At this point in the history of this country, the tangle between the two major dimensions of our public life -- the political system itself and the politicians it spawns -- is impossible to ignore. In fact, the choices we make this year -- and why we make them -- may well affect this country and its present governmental system for ages to come. I figure that those whose responsibility it is to make the final decisions on social policy will do so out of a sense of commitment to all the people of the world.
It may sound easy but it isn't.
We all have the right and the responsibility to participate in this moment of national decision about who we are and who we want to be. The question is, of course, on what grounds will we make this decision?
I watched one of the chief politicians of the country do something very unpolitical recently. And by doing so, he follows in the footsteps of great American politicians over time who chose personal integrity over political conformity: The ones who called for independence from English rule. The ones who declared freedom of religion a human right. The ones who broke with politicians who supported slavery. The ones who confronted both church and state about the legal rights of women. The ones who argued against exclusionary immigration policies. The ones who supported the union movement. The ones who contested the Vietnam War. All of these things -- and many more -- have shaped the character of this country.
We may be at a similar point again. In which case, why we do what we do will make all the difference.
This time Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a man two steps away from the presidency, brought the country to a point of choice. He put principle above partisanship. He asked himself whether a political party can support as its standard bearer a popularly elected candidate who does not identify with the standards of the party itself. As speaker of the House, responsible for the integrity of the Congress, he questioned whether or not Donald Trump's positions on major Republican principles credential him to be a Republican candidate.
There is an important distinction to be made here: Ryan does not question whether or not a person can run against the standards of the party. Donald Trump can run as a Brobdingnagian if he wants to. What Ryan questions is whether or not the party's nominee must be committed to the party values that qualify him to run in the name of the party.
Ryan's question brings each of us, as Americans, as citizens, as registered voting adults to question our own political integrity. What elements of American politics would we ourselves sacrifice to achieve? What commitment to what we bring to the public conversation in behalf of the rest of the country? What sense of civic morality determines the levers we pull in a voting booth -- and why?
The struggle in the Republican party right now as its members come to terms with these questions should not give anyone comfort or glee. It calls for heart-rending public decisions and confronts all of us with five models of ourselves:
Rick Perry, governor of Texas and past presidential candidate, said about Donald Trump during the primaries that Trump's candidacy was "a cancer on conservatism." But Perry, we must now conclude, says he supports this very cancer. How is it that we can make global judgments of such moral magnitude on one day and reverse our position entirely on the next? Are American elections a kind of political game in which, the rest of us are to understand, anything can be said with impunity? Is this hyperbole or hypocrisy? And if such damning statements are only hyperbole -- exaggeration -- and therefore acceptable, are we also to understand that nothing said in the election process is to be believed?
Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, says he'll support Trump because we can't "afford four more years of liberal incompetence." Which means, apparently, that he's all for his brand, no matter how bad, how damaging, his own party's candidate is. But to be for someone only because one is against the other means that he's voting for ideals, perhaps, whether the person in question reflects them or not. And then what can he do to save those ideals if it's his own candidate himself that fractures them? Is this voting -- or simply cheerleading?
Past Vice President Dick Cheney says that he's always supported his party's candidate. Which, of course, elevates partisanship above principle. No thinking required at all here. Just pull the lever. Which means that once someone is in office, he can do anything he wants and Cheney-types will support it. What kind of intellectual, let alone moral, maturity is that?
Kelly Ayotte, senator from New Hampshire, says, according to a survey in The Atlantic, "I'll support him but I won't endorse him!" Which means what? To take a position like this can only be politically preposterous, unbalanced, bifurcated. If something needs fixed, this won't do it. It simply avoids the question. It refuses to face the issue. It allows the fever to burn itself out -- and too often -- the whole body with it.
Senator Lindsey Graham, past presidential candidate, on the other hand, is credited by many as having spent his life devoted to the values and principles of the Republican Party. On those grounds, he says that he cannot vote either for Trump or for Hillary Clinton. Nor will he support Trump during the general election because he feels he is not "a reliable conservative" and has neither the "temperament nor the judgment" to be president.* He will, however, stay faithful to Republican values and the Republican Party and continue to work for other Republicans on the ballot.
Others say they will vote for Trump, not because they think he can be a good president but because they want to secure Supreme Court nominations for the party. What happens to the presidency itself or what an unqualified president can do to damage the country, it seems, is irrelevant to them.
It is a moment for soul-searching. It's not only an election that is at issue now. It is the conscience, the character and the principles of a truly Grand Old Party that is at stake.
Between the Republicans and the Democrats -- when they are adult enough and devoted to the country as a whole enough to work together -- the whole population is meant to be heard. Then balance is maintained. Then, the country is saved from the quagmire of false progress in which only one part of the country profits. Then we work things out together and prove to ourselves as well as the rest of the world that we really are the United States of America.
And we have not seen enough of that for far too long a time.
Speaker Ryan is not rejecting a candidate. He is trying to define, to describe and to unify the party under its established ideals. There are those who are telling him and others "to get on board or get out of the way." They want him to bring to bear the full endorsement of the Republican Party to a candidate whose programs and tone are out of sync with the party. And, many would say, out of synch as well with the tenor and the history of the country itself. It's a sad response, I think, to a leader who is trying to defend what he sees himself responsible for monitoring: the principles and professionalism of the party itself.
From where I stand, when either political party is gravely ill, the whole country is sick as a result.
Better to lose an election, surely, than to threaten the unity of a country with the unpredictable, the imperious, the politically immoral. After all, more than one demagogue has gotten to high office "legally," by popular vote, with the support of the system. Then, history asks why someone didn't do something to stop it before it happened. Whether in this case principle will prevail in the end is the decision that may well determine the future of the country. At least Paul Ryan is trying to make it right.
For that, let the church say "Amen."
*Sentence edited for clarity.
[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.]
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