This morning during a free minute I read an article by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, titled “That Moment When 2016 Hits You”. Naturally it was about our election cycle; and it reflected upon the political and cultural climate that has troubled so many of us this year. These are moments when we are filled with great sadness – and Peggy, looking around at a country that appears to have changed so much, wonders in her eloquent fashion if these changes are irreversible.
There are many reasons not to be sanguine this year. We have so many problems; which are repeated to us day and night through the assault of media that seems limitless in a digital age. It makes things look bleak – bleaker I wonder perhaps than they are.
Election years are hard times. They are made worse because our government has grown so big that our winner-take-all system has converted these periodic contests into existential battles for an ever-increasing portion of the American society. Turf must be protected, through scorched earth tactics if necessary. Enemies must be destroyed; lest they withdraw a benefit or cancel a program. Sacred cows must be shielded from the barbarians. Hate, simple and pure is egged on by troll armies and 140 character limitations that allow no nuance, no discussion. Anonymity encourages the brutality.
Peggy also brings up an important point – how this environment excludes perhaps the great men and women. People who do not want to expose themselves to the filth. I once sat with a Saharan Arab friend in a dusty African capital, who told me a story. He was from a noble desert family and had been thinking of running for office, figuring it was only natural to extend tribal leadership through the established political systems. He had gone to his father for blessing, a wizened old man well along in years. “I would advise against that,” the elder had told his son, “for the moment that you ask for somebody’s vote, you are opening yourself up for the beggars and the thieves to spit in your face.”
I’ve thought about that a lot since then, because it’s true. And its exactly what Peggy is lamenting. Its the nasty underbelly of our egalitarian political system. While we no longer have to seek permission from our overlords to speak; those who wish to serve must expose themselves to such horror that few are willing, and only those who would not perhaps be the best servants. True servant-hood does not suffer abuse. The destruction of civility. The conversion from a Republic of Gentlemen to a Confederacy of Dunces, if I may.
But there is a silver lining. Because elections, while they concern us all, are just contests between two flawed people. They might be a thermometer to take the temperature of a country; but they are not a complete representation of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of a place that hosts the fortunes of more than 300 million souls. The America that Peggy misses is still out there; found in our rolling hills and our downtown churches and our great vast farms. Where good people still put in a hard day’s work and go home to their families. Where faith workers help integrate the newcomers to our society with grace and dignity. Where people return lost wallets, leave their doors open at night, and watch out for each others’ children. In a place where these things are still true, the passing tempests will blow but they will not shake the foundations of the republic. For the republic belongs to us.
All that to say, chin up Peggy – this too shall pass, as long as there are people like you who are willing to lament the nastiness, and speak out against that which ails us. And for that we are forever grateful.