The Statue of Liberty

On the whole, I am impressed by most progressive “gotcha” arguments.  For instance, it is true that you make a poor case for the importance of good morals when you keep selecting blatantly immoral persons to serve as your representatives.  But – it makes a poor case for monetary equality when you keep selecting the very wealthy to serve as your representatives.  If we allege hypocrisy, there is too much to go around and hypocrisy makes a poor reason to choose between the parties.

Even more misleading is the charge that conservatives “don’t care” for a particular cause or group when they decline to back specific government programs.  All this charge shows is that the accuser has a paucity of knowledge or vision – one that fails to account for the hours and dollars poured into shelters, food banks, hospitals, pregnancy and childcare centers, schools, and so on by private effort.  The discussion of whether and in which fields a society is better served by directing its charity on a private or a public level (I do not entirely accept the common conservative argument that “‘charity’ from tax dollars isn’t really charity”) is certainly worth having: disparaging conservative intentions is ludicrous and has no connection with reality.

But in one case I do think conservatives ought to listen to the critiques.  “How,” asks the progressive TV host, “Can you talk about a ‘Christian nation’ and be so hostile to immigrants?”  Various texts are commonly cited – admittedly sometimes out of context – to demonstrate that the guarded or even inimical attitude common in conservative circles is not really consistent with the claims we typically make elsewhere.

The claim that the United States is – or even was – a “Christian nation” is dubious, except in the sense that Christianity is (and definitely was) the majority religion.  On the other hand, I believe – as a Christian – that Christian principles applied to law are entirely consistent with – a convenient and revealed guide to – Natural Law, which I might define as “the way the world and human societies best work”.  So I agree with the critics that conservatives – many if not most of whom are Christian, and as Christians often are “conservative” mainly because progressive goals are directly opposed to Christian morals – ought to be welcoming, helpful, and understanding of “[the] tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses”.

The question, since the Biblical teaching is so clear – and much of the “Western” tradition agrees, as for instance Terrance’s “I count nothing human as foreign to me” – why do conservatives have problems with immigration, or at the very least why are they perceived as doing so?  This really cannot be defended even by the dubious excuse of pleading ignorance about the correct answer.  The idea of a land that was – or is, or has been, or will be – open to all is even part of the national myth that gets bandied about in Independence Day speeches and on similar occasions.

So when the correct opinion is known, why is it – at least as far as public perception goes – so widely ignored?  Certainly quite a number of Americans are, and have been, hostile to immigrants.  This is in fact probably more common across all parties and factions in American history than otherwise, though there have also always been those courting the immigrant and minority votes as what we now call “special interests”.  On the conservative side, I suspect it ties back to the “Christian nation” myth.  Once you have your perfect society, humanity is very quick to overlook its remaining imperfections and suspect any outsider of trying to disturb it – to say nothing of forgetting how much trouble you had when you were the minority.

Another well-known part of the answer – I say “well-known” but as far as I can tell it is often ignored by much commentary on the subject – is that there is a class of illegal immigrants, that is, persons who are not supposed to have come into the country at all.  Now, the existence of this class is a morally problematic situation – I am inclined, though have not given the situation much serious thought, to advocate for free movement as an ideal – but the fact that these are formally law-breakers makes the conservative, who takes rule of law seriously as a principle and sees it regularly flouted, inherently suspicious.  Other immigrants of any description then gain a sort of guilt by association.  How much the action of various notorious criminals who happened to also be immigrants plays into this I am not sure.  It certainly does not help.

But this brings us to two other factors which are not usually accounted for.

Most Americans – not only conservatives – do not, I think, know much at all about the actual immigration laws.  Most, I suspect, assume they are fairly lenient, and so they direct more or less understandable anger at certain “classes” of immigrants they view as dubious, whatever the emotional overflow may taint.  In fact, as far as I can tell, currently immigration policies are fairly tight, and in fact favor the well-off – those who are assumed to “add to” a society – except for a few policies based on refugee status, whether that is because of religion, politics, or crisis.  Immigration policy, that is to say, is more or less governed right now by perceived national self-interest.  It is true that this policy is often advocated by conservatives, who would sometimes even tighten it further.  They have quite a bit of explaining to do – but I suspect most progressives would adopt similar policies.  As far as I can ascertain historically (though I could be wrong) they have tended to.  But for the average American, conservative or not, I suspect the actual state of things is not known.  Most, I suspect, take the inscription of the Statue of Liberty at face value and do not know how far it departs (and usually has) from the truth.

(Within this conception – however unrealistic – of what things currently are the support for e.g. limitations on immigration from Syria make much more sense.  If large numbers of people assume immigration is essentially unregulated, but current events make a potential group of immigrants potentially dangerous, why not subject them to more careful scrutiny as long as the particular crisis is ongoing?  The biggest blame here lies in persons not knowing about the restrictions and so on actually imposed – and on those responsible for informing them having failed to do so.)

Finally, the concept of charity or hospitality found in the Bible makes steady use of terms typically translated to make a distinction: “stranger”, “alien”, “foreigner”.  That is, there is a distinction made between a person who merely is living in a society, and a person born to it, a full citizen.  Most societies have had this distinction and maintained it is a good and necessary thing.  It ought to be made clearer in this country, though the current state of American politics, and the cloudy relation of Constitution, central government, and State authority, makes that a difficult project.  I would argue, though, that in some small part the conservative distrust of all immigrants is due to the fact that progressives are seen as trying to gain non-citizens the same rights as citizens, especially when it comes to voting and welfare – public money.  “If you’re going to spoil these people that aren’t even really Americans, let’s just get rid of all of them.”  It’s not a very charitable reaction, or a helpful one, or a practical one.  But it is a very human one.

The goal, as I have said repeatedly, is really known to all of us.  We want a free society, and by implication that means a society free to all.  Most conservatives, I believe, would subscribe to this abstract principle – and if not, I am really rather disappointed.  But desire to progress towards that goal is also thwarted by a muddle-headed muddle of actual policies and widespread ignorance of reality.

Dealing with Trump

Barring last-minute and probably unprecedented revelations or electoral hijinks, Donald Trump is set to become the next President of the United States.  This is in quite a few ways an unfortunate state of affairs.  He does not appear to care particularly about truth or law – not even offering the unmeant platitudes of most politicians.  He does not appear to be a moral man – though in fairness, he is not significantly worse, that I can tell, than what we allow other celebrities to be.  After sixteen years of well-ordered family life in the White House, however, it is rather a shock.  On the plus side, the carriage and behavior of his children through the campaign spotlight does suggest that he is not exactly a failure as a parent, even if all that meant was leaving their upbringing in other competent hands.  Further, Trump appears to be reasonably intelligent: his manner is off-putting, especially to those used to priding themselves on manners and intelligence, but his success on the campaign – surprised most, but should not be discounted.  He seems to communicate effectively with significant parts of the population, and to speak in terms – this may not be a good thing, but might prove handy – that various of the “strongmen” throughout the world can deal in themselves.

In fact it has been remarked that he bears many of the marks of that kind of person himself.  We can hope that the advantages that presents are used wisely, while the disadvantages are held in check.  Unfortunately, the various checks on personal power offered by our system of government have been steadily eroded for some hundred years now by the pressure of national and international crises, and various ideologies which wish to centralize control of society for its better ordering.  Now those powers wind up in Trump’s hands, and – well, whatever we might wish, the man is clever, but does not seem to have “restraint” among his qualities and priorities.

I am therefore not particularly hopeful that Trump’s administration will prove generally beneficial to the state of the American polity.  I do think, however, it provides a very different and in some ways better chance than a Clinton administration would have, because it will have a very different character than the “politics as usual” we have been used to.  It might provide a shock and a chance to think – unfortunately, so far we have had the shock and are still in the stage of complaining about being woken up.  The progressive factions are particularly shocked, and particularly vocal.  It seems to me clear that Trump does not have a very secure personal base as President, while the Republican party held and even – through the office of the presidency – gained power.  I do not much like the current state of parties in American politics, but this suggests that conservatives do have some room to launch real reforms.  It also suggests that Trump can be very narrowly watched even by his own party, and that, despite his “populist” base, he actually has much less room for executive action than any recent president.

Therefore, the Republican majority in Congress has a responsibility to govern responsibly.  On a very few issues its hands will continue to be tied by procedural rules which should not be cast aside lightly; on others, all the talk over the last  years can be put into practice as Trump is unlikely to veto Republican bills as a Republican President.  Most importantly, perhaps, Republicans need to view the balance of power correctly: Congress makes law, not the President.  There is little hope at the moment that much of the media will represent either Republican goals or Republican policies fairly, and not all that much hope it suddenly remembers how the Constitution works.  Persons make better copy than committees, I think – but Congress is just an outsize committee, and legislation belongs to Congress.

Republicans and conservatives generally – I include myself – need to steer out of a trap we have been constructing for ourselves.  I am of course concerned by the overwhelmingly negative and even vindictive tone taken by many who disagree with Trump’s policy and personality – and they had and have similar things to say about many other conservatives and their ideas.  By giving offense needlessly they risk – what we already see to some extent – creating a sense among those who agree with Trump more closely that Trump’s policy (or that of whatever other leader of the month) must win or they will be left outside.  Tribalism is already a political trap, and those who assume it must be the case encourage it.  We have to remember that Trump does not make law.   Not all conservatives – never mind all Americans – must agree with Trump – or for that matter with Gingrich or Ryan or Boehner or Falwell.  We have the opportunity to separate policy from the president – policy from persons – start rebuilding a concept of one law for all rather than law as a reallocation favoring some.   Anybody looking to regain the proper limitations of the Federal government has to be fascinated by this opportunity.  If conservative policies are wise, are passed by a Republican Congress, and improve things – well, the voters will know.

Now the sting: I do not really expect the Republicans in Congress to do this.  I suspect many of them are too captive to publicity to swear off trying to run things from Washington.  Moreover, when it comes to policy, I think progressive ideologues will continue to mainly blather on in support of various sexual immoralities, that those issues will continue to occupy media of all stripes, and that the actual business of governing the country will continue in much the same muddle as before.  But the opportunity is there, if anybody shows up to seize it.