What was the election of 2012 about?
It was not about money or jobs or the unemployment rate. This was from the start a wrong assumption among our punditocracy and political operatives of both parties. In his election night victory speech, Barack Obama said “our economy is recovering.” I disagree, and I think most Americans were of the same mind when they voted Tuesday.
Nevertheless, we re-elected a man who has failed to deliver a robust economy and who continues, as in his Tuesday night speech, to over-promise. We went out to vote Tuesday knowing in our gut—we are not fools!–that this new health care reform is going to cost us, cost all of us, rich and poor, more. Nevertheless, we re-elected the prime mover of Obamacare.
We are a troubled nation, feeling for the first time in nearly a century powerless—unable to bridge our increasingly partisan divides, unsure what it will mean if, as we believe (true or not), China is supplanting us as the world’s superpower.
We thirst for leadership. Sporadically, Obama has fed our need (killing Osama bin Laden, “rescuing” the auto industry). And his demonstrable leadership ability was one reason he was re-elected.
But we wait for more. We have been waiting, and ever since 9/11 we have been willing to do our part to strengthen the nation, to sacrifice for her. And yet, except for our military and those young men and women who felt called to enlist in the past decade, we have waited in vain. And now the moment of willingness for shared sacrifice to achieve a common end may have passed.
Does anybody not know that we need a new and large energy strategy involving hard choices? That we need to improve—soon, sweepingly—the education of our young? That we need to restructure entitlement spending, shifting more of our resources from our elderly to those very young who are our future?
Where has been the leadership here? Certainly not from President Obama, in his first term.
And yet we re-elected him. Why? One reason, to which I alluded yesterday, was the strength of his get-out-the-vote grassroots organization, which has sealed change in the methodology of American politics going forward but also now reveals the growing influence of digital, information-rich resources. Profound and questionable, because we cannot see where such access will take us.
But let’s step back for a minute and take a look at Iowa. How could Obama possible have won Iowa? Comfortably. Iowa is a more conservative state than it was in 2008. Yes, the Obama campaign established then and has continued to run for the last four years a deep grassroots organization there. But phone calls, canvasses and emails take a campaign only so far. Americans are independent-minded, increasingly resistant, through over-exposure, to such outreach.
Why Iowa? Why America? Why Obama for four more years?
In the absence of canny leadership, we have had to find our own bearings, in an age of great change. Now maybe all ages are ones of “great change,” but the way in which ours is media-saturated and media-assaulted has made the experience acute, uncomfortable.
A multi-ethnic America—as never before, even though this is our heritage. A diversely religious population. A multi-lifestyle America, some of us welcoming gay rights, some of us not.
How do we find bearings in such a multitudinous landscape? By finding common ground.
This was why Barack Obama won a second term. Why Democrats held the Senate. We Americans did not want this election to be about wedge issues: abortion, marriage, illegal immigrant stances or the other life choices that separate us and that Republicans nevertheless have made their own.
This was why Mitt Romney lost. Because he was a Republican. However moderate he may be himself, he was running as a Republican, not in the party of Nelson Rockefeller but in the party of Darrell Issa. He was tied to these divisive issues that a majority of Americans reject.
However, I can see the mass consciousness of our pundits and pols slowly reaching an awareness tinged with irony over the next few years. Barack Obama is going to be much less moderate than a president Romney ever would have been. We are in for four stormy years as Obama tends not to his legacy (you know a cable TV pundit understands nothing about Obama when he or she suggests this) but to the completion of remaking the nation so we can better face the challenges of this century. This was the job that he feels God called him to do.
More on Obama next. I will try to write about him over the weekend. Meanwhile, before reader agitation sets in, back to the present and the mundane.
This was the sense and sensibility election. Our realization that we need, whether we like it or not, to share the field for values. First and foremost, this is who we are as Americans: a people who sometimes hospitably but most often grudgingly find a way to live with people not like us.
This core dynamic of American life and history is one that today’s Republican Party has forgotten. In a curious way, the Republican Party has returned to its radical roots, to its character in the days of its founding by Evangelical Christians, who in the nineteenth century were, almost by definition, Abolitionists.
Americans are not absolutists, as the Abolitionists were. I have been re-reading Eric Foner’s careful accounting of Abraham Lincoln’s slow and circuitous decades-long journey towards the Emancipation Proclamation, The Fiery Trial, Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Lincoln was not an Abolitionist, even though he abhorred slavery, precisely because he was ever aware of the need to find common ground in life and politics, even with Southern slaveowners.
From the need to find common ground had grown a nation.
Why do you suppose so many towns from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, our first westward expansion, are laid out along the same plan? Almost all have a central square, in the Roman model, with a neoclassical public building, usually a courthouse, in the middle of the square. Often these squares were finished long before the streets were paved or the town paid for a central water supply.
This pattern is particularly striking when you consider that the men who built these towns in this way were usually pioneers, not well-educated in the sense of the day (a classics & divinity education back East), usually only a generation or at most two from familiarity with the twisting and turning narrow streets of the European medieval towns from which they, their parents and grandparents had come.
What did this mean? What is it here, so central to who we are, that the Republican Party has lost?
Let’s zero in on the town of Bolivar, in the now very conservative red state of Tennessee. Today Bolivar is a blip on the map, but in the mid-nineteenth century it was the richest town between Nashville and the Mississippi River. I know it well and can easily travel back in time there through all my family’s diaries and letters. One day an Irish Catholic bought land in Hardeman County, purchased slaves and through both instant declarations of wealth planted himself among the town elite.
The earlier settlers (by a decade) were flummoxed. They had already had to accommodate themselves to each other—English settlers who loved everything British and Scots-Irish settlers who loathed their English persecutors, back home, and therefore supported Napoleon and the French. But at least they were all Protestants! And now they had to accept a Catholic family, too?
It took some time. But the ground for inclusion had been laid. All nineteenth-century American settlers had a historical memory so destructive and violent that it lasted viscerally down the generations until the Civil War.
The religious wars in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the continued persecution of Protestants like Presbyterians and Quakers well into the eighteenth century, had brought these families to North America. Back home, men and women slaughtered one another over small differences in belief, over doctrinal controversy about the Eucharist, the role of Scripture, the means to salvation.
All so pointless to the more pragmatic English, French, Scots, Welsh, Irish Protestant (and later Irish Catholic) and Germans who had the opportunity to leave all that behind.
But they could not leave behind the prejudices by which they had been raised and taught.
And so to further and to cement the American enterprise—an endeavor that could lead a man to a sense of ownership and independence that no common man in the Old World could have imagined—these our first settlers built town squares as public spaces, like the Roman forum, where all men could come together, secure even in their differences of opinion and faith, because of the rule of law that the town square stood for.
The American town square was the ground of shared, pragmatic values: the rule of law above all, the possibility of prosperity that the rule of law sustains, accommodation to difference in belief, because other actions lead away from prosperity.
These towns were the center of a largely agricultural world of barter, shared physical undertaking and the connectedness cemented by the byzantine maze of loans that fueled a seasonal economy, loans obtained from those wealthier than you and given to those below you, all on a handshake.
It is hard for us now to fathom such a world—a paternalistic one, furthermore—where it was the height of honor both to take on a loan from a wealthier man and to give one at the same time to a poorer one. (It is not hard for us to understand the depth to which these pioneer farmers and planters distrusted banks.)
But this was the patterning of our nineteenth-century growth as a nation that has stayed with us, that has remained, even as these early towns have declined and decayed, so that this pragmatic impulse to inclusiveness, to the need to find common ground, to beware the extremist edges, determined the presidential election of 2012 and some of the senatorial contests these two centuries later.
The town square and what it stood for, the sure sense that it was the bulwark of both prosperity and something larger shared, if not named, among men of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, was also the counterweight to a different but equally important dynamic in the settling of North America.
If many of our first settlers were pragmatists, others were fierce believers in their particular faith who were sure that they had been called to the New World to establish that city on the hill, the New Jerusalem, where men could at last have the freedom from outside interference to create a social compact in harmony with God’s Will.
The Puritans of Plymouth Rock. The Puritans of the southern and lesser end of the Virginia Colony who were my own ancestors. The Scots-Irish of North Carolina. New Harmony, Indiana. Any of the religious utopian communities that grew up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Secular utopian communities would follow, from Nashoba (a failed experiment in whites and freed slaves living and farming together) to The Farm, perhaps the best known of the hippie communes to arise out of the foment of the late 1960s.
In its essence, incorruptible, the New Jerusalem can never be a city of man. It is the City of God, which Christians believe they will inhabit in the next world. This tenet of faith, which all Christians hold, has not stopped us from trying to build it on earth. Again and again and again. The soaring cathedrals of Europe represent this yearning. Oliver Cromwell’s England. The New England Puritans’ rejecting all rites and rituals, even the celebration of Christmas, which they believed un-Christian.
Today the Puritans’ strictures strike us, unpleasantly, as fanatical and narrow-minded. But these were religious beliefs for which they had been willing to face exile and death. They were central not only to the practice of their faith but to their conception of human community itself.
Many of my Presbyterian ancestors did not dance and kept silence on Sunday. These faith practices were just as important to them as the abjuration of abortion and homosexual practice is to Christian Evangelicals today.
All these strictures of faith, set as bulwarks, seen as foundation stones of any human community in which they conceivably might live, from 1620 through 2012, have been absorbed, one by one, into the larger, more complex and protean America that a nation built by successive waves of immigrants from everywhere was always going to be.
Inherent always in First Concept, Freedom—here on these shores far from Europe we are free to practice religion as we please—has been the corollary of freedom. If I am free to be a Puritan, then you are free to be a Muslim. Both of us may not like it, but our neighbor is free to be an atheist.
Today’s Republican Party, however, has found itself stuck to one of these American cycles of New Jerusalem religious yearning. But history shows (and church history always warns) that these attempts to bind a force like community—which by its very nature, growing, living, dying, changing is a force—to particulars of faith fail.
My sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritan and Scots-Irish ancestors? They never reckoned on the corollary. But their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren lived it. After the first immigrant generation, more and more in each subsequent generation moved away from the faith practices of their ancestors. Some of my Virginia colony forebears got it right away: if my parents came here to be free to practice Puritanism, then I am free, too–to do as I please. And I do not want to be a Puritan.
Reading the letters, diaries and last wills and testaments (the will distributed property, usually down to the last nail; the testament was a last testament of faith) of my maternal ancestors, I have been struck by the patterns of religious faith. Through the Revolutionary War generation and up until the 1820s, many were devout Christians, doctrinally observant, reading the Bible regularly.
By the time so many of them came to Bolivar and other farms and towns in the Old Southwest, the land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Ohio? Not so much. Everybody believed in God—that was a given—but few went to church regularly or read the Bible every day or proselytized. The general feeling seemed to be that the older generations had done enough praying and practicing to last for awhile.
Astonishingly, I can look down the generations from my greatgreatgreatgreatgrandmother Drusilla Lane, whose first husband fought in the Revolutionary War, and who was a devout Christian, and I cannot find another Christian of serious faith and practice until my own time. And now, in my generation, in my extended family, there are dozens of Evangelical Christians.
I point this out as a way to illustrate the hard truth that it is not going to be easy for the Republican Party to expand beyond its base. What observers now call the Fourth Great Awakening swept through this country in the 1970s and 1980s and it is still a living fire. It will be several generations before the descendants of these Evangelical Christians, with different experience later in this century, will build anew on the old foundation.
November 9, 2012