I rarely write about politics; I often feel too ignorant to comment intelligently and I’m not enough of a true believer in any particular issue, party, or ideology to write very passionately (more on this below). But there are nevertheless some things I happen to feel strongly about in the wake of this election.
Until 2008 I had always been more or less of a political agnostic. I was raised in a staunchly conservative home and I accepted conservative ideas about society and government but I was never particularly passionate about conservatism. Or any other -ism. But in 2008 I was living in southern California when Proposition 8 was born and set loose. I won’t detail that particular story here but the experiences (none of them pleasant) surrounding my involvement in Prop 8 led to my gradual journey in a leftward direction.
Nevertheless, I never became, and don’t stand now, as a “true believer” in specific issues and causes. By true believer I mean one who is firmly grounded in the reality of a particular view or issue such that substantial doubt in those views or issues is not a factor. True believers might tinker with how to communicate their beliefs or even smooth out rough edges of beliefs if so inclined. But true believers aren’t wishy-washy about their beliefs. True believers campaign and organize and raise money and try to persuade and generally do the work that moves politics in particular directions. Nevertheless, that is not to say that I have remained a political agnostic. I care about certain issues now, some more than others, though I continue to be generally un-dazzled by political figures from any party. For me, I’m in pretty constant flux about how firmly to accept the various interpretations of complex political issues, or how firmly to stick with my own interpretations. I long to believe, and it’s likely the case that many are like me, though I suspect there are ultimately more true believers than unsettled adherents like myself (or maybe true believers are just louder and therefore more seemingly omni-present).
On one particular point, though, I remain thoroughly convinced: we are not the architect of our beliefs, political or otherwise. Our family, friends, ethnicity, language, culture, religion, all contribute to the complex makeup of our beliefs. Our beliefs provide us with a map of how to see the world, a map we didn’t draw ourselves. I cannot force myself into belief or conversion. Rather, these happen to me, in me, through me, in ways I don’t overtly or consciously choose. I might be able to see the general rationality of an opposing belief, but I cannot will myself into intellectual compliance with it. Any permeability associated with beliefs is a matter of elements that overtake us and make us see the world in particular ways, not because I had the power to simply pick up or discard beliefs at will. Any choice of beliefs is grounded in contexts not of our own making, whether I fervently defend current beliefs or am leaving old ways of believing behind for new ones. That which we find persuasive we also find irresistible. Otherwise genuine persuasion is not possible. We are lured, enticed, seduced by the logic behind what we believe.
If this is true, as I believe it is, where does it leave us? Are we hopelessly resigned to the stubborn immovability of what we believe? Have we no choice in the end but to throw stones at the the other side, use whatever tactic might be necessary to silence those who do not believe as we do and be forever at war? Quite the opposite. In fact, realization of the brute “thereness” of what we believe frees us to not have to worry ourselves over what is true; these events that constitute the life forms of our beliefs are irrevocably there and they aren’t going anywhere. We have to reckon with them, and any kind of free decision is only possible in two ways: the strength or measure of our fidelity to these truths and the stories we tell about them. We can construct the most intelligent, persuasive, logically defensible, and humanly heartfelt interpretation of that which we hold dear. in this way we both reveal our fidelity to that which we hold to be true and at the same time engage in the hard narratological work of making these things true through the stories we tell about them. This is precisely what didn’t happen with the Republican party this election.
Not being a conservative myself, I will no doubt be accused of not knowing what I am talking about. But something momentous happened this election cycle and it wasn’t because the country abandoned all conservative values wholesale or because there was a miraculous mass liberal conversion. It seems to me to be very apparent that over the last several years conservatives have allowed the conservative narrative to be shaped by extreme elements of the party so that the story, the mythology of conservatism–so vital to the advancement of any person or institution in any kind of community–was diminished until only extreme factions that identified with the party would resonate with it. The story of conservatism that mythologizes universal human goods like cultural and religions traditions, an individualism that recognizes communal bonds, freedom for all people to realize and enact their own traditions and individualities seemed to be swallowed up in hyper rhetoric about the size of government, unpopular an extreme social positions, the hampering of people to become wealthy and the wealthy to become wealthier, xenophobia regarding immigrants, etc. Presumably, the obscured core of all of these extreme positions could be re-narrativized and re-mythologized in order to tell the story of a conservatism that is truly universal in some way. i happen to be more persuaded by a universalism (meaning that which attempts to account for all peoples) that is more resonant with communalism and communities, but if there is a more universal way of telling the stories of conservative principles then I want to see this happen. We are all going to be better off for it–the language of political leaders or leaders-to-be will be far more grounded in universality and common vision. That’s not to say that those on the Left have a perfect story that flawlessly mythologizes their particular beliefs. There is much room for improvement there as well, so that that kind of mythology does not, for example, fall off a cliff of relativism or outright disdain for religion. But there is no doubt that the Left side of the political spectrum has penned a story that has spoken to the hearts of a majority of Americans. It is how we tell our stories that will ultimately serve to demonstrate our fidelity to our beliefs and make them something o e seriously reckoned with. It’s incumbent upon us to tell these stories as creatively, inclusively, and powerfully as possible. Such re-tellings will force us to constantly improve upon and re-fashion all stories so that we get the most and the best of the visions that shape our lives. We’ll live in a better, more united, and thoughtful America when that happens.