The Common Good

A Plea for a New Generation of Republican Leadership

I believe our nation works best with robust and civic dialogue and civil debate. For mature societal conversations to take place, at least two mature parties are required, and looking back over this summer, a second party is hard to find.

The Obama administration needs a worthy loyal opposition, just as any group in power does, and the president himself often says so. But people who shout "Hitler, Nazi, socialist" don't constitute a worthy loyal opposition. Nor do the birthers (who don't stray too far from the fictional portrait of the afterbirthers described satirically here). Nor do the nostalgics, who seem to keep waking up in the 1980s year after year, quoting Ronald Reagan.

[Regarding the nostaligics, one can't help but recall God's words to Joshua (Joshua 1:2): "Moses my servant is dead." Many Republicans, it seems, are like Joshua and need to be told it's time to move on and discover their own voice, to think their own thoughts, to face today's challenges, to start leading constructively and not just repeating old slogans -- always revering the memory of their late-20th-century Moses, of course, but moving on to face today's problems just as their oft-sung hero sought to face those of his day.]

It seemed hard for the situation to deteriorate below gun-toting protestors at town hall meetings and Hitler-mustached posters, but we managed to hit a new even-lower low in recent days in the refusal of some parents and school districts to allow schoolchildren to listen to the presidential back-to-school address. Journalist-author Thomas Friedman had it right on "Meet the Press" Sunday, as did Education Secretary Ame Duncan on "Face the Nation": that reaction is just plain "stupid" and "silly." How many Republican leaders will stand with them?

Where does this bizarre behavior come from? True, there's a strain of extremism that runs through American politics on the left and right, and the Internet, late-night radio, and cable TV help keep it alive. But there's more to this, I think. I'm convinced that there is some degree of white fear and resentment behind at least some of this reaction: fear and resentment of an African-American president, mingled with xenophobia regarding brown-skinned immigrants, undergirded by fear of a future where there is no more racial majority status for white people. There is also, I suspect, a good amount of modernist fear of postmodernity mixed in. And where Christianity becomes a tribal religion rather than a reconciling faith -- the exclusive and combative religion of rural non-coastal folks, for example, or Southern folks, or socially conservative folks, or folks who hold a certain economic ideology -- there is probably some old-fashioned religious supremacy at play too: the "Our God is better than your god, so we should be in power" syndrome.

I keep wondering -- don't more Republicans themselves see the danger of an increasingly reactionary Republican party becoming in the 21st century what anti-civil-rights/pro-segregationists and McCarthyites were in the 20th, or what the pro-slavery/anti-abolition movements were in the 19th -- conserving an unjust status quo that deserved to be left behind? Out of love for their party and the good things it could potentially stand for in 2012 and beyond, don't they want to step forward now and be counted?

Even if all President Obama stands for were as dastardly as the shouters, birthers, and nostalgics insinuate, can't some perceptive Republicans see the need to do what President Obama did to win the election -- to inspire with some hope, rather than constantly pulling the levers of fear? Fear is indeed a powerful short-term motivator (and fundraiser), as is revenge, but it uses an inflating currency (and where do you go after flashing the Hitler/Nazi/fascist credit card?). An unregulated fear-based politics will eventually crash just as an unregulated bubble-based economy will, but like a crashing economy, it can cause a huge amount of damage on its way down.

That's why it's so depressing to see the paucity of Republican leadership providing a mature alternative to all this. That's why, with so much at stake -- from environmental policy to health-care reform to immigration reform to economic reform to foreign policy reform to campaign finance reform, even those of us who are firm supporters of President Obama wish his administration had a more robust conversation partner and a wiser, more constructive loyal opposition.

Thankfully, George Will has started speaking up with some fresh things to say, countering the long reign of neoconservative foreign policy in the Republican Party. Perhaps people like Will and Peggy Noonan represent the rise of a constructive conversation partner in the civic conversation. But they're writers; where are the politicians? If there are some perceptive Republicans out there who see from the inside what the rest of us see from the outside, I hope they'll start speaking up like George Will and Peggy Noonan -- and soon. Because if the best leaders the Republicans can offer the nation and the world in the next decade are the likes of ... well, I won't mention names ... then everyone will be worse off for it -- Republicans, Democrats, everyone. I believe, hope, and pray that Republicans can do better for their party, for America as a whole, and for the world.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

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