The Messenger Is the Message
During the last presidential campaign, friends and acquaintances urged me to cast my vote for the Republican Party platform. I didn’t, because it wasn’t on the ballot.
I wasn’t always so clear-eyed. In 1980, being young and both bloodless and woolly in my political calculations, I rallied behind Edward Kennedy in the Democratic Party primaries because, I reasoned, he would advance policies I favored. In fact, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate them beyond a few generalities and clichés, and I have since moved to the right, but that’s not the point. Many who on the whole shared my political sentiments, including my disapproval of the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, did not, however, support his primary rival, because Chappaquiddick still loomed so large in the background. My answer to Kennedy’s critics on the left was, look, we’re not passengers in his Oldsmobile. We share with him first principles that he could be trusted to defend in the White House and to advocate from the bully pulpit. Forget who he is. Consider the good he could do.
No one to whom I made that argument ever bothered to answer it, as I recall. They seemed embarrassed for me—fremdschämen, a German might say. They were not going to explain to me the obvious: that it would be political suicide for us to make such a morally compromised figure the nation’s leading representative of our ideals, and, moreover, that even if he was right on this issue or that . . . Had I no sense of decency, at long last? Had I no sense of decency?
In other words, I needed to slow down, still my mind, and observe the obvious. Look at the ballot. Look at it. Note the absence of essay questions. See all those names? They refer to individuals, not to ideas, roadmaps, or blueprints. Oh, we might equate who the different candidates are with what they said they would do if elected, but primarily, and ultimately, we vote for persons, not policies, except in state and local referendums, which amount to only a small fraction of the boxes we check on ballots issued by the board of elections.
“Politics is never about policy,” my colleague Kevin D. Williamson wrote the other day. “Politics is about people, and how we feel about groups of people who are not like us.” He exaggerates, of course, to stress the truth, which bruises our intellectual vanity, that as political animals we use a greater ratio of amygdala to cerebral cortex than we would like to suppose. We like to say, with John Adams, that we are “a nation of laws, not of men,” but that’s a noble aspiration. If it were the literal truth, we would vote on the laws, not the men and women who write them. A polity consisting of millions of souls can accommodate only so much direct democracy.
And on those occasions when we do vote on a proposed amendment to the state constitution or on a levy to build a new county library, “how we feel about groups of people who are not like us” is never completely absent from our deliberations, and sometimes it jostles to the fore. In the flurry of state referendums on abortion law before Roe v. Wade, and in the trickle of them since then, the minds of voters were necessarily touched by their impressions of who the people were who were pushing from one side of the issue and the other. None of us is Mr. Spock.
Political scientists find that often we settle on a candidate for public office first and then form our policy preferences, not vice versa, to agree with his. Gabriel Lenza wrote a book about it: Follow the Leader? How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance (2012). The lesson for those of us who are pro-life in a society that is not is this: Our ability to persuade others depends less on what we say than on who we are. Be ready to disabuse them of their stereotypes. Because our cause has found a home on the political right, about half of Americans react against it reflexively, like a Red Sox fan whose blood pressure jumps a little at the sight of a Yankees hat.
A couple of years ago, over lunch, my friend Catherine loaded the bases and I failed to drive home the winning run. We had gotten to talking about politics, and she said that, as a thoughtful conservative, I must be embarrassed by the “religious right” because it was fighting insurance coverage of birth control under Obamacare. I instinctively scrambled to avoid an unpleasant scene. I avowed that I identified with the religious right and that, no, it didn’t embarrass me, but let’s change the subject.
Later, gripped by l’esprit de l’escalier, I regretted that I didn’t slow down, grab hold of, and calmly express one of the thoughts that went racing through my head as I panicked under the pressure of that edgy turn in the conversation. Catherine was clearly referring to the Hobby Lobby case. Joining the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores, were the Hahns, the owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, a furniture manufacturer. Both the Greens and the Hahns objected to providing their employees with insurance coverage for birth-control methods they judged to be potentially abortifacient. That is, although the issue at hand was routinely described as Obamacare’s “contraceptive mandate,” what the families sought to avoid participating in was not preventing conception but ending a life already conceived. They were concerned not to cooperate in abortion.
Being Mennonites, the Hahns are “pro-life across the board,” as their lawyer explained, “including their stand against capital punishment and going to war.” They’re pacifists. Catherine is not, to my knowledge, but she leans in that direction. She’s progressive, an Episcopalian at home on the Christian left. The Greens, on the other hand, are Evangelicals and therefore susceptible to being caricatured as the Christian Taliban, dangerous and irrational. That’s unfair but also the topic for a different blog post. What I should have taken the time to lay out for Catherine is who the Hahns are. They sound a bit like Jains. They’re committed to an exquisite vision of non-violence that she’s predisposed to respect even if she doesn’t go that far herself. To her, their opposition to abortion is probably honorable in the context of the so-called peace church to which they belong.
Remember the Consistent Life Network, formerly known as the Seamless Garment Network? The Dalai Lama once signed on to it. Its philosophical underpinning is sound enough, but its greatest contribution has been social, not ideological. It speaks across the political divide, to the gentle majority who are inclined to judge the cause simply by the content of the character of those who believe in it. Be mindful, always, that the messenger is the message.