In politics: Purity, pragmatism, or something else?


Dear Rebecca:

In 1996, I became convinced by my understanding of Mennonite theology that participating in the presidential election was a fool’s game — with no 100 percent honorable selection for me to make, I skipped the contest.

In 2000, I slipped a bit, but tried to keep my purity: I voted for Ralph Nader. We know how that turned out.

And in 2004, I had given up on entirely on any question but beating George W. Bush. I voted for John Kerry.

Which is all a way of saying, once again, that you’re right: George W. Bush was an awful president, and having him speak out against Donald Trump doesn’t mean, suddenly, that he wasn’t an awful president. People are still dying in the Middle East thanks to some of his misguided choices.

But I’m not sure that’s sufficient.

As you know, I had a column at today suggesting Democratic-leaning anti-Trumpers need to do a better job of making outspoken anti-Trump Republicans feel welcome in the, um, “resistance.” Democrats don’t have the political power to contain Trump on their own, and besides, having Republicans join the bandwagon — even timidly and tentatively — lends some legitimacy to the effort.

We don’t have to forget that John McCain is overly hawkish, or that Bob Corker wanted to be Trump’s secretary of state, or that George W. Bush was a historically awful president. But right now, the priority for lefties should be to contain and eventually end Donald Trump’s presidency. They shouldn’t be so eager to turn away allies. Liberals must learn to take “yes” for an answer.

 But of course, liberals don’t have to learn to take yes for an answer, do they?

Mennonites have long struggled over the best way to approach the politics of this world. “Mennonites have taken one of three or more approaches to civil politics,” Caryl Guth wrote at The Mennonite in 2009. We jump in as the world does, in a partisan way. Or we become fundamentalist and participate like dogmatists. Or we remain ‘pure’ and don’t vote at all.”

That sounds right — hell, I think I’ve done all three. For lots of Mennonites, for lots of citizens, there’s a constant struggle between the desire for purity, to remain true to one’s principles, and the temptation to be pragmatic for the sake of effectiveness. For now, I’m choosing the latter, as you can probably tell from the column.

But I think there’s a place for purity, in witnessing to the “right” way to do things as opposed to the easy or easily available. I think, in the church, this is known as having a “prophetic” voice.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. But if you do choose the pragmatic path, it means having to make peace with the idea that we’ll need to build coalitions with people we considered compromised, who have taken actions we think are bad, whose motivations we do not share, whose ultimate aims might diverge wildly from ours, just because — for a second at least — we share a common goal.

I think Donald Trump is not merely an awful president, but uniquely dangerous to our norms, institutions, and rights in this country — indeed, possibly dangerous to our very survival. Which is why I’m choosing pragmatism. And why I’m even choosing to make a little peace with the idea of having George W. Bush as an ally. I can’t say it’s thrilling. I do think maybe the times demand it.

But it may not be for everybody.



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