We’ve entered the post-Labor Day season, during which, by tradition, many voters will begin taking our presidential race seriously.
Meanwhile, many of us have already been paying attention, and we like what we see far less than usual. We’re doing things like leaving our political parties and wondering if our deluded country isn’t worth our political exertions any more.
It’s time for me to make an announcement.
My friends, I am neither God nor the government, so I don’t expect you to think this is earthshaking, but . . .
I hereby grant you amnesty.
Perhaps I should explain.
To Whom and for What?
To all of you.
No, not for everything you may have done lately. For example, some of you primary voters got us a choice between Trump and Clinton. I’m not presently offering amnesty for that.
Today’s amnesty is mostly preemptive. It’s for your vote or lack thereof in the presidential race this November — and for any reasons, opinions, or gut feelings you may have or offer in support of that vote (or nonvote).
Please note that this amnesty pertains only to the presidential election. It does not embrace failing to vote in other races on your ballot.
We’re in an impossible situation. It’s not so much that the major parties’ nominees are both breathtakingly unqualified. It’s that both have major liabilities which in any rational election would disqualify them. So what are we to do? Which candidate is not quite as bad as the other?
I’ve been watching and studying politics, government, and history for decades, and I haven’t the faintest idea which course is less disastrous than the other(s) this year. This is a first for me.
So I guess I’m saying this: Whichever course you choose, I hope it’s the wise one. But you couldn’t prove it by me.
If you vote for Donald Trump because (as one headline put it last week), “Hillary Is Way More Awful Than Trump,” or simply because you cannot bear the lies, the corruption, the global ineptitude, or what she’ll do to the United States Supreme Court, I understand. I won’t hold a grudge.
If you vote for Hillary Clinton because Donald Trump is Donald Trump, and you think a populist, boorish, shallow, raging egomaniac might well become a world-class tyrant and the worst president we’ve ever had — or because you can’t stand how he talks about women, among others — I understand. I won’t unfriend you, literally or virtually.
If you vote for Gary Johnson, despite his love affair with marijuana and his stated desire to legalize prostitution (in other words, he’s a Libertarian), and because he’s the only other candidate on the national radar screen, I understand. I’ll try not to look suspiciously at the plate of brownies you bring to the next pot luck dinner. And I hope your guy gets into the debates.
If you vote for some obscure candidate like Evan What’s-His-Name (I know, it’s McMullin), formerly of BYU and the CIA, because you think it’s immoral to vote for the lesser of two evils, when you could vote for someone potentially better who has less than a snowball’s chance in Phoenix in July, I understand.
I will say that there’s a moral (but less moralistic) argument to be made in favor of voting for the lesser of two evils, in order to prevent the greater evil, but I won’t use that as basis for thinking you’re a traitor or a fool. There’s a remote chance that I will vote for him, if he’s on the ballot, and if he manages to convince me that he’s presidential timber. (He hasn’t fared well so far.)
If you decline to vote for president in November, but vote in the other races on your ballot, I will understand. I’ll probably do the same. And — this year only — I won’t think either of us is a bad or negligent citizen.
In the end, either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton will almost certainly win the office. As to the remote possibility that the winner will become a half-decent president or better, the necessary miracle would be about the same size either way.
In short, there is no good choice, in the sense of getting us a qualified, competent president, and I won’t hold your best choice among unacceptable alternatives against you.
That said, if you actually like Trump’s, Clinton’s, or Johnson’s politics, character, and temperament and think he, she, or he would be good for the country, you don’t need today’s amnesty. If you sincerely think your candidate of choice will be good for us (in some positive way, not just as a bleak cautionary tale), I already thought you should vote accordingly.
What I Want in Return
You have your amnesty. I hope many others will grant us the same, but at least you have it from me.
Here’s what I want.
I want us to stay engaged — to be more and better engaged — to be cheerfully and optimistically engaged, as far as that is possible — in our politics and government.
How can we do that?
Under the present circumstances, perhaps a better question is, how could we possibly do that?
I’m sure it will be difficult and often unpleasant — but there are things we can do to make it easier and more pleasant, and to increase our degree of success. See if you think this amnesty is one of them.
Whatever our activities between now and Election Day, we must also look beyond November and beyond the next presidential term. We have work to do, and we must not allow the present grisly spectacle to rob us of our will and capacity to do it. Even if we believe things will go badly at the White House for at least the next four years, there are other branches of our national government. Things may go badly there too; that would hardly be a novelty. Even if they do, we cannot give up on them. And we have local and state governments which we cannot afford to starve of our attention.
There are plenty of people and factions who are willing to govern us, if we’re too busy, lazy, inattentive, or discouraged to insist on governing ourselves. Some of them have nukes; others simply have ideologies they’d like to enforce, or just overwhelming desires for power. If we’re not committed enough to our freedom to put up a fight for it, we can hardly be surprised if our freedom doesn’t much concern them either.
Likewise, there are growing factions who would prefer to dismantle the institutions which have kept us as free as we’ve been these many years. Those institutions, including the US Constitution, are major obstacles to some, as they surely were designed to be. If we can’t be bothered to defend our institutions, we ought not be surprised if the dismantlers take courage and ultimately take over.
Let’s collectively support, sustain, inform, console, and inspire each other in the coming months and years, in the often dismal task of watching our government, cataloging its tyrannies, and exerting whatever restraining influence we can manage.
Let’s persist in studying the functions of sound American government even as our leaders and our fellow citizens smugly or desperately dismantle them.
Let’s watch carefully enough and learn deeply enough that we (with a grateful nod to Senator Mike Lee) can point to ideas, policies, and actions and explain to our neighbors and our children, “This is why we need a First Amendment.” “This is why the Founders favored federalism, checks and balances, and separation of powers.” “This is why law has to be in writing, and why what is written has to be what the law means, and why it is the legislative branch’s job to make law.”
In the wake of this year’s spectacular failure at the top, let’s work harder to find good, wise, honest, intelligent people to run for office at every level, from local to national races. (Some of us may have to consent to be thus found.) It’s not enough that our candidates profess to have good intentions and the right principles; we must insist on sound judgment, a mature political temperament, and some real-life experience which shows clear potential.
Let’s promote — let’s conduct — ongoing, civil, substantive discussion in which the objects are truth, freedom, and good government, not partisan victory.
You don’t need me to tell you that this is not good government’s finest hour. New, greater, lawless federal power grabs are barely newsworthy any more. Exposure of official crime, corruption, or dishonesty scarcely raises an eyebrow. And we’ve redefined essential words to mean their opposites for political and ideological gain.
In response, we can turn our backs on self-government and cover our ears; I understand all too well the temptation to do that.
Or we can help each other not to turn away in frustration, horror, or despair.
I don’t mean that we should all be like rejected prophets with death warrants on our heads, watching secretly from the mouths of our caves, while society alternately parties and tribalizes itself to death. It’s not enough to contemplate the abyss, or even to map it. We’re not here to be spectators. If we find ourselves in the abyss, we must illuminate it as best we can — and start building ladders.
This means more of us getting more involved in self-government. It means more listening, more study, more vigilance. It means a lasting commitment to work together with others on any issues about which we agree, no matter how hostile we are to their positions on other issues.
And speaking of hostility, it means a lot less of that. It means we all resist the temptation to assume that our politics are the pure, transparent, comprehensive will of God, just because they feel right to us. It means we tolerate and learn to appreciate people who make different connections than we do between politics and religion — and between themselves and deity. It means that disagreeing with us makes another person more interesting, not evil.
It means more serious discussion more often, of more issues and in more places, electronic and otherwise. And it means we don’t waste time trying to exclude each other from our little ideological clubs by one litmus test or another. We find whatever common ground we can find, and then we defend it together.
Let me say that again. It means common sense and civility will prevail in our discussions and our debates, rather than anger and division. It means we focus on and start from common ground, how much or little of that there may be on a given day — and we return to common ground at the end of the day, no matter how deep the chasms we have been exploring. And it means growing up enough to realize that political compromise usually is not moral compromise.
No one will give us any medals for our efforts, but from time to time we may see some small signs that we are succeeding. For example — and locally to me — in next year’s American Fork City Council election I may see more good, capable, highly qualified candidates on the ballot than I have votes. I may see races in which ideas and issues are discussed, not anonymous accusations and thinly-veiled innuendo. It’s happened before. It’s good when it does. It’s something I can work for. And there is similar potential where you are.
For My Part
I myself am too prone to focus on abuses and ill omens. I am too fond of biting satire and not good enough at deleting it and other provocations before I click “Publish.” I know better, but I still sometimes assume that your soul or your intellect is flawed, when you draw different conclusions from the same set of facts, or don’t even see the same set of facts. I am too tempted to overlook your virtues when politics get in the way. And I’m not skilled enough in the art of keeping my own candid political expressions from being taken as personal attacks.
I like verbal jousting for its own sake. No, I understated that. I love the jousting for its own sake. But I am a more honorable and more useful citizen when I value dissent, debate, and discussion not for the contest, but for their ability to lead us toward truth, or at least to new and useful common ground.
So I have work to do, and I have my own need for amnesty. If you’ll try to help me press forward despite my long-standing cynicism, my distaste for some present circumstances, and my ongoing temptations verbally to slash and burn, I’ll do my best to help you.
That said, the amnesty herein granted is unconditional. It’s yours whether you do any of this or not. For whatever it’s worth to you, I will be one habitually opinionated person who does not call you a godless heathen or a holy fool — or un-American or communist or a bad Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist, or whatever — for your thoughts and your vote in the 2016 presidential election.
But I still want what I want in return.
I want us to stay engaged — to be more and more wisely engaged — in our politics and government, and thus to deserve to be free in the next generation and the one after that.
I want us, in our small ways, to be heroes in an age that exalts great villains.
I think that if we do this, it will matter, and not just in some heavenly ledger of saintly deeds performed against impossible odds. I think that it will matter on an earthly plane — to our communities, our nation, and the world.
To our families, our neighbors, and our friends.
Last Thought for Now
In view of Sunday’s fifteenth anniversary, I want us to be more like New Yorkers when their city was attacked. One of my favorite writers, Paul Greenberg, wrote in praise of those splendid, ordinary New Yorkers who “would happily trample their fellow man on an ordinary day, but [who on this day] were rushing to help however they could.”
If we can sustain such transcendence for weeks and months and whole election cycles — because our free society is under attack as much as New York’s signature skyscrapers were on September 11, 2001 — we can look back, years hence, and say that we did something good with our time. Something difficult. Something courageous. Something that mattered in the grand scheme of things. Something that helped people.
Do we have a deal?
(And do you want one or more of my free “Freedom or Free Stuff — Pick One” bumper magnets? I just restocked. It’s a message that promises to be relevant for many years to come. Let me know.)