Heroic Civil Servants And The Tribe That Doesn’t Care

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Quite a week  in the House Impeachment Inquiry. I have a couple thoughts about what we’ve been witnessing and hearing, and then one about last night’s Democratic Debate.

First, the good news. I am finding those who have testified, from Kent and Taylor last week to Hill and Holmes today, not just to be revealing but inspiring. (Exception to this would be political appointees, Volker and Sondland. Although their testimony was devastating, they were not cut from the same cloth as the others.)

These are soft-spoken, careful, professional people who are not self-regarding. They are not promoting themselves. They are not “spinning.” They are not counting clicks. And they are speaking clearly and directly in the face of contemporaneous attacks and slurs by the President himself. That takes courage and character.

It’s been a while since I have found much on the American political scene that is inspiring. But these civil servants are just that. I give thanks to God for them and I pray for their safety and that of their families.

Second, the bad news. I’m not sure their courageous testimony is changing anyone’s mind. Clearly not the minds of Republicans on the House Committee. Not the minds of the Trump base. Not the minds of Fox TV viewers or commentators. I do occasionally read/listen to Fox to see how they are handling this and to try to see, if briefly, the world through their lens. What you see is that while the facts seem pretty clear and damning, it does not matter to the people in Trump’s tribe.

That, it seems to me, is one big difference from the Nixon impeachment era and a significant marker of how the U.S. has itself changed in the intervening years. Then facts did matter. At that time people – citizens and politicians – were capable of changing their minds and their positions.

What does it mean that changing one’s mind has now become so unlikely? Here’s my theory. Our political identities and affiliations have become our definitive, ultimate identities. There was a time when politics was serious but not ultimate. It was the realm of compromise. Now, politics and political loyalties have taken on a quasi-religious quality. Correspondingly, whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or something else doesn’t matter all that much these days. Changing loyalties, dabbling in one then another, are mostly fine, even encouraged. Not so with politics.

In her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity Lilliana Mason says that there was a time when our various identities tended to be less rigid and predictable. We might be conservative on some things, liberal on others. Or there might be parts of life where those categories were irrelevant. Someone, like Fred Rogers might be both a liberal Protestant and a lifelong Republican.

Mason adds a warning: “A situation in which partisans on both sides think that they face existential stakes every four years is not sustainable for very long.”

Now for one comment on the fifth Democratic Debate. The effect of the continuing large number of candidates on the stage (some of them more or less a joke, like Steyer and Gabbard) and the tough questioning which the candidates are subject to has been to level the Democrats out.

Against the backdrop of the Impeachment hearings it’s sort of like “Darth Vader and the Ten Dwarves.” In the background, Trump wields his Twitter light-saber, while the Democratic candidates seem to get smaller and increasingly predictable.

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