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Missionary to the Conservatives


This piece is also running today in newspapers in my conservative area, prefaced there by the statement, “I want to share here a piece that has been posted on several liberal websites.” And it will run there under the title, “Reaching Out to Conservatives.”

I have been regularly sharing here the columns that I write for the newspapers in my conservative area of Virginia. As you have likely noticed, I use my opportunities there to try to pose constructive challenges to the newspapers’ conservative readers. My hope is to show them that they are supporting something unworthy of them and antagonistic to the values they say they believe in.

Two things about that effort: First, as far as I know I am the only liberal political commentator who focuses on reaching out to conservative readers. Second, I am aware that a lot of liberals have written off their fellow Americans who have supported the Republican Party even as that Party has grown ever darker and more destructive.

I cannot write them off—for reasons both personal and patriotic.

Personally, my situation differs from those of liberals who live in overwhelmingly Democratic areas (like in Northern Virginia). Many of those liberals know their counterparts on the right only through the right-wing trolls they encounter on the web and through the public statements of Republican politicians and their media allies.

On that basis, they conclude such things as “these people have no principles,” “they are not good people,” etc.

While I, too, have been exposed to that right-wing ugliness, I’ve had other important experiences with conservatives since moving out to the Shenandoah Valley more than twenty years ago.

Perhaps most important among these experiences were the hundreds of hours I spent – starting in 1992 – conducting talk radio conversations. I framed half of the conversations between callers and me — as a regular guest on one program, and as host of my own show – to explore issues of controversy between liberals and conservatives (political, moral, etc.). The other half dealt with matters of general human interest. In other words, both the things that divide us and the things that bring us together.

I appreciated the considerable goodness I found in my conservative interlocutors, and the enduring values by which many of them lived. I saw their virtues, and I loved them. In my daily life, I see that goodness still. (Other liberals — who live as a minority in this conservative area — see it too.)

The truth is, I came to love these people. I didn’t ever say the word on the air, but I often shared with my wife how much I cherished my relationship with them.

That’s the personal reason I can’t give up on them—even though I also see how they are not manifesting that goodness in the political realm. Not in this era, anyway, when their political party and its leaders have led them into a world in which, among other things, a man like Donald Trump can be considered an acceptable option for the presidency.

It is an American tragedy that many of them live by fine values that, meanwhile, the political force they support tramples upon.

And that leads to the second reason why these good people must not be written off. Our nation can never be healthy until more of the good conservative people align themselves in the political realm with a political force that serves the good of the nation.

This shows how the balance of power between good and evil in a nation can shift adversely.

The figure of Satan has long also been called The Deceiver. And deception is indeed a major threat to the cause of good in the world: manipulative lies can (mis)lead good people to give their support, in the realm of power, to a force that brings out their worst, and that opposes the values that, in other realms, they hold dear.

How can a society be good if many of its good people get pulled over to the side of such a force?
So out of both love of these people, and love of my country, I write my pieces to the conservatives.
Is there evidence that my efforts have their intended impact? Not really. Likely, I’m more resented than heeded. But I know from my experience as a teacher that sometimes it takes time, after ideas get planted, for them to bear fruit.

And while my efforts may be futile, I will keep trying. And I encourage my fellow liberals, too, not to write off these otherwise decent people. To give up on them may well mean giving up also on America.

  • Andy Schmookler

    Where this piece is running on Daily Kos, a supportive comment came in that inquired about my experience with the conservatives over politics as it has become over the years (since Karl Rove poisoned the well altogether). Here’s a piece of what I wrote in response, talking about how the right has proved impermeable to correction of the lies they’re told.

    “What we seem to have on the right, in these times, is a culture of
    political orthodoxy that operates at a wholly different level from
    argument (using evidence and logic).

    Maybe they don’t see an opening at the level of argument, and stay away for that reason. But I don’t think so. I think they find a way to ignore argument altogether because their beliefs don’t really rest much on logic or evidence.

    In any event, being a missionary does not necessarily mean getting
    converts. When I was in college, I had a work-study job reading through
    missionaries journals and letters from the early 19th century, living
    among islanders in the South Pacific, and writing back to their
    missionary societies in Great Britain and the United States.

    I can report that the islanders were not always eager to abandon the
    religion of their culture— what the missionaries regarded with horror as
    pagan, and the work of the devil. But they surely did make inroads. And
    I dare say that on a lot of those islands, the belief system is a good
    deal more like the missionaries’ and a good deal less an expression of
    their traditional culture.

    I myself don’t want to be a missionary of that kind. I do not argue
    for any orthodoxy— unless the idea that one come to one’s beliefs on the
    basis of good evidence and good logic is an orthodoxy. (I guess for the
    fundamentalists — religious or political — that idea (relying on
    evidence and logic) is a belief system fundamentally opposed to their
    own, in which one comes to beliefs on the basis of authority, and on the
    basis of a kind of pledge of allegiance to a community of belief which
    they call “faith.”

    That kind of faith is not a problem in the realm of religion. But when it happens in the political realm it can be dangerous. It depends on the nature of the authority.

    The dangerous moment is when the people are sold a false picture of the world in order to use their political power against them.

    I would assert this: If one were to check to see what proportion of the American people are better off rather than worse off because of how the Republicans have used their power, it would be very few Americans who are better off today than they would have been if the Republicans had never had an influence.

    But they buy so many lies that they do not recognize who is hurting them — imagining that the undocumented immigrants are a big reason for the way you feel your position declining, and not recognizing that the same political force that’s whipping you up against immigrants is really the force that’s undermining your effectiveness in the democracy and undermining also your material circumstances and the prospects for your children.

    There is a vulnerability to authority. That’s always the problem with the rise of fascism in a society. Those who accept authority can be awfully valuable when authority is good. Loyal citizens. But they are vulnerable to following an authority that will bring out their worst and make them part of a force that damages everything it touches.

    I am hoping that either Trump will restrain his fascist impulses, and I am hoping that the people on the right will hold Trump accountable to discharge his office responsibly.

    But there is every danger that Trump will trample on the American system so thoroughly that it constitutes a real threat to the integrity of the system. Devolving into perhaps a much more authoritarian order, where the president attempts tointimidate the press into being a mouthpiece for the Trump regime, or at least not subject the regime to any real criticism. And where a great many people on the right think that’s just swell.

    It seems to me that part of the job now is to try to find ways of draining his support from the good people who voted for him. I say that there is enough human goodness over there in Trumpistan to offer an opportunity to move things, over time.

    But we’ve got to be looking for ways that might work.

    It would be a shame to have to fight a second American civil war. We still haven;t healed from the first.

    How to bring people back from the dark side?

  • I’m with Bill Maher on this point (“these otherwise decent people”) — you can’t be “otherwise decent” if you support evil.


    • John McCreery

      Are you, then, prepared to take up arms and fight a civil war against them? Do you know any progressives with the fervor, party discipline, and willingness to sacrifice themselves to win that war? If not, what is Maher’s point but self-congratulating despair?