For a lot of caring and thinking people, the end of the current election cycle cannot come fast enough. Especially, of course, at the presidential level, there is a palpable sense shared by tens of millions of Americans that what they are watching simply can’t be happening. Even a few years ago, the notion that the contest for the most important elected office on the planet would descend into a debate over one candidate’s recorded discussion of sexual behavior and promise to jail his opponent if elected was unimaginable.
All that said (and as excruciating as the 2016 campaign has been), there are some important lessons that progressives may want to consider when it comes to the national policy debate – especially from their conservative adversaries.
Public v. private morality
Number One among the lessons on display in recent days is the fact that elections are ultimately about enacting, implementing and enforcing public policies. While it’s certainly desirable in a democracy to elect officials who are likeable, honest and morally-centered, the hard truth is that duly elected officials lacking in those qualities get to make policy too.
And so it is that America’s conservative Christian movement is perhaps the most fervent support group for Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. If these groups and individuals were to select their candidate of choice from central casting, it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely choice than a thrice-married, casino owning playboy who has bantered with radio “shock jocks” about sexual conquests.
And still, when the chips have been down in recent weeks, the conservative Christian movement has stuck with Trump like glue.
After the first presidential debate, veteran evangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson opined that Trump’s repeated sniffing during the event (a development that gave rise to dark speculation in some circles about a health or substance problem) “may have been a sign of the Holy Spirit coming out of him.”
And this past weekend, after word of Trump’s vulgar 2005 conversation with an entertainment journalist came to light; many Christian conservatives remained stalwart in their support.
Hard boiled political pragmatism
What these stances are all about, of course, is the shared belief amongst these groups and individuals that, whatever the nature of his personal peccadilloes, Trump is the candidate most likely to implement policies with which they agree. This is particularly true when it comes to appointing Supreme Court justices, but it appears also to be the case when it comes to foreign policy – an area in which many Christian conservatives find Trump’s rhetoric vis a vis the Muslim world especially appealing – and several other areas.
In other words, what the Christian conservatives in question are about is winning policy battles. They’d undoubtedly love to have a candidate whose personal background is familiar and appealing, but that is way down their list of priorities. Ultimately, when forced to make a choice, they will always take what they see as the lesser of two evils – all while keeping their eyes fixed on the overarching policy objectives. Sitting out an election and/or rejecting a candidate solely because of his or her personal characteristics is almost never seen as a viable option – no matter how extreme the circumstances.
But this should really come as no surprise. This same brand of unapologetic, hard boiled pragmatism has been the Right’s modus operandi for decades – at least since the 1980 election, when it abandoned a devout, born again Sunday School teacher from Georgia for a divorced Hollywood actor.
It’s also been on frequent display in the years since in the policy battles waged here in North Carolina by conservative think tanks. Time and again these groups have demonized politicians deemed to be unacceptably liberal for behavior that would be wholly ignored if it had been engaged in by conservatives. If you doubt this, take a look back at the scrutiny that the personal lives of Bev Perdue, Mike Easley and John Edwards received down through the years from the John Locke Foundation and the Pope-Civitas Institute and compare it to the almost complete lack of such attention devoted to prominent conservatives.
Again and again, the central message: “Just win, baby.” Often, one gets the impression that if former North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black had been an arch-ideological conservative, the response on the Right to his bathroom bribery scandal would have been the sound of chirping crickets.
Takeaways for progressives?
While abandoning all concern for the personal morality of politicians and embracing a complete, ends-justify-the-means brand of politics in order to advance a progressive agenda is obviously no answer, there are lessons to be gleaned from the Right’s behavior in these matters.
Two stand out.
First, is the fact that policy details matter immensely. It’s simply not enough – as progressives are wont to do – to give voice to general principles and hope that friendly and well-meaning officials will do the right thing. It’s imperative that progressives stick to their policy objectives, articulate them loudly and repeatedly (even incessantly) and demand specific actions from politicians to move public policy toward them. Say what you will about the American Right and its often delusional worldviews, but it’s clear that the composition of the federal courts (and, in particular, the Supreme Court) would be nowhere so close to the consciousness of American politicians were it not for decades of a sustained drumbeat from think tanks and preachers like Franklin Graham. There ought to be a lesson there.
Second, is the importance of taking the long view of the nation’s political battles. A goodly segment of the modern Right believes that it is waging a pitched, decades-long fight for the soul of the nation. These people are prepared to win a battle of attrition and do not intend to be sidetracked by an unattractive political candidate or two or the need for making occasional pragmatic compromises. They still know what they want and intend, ultimately, to get there.
Fortunately, the tides of history, demography and advancing human knowledge are against them. If caring and thinking people will but stick to their principles and at least match the Right’s passion, persistence and realism, progress will continue to prevail.
What’s more, this will remain the case no matter what happens in the upcoming election. Let’s get to work.
Rob Schofield is the director of research at NC Policy Watch.