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Political Primer 2016

by Tim Isbell, July 2016

A primer for people new to American politics.

An Asian-American friend and I trade many texts regarding investment strategies and Christian spiritual formation. Recently, when texting about the impact of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote on investing, my friend asked me several questions about US politics and the upcoming election. He wanted to understand the landscape of American politics to factor it into investment decisions. 

Because he grew up in Asia, and English is his second language, many political terms and the landscape of western politics are unfamiliar. So we exchanged a series of texts in which I provided an overview of American politics. As we wrapped up the text thread, I remembered another international friend who with similar questions. I also realized that Bernie Sanders' campaign attracts many young people with minimal voting experience. And Donald Trump's campaign also brings many first-time older voters into this fall's election. For all these people, I decided to publish this Political Primer 2016.

I’ve followed politics a long time. As a kid, I remember at the dinner table my parents talking about the Eisenhower/Stevenson rematch election (1956). In the ninth-grade, I remember the Kennedy/Nixon election (1960) - and as a high school senior, I remember the assassination of President Kennedy (1963). I cast my first vote in the Nixon/Humphrey election (1968), and I voted in every election since.

In my years of pastoral ministry, I encouraged parishioners to get involved in the political process and to do the work of casting thoughtful votes. But I carefully avoided any campaigning in the context of our church. (For more on this, click on Churches & Politics.) 

Now I’m six years retired from pastoral ministry, so it’s safe to offer this overview - most of which is just a cleanup of my text strings with two international friends. Maybe I’ll get around to other political posts in the four months leading up to the November election. Maybe.

So, if you are new to American politics or want a top-level overview of the American political landscapefor the upcoming presidential election, read on.

Regarding right and left wings

In any government, the right side is more conservative, and the left side is more liberal. Adding the term "wing" means the extreme in that direction. In world politics, the far left wing is communism, and the far right wing is fascism.

The Democratic party leans left of center, and its left wing calls itself “Progressive.” Historically, Bernie Sanders’ position is still farther left than progressive; he calls himself a Democratic Socialist. Sanders is a long-time Senator from Vermont who always ran for office as Independent, not a Democrat. That's a main reason mainstream Democrats are nervous about him running as their candidate. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is an establishment (or mainstream) Democrat, who leans progressive.

The Republican party leans to the right, and its right wing calls itself the "Tea Party." Ted Cruz is a Tea Party Republican. Jeb Bush is an establishment Republican. It's harder to label Donald Trump, the Republican candidate. Historically, he fits the Democratic closer than the Republican party. Neither establishment or Tea Party Republicans claim him as their own. The best label I have for him is a populist Republican.

The “populist” label can apply to candidates in either party. Populist candidates are tired of, and don't trust, the establishment, and want to remove establishment politicians from office and start over. Populists commonly focus on a subset of the relevant issues and are inexperienced in the nuances of compromise and often even government.They usually identify legitimate issues, and propose sweeping solutions, but with little detail on implementation. When populists gain momentum, they pull establishment candidates a little in their direction.

Bernie Sanders is a left-wing populist who attracts young people who favor a pluralist, multicultural America and are comfortable with more government control.

Donald Trump is a populist, who attracts older people who favor a less culturally diverse America and smaller government.

In the United Kingdom, the Leave side (Brexit side) is a right-wing populist movement with a strong anti-immigration flavor mixed with a big dose of nationalism. The Remain side is the more internationally-minded establishment that considers inclusion in the European Union as a good thing. Although Europe leans farther left than the USA, many right-wing populists are gaining strength in Europe by promising to stop, or substantially reduce, the influx of Syrian and other middle-eastern refugees.

Regardless of party, populist candidates tend to threaten establishment candidates as both sides fight for power.

Which party is best for the economy?

I grew up presuming that Republican leadership was best for the economy, and Democratic leadership is the best for social programs. But analysis finds that the economy does better under Democratic leadership. If you doubt this, just google “Which party is better for the economy?” and start reading.

Intersection of my politics and Christian faith

I am a natural born American citizen who participates in the secular political process, but I have a higher allegiance: My citizenship in God's Kingdom, meaning that I intend to live as a citizen of God’s Alternate Kingdom, while temporarily residing at a postal address in a kingdom of this world. As a result, I tend to favor candidates who I think will do the best job at serving and representing all the people, Christian or not. Secondly, I favor candidates who favor programs that provide enough freedom for Christians to live as citizens in the Alternate Kingdom. The implications, whether the candidate is a Christian or not is not a big consideration.

In America, popular culture attributes human brokenness to the combination bad things that happened to us in the past and good things we missed. Our culture seems to think that willpower and extra resources can eliminate the evil, or at least hold it "in check." 

To accomplish this, the left (Democrats) offers social programs, educational solutions, jobs, counseling, and the like. The right (Republican) offers laws, regulations, punishments for bad behavior and incentives for good behavior. Both liberal and conservative strategies grossly underestimate the problem of the evil hiding deep within each of us.

Christian faith says that our brokenness is the result of deep, underlying sin and that every individual’s capacity for evil is far worse than we think. Few of us ever see the depth of this problem on our own; it’s hidden far too well. But the closer we get to the illumination of God’s love and holiness, the more aware we are of the chasm between God’s purity and ours and eventually we see that the evil hidden within us is much worse than we thought. It is far worse than can be fixed by liberal or conservative strategies, though some combination of these may be the best a secular culture can offer. The Christian antidote for evil is personal salvation available through the Good News of Jesus. What is the Good News? It's that we're more sinful than we ever dare to believe, and at the same time we're loved more in Christ than we ever dare to hope. This is not the document to unpack all that this means but to understand these concepts more, check out Timothy Keller’s two audio sermons: War Between Your Selves.

So, my participation in American politics reflects my understanding of Christian faith. But my involvement is tempered by the constraint that the U.S. is a pluralistic, multicultural, multi-religious nation. I view this as a good thing. As I understand God’s assignment for me, it is to live a Christian life transparently in American pluralist context without coercing others, while always being prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks for the reason for the hope they see in me. And to do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3.15, NIV). Which, by the way, is the spirit in which I’m sharing this with you.

Applying all this to 2016 presidential election

Most of my adult life I registered as a Democrat. A couple of years ago I changed my registration to "no party" because I was, and still am, unhappy that the extreme ideologies of both the right and the left wings. Both are too strident for me.

I lean moderately left of center. I voted for Bill Clinton (Democrat) and am glad I did. Then I voted for George W Bush (Republican), twice, and regretted it, mostly because of his Iraq war. I voted for Barack Obama (Democrat) in 2008 and 2012 and am pleased that I did.

I intend to vote for Hillary Clinton (Democrat) in 2016. I think she will do a commendable job. If elected, she'll come into office with the most relevant experience of any president in a long time. Her record and past is not perfect, which is the inevitable cost associated with her experience, which I consider vital. I do not look at her as the best of two bad choices. Not at all. Indeed, I supported Hillary before Barack Obama beat her in the 2008 primaries.

I want a president with a heart for helping the weak and under-resourced, along with enough economic savvy to do this in financially sensible ways. I want a president with personal depth and experience in both domestic and international affairs. I want a president who builds coalitions, both domestically and internationally. I want a president who has the respect of economic experts. I want a leader who is not locked into some ideology, nor a style that chases after every news event. I want someone who thinks in “real time” and I'm quite comfortable when this person changes their posiiton in response to new datat. I’m for Hillary Clinton.


For a list of all my posts on the run-up to the 2016 presidential election click on Politics 2016.

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