Ah, 2012: when I lamented how civil discourse was being replaced by “ideological segregation,” as the Left and Right engaged in “epistemic closure.” That phrase came from Julian Sanchez, who had observed that, among many conservatives, “Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.” But in 2012, it was becoming apparent that progressives were also prone to this kind of “closure,” as they increasingly turned to their own “multimedia array” that largely confirmed their preexisting assumptions.
Fast-forward a presidential term and things have not exactly improved. The relatively restrained politics of Romney vs. Obama have been replaced by Trump vs. Clinton. The people who will vote in November “are increasingly sorted into think-alike communities that reflect not only their politics but their demographics.” And half of us are primarily getting our news from social media sites like Facebook, which apparently is sorting such links so that progressives and conservatives see divergent headlines on the same topics.
So I want to echo Trevin Wax’s suggestion that Christians “show a better way” and “confuse the algorithms” by broadening their consumption of news and commentary across rigid ideological and partisan lines. Four years ago I dedicated a couple of posts to recommending conservatives for progressives to read and vice-versa. Today I want to revisit the first topic.
Not that I’ve stopped caring that conservatives read from people on the left — they should — but I fear that the rise of Donald Trump makes the reverse particularly important. Precisely because Trump is such an abhorrent figure, and because so much of the Republican Party has capitulated to him, it’s become even easier for progressives to dismiss conservatism. To understand it not as a rich intellectual tradition, but as a morally bankrupt ideology that ought to be ignored, if not actively suppressed.
But what strikes me is that many of the people who are most likely to see Trump as an existential threat are conservatives — friends, colleagues, and other people of integrity who are horrified to see their political representatives sacrifice their ideals to expediency. So while I’m not a conservative myself, I want readers of all stripes to observe some of how the rise of Trump (and the apparent fall of the GOP) has only deepened many conservatives’ commitment to think carefully about the nature of citizenship, community, family, freedom, formation, human flourishing, and a host of other concerns.
Even when I don’t agree with their answers, I continue to appreciate the questions raised by David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Michael Gerson, and other principled conservatives whom I recommended in 2012 and who have consistently resisted Trump in 2016. To that list, I just want to commend three more conservatives to your attention:
O. Alan Noble
Having already described his Twitter account — “something like the tragicomic, (pop)culturally literate conscience of conservatism” — as “indispensable,” let me try to convince you that that adjective is true of other writing from Oklahoma Baptist professor Alan Noble. There’s no better place to start than with his recent, widely-circulated piece for Vox:
My hope for the 2016 election was to see a conservative candidate who would help heal our many racial, religious, and class divisions; work to defend the dignity of all people; and promote community-based politics, rather than sovereign individualism and the impersonal state…. But that was not meant to be.
While Noble can’t countenance voting for Clinton, he begs fellow conservative evangelicals not to vote for Donald Trump, “regardless of how bad a Clinton presidency might be.” Indeed, it’s his critique of Trump that I especially want non-conservative readers to ponder:
Two of the most basic prerequisites for leading our country must be a respect and love of your neighbor and an adherence to moral and political principles of some kind. Yet Trump has consistently demonstrated a callous disregard for nearly every group of people, including the oppressed and vulnerable. And the only lasting political principle he has stood by is “winning” for himself….
To vote for Donald Trump is to betray the values of both conservatism and Christianity, and the results may do serious harm to our nation and our souls.
Noble’s alternative to voting is to call for a renewal of conservative institutions “designed to reach the voter base not with hyperbole and half-truths, and not to whip up the base into faux-outrage with reactionary viral hot takes, but to clearly, compassionately, and engagingly communicate conservative values and ideals.” While he would place a heightened emphasis on reaching out to people of color (“because any national politics that does not represent the concerns and needs of all its citizens is not with its name”), Noble’s solution for conservatism is a conservative one: “…to stand by the convictions we have proclaimed and to do so in a way that offers other Americans an alternative political imagination, one committed to principled pluralism, to the flourishing of local communities, and to the common good.”
(For an even deeper exploration of the problem of racism for political and religious conservatives, see Thabiti Anyabwile’s recent Gospel Coalition post arguing — contra Noble — that evangelicals ought to vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.)
Robert Tracy McKenzie
“As a lifelong Republican,” wrote Tracy McKenzie in early June, “I view Trump’s ascendancy within the Republican Party with shock and sadness. As a historian, I see his rise as dripping with irony: 178 years later, the demagogue Lincoln warned about is now the leader of Lincoln’s party. This is both travesty and tragedy.” 178 years, that is, after a speech that a young Abe Lincoln gave at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, one that Tracy encountered while preparing some remarks for a talk in Gettysburg this November.
Since beginning this blog three and a half years ago, I have tried hard to avoid partisanship, both religious and political…. When history gets caught up in political conflicts, it can quickly become just another political tool, a rhetorical weapon valued more for its usefulness than its accuracy.
I detest this history-as-ammunition approach to the past. Whenever I further it, I am abusing my responsibility as a historian. But at the same time, when careful study of the past points me toward insights that are relevant to the present and I refuse to share them, I am abdicating my responsibility as a historian and violating the law of love in the process. And so, although I am committed to making political statements as sparingly as possible, in this post and the next one, I am going to do so candidly.
Unlike the others I’ve named, Tracy is more likely to identify with a party than an ideology (to the extent he talks about politics at all). But I do think that his still-unfolding response to Trump reflects classically conservative convictions about the importance of healthy communities, well-functioning institutions, and rational discourse — and conservative anxieties about the dangers posed when democracy leads to populism, demagoguery, and anti-intellectualism.
And, echoing some of Noble’s concerns about Trump’s comments on Muslims, Latinos, and other minorities, Tracy is appalled that the party of Lincoln would nominate a Know-Nothing:
I have been longing for the GOP leadership to take a page from Lincoln’s book. I long to hear Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell stand up and say that party unity is not the highest good, that party unity built by pandering to those who would degrade any racial or ethnic group is not worth the cost. I’m still waiting.
In my Saturday That Was The Week That Was posts, I’ve often pointed to articles by Gracy Olmstead. For example, this past weekend I linked to my favorite American Conservative contributor‘s reflection on what millennials moving back home with their parents might say about marriage and family structure.
That’s typical of a conservative thinker who, while not averse to writing about politics, knows that there is more to life than electioneering and public policy. There’s reading and housework, farming and parenting. (Here too, Front Porch Republic is an important forum to follow.) And there are bigger issues than trade, taxation, and terrorism — like innovation, attentiveness, and evil and joy.
While no fan of the presumptive Republican nominee, it’s telling that Olmstead’s longest piece on that subject rebuts Trump more implicitly than explicitly, by exemplifying the empathy, concern for virtue, and commitment to conversation that he so recklessly disdains. It’s worth quoting at some length:
Each generation seems to have its weaknesses and vices: mine (the millennial generation) is often prone to attitudes of entitlement, laziness, skepticism, moral ambiguity. But we’re also more likely to exercise a certain set of virtues: mercy, empathy, kindness, tolerance. Many of us support Bernie Sanders, it seems, because his political platform complements both our virtues and our vices.
My grandfather’s generation has a different set of virtues, a different set of vices. Donald Trump’s platform and political rhetoric sits well with some of their natural inclinations. When I get angry and frustrated with the Trump voter, I have to remember that the world I live in is very different from the one known to many of them. I am called to show them tolerance and empathy, to try to understand them, despite our differences.
This could be my millennial leaning toward “softness” and “tolerance” coming out. But it’s also, at root, my love of community—and desire that, in the end, our presidential election won’t destroy opportunities for important political discourse. Because there are many other things worth talking about, many other important battles worth fighting—and if the Republican party as we know it is going to be forever changed by this 2016 election (as some believe it will be), it seems best to consider how best to harness this change in a productive fashion. How to work with those who are different than us, so that—whether some or all of us are disappointed by the results of the election—we can use that disappointment to foster a conversation, cohesion, understanding, rather than letting it foment into bitterness and anger, as it has this time around.