This election cycle is strange. Beyond the farce of ‘choice’ and the laughable candidates (characters?), there lies a deep and unsettling division that bubbles beneath the surface in our country. It is something many of us are curious about, wondering how we got to where we are, and searching for an explanation that will bring some sort of rationality to this madness. I recently attended a luncheon where Tucker Carlson, anchor of Fox and Friends Weekend, was the keynote speaker. He kept us all laughing, and while I do not share his staunch conservative views, my interest was piqued with several of his talking points. I’ve been ruminating on this post for a time, deciding how best to convey my thoughts, and honestly, trying to make sense of the ideas swirling in my head. I feel as though there is a fog or darkness over our country, which clouds our minds and prevents us from seeing the complete picture. As a person of faith, I feel this is has a spiritual connection, and it has lead me to wake up in the middle of the night and pray.
As we watch headline after headline unfold, with offensive details that we cannot repeat in mixed company, we cannot help but marvel at the spectacle that plays out in front of us. It baffles us that we have Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate. Yet, according to Mr. Carlson, we should not be surprised at all. If we take the time to examine the motivations for those who vote for him, we begin to see a portrait of someone who has been rejected for some time. This is a person who feels their opinion is not valuable, and their voice is not being heard. No one is listening to them. Then Trump appears.
Mr. Carlson’s opinion is that our social media driven generation – Millennials specifically – are to blame for the rise of third parties. He posits that Millennials cannot come to terms with being raised as a ‘special snowflake’ and demand that politicians and the government be accountable to them as individuals. While I can see where he is coming from, I think this is short-sighted and an incomplete picture of why we are seeing a rise of Trump and a rise of third parties. While the youngest generation of voters does have a tendency to demand accountability to individual viewpoints, we are also demanding more: more for everyone, not just the elite. We have seen our parent’s generation left out in the cold when times got tough, regardless of their loyalty to an employer. We have seen the effects of unemployment, of ‘playing by the rules’, and still being left with nothing. We demand accountability for these expectations that were set for us by our predecessors who then tell us we are to blame for taking them at their word. There is dissonance between our expectations and reality – a condition ripe for unrest. There are too many promises made to us by politicians who will “fix it all” yet only serve themselves when it comes time to act. We are weary and wary, and we are demanding accountability.
The solution we are being offered in the form of two unpopular and unrepentant candidates doesn’t sit well either. Many are falling into the same trap: we are being promised change, yet we have no reason to trust that will happen based on the evidence presented to us. Don’t be fooled: anyone who offers a solution which consists of making everything better and claims to be the only person who can do so is just a different packaging of the same lie. And this package of lies isn’t being sold to just one ‘side’ or a single political party. We are all buying the same lie: that the government exists to serve us.
Sure, we know that government’s purpose is to keep law and order, to establish and enforce rules such that all people are treated fairly. Essentially, our government exists to protect liberty; the freedom of the individual. But somewhere along the way, we’ve come to expect that our government will take care of us. That it will answer our beck and call. Let’s give it a minute to sink in: our expectations are not based in reality. Our government does not exist to make us happy. It does not exist to meet our every need. It exists so that you and I can exist. That’s it. What is the lesson here? Simply that our government is designed to be hands-off so that we can be self-sufficient. Yet we’ve muddied that purpose and built our lives on a tower of promises so high that it was bound to topple at some point. We’ve confused “promote the general welfare” with “give me everything I want and need according to my narrow set of ideals and beliefs in a timeline that meets my demands and at the expense of others”. It isn’t the fault of the Millennial generation – it is a prolific view that being taken care of by the government is a fundamental right. They owe it to us.
As Mr. Carlson pointed out during the lunch, socialism and communism will fail not because the concepts are flawed, but because human beings lack empathy. He recalled instances where politicians he interviewed were baffled that Bernie Sanders gained so many votes, exclaiming that they didn’t care what those constituents wanted, Bernie would not be President. He related that these types of statements showed the stark lack of empathy that these elected officials had for those they represented. This is a root cause for unrest. When people feel ignored, they lash out so they will be seen and heard. Unfortunately, the population’s voice and visibility came in the form of a man named Donald Trump. Empathy and active listening are the first steps towards political change, but we have to go a step further. We need to evaluate whether our entire outlook needs re-framing. I absolutely agree that when people vote for outsiders, underdogs and third parties it is because those in power are not listening and caring about their constituents. But I also believe a large part of our unrest as a nation stems from the fact that people are relying on a system that was never designed to support them. We feel cheated even though there was nothing to be won.
As Americans begin to question why they aren’t on the winning side of the equation, we see a shift from civility to destructive discontent. As Mr. Carlson pointed out, crime rates dropped in a number of large cities during the Great Depression. As he put it, “Poverty doesn’t create crime, envy does.”. Inequality leads to discontent. We all know the government is a rigged system with predetermined winners and losers. We can castvotes but not see results. The feeling of helplessness and desperation drives us to resist. We are now, as a nation, acting out so that we will be seen and heard. No one has listened to us, so we are rebelling. The rebellion comes in many forms (Trump, third parties, etc.); some have harsher consequences than others. The problem is that we all expect our problems to be solved by the person we vote for. So we rally unwavering behind a candidate, pouring our hope of the ‘fixed future’ into that person, and abandoning reason and logic in the process. If we admit that we have no good choice, that there is no one to fix our problems, we have nothing left. Herein lies our challenge: we’ve been trying to solve a problem that never existed.
The answer isn’t government and it never was. We were asking the wrong question.
JFK got it right when he said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”. The current political rhetoric from both major parties is fearful and manipulative. The options for fixing the status quo won’t actually fix anything. It will only shift the problem to a different group of people. Why? Because we don’t actually care about each other. We don’t care what happens so long as I get what is important to me (because I deserve it). Folks, this is where it hurts and where it needs to be driven home: It’s not about you.
Christ told us that, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it”. We know we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. I am to put others’ needs ahead of mine. What does that translate to in terms of politics? Maybe instead of focusing on which tax code will benefit my take-home pay I should worry about the policies that will help those on welfare, even at my expense. We know that the love of money is the root of all evil. Are we surprised then, that our own worries and anxieties are about money? We vote for someone who will give us better tax breaks, better employment outlooks, better trade policies, better education (and free at that). We worry about social security, medicaid, welfare, the national debt. How will we pay for this program, and still have a budget to meet my needs? This isn’t to say these policies are unimportant. What I am saying is we are hyper-focused on the monetary outcomes in our personal lives at the expense of those around us. We stand behind candidates who have no business leading our country because we are afraid, we are greedy, we are calloused, we are self-righteous.
In the end we have to realize as Christians that this is a system of the world. God’s system looks vastly different, and it requires direct involvement. We can’t elect politicians to do this work for us, we have to get up and do it ourselves. It is counter intuitive to everything the world tells us is wise and successful: give instead of take, humble instead of elevate, be last instead of first. But we aren’t voting according to these principles. Why not? Why do we put ourselves first and look the other way when it comes time to serve our neighbors? We’ve felt the brunt of deaf ears and cold shoulders from politicians towards us, so how can we do the same? We know they don’t care about us, their constituents, but why do we not care about our own neighbors?
My guess is because we’ve never had to walk with them. We’ve never had to confront their struggles and problems ourselves. My guess is that you, like me, have never taken the time to really get to know those who are unlike us. We stick with those who support our doctrines, our political leanings and we write off anyone who disagrees. We live in bubbles and in isolation. We are echo chambers.
How would we change our political stance if we engaged with those we seek to impose our beliefs on? Imagine these scenarios and tell me: How many of us could sit down with a woman who had an abortion, listen to her story of loss and regret, and by the end still feel vindicated in telling her she should be punished as a criminal? How many of us could sit with prisoners and listen to their story about why they are incarcerated and what their hope for the future is and as we leave, tell them they’ve gotten what they deserve? How many of us could share a meal with a refugee or illegal immigrant who works day and night to survive in a country paycheck to paycheck, and as we take the last sip of wine, tell them they shouldn’t be in our country? These scenarios seem absurd because it challenges our notion of common decency and how we would treat someone who poured themselves out in vulnerability to us only to be shamed, ignored and stifled. But this is what we do. The difference between these scenarios and reality is that we never take the time to even listen. When the mobs come out, it is because voices have not been heard. Yet we like to look at the symptom as if it was the problem, because it means we don’t have to do anything. We can stay comfortable. We can stay complacent. We can focus on ourselves, and solve the problems that we find important instead of being forced to reckon with the needs of others. Shame on us.
Why are people flocking to Donald Trump? Because they feel he’s the only person listening. What happens if we turn off the TV, put away our computers, walk outside and engage our neighbors? What if we ask them what they need, and what we can do to help? What if we treat them as ourselves and give them the thing we crave? What would our nation look like if we lived with a little empathy? With all the hurt in our country today, somehow empathy still eludes us.