David Brooks wrote something in the Times last week that has stuck with me and I can’t forget.
Abstractly, we know that empires, even the American empire, only last so long. Everything we learned about history reminds us that, despite seeming to be eternal, empires are temporary. All of them eventually pass. Am I alone in thinking these thoughts about the American republic, given the sad political circus that has passed for an election cycle so far? Hear Brooks on this.
He writes that there are essentially two ways to get things done in a big, diverse society like ours—either politics, or some form of dictatorship; the art of compromise or brute force. Our American republic was founded on the former, right? Politics involves recognizing and relating to greatly varied interests, opinions, and groups, balancing those interests against one another. Under that massive social tent, together we reach compromises that all of us agree to respect. A shared Constitution keeps this great spread of outlooks and experiences all on the same page.
Of course, living this way, no one gets everything he or she wants. Politics are messy and no issue is ever really settled. If we seek glorious triumph, we’ll be disappointed. We must accept dashed expectations and make peace with disappointment for this American covenant to work.
But in a strange way, Brooks says, it’s the beauty of politics as well. For this way forces us to see things from the point of view of those unlike us, and balance their needs against our own. Plus, that process, however muddled, is better than some despot governing by clobbering resistance.
Check me on this, if you will, but in recent decades I have seen the rise of people among us who are against politics. They are pure believers to whom negotiation or compromise are anathema. It is as though our society, with a bad case of individual narcissism, has gone socially narcissistic.
Politicians and politics get demonized. Outsiders enter who brook no compromise. Under the flag of patriotism, they bring no patience for our homespun, but time-honored fabric of politics. Normal, “agreeing-to-differ” political talk breaks down. People who feel unheard shout louder.
I grimly ask myself, is this what it sounds and looks like as our American empire goes kaput? I remember an uncle, steeped in the military, who died last year. Fervent patriot that was, he once offered the words: “If this country loses its essential character, there are other countries.” I was shocked to hear those words out of his mouth. What Americans have is worth fighting for. And as regards the threats we face to our essential character as a nation, we can’t run and hide.
I take comfort in knowing, however, that we are citizens of two orders. One, we are citizens of our American homeland, the land of our birth. And two, we are citizens of God’s reign, defying geography, race, language, nation, ideology, class–even defying time. The older I get the more this second citizenship becomes primary, putting the politics of Jesus over the politics of Caesar.
Sensing Rome’s demise, championing a counterculture to empire, Peter wrote: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2.9)