Though I’ve paused from a lot of blogging about politics this year, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s just that, because there is so much going on that troubles me, it is hard to process it all and remain positive—and I didn’t want to write much again until I could offer something I felt was positive to consider.
What I kept coming back to was a conversation I had with two lawyers during a dinner in New York over 20 years ago. As we paused from discussing the cases we were working on together, our discussion turned to politics—both local to New York and nationally. Both of my colleagues from New York were liberal Democrats, and as I listened to them a thought came to my mind that—being young and a little impetuous—I offered to them. It went something like this:
I think the biggest problem in politics today is that politicians don’t seem to be addressing the issues that government was designed to address, and I think that is because, in part, we’ve forgotten how to show mercy to our fellow man.
Remember that at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ posed the question: “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And the lawyer answered, “He who showed mercy upon him.” Then Christ affirmed the lawyer’s answer by saying, “Go and do likewise.”
I look around and too few people in public life are showing the mercy that truly loving their neighbor requires of them. Today, we still have people walking down the road, like the priest and the Levite, who avert their eyes and keep walking—they’ve always been among us. But now it seems as though the people who do stop to help the stripped and wounded man on the side of the road do one of two things: they either stop others, demand contributions from them (like taxes or tolls), and then give the donations to the man on the side of the road; or they sermonize to the man on how his own mistakes led to his current predicament and how he should change his life to avoid such calamities in the future. Then, both men leave, feeling good about themselves and the help they believe they provided to him; meanwhile, the stripped and wounded man on the side of the road is still left to die.
There are no Samaritans among us today.
I remember my dinner companions stopped and looked at me, and said nothing for what seemed an eternity. Then the senior attorney looked at me and said, “Ed, I can’t find any basis to disagree with you. Sadly, we are all at fault for this.” Then the conversation moved quickly on to a sailing regatta the other attorney would be participating in that weekend, and we never broached the subject again.
Based on this reaction, I rarely tried to express this idea again publicly, but I still believe it to be the primary problem we face today—and it has only gotten worse over the last two decades. I believe that the political party that correctly embraces the ideal of the Samaritan as the core of our society will be the party that captures the imagination and the trust of the voters. The ideal of the Samaritan should be the natural position of American Conservatives and the Republican Party, if only we will embrace it.
Our Settlers and Founding Fathers understood and accepted the challenge of trying to create a society around the Samaritan ideal on this Continent, even though they were woefully blind in their initial application of this ideal when it came to Catholics, Native Americans, Africans, Irish and Women (just to name a few groups)—a blindness that would haunt us for centuries. But the ideal itself became the correcting force that eventually changed our society for the better.
It is the Samaritan ideal that led us to form families, congregations, civic organizations, and private businesses; to create the neighborhoods where these institutions would take root and flourish; to push those neighborhoods across a continent; to form colonies and states to preserve and protect those neighborhoods; to create a nation to protect this societal structure; and, finally, to open our society’s promise to all its citizens.
The limited nature of the federal government wasn’t designed to oppress individuals, but rather to protect the sanctity and vitality of these neighborhoods of free people, in which most of the decisions that would guide day-to-day life would be made and performed.
This model only works, though, if the ideal is taken seriously—that each citizen, in his or her own way, accepts the challenge to show mercy to our neighbors. Unless each citizen accepts this responsibility, the trust necessary for the model to sustain self-governance at the local and state level evaporates and creates a vacuum—a vacuum that is subject to being filled by an expanding federal government that is not institutionally competent to fill it. Forget the express limits written into the Constitution for a minute, and just remember that far-away agents, bureaucrats, and social workers with one-size-fits-all assignments, regardless of their best intentions, will never provide the mercy that our Settlers and Founders believed would be necessary to build and maintain trusting neighborhoods of free people.
We can argue until the cows come home over how and why we got into our present mess, but the time for political change is now and the blueprint for that change has always been within our grasp—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (as amended), and the Federalist Papers. What is needed now is the will to embrace the Samaritan ideal and our founding blueprint, and to apply it to our diverse 21st Century society. What is needed now is the willingness to seriously address the reforms at each level of government—from Washington to our school boards—that is needed to restore the mercy and rebuild the trust needed to apply our American blueprint to the 21st Century.
We will never corral and control public spending and debt until we make this reform, we will never fix public education until we make this reform, we will never fix both the security of our borders and our immigration policies without this reform, and we will be unable to meet the commitments we promised to the rest of the world after World War II unless we commit to this reform.
If the Republican Party embraces this reform, and explains how it will improve the lives of each of our citizens by giving them the means to control their lives and accomplish their dreams for themselves and their children, we will regain the trust of voters needed to win elections and govern. But to do that, we Republicans must practice what we preach among ourselves, too—we must show mercy and trust among our own factions, for as Lincoln reminded us so long ago, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
As a life-long Republican who continues to revere the life’s work of Lincoln, Goldwater, Dirksen, Reagan and Kemp, I believe we can—we must, we will—accept this challenge and embrace this reform.