Politics is About More Than Winning

If we want to heal America's divide, we've got to do more than hold political power.

By Rob Schwarzwalder Published on October 24, 2017

“Millions of evangelical Christians, if they had a common voice … would exercise under God an influence that would save American democracy.”

This was not said during last year’s campaign. It was not said at a recent Religious Right conference. It was spoken by William Ward Ayer at the first meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals. In 1942.

For decades, we have heard that if only conservative Christians would get out of the pew and into the voting booth, they would “save America.” Or “take America back for Christ.” 

Well, in 2016, about 80 percent of white American Evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump. He promised pro-life, pro-family, pro-military, and pro-tax cut policies. A federal judiciary that respected the Constitution. Renewed patriotism and enforcement of the laws. 

To his credit, Mr. Trump has done or is attempting to do many of these things. But the goal of “retaking” America remains as elusive as ever.

The Limits of Winning

Last week, Steve Bannon said if the coalition that brought Mr. Trump to the White House stays together, “we will govern for 50 to 75 years.”

He might be right. Let’s say for the sake of argument he is. But what will happen if all conservatives do is hold the levers of power? If they merely prevent the Left from enacting its agenda? In 75 years, we will be an even more bitterly divided country than we are now.

Rage and contempt are not the bases of wise and effective policy. Continually fostering a blaze of anger toward those with whom one disagrees might enable political victory. But it will only burn-down bridges of common interest. It will destroy the healthy friendship citizens of the same nation should enjoy. At least if they want that nation to avoid civil strife on a scale we have not witnessed since the early 1860s.

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Winning elections is important, no question. I’ve been involved in electoral politics for about 30 years. I’ve worked on many campaigns at the local, congressional, state and national level. Electing people who will defend the unborn and their mothers from the predatory abortion industry, enacting laws that strengthen families, and appointing judges will believe the Constitution is a text, not a piece of political elastic, is critical. 

But to defeat one’s opponent is not to persuade him. That’s why electoral victories are only half the battle. Conservatives must explain — clearly, simply, and repeatedly — why conservative ideas are better than liberal ideas. If we don’t, any political power we achieve will be seen by our fellow citizens as a form of repression.

Not Enemies, But Fellow Citizens

People on the outright Left and left of center are not conservatives’ enemies. They are our fellow citizens. Some of them are very hard people whose worldview and social goals are at diametric odds against the convictions conservatives hold dear.

They want to reduce the liberty to practice one’s faith in all spheres of life to the freedom to worship within the walls of a building. The leftists want radical sexual freedom, whether that means abortion-on-demand or same-sex marriage or transgenderism in the military. They want to redefine the family. Expand the size and authority of government. Socialize the economy. Hobble America’s military.

But though their agenda drives to near-distraction all of us who are conservative, they remain human beings made in God’s image. And our fellow citizens. And people with minds and hearts that can be challenged, changed, and, in Christ, transformed.

Even if the latter never happens, civility in the face of hatred makes its own statement. Dehumanizing one’s opponents erodes the ability even to talk with them. And we better: We’re all in this thing called America together.

To defeat one’s opponent is not to persuade him. That’s why electoral victories are only half the battle.

Winning an election isn’t like achieving a military objective. It’s not about seizing power and treating one’s opponents as literal enemies. It’s not about vanquishing an evil army.

It’s about taking wise and, as needed, bold action. About doing what’s right and doing so with prudence, intelligence and explanation. About telling the truth, admitting error when there’s been failure, working for consensus whenever possible and having the courage to go forward in the face of opposition when necessary. (In our time, that necessity will be frequent.)

It’s about defusing hostility by being winsome. Deflecting hatred by being genial. Making your arguments pointedly but without personal animus. It’s about having the same confident, self-assured, principled but good-hearted approach of that greatest of happy warriors, Ronald Reagan.

What America’s Future Depends On

The media and the education establishments are barriers to the kind of public persuasion conservatives should be advancing. But in our electronic era, there are lots of ways to get our messages through. Let’s not make excuses for our failures to tell people why what we believe and want to do is for good, not harm.

Part of the problem is us: We’re angry at being told we’re bigoted, hateful, ignorant, etc.. And we’re told this simply because we believe in marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Or because we believe a competitive free market makes more sense than a centralized, command-and-control system. As a result, we go for the politics of winning at any cost instead of the politics of winning in a manner consistent with the values we proclaim.

George Washington began his Farewell Address by addressing his countrymen as “My friends and fellow-citizens.” His America was divided, too. But he called his young nation to remember they were, indeed, neighbors and friends. Citizens of something new under the sun: Representative self-government based on the personal virtue of those who constitute it.

We still are, even if our republic is frayed and decaying. Yet, “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

This is as true today as it was when Lincoln said it in 1861. Let’s practice it, conservatives. The fate of the country might well depend on it.

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