender, sexual orientation, or other difference the current power structure would oppress.
Equality means not only equal freedoms, but equal opportunity, including economic stability, equal justice, access to education, and a healthcare system we can afford.
Prosperity doesn't just include opportunities and benefits for the top 1 percent, but worker protections across all economic strata, investments in innovation and infrastructure, and a thriving global economy.
But as of today, these values are not how liberals and progressives are being seen throughout America.
Last night, as I was flipping through the channels, I landed for a few minutes on a surprising interview between White House advisor Kellyanne Conway and television evangelist Pat Robertson of the 700 Club. Despite having issues with both of these public personalities, I watched the interview with fascination.
In a calm, non-antagonistic interview environment, Ms Conway seemed knowledgeable and articulate, talking in measured tones about the incomplete media coverage of President Trump's initiatives to give veterans access to healthcare. In this setting, she seemed totally reasonable, far from the pathological liar I've seen in CNN clips on Facebook. And rightly or wrongly, this is how many see her, just trying to do her job amid a firestorm of negative criticism.
As the two went on to talk in wonder about the nastiness of the coverage of this administration by the New York Times and the Washington Post and lack of respect for the office of the President, it dawned on me that, no matter the purity of our intent, this is how many in America are viewing progressives right now: at best, nasty and disrespectful, at worst, outright bullies.
This view of liberals and the progressive movement misses the intent and context of why people and groups on the left are doing what they are doing, and forgets how the right castigated the last President, but in a world where perception is so often taken for reality, these misperceptions are something the left needs to get ahead of if we hope to move hearts and minds.
We've got to get ahead of the tearing down statues--if we convince the nation of the values behind it, they will make the right choices about who and what to glorify.
We've got to get ahead of policing peoples' awkward language on social media in favor of political correctness--if we don't foster open dialogue, how will we ever show anyone another point of view.
We've got to get ahead of the perception that progressives are shutting down free speech--fighting hate by shutting things down is not as effective as evangelizing for positive values through telling stories that move hearts and minds.
There is rampant misperception that liberal voices are simply the voice of resistance--dragging our feet in a country that's trying to get somewhere. And current tactics keep pushing us closer and closer to something like a cold civil war than an effective dialogue.
If liberals hope to gain support and restore balance to the conversation, they-and we--would stand benefit more from positively promoting what we stand FOR, not just what we are against.