The Next Election Is A Choice Between Two Stories
By Lisa Sharon Harper
Politics is dirty. Politics is complicated. Politics is above my paygrade. I’m not into politics.
This is what I hear when I’m on the road and talk with diverse everyday people of faith trying to make it in the world today. They are consumed with the details of life; getting 8 glasses of water in per day, meeting with friends, checking on family, trying to get out of the exercise rut they fell into over the holidays, trying to lose that last 10 pounds, trying to live happily ever after.
So, when election seasons roll around—particularly midterm elections—only 40 percent of those eligible to vote even bother to look up from their Peloton screen.
But politics wasn’t meant to be dirty. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Responsible voting is not above the paygrade of citizens. And politics may not be our thing, but it is every citizen’s responsibility.
At its core, politics is simply the conversations we have and the decisions we make together about how the polis (the people) will live together.
It is not supposed to be a competition between two parties—like a Sunday night football game or a reality TV show about who gets voted off the island. It is supposed to be a competition of visions for the nation we want to be and the strategies for how to get us there. So, ultimately, politics is about the story we want to live together.
The Republicans and Democrats each have an American story they hearken back to and try to build into the future of our nation. But over the past 30 years, both parties have become masters at hiding their stories.
You have heard me say, “Narrative shapes worldview. Therefore, narrative shapes the world.” But this is different. As we face the midterm elections, I’m thinking about the stories we DON’T tell. I’m thinking about the stories we build.
Since the 1990s the Grand Old Party has adopted a politics of “values.” While waging culture wars rooted in the Civil War with their right hand, they sought and caught “values voters” with their left.
With their right hand 1990s culture warriors fended off the rising voices of women, “the Blacks”, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the disabled and, basically, all the voices previously muffled in the old world order. Listen to Pat Buchanan’s defining 1992 presidential primary speech where he christens and defines the culture wars as a political movement. White evangelicals were a growing religious community whose own white-male-centered theological story most resembled America. So, they were conscripted to pick up the banner and march it forward. White evangelicals became the flag-bearers for the politics (the story) that the GOP was building in the world.
The Values Voter Summit was launched in 2006. It wrangled culture warriors, bedraggled by scandals among their leaders, under the newly scrubbed banner of values. One look at the line up flashed the story the GOP was building in the world. Headlined and sponsored by the most extremist groups within the GOP—almost all of whom claimed Christian identity, this Summit gave the culture wars a facelift—made it more presentable—more respectable, while dishing the same white Christian nationalist bile that spewed from Buchanan’s mouth in 1992.
The GOP successfully masked the story it was building in the world until Trump. For many Christian women, the election of a man who bragged about grabbing women’s private parts and who was accused of raping multiple women, revealed the lack of values held by the GOP voting block. But four moments have hammered deep cracks in the values façade of the party itself: Trump’s declaration in Charlottesville that there were “good people on both sides,” the death of 6 children while detained in cages along America’s southern border, the GOP silence and participation in the January 6th coup that killed 5 people, and most recently, GOP member and pundit support of Vladimir Putin’s carnage in Ukraine. This war-like drum-beat of death and domination have discredited the values propositions of small government, patriotism and conservative economics. They have ripped the values façade to the floor and revealed the actual story the GOP has been hell-bent on building for decades—the story of white male dominance over our nation.
The Dems also have a story that they are building in the world. Since the Democratic Party declared human rights as a central value at the 1948 Democratic Convention, the Dems, inspired by the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, have been motivated by the story of the “more perfect union.” Listen to Hubert Humphrey’s iconic Minority Report on the floor of the 1948 Democratic Convention. In Humphrey’s speech the Dems recommend a platform that adopts a Civil Rights Act as one of its platform values. They did—in 1948! And that was the moment when Southern Democrats who had dominated the party since the antebellum era, walked out. They didn’t last in the political wilderness for long. They launched the Dixiecrat party with the preservation of segregation and legal lynching as a central platform. They lost the next election cycle, so they came back to the Dems until passage of the Voting Rights Act—a bridge too far. The left for good and were absorbed into the Grand Old Party where they now rule.
Since that moment, it has been Democratic presidents and Democratic-led congresses—always in partnership with Republicans unmotivated by the vision of white supremacy—that have built the story of an ever more inclusive America. They did it through legislated policies like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Immigration Act of 1965, the anti-poverty legislation of 1966, the push for the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1980s, the Clinton’s policies that cut poverty and balanced the budget for the first time since the Vietnam War. The Dems have been imperfect, but this has been the story they have been building in the world.
But Democrats have masked their story, too. It sits twiddling its proverbial thumbs behind a thick veil of policy propositions. Every election year, and for Biden's first two years, Dems have touted long lists of wonky policy promises. Would that Americans cared about policies. They don’t. Policies are strategy. Policies are plans. Policies are not the vision. They don’t inspire.
For a time, Dems trying to fight fire with fire; proposing their own competing values propositions. But in an age when GOP values have been discredited to the core, it hardly inspires to tout alternative values. Rather, the values frame has been in the patina of suspicion.
Stories inspire. The one moment in the past 30 years when the story Democrats are building was most clearly and compellingly articulated was during candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 primary-run response to mounting controversy surrounding comments made by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Addressing the enduring problem of race in America, candidate Obama painted the vision of America’s struggle to become a more perfect, more inclusive nation. All we had to do, Obama said, was choose the more perfect way to be together in the world.
America has a two-party system. Since the mid-20th century these two parties have been hard at work attempting to build an American story. Both parties have masked their stories—the GOP behind the façade of values, and the Dems behind a veil inscribed with long lists of policy recommendations.
The stakes are too high now. The next election will determine the story America will live for the next generation or more. We must face the story we are living and the story we have lived. We must face the story our votes have built in the world. And as people of faith, we must recognize we, too, have a story—a transformational story that calls us to build a world where the image of God in every corner of our nation and across the globe has the best chance to flourish.
The next election is a choice—not between value propositions or even between policies. It is a choice between two stories that two parties are building in America. As people of faith, our work is to discern which of these stories is closest to the story we are called to live. As for me and my house, we choose a more perfect Union.