A few weeks ago I was following and commenting on the thread of a friend’s Facebook post regarding a political subject. This friend made a statement that got me to thinking. The paraphrased statement goes something like this, “I am skeptical of politics to enact lasting change. It seems to me that we just swing back on forth on a pendulum every 4-8 years.” There is certainly a lot of evidence to support this statement. Consider the following recap of the last 6+ years in national politics.
In January of 2005, following the 2004 Presidential election, the Republican Party was pretty much master of all it surveyed. President Bush had just been reelected, winning the largest portion of the popular vote of any candidate since his father in 1988. Republicans held both houses of Congress, with 55 senators and 229 Representatives. This was the high water mark overall for the Republican Party since the 1920s in federal politics. Former Democratic Senator Zell Miller had endorsed Bush for President and had penned a best selling book “A National Party No More”, claiming that the Democratic Party had marginalized itself and was in danger of becoming a regionalized rump party of coastal elites out of touch with the majority of America. However, two years later the Democratic Party had regained both houses of Congress, with 233 Representatives and 51 Senators (counting independent Joe Lieberman and Socialist Bernie Sanders, who both caucus with the Democratic Party). They expanded their majorities in both houses in 2008, winning 257 seats in the House and 59 seats in the Senate (eventually reaching 60 with the party defection of Arlen Specter). Additionally, President Barack Obama won the presidency by the largest margin in the popular vote since Ronald Reagan in 1984, and the largest margin for a Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Sam Tanenhaus, the Senior Editor of The New York Times Book Review published a book in 2009 titled, “The Death of Conservatism”, arguing that the conservative movement (and by proxy, the Republican Party) had essentially petered out and was in need of a major reboot and reconsidering of its position in the American political landscape. However, as was the case with the Democratic Party in 2004, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the Republican Party had been greatly exaggerated. In the 2010 Congressional elections, the Republican Party retook the House, winning 242 seats, a larger majority than they held in the high water mark of the 2004 elections and added 6 Senate seats (7 if you count the special election victory of Scott Brown in January 2010 in Massachusetts). The gains in governor’s races and state legislative houses were even more pronounced. As I write this blog post, President Obama’s approval rating in the Gallup tracking poll sits at 38 percent, the lowest of his presidency. There is over a year until the 2012 election, but suffice it to say that Obama’s road to reelection appears much tougher than one would have imagined at this time a year ago.
The narrative above certainly paints a pretty clear picture of wide swings of the pendulum in partisan political fortunes over the last 6+ years. The economic picture in America has certainly changed a great deal since 2004 as well. But beyond the partisan pendulum swings and economic circumstances, has American culture really changed all that much in the past 6+ years? We have had some policy changes (though not as many as one might want to believe) and new cultural trends (popular TV shows/movies etc. come and go with the seasons), but fundamentally, are we really that different of a society? To listen to political pundits, one would think that the results of every election are the most important and earth-shattering events that can possibly happen. I am something of a political junkie, keeping up with current events and reading opinion pieces from a variety of politically themed websites and blogs on almost a daily basis. But I think that politics is not the cutting edge of what a society is really about. I think that politics reflect some of the values of a society, but mainly as a lagging indicator. I also think that some aspects of politics, namely the backroom dealing, corruption and power plays, have changed little since antiquity. There is very little that is new under the sun. There are certainly differences in philosophy and policy between politicians and political parties. But when it comes to the temptations of power and the tendency of political leaders to put their own interests in front of the interests of the people they claim to represent, the words of the great philosopher Peter Townshend ring truer than ever, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.
So how does change really happen in a society? And by that I mean change for the better. Political leaders can certainly play a role. The best example that I can think of historically is William Wilberforce and the ending of the British slave trade in the early 19th century. But was this primarily a political triumph? I believe that the political triumph (which happened in 1833, three days before Wilberforce died) was only the result of the change that had happened over the course of decades. Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect (a group that we would all do well to learn more about) had labored for decades to change the minds of the people of England. The ground for this sea change in opinion, in my view, had been plowed by the Wesleyan revivals of the mid-late 18th centuries that both predated and overlapped the work of the Clapham Sect. In more recent times, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the political capstone of efforts to end legal segregation in the South. But the moral argument had been achieved in a critical mass of the U.S. population by efforts beyond politics. The social protests by Martin Luther King and those who worked together with him involved politics, but often only tangentially. The main target of these actions were the hearts and minds of people. In the end, the political objectives were achieved because peoples’ minds were changed. The most important words of this era in my mind were not the words of legislation that were passed, they were the words spoken in speeches like the “I Have a Dream” speech or penned in “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”. Legislation can only affect policy. The words spoken and penned can affect hearts.
I certainly have a political point of view and I am not shy about sharing it. But the problems that our society faces in my mind are not primarily political. They are moral and cultural. And the answers to these problems are not primarily political, either. They are moral, cultural and above all spiritual. It is easy to lose sight of that in our 24 hour-a-day news cycle and endless stream of talking heads. The election next year is important. But I don’t know if it is as important as we often think that it is.