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The Profound Sickness of Spirit Pervading American Politics


This piece has appeared and will be appearing in newspapers in my very red congressional district, VA-06.


A review of the major misjudgments I’ve made in recent years reveals that the pathologies of the spirit besetting American politics have been even deeper than I’ve imagined.

My admitting my misjudgments is not some gesture of modesty. My commitment is to the truth, neither boasting nor confessing.

(In the other direction, if there were a well-judged contest for who has understood more fully “America’s moral and spiritual crisis, playing out in our political realm,” as I started calling it in 2004, I would submit my thousands of articles, feeling good about my chances.)

But along the way, I’ve made repeated errors of a consistent kind —namely the error of excessive optimism:

  • When Obama was elected President in 2008, I was extremely hopeful that he’d turn our political deterioration around. I pictured him using his manifest decency and honesty to drive the Republican Party, which had followed the destructive and dishonest Bush gang for eight years, to either clean up its act or become so disgraced it would lose its power. But Obama never made the Republicans pay a price for their disgraceful behavior – indeed he enabled it. He never seemed to have a clue that a President owes it to the nation that elected him to treat as enemies those who continually acted as his enemies.
  • When Trump was running for the Republican nomination in 2015-6, I wanted him to win the nomination because I felt confident that a considerable proportion of Republicans – decent and patriotic conservatives – would never support the election of a man of such grotesque character who already was showing his contempt for American values and institutions. But of course, the Republican base supported him and – more bizarre still – continues to support Trump even as he visibly tears down the true sources of America’s “greatness.”
  • When Trump became President, and demonstrated his comprehensive contempt for the Constitution, the law, and the norms of our politics – in addition to acting like a wrecking ball on our national well-being and national interests – I imagined that the Republican Party in Congress would seek to distance themselves from such a President, put space between themselves from a President who, though a Republican, was laying waste to everything the Republican Party had ever said it stood for. But far from cutting their losses, the Republicans tied themselves to him ever more closely—even as the President’s criminality came into focus, even to the point of wantonly betraying their oath of office and aiding our slide toward “tyrannical order.”
  • When the Democrats won control of the House in the tsunami of the 2018 election, I was primed to see the Democrats – faced with the constitutional duty to protect the nation from a President whose lawlessness was way beyond what Nixon had exhibited, and whose threat to the constitutional order was of a profundity that would be hard to exceed – finally break away from their habitual disastrously weak and timid way of dealing with the destructive Republican attack on what’s best about America. But alas, no: under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi, the Democrats once again shrink from the battle—even as Trump takes presidential “contempt of Congress” and “abuse of power” into uncharted territory.

In each case, I’ve under-estimated how deeply infected our body politic is with these three different forms of brokenness of the spirit—different in different parts of the body politic but that – in combination – open the door to a the reign in America of what really should be called “evil.”

  • The Republican Party has sold its soul, becoming a morally bankrupt force, the willing servant of Evil in America, so long as, in the service of Evil, they get to wield power.
  • The spirit of the Democratic Party seems incapable of igniting with the passion needed to defeat the Evil force attacking all that’s best about America. The Democrats’ (half-hearted, fear-dampened) way of fighting against Republicans (who grab for power in every way available), brings to mind the famous line from William Butler Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst // Are filled with a passionate intensity.”)
  • And then there’s a dangerously large portion of the American people who can look at evil and think it good— who lend their support to a political force that always chooses conflict over cooperation; the 40% who give credence to a leader whose prodigious lying is widely recognized; the Republican base who celebrate any victory, no matter how dishonorably obtained, as if American politics is supposed to be total war; who are impassioned their politics without ever requiring of their leaders any positive vision of the Better America we might become.

In the face of how deep all that seems to go, dare I keep hoping? The fact is, it’s not in me to give up.

And so I’m pinning my hopes on the parts of the body politic that seem still impassioned for the good—which includes much of the Democratic base and, I hope we will see, some of those contending for the Democratic nomination who might offer the leadership the nation needs to turn back the force of darkness that feeds off this deep sickness in the American body politic.


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