A couple of weeks ago, Deanna and I watched the third presidential debate on my laptop in the living room, and then went to bed feeling pretty discouraged. We weren’t saddened because we think we are going to ‘lose’. We were just feeling the darkness of our current national political process, and the damage that it is doing to our society in general, or more accurately, that we are doing to each other.
The splits are not just left and right, but within each side as well. The Republican party is more divided than I have ever seen, with large numbers of leaders disavowing their chosen candidate. And over on the left, disappointed Bernie supporters, deeply troubled by Hillary, are fiercely advocating for Jill Stein or others.
In this election season, more than any other I can recall, ‘winning’ doesn’t feel like winning. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not as simple as disappointment in the choices on the political menu.
Here in the South, we are sometimes advised to avoid politics and religion as topics of conversation, since they tend to be divisive. Folks have strong feelings about those two topics, and often carry deep convictions that we are right and others are wrong. It goes far beyond strong opinions about what policies are best; it is a question of identity. Which side are you on? Which kind of person are you? You’re either for us or you’re against us, as a former president famously said. That can make it hard to have a productive conversation.
At the same time, however, we are told that being politically active is part of our duty, that the health of our democracy is rooted in our active participation in the process; it’s the rent we pay for living in a democracy. We’re left in an uncomfortable and confusing situation — told to do something and to avoid doing it at the same time.
Part of the confusion, I think, arises from the failure to distinguish between the two definitions of ‘politics.’ One is the partisan mud fight that has come to pass for our political process — fierce loyalty to one party and passionate opposition to the other, and its devotees. Sometimes, there is more emphasis on the opposition than the support. It feels a lot like the devotion and identification of hard core sports fans.
The second definition is nobler than that. Politics, through this lens, is whatever system we devise to make decisions together about what matters and who matters, how to manifest our values in our leadership and the direction the country takes.
Saying that we have a duty to participate in the latter is often mushily conflated with the former — having an obligation to fiercely choose sides and fight for the defeat of the ‘other.’
Sports metaphors don’t always serve us well. It has been about 200 years since the traditional British language of ‘standing’ for office was replaced with ‘running’ for office in the United States, and I’m not sure that was a good move. In those days, however, when people thought of sports, they were more likely to think of horse racing than football. These days, I don’t know many people who closely follow horse racing, though football is an extremely common topic of conversation—sometimes as a less-dangerous tool for avoiding political discussion. So now, our metaphor has shifted so that winning is not merely a matter of being faster and having greater endurance, but of pummeling your opposition in order to gain ground on the field, often leaving us all with metaphorical traumatic brain injuries.
My friend Dan Buttry, an international conflict transformation instructor and trainer, points out that when it comes to constructing our society, a marriage metaphor might serve us better than a sports metaphor. The way to win a sports match is to defeat the opponent. The way to win a marriage is not to defeat your opponent. Utterly destroying the competitor leaves you without the thing you were fighting for in the first place — a healthy and happy way forward together.
As a country, though, we are much more rooted in the sports metaphor of politics than the marriage metaphor. Damaging, and sometimes destroying, our relationships and ourselves in the name of saving each other and ourselves doesn’t make sense, but it seems to be what we are doing.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be passionate about some options over others. I think we should. Real lives hang in the balance of these chosen priorities. I have yard signs, I have donated to candidates, taken my kid to rallies, and even taken him canvassing with me. But advocating strongly for a particular candidate or course of action does not mean giving up on listening or attacking those who see things differently, as I have seen clearly demonstrated on all sides of the current struggle. It’s possible to be passionate and compassionate at the same time. And it really doesn’t work out well to hate in the name of love.
The sportification of politics can lead to party (team) loyalty that has a lot more to do with ‘us’ being better than ‘them’ than it does figuring what’s best for the country. Loyalty to values and to people you love makes more sense to me than loyalty to a particular team.
That said, particular candidates will always fail to represent all of our values, and I’m not arguing that loyalty to values implies rejection of any candidate who fails to completely embody them. In fact, I’m led the other way. There is a place for strategy in this kind of decision, and for my friends who are torn between casting a protest vote or voting for an imperfect candidate, I lean strongly toward supporting the best realistic option available.
These days, there is a lot of Get Out the Vote work being done, and we are hearing a lot about our responsibility to vote. I support that, but I also think it needs some larger context. Voting is very, very important, but the over-valuing of voting is a problem, too. A Facebook friend of mine posted a few words on my wall years ago, and they have stuck: “Voting is not the pinnacle of democracy. It is the punctuation.”
After the election, the real work of democracy begins. We have to guide our elected officials. They work for us, and we need to stay in touch with them. I highly recommend that you look up the phone numbers for your state, local, and national representatives and put them in your cell phone. That way, when you hear something on the news that you have an opinion on, you can just ring them up and let them know.
And that has a bearing on the choices before us. If we are really participating in democracy, we are not simply voting for someone and then leaving them to do the job until election season comes around again, we are guiding them on the way. Regardless of who we elect, they will be flawed, they will be tempted by the games of power, they will need us to direct them, keep them in check, and hold them accountable. That’s where the real work happens. The North Carolina constitution actually says that citizens not only have a right not only to “petition” their representatives, as the United States constitution reads, but “to instruct their representatives” as well. That’s our job. It’s a duty as well as a right, if we really believe in the idea of democracy.
The idea of a democracy (‘politics’) is that we do the work of steering the nation together. I’m committed to that — both to the steering and to the togetherness.
The real work starts on Nov. 9, though. The work of hearing each other’s pain, frustration, and fear and trying to heal that. The work of staying in touch with what is happening and holding our leaders accountable. Among the greatest miracles of being alive is our capacity to heal. Again and again, we have seen people heal from wounds and grievances much deeper than this.
At the end of the day, though, it may be good to remember that this isn’t football. We don’t win by making others lose. Our job is to love each other through this hard work. And love, in this case, is not an extreme form of ‘like.’ It is not even an emotion. Love is lifting each other’s dignity and value up and treating each other accordingly, sometimes in spite of how we feel rather than because of it.
First, though, we need to punctuate this sentence in the story of democracy and go choose our leaders. Early voting has already started in North Carolina. If you need to find your polling place, it’s here (if you’re in another state, just do an internet search).
As far as my own vote goes, I’m with her. But, regardless of your vote, I’m also with you.
I made this video a few years ago, but I still think it applies.