There have never been perfect candidates in any election that I’ve ever voted in. The U.S. presidential campaign, now winding down toward November 8, only emphasizes the impossibility of perfectibility – and perhaps adds the rider that some are more imperfect than others.
Given that, I have long advocated the caveat-couched triad – competence, character and convictions – as a test by which to evaluate electoral options. Even those who are competent are more competent at some parts of the job than others. The public character of candidates is often a carefully marketed persona quite different from real character, but I know I have voted for those whose personal lifestyle choices and integrity are very different from that I would agree with. And when it comes to convictions, core beliefs and the manifestation of those in policy, I have disagreed with some aspects of every candidate’s policy proposals.
But if the standard is not perfection – and it must be or we would never vote – the question remains whether there is a line a candidate might cross in which it becomes impossible to vote for him or her?
As a committed Christian who has been very public about the relevance of faith to the public square, I have tried to envision the application of these principles in the current American presidential cycle. In addition to the obvious familiar arguments, there is a central concern I have struggled with most acutely, one which did not seem to get as much play as I thought it deserved. It is the matter of telling the truth or, slightly more elaborately, the easy acceptance of something called post-truth politics.
It was captured in a September issue of The Economist, beginning with the main cover line, “Art of the lie: Post-truth politics in the age of social media.” The article highlighted that while Donald Trump used “pants-on-fire” mistruths more than most candidates, examples could be multiplied historically where truthfulness and politics seem strangers. A loss of trust in institutions, which might act as gatekeepers, and the increased narrowcasting of contemporary media, where views are reinforced in a self-affirming echo chamber and countervailing arguments are mocked and marginalized rather than answered, are two factors that contribute to post-truth politics.
I wonder about pushing the analysis at least a step deeper. What if the politics of untruth is a logical consequence of a post-modern world in which what we feel is more defining than what might objectively be confirmed? Let’s admit it. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump peddled public narratives that seemed fantastically removed from reasonableness. Yet they continued to have resonance with publics that wanted much more to believe them than to test them. The Economist article reminded us of President Reagan having to admit in 1986, when confronted with evidence that countered his claim of having not traded weapons for hostages in the Iran-Contra affair, “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.” Thirty years ago there was a distinction between facts and feelings. Today feelings are considered facts.
The post-modern framework in which objectivity and truth have been reframed, then, provides the context within which campaigns of mistruth have resonance. Candidates can stand and out rightly deny things that they plainly have said, and we were left with the “did so, did not, did so” exchanges of the first Presidential debate, exchanges that are only slightly more tolerable in the Grade Two schoolyard.
Post-truth politics wasn’t unique to this campaign, but was more boldly used in it than in any other I am aware of. I have voted for candidates whose commitment to telling the truth has been dubious at best.
Still, by holding my nose, I could reasonably expect that the words they said and the commitments they made meant something. But the extent of it in the 2016 U.S. campaign left me, as a confessor of the Christian faith, which is based on the Word and objective history or else is rendered meaningless, with both a principled and a practical dilemma. At what point does a candidate cross the line with the politics of untruth so far that voting for him or her means buying into the framework? On what grounds would I expect any of the campaign promises to be lived up to?
And if a candidate who went too far down the post-truth road were to win, and if my vote were to be part of that win, would I not be enabling a willful campaign to make language meaningless and bald-faced lying the new norm for civil discourse?
While abiding my democratic duty to vote, what am I to do? The short-term benefits offered by any of the major contenders are far outweighed by potentially greater damage. A warped view of government and power, a willingness to say whatever needs to be said at the moment without regard for truth or respect, and an appeal to a Christian identity without Christian substance is hugely problematic.
Rewarding the self-conscious corruption of language with a vote that will be interpreted as endorsement, will make civil discourse more difficult and embed the post-modern confusion which already challenges us.
So, at the end of our southern neighbour’s 2016 campaign for the White House, I find reason for caution but never despair. If we are in the midst of post-truth politics, I still recall that God used Cyrus to help his people. He used rulers to punish His people. The truth of the gospel puts politics in perspective. It reminds us that, to use Danielic metaphors, stones roll down mountains, images have clay feet, administrations fall and are replaced, and the sovereignty of God is never compromised. And in the midst of it all, Daniel served faithfully, not compromising his integrity or politicking for power. At the end, the only charge his enemies could bring against him were his piety and devotion.