Who was really surprised by the revelations of the past week?
Who didn’t know that Donald Trump would say unprintable things about women? Who didn’t know that Trump would speak ill of others in an effort to boastfully improve his own image? And who didn’t know that he would then dismiss his predatory language as mere “locker room talk”?
Many have reacted as though we learned something new about him. But that’s self-deception at best, and political opportunism at worst. Perhaps there are still reasons to support Trump over Hillary Clinton. But one cannot pretend that he occupies the moral high ground.
So here is a challenge. If you can see Trump for what he is – as unethical as any “insider” – and yet still think that he is the best presidential candidate, then you have to be able to say that to yourself and others.
Accept his flaws, not just his strengths. We don’t vote for candidates because they are perfect, but because of how we assess their balance of weaknesses and strengths.
The challenge has a corollary, of course. Clinton, too, is a profoundly flawed candidate, which many primary voters knew as they nevertheless chose her over Bernie Sanders. Her WikiLeaks problem is but the most recent example. Pretending that Clinton has no weaknesses does her campaign no favors.
What am I asking? I am asking voters to shed the masks of willful self-deception and embrace the ethics of citizenship. America needs a serious conversation now more than ever. And we’ve forgotten how to speak to one another.
We can start by being honest about our political choices. It’s simple. Try to explain why you prefer one candidate over another without immediately resorting to attacking the other candidate. Instead, explain the strengths of your candidate. Acknowledge your candidate’s weaknesses, and try to imagine how those weaknesses could be controlled. Try to imagine why someone else might not see those strengths as good, and why someone else might see those weaknesses as damning.
We have become too accustomed to attacking the “other” candidate as a substitute for rationally defending our own. We have become ideological pundits and talking heads. But we all have thoughts, ideas, concerns and doubts that ought to be shared with others. How can we reach out to others when we’ve turned our attention primarily to defeating those with whom we disagree?
Our ability to speak honestly and vulnerably to one another is not just about 2016, of course. Our country is unhappy with where we are now. How are we going to keep from ending up in a permanent state of dissatisfaction? And how is the country going to live with itself in the meanwhile?
Let me suggest three steps.
First, take a step back and see the big picture. What principles ought to guide us? For that, I suggest the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the USCCB’s “Faithful Citizenship.” Can we articulate our principles to ourselves and others?
Second, cultivate practices to continue to speak peacefully and respectfully with others. The Ignatian Solidarity Network has developed an examen for civil life; the UCS Province Jesuits have developed a set of resources for civil discourse; and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has a “Civilize It” program that offers resources and guidances on respectful dialogue.
Third, unplug. Walk away from Facebook, Twitter, your computer, your smart phone. Talk to some real people. Resist living in a bubble of like-minded people.
For the greatest danger in politics is that the theater and drama becomes mistaken for reality. The only defense against that danger is to remain rooted in reality
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user Matt Johnson.