Ted Grimsrud—February 7, 2017
We in the United States enter into uncharted waters in these early days of the Trump regime. It seems clear that in the months and years to come, the United States will be the location of political strive of an intensity not seen for a long time within the boundaries of our nation. The kinds of conflictual social struggles that most of us have only observed from a distance are almost certain to become very close to hand.
I believe it is important to note a couple of qualifications to the generalizations I made in the above paragraph. For people of color in the US, and members of other vulnerable groups, the United States has not been a place of comfort and tranquility. We don’t know what kinds of suffering will emerge as a result of the takeover of the federal and most state governments in all their branches by anti-democratic reactionary forces. However, we do well to keep these sufferings in perspective given our nation’s legacies of the intense violence visited on indigenous peoples, on imported slaves, and on sexual minorities—among others. For those still today who have lived with the consequences of such violence over generations, the word to we frightened middle class mostly white folks could legitimately be “welcome to our world.”
Likewise, an awareness of political turmoil around the world over the past 125 years reminds us that for many areas of the world that have suffered from interventions from the American Empire, such turmoil has been fostered by the projection of American force. The words from such locations to us might also appropriately be “welcome to our world.”
However, even as we don’t magnify our own sense of uncertainty and anxiety with claims for their unprecedented significance, it should be cold comfort to those who already know the dynamics of vicious prejudice, authoritarian governance, economic dislocation, and environmental degradation. That’s because they will also likely have their suffering enhanced in the days to come. The Trumpian agenda surely will not be tempered by compassion for the historical sufferings of the vulnerable.
The left/right analytical framework
It seems to me that one important element of resistance for all of us is to think carefully about how to frame our political dynamics. One framework that has become conventional wisdom is to think in terms of a left/right spectrum. Some are saying that after eight years of a leftist government with the Obama administration (admittedly greatly constrained by the legislative power of the right) we are moving to a rightest government with Trump. One’s response to Trump, et al, is said to reveal where one stands on the left/right spectrum.
Labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” are constantly used as if they communicate something meaningful about political dynamics. Many analysts talk about the swinging of a pendulum from left to right that moves continually and always returns from one extreme or the other.
Linked with the left/right language is also sentiment that we have these on-going conflicts between strong partisans from both sides of the political spectrum. These conflicts are framed as being mainly due to political ideologies that mirror each other on the two sides of the spectrum. An example of this kind of analysis is a recent book by political thinker, Mark Gerzon, The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.
The Bridge Alliance is a laudatory effort to encourage efforts to heighten civility and meaningful political work among people with different points of view. But it appears that this effort does presuppose the left/right analytical framework. One has to wonder how many people are genuinely on the “right” of this spectrum seriously engage such “middle ground” efforts.
I suspect that any efforts to bring authentic social healing to the United States right now that operate within this framework will be quite limited in their effectiveness. Of course, it is hard to imagine any efforts that can promise effectiveness given our current environment. However, I think to have any hope for actually understanding where we are now and where we should want to hope to go, we will need to jettison any tendency to reduce our dilemma to “left” vs. “right.”
Why the left/right schema must go
The left/right schema lends itself to superficial labeling rather than a more rigorous consideration of issues and values. For example, to label Obama as a leftist does not give a critic of Obama’s warism any place to be part of the conversation—given the even more extreme warism of those on the “right.”
The left/right schema also tends to underwrite moral relativism. We often place people’s views on a left/right spectrum with a sense that what matters is how those views relate to other views on the spectrum rather than how those views fit in relation to core convictions that we think of as truthful. Disagreements are then thought of mainly as simply related to where we are on the spectrum, not to evidence of truthfulness, accuracy, and coherence with the core convictions.
For example, for some years and now more than ever, many voices in our society (increasingly including Republican Party office holders all the way to the top) speak of issues such as climate change and evolution as open to debate with the implication that one’s view on such issues is simply a matter of one’s place on this left/right spectrum rather than a matter of actual scientific evidence.
Currently, we have a president (almost unanimously supported by Republican office holders) who simply tells one lie after another. It is difficult for those who operated within the assumptions of the left/right schema to assert simply that those statements are wrong and often immoral. Disagreement is portrayed more as a matter of political preference than true/false.
One of the ways the left/right schema causes the most trouble is how it is linked with the assumption that “wisdom” should lead to finding a place that is in between the two partisan extremes of “far left” and “far right.” This goes along with antipathy toward “hyperpartisanship.” It then becomes easy to dismiss strong critiques of certain views and practices as simply the result of one’s partisan stance rather than evaluating the critique based on evidence and coherence with core values.
This dynamic of thinking in terms of the left/right schema has served the Republicans quite well in the past generation. Compare Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Trump; over the past 40 years Republican presidents have moved steadily to the right and have moved the “center” with them (some analysts have suggested that Bernie Sanders, considered on the “far left” now is actually pretty close policy-wise to Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president when I was born in 1954).
An alternative frame: True/untrue
I’m not sure what the antidote is to the problems of the left/right schema’s dominance. One idea is simply to resist its use as much as possible, to refuse to buy into that expression of conventional wisdom in thinking and talking about American politics.
I wonder, in addition, if we might not be better off trying to think of having a center or core of moral social values and thinking about policies and practices in terms of their distance from those core moral values—rather than the left/right spectrum. This would be a kind of fixed center point and we evaluate politics in relation to that center. So, then the movement would not be from left to right or vice versa, but rather from the center to farther away.
The point of such an approach would not be to simply add a new way to label someone as “untrue” or “wrong.” Instead, it would be in order to have a clear set of stable convictions that might be used to evaluate specific political ideas or proposals or actions. Using such an approach would, for one thing, help us see how different issues could lead to different sets of allies. For example, I would imagine that many of the rural Republicans who live in my county would agree with some of my ideas about land use (such as opposing a proposal superhighway within a few miles of where I live).
If we were to think more in terms of applying stable core convictions to specific issues, and if we were to use language such as “true/untrue” in relation to approaches taken on some key issues, we will need to think carefully about how we think of “truth” or “core moral convictions.”
I have been influenced a great deal by Gandhi, who characterized his work as “experiments with truth.” A couple elements of this work for Gandhi included the conviction that while “truth” is real and meaningful (he rejected moral relativism), it is not something to be possessed. No one knows the truth perfectly, hence we should enter any encounter with an attitude of learning and being willing to change our views—not simply imposing our beliefs on others.
As well, Gandhi famously insisted on prioritizing means over ends. That priority means that our method for seeking truth matters much more than the end point. Thus, we focus on treating people with respect and compassion, on always asking questions, on adjusting our sense of where we want to go as we learn more, on trying to find ways to work with others (even our opponents) rather than defeating them, on valuing all life as precious, and other such practices.
Placing a priority on core convictions requires of us self-conscious reflection on what those convictions are. This is a call for serious examination of what matters most to us, why, and what the relevance of this sense of priorities might be to our political concerns.
If we accept that truthfulness is our center point, and if we say that we will evaluate issues and ideas in relation to truthfulness, what might the criteria be for discerning what is true? Even though this is a question that does not seem to arise in very many political discussions, and even though we may fear that raising this question would lead to endless and hopeless debates, I actually suspect that we would find it easier than we might suspect to find some solid grounding for agreement on truthfulness in this arena.
The key is to focus on the few central points such as the centrality of compassion, of seeing all life as precious, of care for the vulnerable, and of respect for the integrity of the natural world. These values are present in all the major world religions, in humanist philosophy, and in documents such as the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.
Christians should cultivate reflection drawing on their most important sources that affirms these values—and affirm the common ground we have with those from other traditions. Just about all of us, then, are well suited to operate with political values that focus on the central convictions about moral life and critique policies and practices in light of those convictions.
If we move away from the left/right schema and think more in terms of the true/untrue schema, we may the proceed to critique the policies and other expressions of the Trump regime for violating the truth. We may insist that such judgments are not reducible to being on different places on the left/right spectrum but rather are about truthfulness. Hence, we may demand that those formulating the policies and practices defend them in relation to the core truths of compassion, the preciousness of life, care for the vulnerable, and respect for the integrity of the natural world.
I also believe that to draw more overtly and fundamentally on such core convictions—with the confidence that these convictions are widely shared among people of good will in our society and around the world—will provide more clarity and focus in responding to the violations of human wellbeing we are already seeing. Such an approach will enhance a sense of stability and hope in the face of stress and trauma.
Such self-consciousness about core convictions will also challenge all of us to remember the necessity of practicing our resistance in ways that are consistent with the values we are using to critique current office holders. Gandhi’s insistence on the priority of means over ends is an excellent reminder that our work to enhance healing in our world involves both resisting the wrongdoing of people in power and witnessing to the world we hope to create with our thoughts and actions in the present.