I have been seeing a number of social media posts in which people are venting their more-than-justifiable outrage at recent events of which George Floyd’s murder is probably the worst but far from the only case. It’s the worst because of the apparent quiet deliberation with which his execution was accomplished. Many of those posts are directed at the political process that has failed to address systemic racism and that led to the election of Donald Trump. Frustration is widespread, along with anger, despair and related emotions. The country-wide protests are just one manifestation.
There has also been considerable violence, much of it inflicted by police officers who are supposed to protect and defend the people in the exercise of their constitutional privilege of free speech. We have seen many videos of police protectively escorting armed men and other almost-all-white people screaming about their “right” to refuse to wear masks for public health There have been a few videos of police aligning themselves with the protesters, to be sure, but the majority, based on my unscientific review, involve police engaged in unnecessary and unprovoked attacks on peaceful protesters.
There are also videos of violence perpetrated by mostly unknown people against businesses and police, some apparently just angry random acts and others designed to take advantage of the protest chaos to destroy property and steal whatever was at hand. In my view these acts are unjustifiable by any standard, even as we recognize the anger and pain of witnessing “official violence” over and over again. Violence begets violence and hate begets hate. In the end it doesn’t lead anywhere good for anyone and provides a convenient excuse for people to reject the awful realities that led to the protests.
Most people of good will are united in the belief that Donald Trump is the worst president in America history. The number of white people, of all ages, who have joined the protests has shocked the country. But there are intimations that the outrage and sadness experienced by Black people and now also by an apparent majority of white people may be directed at targets that will not contribute to meaningful solutions. Examples include statements to the effect that “if Joe Biden doesn’t pick XYZ as his VP, I am sitting out the election” and “if Biden doesn’t aggressively support policies A,B and C that were proposed by Bernie Sanders, I’m voting for the Green Party.” There are many variations and references to the outrage felt by “my group” with intransigent statements of “my way or the highway.” Some of them say Joe Biden is just another old white guy and a traditional politician who is a member of the political elite that is responsible for the state of society now.
As another admittedly old white guy, I am deeply troubled by these statements. There is no doubt, none whatsoever, that our society has much to account for. Donald Trump, who is in my view evil incarnate, is not alone responsible for that debt but he is responsible for unleashing the reactionary forces that hold a fantasy view of the America of the past that they somehow believe was “better” than now and thus follow the “make America great again” trope that Trump has promoted. Readers of this blog know where I stand on Trump so I’m not going to belabor that here today.
My main point here is those people whose righteous anger, frustration and pain have stirred their passions to new heights must, if they want American society to improve in meaningful, systemic ways, focus that rage on the right targets. As it stands, our political system, for better or worse, is based on a two-party political system that makes it impossible for third-party candidates to win major elections. It is, I am certain, a truism of American political life that no third-party candidate has a chance to be president. No matter how appealing single-issue or narrowly focused their platforms may be, anyone who votes for them is, in net effect, voting for the re-election of Donald Trump. The mathematics of this are undeniable. If we’re going to begin the process of healing the country and moving forward with a more progressive agenda, the election of Joe Biden is absolutely critical.
I have engaged a number of people on social media platforms on this question. Most of them are immovable. They make statements like “it’s better to vote for a moral platform than the continuation of the politics that got us to this sorry state.” No doubt, a morally superior agenda is to be desired. Accepting, for example, that the Green New Deal is such a morally outstanding program of ideas (which I do, for the record), the fact remains that no Green New Deal candidate is going to be elected president. Anyone who votes for a GND candidate is enhancing the voting power of the Republican Party that supports Trump and assuring that the exact opposite of the principles the GND supports will prevail.
That simply cannot be the morally superior choice among the available options. I have also heard the “my voting for the GND will teach them a lesson, that they can’t ignore us and carry on as before.” Same response. The “lesson” isn’t going to teach anyone anything if Donald Trump is re-elected.
Fundamentally, while the choice of leader is extremely important, in reality it is equally important the chosen leader select exceptional people to staff the key components of the government. The people who surround and advise the president are as important as the president himself. The president’s value system will guide these choices that ultimately control how the government makes policy and otherwise goes about its business. The truth of this principle can be clearly seen throughout the history of the Trump administration. Many of his key advisors and cabinet choices were picked for entirely the wrong reasons, leading to unprecedented graft and corruption. Trump’s administration has had no fewer than 14 indictments of key players, including campaign staff and senior advisors. Multiple cabinet members have left office in disgrace for various offenses against the public good.
The election of a president elects a related value system, a set of judgments about who are the right people to lead the country. While the president has the final word, much of what a president does is effectively controlled by the advisors/cabinet that he selects. This is how the president “forms a government” that can function and deliver on policy commitments for the common good of the people. Under Trump, the “best people” became a sick joke, but moving past that, the reality is that only the “best people” can do the job and you only get the best people if the value system of the president is sound.
I am one of the growing number of citizens who believe the November election is “for all the marbles” insofar as the American idea of democracy is concerned. I accept without hesitation or equivocation that the United States has failed terribly to live up to its aspirations as set out in the Declaration of Independence and as manifested in the Constitution. There is plenty of disappointment to cite, plenty of falling-short of our ideals. The weaknesses of the constitutional structures established in the country’s early years are quite evident, but very hard to change. What makes the US and is citizens “exceptional” is not the purity of what has been achieved but the aspirations to which the majority of our people and institutions continue to adhere.
So, we are left with what we have. That reality is most troubling, but for now, it is the cards we have been dealt. It is, therefore, imperative that the anger, frustration and pain of recent and past events be directed at the real targets of opportunity. Only by acquiring political power can the justified outrage be translated into action that can produce real change. Without power, the outrage is useless. The forces arrayed against change, against justice, are strong because they are also passionate in their beliefs, however much we may deride them. They hold enough political power to impose their craven agenda on everyone. The constitutional system gives them disproportionate leverage. To defeat them requires a massive show of political will and political action by those who believe the present system is fundamentally broken.
Voting on the basis of a single issue-set is not good enough. The choice in the 2020 election is between two different value systems. To give but one example, one of those value systems defends arresting, separating and literally putting in cages thousands of children brought into the country illegally, many of whom will never see their parents again. That value system assigns blame and fault, which drive their actions regardless of the human consequences. The other value system says that approach is morally wrong, that whatever policy we follow regarding illegal immigration, there is no justification for this treatment of minor children. That’s just one of the value choices involved in this election.
Another one, larger in scope, is the value system that maintains that truth is relative and ultimately is whatever the people in power say it is. That value system prevailed in, among others, Nazi Germany. It rejects science in favor of ideology. It is the path to dehumanization and totalitarianism. It is happening here, now. That is the real meaning behind the slogan “fake news.”
To stop it requires a massive show of political will and political action by those who believe the present system is fundamentally broken. We must choose among the real choices we have, not the ones we would prefer. Only with the exercise of intelligent choice now, can we reach the place where we have better choices, not because we are more angry or frightened than others but because we have the power to make the changes we need.
That concludes today’s sermon. Believe.