In October, Megan McArdle wrote in the Washington Post, “I used to think there were certain rules about U.S. politics. There were things you had to do, like be nice to veterans. And things you could not do, like stand by a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault, invite foreign leaders to investigate the families of your political opponents or campaign for president as a socialist.
If those rules ever held, the past five years have gutted them. President Trump hammers daily on institutional norms, to cheers from his supporters; Democrats, meanwhile, are considering their own round of norm violations as soon as they get back in power.
Something major has obviously changed. It’s tempting to ask, ‘What has happened to America?’ but even that question doesn’t capture the scale of what’s going on. Waves of radicalism have swamped stable political orders all over the Western world. “
Merry Christmas, everyone.
People divide and cause division
I often tell the story of sitting out on the front lawn of our bargain house in Riverside, CA (fondly called the “Flintstone house” due to its creative stucco job) and asking the same question: “How could the country elect Ronald Reagan? It must be the beginning of the end.” We were probably right about the end, at least the end of something, if only the fracturing of the Evangelicals and Catholics.
When I was complaining about Trump to my 73-year-old, genealogy-loving brother the other day, he quickly reminded me, “Trump is not new.” If you read history you can easily find hundreds of examples of numbskulls elevated into power who make quick work of what wiser leaders took decades to build. It is a lot easier to tear something apart than to build it. The work of Charlemagne’s grandsons might be a good example.
As many have said, Trump is given too much credit for stirring up trouble when he may just be riding the divisions caused by other factors. McArdle summarized four movements Reagan never dreamed of that might be more responsible than the old men in power for the radical rivalries splitting governments these days – not to mention friendships, families and churches!
- There is a growing division between the mobile class that floats from successful city to successful city and the people left behind in declining rust belts and rural areas. These floaters are the cosmopolitans and the others are the rooted, or as David Goodhart put it in his 2017 book “The Road to Somewhere,” the “somewheres” and the “anywheres.” I have met these “anywheres” all over the world and many have passed through Circle of Hope. I have written a bit about how they hide their money.
- George Shultz, the economist and secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, argues that the ever-increasing centralization of the federal government exacerbates division. It pushes power away from localities to remote authorities that are less accountable to individual voters, and less trusted. Schultz told McArdle, “Accountability is one basic principal of good government…The other basic principal is trust. You have to have a government you trust.” Federalizing everything also turns every political question into a life-or-death battle between two sides that are increasingly distant from each other, not just geographically, but culturally and economically. Lack of trust is the one “trickle-down” theory that seems to work. All authorities are subject to incredible suspicion, even one’s cell leader. So we keep talking about building a trust system.
- Eric Kaufmann’s “Whiteshift” (2019) parses a great deal of data and comes up with a compelling story of division all over the world. As immigration rates rise and so-called “white” majorities feel their culture and demographic dominance at risk, they flock to candidates and platforms promising to control the flood. This is also true in China (Uighers), India (Muslims) and South Africa (Zimbabweans). I called the 2016 election a “whitelash” along with many others.
- Former CIA analyst Martin Gurri argues in “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority” (2018) that the 21st-century information explosion has fatally weakened the old hierarchies that maintained social, economic and political order. The Internet has eroded the monopolies over information and expertise — or the communications systems transmitting them — that shaped and reinforced those hierarchies. Now networked insurgents are making inroads everywhere. People were already skeptical about any notion of truth before the Internet weaponized that skepticism. Now people have to wonder if their mom is spreading fake news the Russians contributed to her pastor’s news stream.
All these theories are probably right. We are in a perfect storm of factors that tend toward backlash, illiberalism, and disruption. Maybe the powers will find a way through and maybe the revolutionaries will keep us distracted until the melting permafrost drowns us all. It is hard to predict what will happen but it is not hard to feel anxious about the uncertainty.
Jesus keeps bringing things together
As my brother might say, the newer things get the older they seem. Jesus was born the first time into an era of amazing innovation and astounding evil. What’s new? He is being born into the same situation now. Paul’s general criticism of humanity is as accurate now as when he first wrote it, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). Last week, Christianity Today surprisingly called on the Evangelicals to admit the president has done the same thing: “His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
Right now, in the middle of that, Jesus is raising up twenty and thirtysomethings, just like he raised up me and my friends. In many ways, they will change the world again. If they don’t reroute every Reagan and Trump, defeat every tyrant on the planet and reconcile every division, that won’t be surprising. But they will keep the truth about Jesus alive. And they will keep building a community in Christ where reconciliation is real.
So even though 2020 might be a political mess, I think it could be a glorious time for the church, especially Circle of Hope. We often feel tired and ineffectual, even while we are unusually strong and effective, but we still manage to look up and see the star moving over where Jesus is born. And we still manage to remember that God’s blessing is about peace on earth and grace to all. Our pastors and leadership team are helping us build a counterculture where we can live in reconciliation and from which we can demonstrate an alternative to whatever our truth-challenged society comes up with.
It is going to be a wonder-filled year.