When the nice people at The American Interest invited me to start a blog on religion, they said that, if so moved from time to time, I could write on other topics. Mostly I have not been so moved. I am now. As I watch, with more or less appalled fascination, the unfolding circus of our presidential election, two recent incidents have caught my attention. (I may add that my observations about this are rigorously non-partisan—I could make them regardless of whether I favor President Obama or any of his Republican opponents; I do have a preference, but it is quite irrelevant here.) The two incidents do not directly involve religion. They do involve morality. Arguably morality and religion have something to do with each other.
The first incident, widely reported, occurred at a recent international conference as Obama was conversing with outgoing Russian President Medvedev. They were talking about the differences between the United States and Russia on missile defense. Obama did not notice that the mic was open as he made the following remarks: He asked Medvedev to deliver a message to incoming President Putin—the latter was to give Obama some “space”, since he would have greater “flexibility” in this matter after the November election. Apart from the fact that Obama apparently expects to win the election, there is an interesting implication here (which of course Republicans have pounced upon): In order to win the election, Obama must deal with opposition in Congress and with an American public which is somewhere in the middle on most issues. After winning the election and not being able to run again, he would indeed be more flexible. Of course some people have wondered what else he would then be more flexible about—specifically, on other issues that most people are more concerned about than missile defense. But there is a less complimentary way of describing his situation: Although Obama has relied very much on his “base” (the left wing of the Democratic party) in his actions as president (just think of the partisan way in which he pushed the health bill through Congress), he has also given the appearance of being at heart a pragmatist inclined toward the middle (much to the disappointment of some in the “base”). Once re-elected, though, there would be no need to seek compromises with the Republican opposition or to curry favor with middle-of-the-road voters. In other words, Obama is really a man of the left at heart, but after the election, he will be able to betray those who voted for him as a man of the middle.
The second incident, also widely reported, occurred when Eric Fehrnstrom, a key advisor to Mitt Romney, made an ill-advised reference to a children’s toy called “Etch-a-Sketch” in speaking about the notion that Romney has gone too far to the right in trying to appease his “base”, namely the right wing of the Republican party. (I have never seen this toy. I don’t know anyone who has. But I take it that you can write something on it and then erase it.) Once nominated, he would be freed from this burden and able, indeed compelled, to move toward the middle. This is how Fehrnstrom described the post-nomination situation: “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again”. A more kindly interpretation of this less than grammatical utterance would be that Romney is a man of the middle at heart and, until nominated, must make all these conservative noises. But after the nomination and going into the general election, he will be able to betray those who voted for him as a man of the right.
My intention here is not to cast moral aspersions on either Obama or Romney. I don’t know what either man truly believes. But both Obama and Romney’s advisor were quite simply describing the reality of American politics. Betrayal is not (or not only) a reprehensible choice by a politician. There really is no politically realistic choice. Betrayal is built into the very structure of the political reality. In order to be nominated and elected, a candidate for office, sooner or later, must betray somebody. By definition, he or she can only betray his or her friends. By definition, one cannot betray those who are not friends. (I have written “he or she” and “his or her”, not to conform to feminist syntax, but to emphasize that gender makes no difference here.)
I am not sure whether this structure of betrayals exists in other democracies. The American primary system guarantees it. A candidate must rely on a “base” to be nominated. These are the people who write cheques, who come to rallies, who canvass and make phone calls. Oscar Wilde once remarked, “The trouble with socialism is that it takes away all your free evenings”; the same can be said about all political activists. Most people have other things to occupy their evenings—family, friends, hobbies, vices. Given the primary system, the activists must be kept happy until the nomination has been achieved; they are rather less important as the general election looms. Then all these other people, the ones who don’t normally fill their evenings with politics, must be appealed to. Like most Americans, they are “moderates”, in the middle on most issues. What is more, it is very difficult to govern without support from the middle. This is so despite the much lamented “polarization”. Most Americans are not particularly polarized, not even on the hot button issues of the so-called “culture war”. The activists are polarized. Inevitably, they drive the political process. I am not a historian of American politics; I don’t know to what extent the situation today is uniquely polarized. Even stipulating that it is, the structure described here antedates it.
Are there remedies? Barring a serious national crisis, there is the chance that a rising disgust with uncompromising partisanship will mobilize “moderates”, even including activists, to push both parties toward the middle. Pragmatic party leaders may reassert control over unruly elements (the good old smoke-filled back rooms might be happily resurrected, even without the now banned smoke). Open primaries might help. But it seems likely that the structure of betrayals will not change in the near future. We may have to live with it for quite some time. There are worse things. And, when all is said and done, American democracy is still one of the best political arrangements around.
Religion comes back here as one tries to assess this state of affairs morally. I am not saying anything original if I assert that the long shadow of Puritan morality is still with us. It has been largely left behind when it comes to sexual morality (though many of our sexual liberationists exhibit a lot of Puritan zeal in their propaganda). Puritanism is alive and well in politics. America is still supposed to be a morally pure ”city on the hill”. Every campaign, domestic or foreign, becomes a crusade. The lesson taught by Reinhold Niebuhr about the inherent impurity of political reality has still not been truly learned, though he is often quoted. Those of us who mostly watch politics from the sidelines should not expect too much of our politicians. Those who are active politicians (assuming that they have moral concerns at all) must, I think, decide which betrayals are an acceptable price to pay for whatever good purposes they want to achieve. They might also ponder the statement by Machiavelli that a ruler must be prepared to risk the salvation of his soul for the good of the city.