I’m slowly coming to realize a deeply embedded inheritance, which shapes our perceptions, which shape our politics. Or maybe just ‘my perceptions and politics,’ but I do think there are versions of this pattern in all of us today. I may well have confused my largely-inherited partisan (Democrat) passions for a love of our country, these United States. I experienced something last night in a virtual town-hall meeting that revealed something new to me, something very old, something quite moving...a Love of Country over Party. I’m not sure that I've actually experienced that in this way in all my years of viable citizenship (1988-present)...which needs exploring now. Somehow along the way, I learned the habit of speaking openly with Democrats and guardedly with Republicans. I inherited passions that were particularly partisan and I mostly assumed that was what love of this country is. It's not. (To be clear, love of country is not the idealization of it either...I'm beginning to sense it is something much harder, grittier, yet inspiring and ennobling...)
For the last three decades, my civic attentions have waxed and waned depending upon whether a Democrat or a Republican was President. I’ll never forget the high I experienced when finally, in my short voter’s lifetime at that time, someone I voted for was elected President. I became engaged and conversant in current events. I weighed in on things that ‘my side’ was or wasn’t doing while in power. When George W Bush won, I felt defeated and relinquished any sense of civic engagement or responsibility. I began to wait until the next presidential election, when my side might have a voice again. I was tireless in the Obama campaigns--both of them--and believed “in my country” once again. I hardly slept the night before Election Day during the first campaign, having to drive home from a professional meeting in Chicago on Monday night, so to canvas and be helpful however I could on Election Day itself. I could hardly keep my eyes open to see the text that went out to all of us two minutes before Obama took to the stage (in Chicago) to celebrate the Election results.
I was tireless in the Hillary campaign, for different reasons but some similar ones too. I remember driving to Columbus so I could hear her speak at a rally close to the University. I smiled and also mourned when getting to meet some of the cast of The West Wing here in Dayton as a kick-off volunteer-training event. (I loved meeting Alison Janney and Bradley Whitford; I mourned as I realized the chasm between their view of the world and the Ohio town they were visiting...they didn’t know where they were or who they were talking to…). I remember feeling real fear for the first time in a civic activity, being chased down the street by a Trump supporter yelling and blustering at us for even canvassing in his neighborhood. And then Election Night--the disbelief, the rage, the sadness. And so for the last four years, I’ve fasted from much of anything civic. When I hear the man's voice on the radio, I turn it off. As my side begins to gain momentum for change, for security and redress of all that has wounded us in 2020--pandemic, protests manipulated, economic free-fall--once again, I’m tireless in my support and my volunteering time-energy-resources.
This is what I thought love of country looked like, though my own parents may have lived a more stable pattern for themselves. My mother was a Democratic councilwoman for 14 years in her staunch Republican town. She worked ‘across the aisles’ easily, so much so that many Republicans instigated her campaign for Mayor, when a more Tea-Party conservative was going to run. She lost that race, and grieved it for a long time. But she lived a love of country and her community across the national dynamics during those years.
There was nonetheless a deeply ingrained sadness at Republican conservatism and the damage they/we saw it do to the things they/we value--health care, social-security-safety-nets, support of those less well-off than we were economically, materially, systemically. To this day, I cannot see how Republican values expressed in a culturally conservative vein are faithfully Christian...which is not to say they are not. That is to say I have an automatic bias and knee-jerk judgment given my earliest formation in a Democratic family in a Republican town. There is an intellectual disdain and a judgmental spirit in my family about things Republican.
Even conscious of that, in any either-or choice, I still cannot vote for small-businesses over policies that will aid those facing systemic challenges or who have less voice than I do. That will always be a difference that comes with me...even though I honor that I am one who has never had her livelihood depend upon parents’ small businesses, etc. It's complicated, even after you practice non-judgment and holding the ambiguities. To glimpse from a slightly different angle: I've been recently moved by the challenges Black Americans face in love of country, for instance. A beautiful essay that holds the complications for us to feel them can be found in Black Patriotism: When Love of Country Means Holding it Accountable. (July 2020). If Black Americans can love this country amidst the horrific injuries to their lineages of family and faith, I can learn a lot from them...
So...last night, I was inspired and deeply engaged to witness a Love of Country over Party that I’m not sure I’ve actually ever experienced in our contemporary political scene. In partisan politics, love of party swallows love of country. There is no relinquishing or decreasing in the weaponized politics of today. But I sat in on a virtual town-hall meeting last night with The Lincoln Project founders (two of them)--Jennifer Horn and Steve Schmidt. I did not know either of those names before last night, to be honest, though I have kept my eyes on The Lincoln Project and support it financially. I deeply appreciate their movement and hope for their/our gaining momentum. I’m a little uncomfortable in their laser focus on Donald Trump, but I can certainly understand why they choose him as focal point.
I was surprised to feel something new, something old, something else moving last night as I listened to them respond to questions and offer invitations, even guidance. Something in me opened in the impassioned speech and fiery rhetoric of Steve Schmidt. I also felt moved by the words of Jennifer Horn--a quieter voice, a gentler rhythm, but no less impassioned and convicted. The Moderator (whose name I’m sorry I’ve forgotten by now) held the space well and invited a balanced voice between both Horn and Schmidt.
Schmidt took us back to the remarkable singularity in United States history of the peaceable transition of power over these 244 years. George Washington went home to Virginia.King George couldn’t believe it. And John Adams, defeated, relinquished power in the sting of his loss but the country's gain. Schmidt brought us back to a common history, even with its painful atrocities then and to come--Native Americans and then chattel slavery. He spoke words forcefully that I could rally behind as a staunch Democrat. He and Horn were inspiring and encouraging, calming and invigorating. I felt a deep appreciation for who they are as Republicans and fervently desire for them to remain just so. There was no my side and their side in this experience. It was love of Country over passion of Party.
So I’ve been sitting with this today, thankful in an ironic way to Donald Trump for awakening me/us to this deeper vein of citizenship that awaits us, if we can grow into it. So many of us are habitual Party-advocates: my parents were Republican and so am I. My parents were Democrat and so am I. We've lost the focal point of stewarding any Common Good. We've lost the skill set for weaving a common fabric where I give sometimes and you give sometimes. Now it's "they take when they can" and "we take when we can."
I know this season will be the easy part of it. It is relatively simple to unify against such a man as Donald Trump, for those who are willing to really take a look and get involved. I honestly don't know anyone who wants to vote for Trump, but I also know historical-inheritance Republicans who will vote for him on the off-chance their economic situations will be heard and seen. And I can respect that while fervently disagreeing from where I sit, stand, move. Yet the Lincoln Project brought a Love of Country over Party that awoke something beautiful in me. I saw a tenacious devotion to our country's ideals that are so much more common ground between so many more of us. I heard a willingness to risk, to sweat through the details, to hope for the American Experiment to thrive for more of us... I found myself with an unusual question that will remain with me from now on:
How do we participate in healing a party not our own for a Country that is Ours? Both Republicans and Democrats can ask this question, looking the other's direction...
Or to ask these things concretely... How may I be in support of small businesses in my community, because a healthy Republican Party has honored that part of our American population’s need(s)...particularly more significant as manufacturing has waned and jobs are shipped overseas to cheaper global markets? How may I honor the need for more national security because part of our American population lives and works in that economy and our world appears to be a more dangerous place than it used to be? (Though factfulness might dispute this, come to think of it...). How do I advocate for the civic-communal policies & safety nets more and more of us need--health-care, economic opportunity for all with a living wage, campaign finance reform that could give voice back to the People instead of Big Business--while tempering my own partisan passions within a more expansive and deeply rooted Love of Country over Party?
I know that political parties are here to stay, and that they used to be able to assist us in refining arguments and policies for the Common Good. I don’t think our politicians, by and large, remember that or see their ongoing work in that light. Some do. I've been moved by Mike DeWine in this pandemic season, though I differ with him substantially on so many other things. I know that some politicians DO engage their callings with a clear sense of loyalty and commitment to their constituencies whether party-identified or not. But campaigning never ceases, and the need to raise money begins with the first day on the job. Competition for resources and the dirty games of national politics have gained the upper hand. With a tight-social fabric, the political parties could function with greater respect, hospitality, and dignity. But today’s USA does not have a tight-social fabric anymore.
So I wonder if We the People need to create some new language that honors this partisan reality and yet seeds a visible Love of Country over Party at each step along the way… I wonder if we invite intersectionality into our discourse in a more intentional way…? What if we went with linear order: I am a Democrat-Republican, because I lean toward traditional Democratic values for stronger-less-competitive community fabric even as I support small businesses and honor healthy Republican discourse. Others could say they are a Republican-Democrat, because they lean Republican for small businesses or whatever they’d want to highlight, while they also support Democratic values for working populations and healthcare for all.
Or we could focus on the noun for ourselves, adjective for the other...I am a Republican Democrat. Another could say he was a Democratic Republican. Here the noun is the primary affiliation, and the adjective is the secondary affiliation. I think I like that one more than the first, because it gives primacy of location to the party-affiliation that is secondary. Balancing somehow...
What could it offer us to begin to use hybrid political-party labels, to remember we are at our best when we love country before party? That we are to honor the other voices, especially those with which we disagree the most, as we stitch our communal fabric more closely together once again? Can we be intentional in this healing, stitching work in the face of authoritarianism, fear and hatred pouring into our discourses from without? Hybrid-acclamations might remind more of us that we are all in this together...or that we need to begin stitching our common fabric back together in some fashion.
It'll never happen, my cynical side says. Too confusing for the either/or minds of our world right now, the sound-media bites we nibble all day. But wouldn’t it be marvelous? To remember this American Experiment is never over and needs constant, conscious tending by our better angels, led by those who can call out our better angels...?