At the end of 2014 Patrick Caddell, former President Carter's pollster and a well-known political analyst and pundit, identified and attempted to explain the anger and frustration he was observing among tens of millions of Americans. He predicted that the maelstrom of social-political turmoil he was encountering across the land was unprecedented in his professional experience (dating back to the mid 1970s).
He predicted that a political tsunami was gathering steam and would literally engulf the Washington political establishment in the current election cycle. Caddell worried that a polypartisan "pitchfork" rebellion was on the way and that Washington's bipartisan establishment was blissfully unaware of the coming onslaught.
I thought at the time that Caddell's analysis had the ring of truth about it. And it certainly reinforced my observation of the simmering fury felt by millions of Americans who were, and are, very angry with a bi-partisan Washington governing establishment they feel does not care about them and their families and which exudes a great deal of evidence strongly suggesting that it exists for its own perpetuation and benefit.
However, it is doubtful that Mr. Caddell, or anyone else, could have predicted that (at least so far in this election cycle) the chief conduits and expressions of this grass-roots rebellion and rage. One is a 69-year-old bombastic Manhattan multi-billionaire and the other a 74 year-old self-proclaimed socialist Senator from Vermont with a clearly identifiable Brooklyn accent? Was the widely proclaimed death of the era of the old, angry white male premature?
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both surfing a tidal wave of intense populism of the right and left respectively. However, as the events of Campaign 2016 have demonstrated, left and right, liberal and conservative, are categories which are blurred, fluid, and confused in the heated, emotional cross currents and powerful riptides of economic and social populism.
There have always been far deeper divisions in American society and politics than has commonly been acknowledged or assumed. However, since the 1960s those divisions, driven by the sexual revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War, have radically transformed the major political parties. Now, they are much more ideological, rather than geographical, and more economic and social class driven and worldview oriented.
So, while the social, cultural, and economic issues in America's body politic may or may not be new, this election cycle they are different, unpredictable, and far more complex.
Unlike liberal and conservative political philosophies, populism is right brained not left brained. Populism is the politics of feelings (the gut) rather than the politics of thinking (the brain). Thus, populism's influence helps to explain what quite often appears to be irrational.
The two major parties each have become more ideologically and consciously liberal and conservative. Consequently, for one of the few times in American history there is little, if any, overlap between Congressional representatives and Senators who are Republicans and Democrats. In other words, the most liberal Republican is increasingly likely to be more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.
This new reality makes the political system increasingly incapable of building consensus and collaborating to address real and pressing problems of deep concern to voters.
For example, economically middle-class households in America have declined from 61% in 1971 to 50% today. While upper-income households have been growing in income, middle-class households have seen their share of the nation's annual income decline from 62 per cent to 43 percent from 1970 until now. Middle-class households' median income has actually declined 4 per cent since the turn of the century and their median household wealth has dropped by 28 per cent in the same time period (Michael A. Fletcher, "U.S. Middle Class Has Lost Its Majority," The Charlotte Observer, 12/13/15).
Increasingly, Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. 70 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction with only 20 percent believing the country is moving in the "right direction" (Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, conducted 12/6 through 12/9, 2015). When was the last time a majority of Americans believed America was on the "right track" vs. the "wrong track"? — April 2003 on the eve of the Second Gulf War was the last time when more Americans (56%) were more positive rather than negative (36%) concerning the nation's direction.
Pollsters and pundits across the nation's political spectrum have commented on the nation's gloomy, tense, and fearful mood. Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway sees a country "sour and dour, nervous, on edge, a feeling of vulnerability and a lack of control." Democratic pollster John Zogby sees a populace at a crossroads. "Overriding any particular issue will be whether Americans want to tear things down and start over, or believe that government politicians are trustworthy, enough to make required changes" (both Conway and Zogby cited by Gerald F. Seib, "Voters' Mood Clear, Consequences Less So," Wall Street Journal, 1/5/16).
Clearly, the strong support for Trump among Republicans and Sanders among Democrats indicates that so far Americans are leaning more toward tearing down than trusting. Lending credence to this conclusion is the Associated Press — NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, taken in early December, which "found more than 6 in 10 respondents expressed only slight confidence — or none at all — that the federal government can make progress on the problems facing the nation in 2016" (Bill Barrow and Emily Swanson, "New AP Public Finds Deep Skepticism of Washington," The Charlotte Observer, January 24, 2016).
Looking across this new, peculiar and extremely restive political and societal landscape, the lines of a famous poem, "The Second Coming," written by William Butler Yeats in 1919 in the wake of the cataclysmic civilization-shattering events of the First World War, keep running through my mind:
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
Can the political-societal center hold, or has it been hollowed out (center, and increasingly the center right and center left as well) to the point that America and her political institutions have devovled into our ethnic, societal, religious, and electronic tribes (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, etc.) that they are currently beyond rational constructive consensus?
And in the midst of this political-societal maelstrom, how should Christians respond and what should they do?
First, we must listen to our fellow Americans who are clearly far too often insecure about their families' and their country's economic future. They are genuinely frightened about significant terrorist threats that they feel make their loved ones and themselves increasingly unsafe in their own neighborhoods and workplaces.
Far too many of them dread what they see as the looming prospect that for the first time in American history their children and grandchildren will have a lower standard of living than they have enjoyed.
And many of them are to varying degrees disappointed and concerned that the genuine progress made toward racial reconciliation in American society has stalled and degenerated significantly in the last decade.
Add to these fears and concerns the growing conviction that their government doesn't really care about them and often just simply doesn't work, for all of its increasingly intrusiveness in their lives. And what you are left with is a critical mass of very unhappy campers, which provokes the question, "Can the center hold?"
The late John Drakeford, former counseling professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote and spoke often about "the awesome power of the listening ear." Even when Christians may disagree with their fellow Americans about the accuracy of their perceptions or their perceived solutions, we need to listen and show that we care about how they feel, which is their reality. It was a wise man who once observed that "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
In order to be the salt and light in society that Jesus has commanded us to be, we must be known as compassionate and caring people who really do empathize with the emotional angst and personal insecurity tormenting our fellow citizens.
Second, we must reaffirm our ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, "once delivered to the saints," what C. S. Lewis aptly identified as "mere Christianity," the simple orthodoxy of the New Testament. That loyalty trumps all other allegiances — to country, to party, to political beliefs, to family, or personal preferences and desires.
As Christians, we are in God's Army, in service to our Heavenly Father and at His command. In our nation's current political-societal morass, we are called upon to bear witness in word and deed to Gospel Truth, to function as the moral memory of Judeo-Christian civilization and to call people to listen to what President Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
Almost 70 years ago C. S. Lewis wrote a deceptively small, but critically important book, The Abolition of Man (1947). In this book Lewis provides a lethal analysis of the deleterious impact of the moral relativism. He argues that the head (the intellect) rules the belly (desires and instincts) through the "Chest — Magnanimity — Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man" (34).
What Lewis calls "the Chest" is character and moral virtue. Moral relativism, which has simply engulfed our culture, produces "Men without Chests" who are governed solely by the "cerebral" (progressives and "intellectuals") and the visceral (populists and disciples of the "culture of desire").
Lewis laments, "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful" (35).
Christianity and the Holy Spirit produce men and women with moral character that can hold the center together and produce a critical mass of citizenry who love their neighbors -- both progressives and conservatives and all those in between -- as themselves, treating others as they themselves would want to be treated. After all the Apostle Paul reminded us that God "hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation" and we are "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Cor 5 19-20) to all, left, right and center.
And a good place to commence our reclamation of this society would be to clarify what it means to be a Christian in the first place. Surely all Christians of good will can agree that it begins by affirming that God, loving us while we were rebellious sinners, sent His perfect Son to die a cross kind of death to pay the price for our sins and to secure eternal salvation for all those who will repent, confess their sins, and trust our Savior's sacrifice on the cross, trusting Christ and Christ alone for our salvation.
That means at the very minimum, you acknowledge that personally you have sinned against God and, under moral conviction, you confess your sins to Him and ask for His forgiveness.
Having identified who the Christians are, we must go forth to be salt and light, serving as His ambassadors of reconciliation to a non-reconciled world, carrying the moral memory of a society populated by men with "chests" (character) who provide the glue to allow the center to hold and flourish.
In other words, the solution to the political-societal crisis is a spiritual awakening led by men and women who have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Government and society are cabooses. The people are the locomotive. When the people change, government and society will change, not the other way around.
God calls all His disciples to be spiritual change agents. Let us be about our Father's business!