And Naming the Villains
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

What we are witnessing right now may well be the collapse of the Conservative Movement that has dominated American political and social life for almost three generations.

It began, let us say, with Barry Goldwater’s principled call from “The Conscience of a Conservative.”

The movement balked with JFK, LBJ’s Great Society, and the Watergate reforms, but after events that overwhelmed the United States and the Carter candidacy, it became established under Reagan.

The Conservative Movement captured the Republican Party, which cast aside it’s broadly based tradition to become the conservative party in the United States.

The Conservative Movement expanded on its domination up to this point, at which Trump’s nomination has led to the spectacular splintering during the campaign.

By the time the smoke clears after the election, either the Conservative Movement will have lost enough of its control of the Republican Party to have to search for another way to operate, or the Republican Party itself will break into factions that will lead to its demise sooner than later.

One way or another we will see a major political realignment in the United States, perhaps radical enough to drive constitutional rearrangements.

The Villains:

  • The decision that equated money with speech, Buckley v. Valeo, 1976. From that point forward money began to control politics. That decision needs to be overturned or to have a constitutional amendment so that we can get money out of elective politics, at least to the extent of other democracies.
  • The billion-dollar-behind-the-scenes controllers of politics, ranging from the use of foundations for personal enrichment and ideological political causes to all sorts of ways to engage in elective politics. The clandestine and manipulative formation of the Tea Party is a good example. (See “Dark Money.”) Particularly offensive is the way they have hidden motives, goals, and activities, while convincing the country to paint all big contributors of money with the same brush – summarized as “Wall Street.”  
  • The Trump-like, fascist-like, white nativists have been given a place at the political table today. During most of American history such radical opinions have been relegated to prejudice, ignorance, and anger over personal losses or social and economic failures. This “extreme right wing” has been at the table since the midterm election during the first Clinton Administration, though normally identified as ideological conservatives. First they were Clinton haters, then they were Obama haters, but their real frustration is broader than persons, political positions, or movements.
  • The fundamentalist Evangelical churches became hypocritically and improperly engaged in elective politics to impose their conservative, and often oppressive, moral and political perspective on society as law. For too many evangelicals – certainly not all, but too many, and certainly for almost all of the leaders in their political combat – this has been a matter of the tail wagging the dog, in that they are part of a culture that is socially, economically, and politically conservative and then learned how to use their religious clout politically, rather than being a of people of faith who are religiously convicted of certain conservative views.
  • The Roman Catholic Church’s long-standing obsession, perhaps prejudices, regarding issues that protect women’s rights and that touch on the hot rail of sexuality and procreation. At the top of that list is the over-any-top, popularly accepted conclusion, that abortion is the killing of children. The Roman Catholic Church has allowed itself to be co-opted by the fundamentalist Evangelical churches in opposing social and cultural reforms, not only undercutting its own institutional moral standing but that of Christianity. The inevitable hypocrisy regarding these positions was revealed in the sexual abuse of children in religious institutions and by the ordained.
  • The “establishment” leadership of the Republican Party, which brought their party to this state of affairs by embracing (1) the billion-dollar-behind-the-scenes political money, (2) the improper engagement of fundamentalist evangelicals, (3) the Trump wing of the right wing, (4) the conservatives of the Roman Catholic Church regarding “the culture wars” while ignoring its repeated calls for social and economic justice, and (5) making full and cooperative use of Fox News and prejudiced radio talk shows as their primary voices.
  • Ronald Reagan, for turning the country from a respect for government as, in Lincoln’s great insight, “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” into “the problem.” This negativity had more to do with the misgovernment of the following era than perhaps any other factor.
  • Fox News, that falsely claimed the objectivity of journalism, was the sole source of news in many areas of the country, and allowed many conservatives to live in a bubble that includes widely discredited ideas like climate change science is a hoax and the President is not an American citizen.
  • Opposition to globalization, instead of coming to grips with the realities in order to prosper America and help the stranger in other lands.

Caveat: A friend trained and proved in political observation warns that, “At this point, I think we are witnessing the “splintering” of the conservative movement, more than its “collapse.”  I say this because they are still in control of most state governments and may (or may not) still control at least one of the national legislative branches after the November elections.  The conservative movement has trouble with high turnout (e.g., presidential) elections, but usually bounces back in off year elections when voting by progressives declines. After the approaching elections, we may conclude that they are so split that they have collapsed, but it may be too soon to say.”


Group Think
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

All good people agree,
     And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We,
     And everyone else is They.

          Rudyard Kipling

We perceive a lack of personal agency when we feel certain about our point of view, find that decisions and actions taken on behalf of the whole contradict it or fail to satisfy it, and are imposed on us.

We may begin to address our frustration by considering why we feel so sure about the matter. Very likely, the reason will have little to do with reason or information; instead it usually will turn out to be due to the agreement within our social circle and within the culture with which we identify. If the great majority of people we associate with regularly, and with whom we feel we belong, think the same way, contrary political and social imposition is likely to feel like insufferable wrongheadedness, or even a matter of moral right and wrong. This comes from something termed, accurately enough in the language of the street (if not in textbooks): “group think.”

Today “group think” is a prevailing concern for a nation that is deeply divided along just such lines. That whole communities and segments of society are so segmented is painfully experienced. Yet we find ourselves as participants in the divisions. As individuals we all know the tendency to pick among the plethora of information sources now available to use those that can be relied upon for agreement and reinforcement of the social, political, and religious perspectives of our circles.

The open conversations and comments about issues at controversy today, say in a locker room, invariably are going to sound like there is agreement that goes so far beyond the point of mere consensus that the points of view are being offered as assumptions. But depending on where they are being propounded, (e.g. small town exercise club, basket ball gym, country club, college faculty club) such opinions will express the exact opposite points of view, falling on the contrary ends of respective spectrums.

When your point of view is supported on the rigidly solid ground of “group think” and yet you find yourself on the losing end of a decision, the frustrating sense of a lack of agency is going to be inevitable and probably accompanied by the feeling that you and yours are being awfully wronged.

Perhaps the largest grouping in which thinking seems to be fixed in agreement, with no acceptable room for disagreement, is – and has long been – within regions. How else can it be that white Southerners in the U. S. always vote as a single party block – as Democrats from the Civil War up to the Civil Rights Movement and since then as Republicans? How else is there to explain that an engulfing number of white Southerners identify as conservatives and seem to feel that being a conservative is morally correct while anything else is relatively immoral? How is it that racial prejudice and injustice can remain so much more prevalent in the South than anywhere else?

I do not believe the questions can be answered in a way that identifies most people in a whole region as inherently conservative, or inherently right, or inherently wrong, or inherently evil. It is due to cultural “group think.”

One last word, and it is absolutely central to the whole, and ongoing, story of Christianity. It is central to the good news of God in Christ; it is Gospel. Giving into “group think” is really, painfully, stupid. No other word will do. We all do it, and that stands as evidence that we all can be pretty stupid. When we free ourselves from “group think,” we are going to experience a most humanizing freedom, shockingly refreshing. There is a social price to be paid, for sure. One will be accused of being a bad citizen of one’s own society – and very probably made to feel like that indeed is so. One may even have to pick up a bit of the cross. But such a citizen will discover that truth and freedom are worth the price.

It is the truth that will set us free, not “group think” conformity.


Money Rules
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Americans report a lack of agency; most seem to feel that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

The problem of the dominant influence of money is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats should agree, a deal-breaking problem that, as the late Senator John Stennis of Mississippi was the first to report, is truly a threat to democracy. Perhaps it will prove helpful to have a committed conservative speak to the problem from a traditionally conservative perspective.

Richard Painter was President George W. Bush’s White House counselor and presently teaches law at the University of Minnesota. No one can challenge his conservative credentials. Mr. Painter has written a recently published book: Taxation Only With Representation: The Conservative Conscience and Campaign Finance Reform. Bill Moyers interviewed him about the book on April 21 of this year; the following is largely Mr. Painter’s voice, offered as clearly as possible and without interpretation.

Citizens United?

“I think the Court was wrong in that decision. I don’t think that reversing the Citizens United decision is going to solve the problem…That decision certainly did a lot of damage, but we need to do a lot more than go back to 2008, before the Citizens United case, to fix this problem. I think it was a cesspool. It’s just that the Supreme Court has made the cesspool that much worse with a string of very problematic decisions including Citizens United and McCutcheon [v. FEC] and some others.”

“The politicians of both political parties have become dependent upon campaign money from vested interests. And that has led to a situation where people, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are adamantly opposed to campaign finance reform even though the vast majority of voters, including voters who support them, want campaign finance reform.”

“The elected officials in both parties are receiving campaign contributions and support through electioneering communications from groups that aren’t technically affiliated with the campaigns, but really are. That’s the off-the-books financing of electioneering communications that’s going on.”

“Having a representative democracy requires the confidence of the voters in the system. And if voters lose confidence in the system they can make some very bad decisions. I think we have a lot of very angry voters. And we need to be cognizant of the fact that if we don’t have public confidence in the system it’s going to be easy for demagoguery to take over and for voters to flock to the type of candidate who promises an authoritarian regime or something like that. And it’s not a good situation. It’s what destroyed the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s — lack of public confidence in the representative democracy — and it’s a problem that we could deal with here in the United States.”

“The American experiment with representative democracy has been a great success, but we need to realize that it needs to be a genuine representative democracy where ordinary people have a vote, have a voice in choosing the candidates who represent them. And if we don’t address this issue we could easily see a situation where oligarchy, as a political system, that oligarchy is (viewed as) a more persuasive system where people will flock to authoritarian government and other alternatives.”

“(Conservatives should be)…worried about national security concerns. Corporate wealth is global in a global economy. We’re going to have money coming into our elections from China, from the Middle East, from all over the world. These are not necessarily countries that are hostile to the United States — sometimes they are, sometimes not — but there’s a fundamental principle at stake here: Should the United States government be chosen by the American people or by well-to-do interests, by moneyed interests, in other countries?”

“That’s why we fought the American Revolution, over that issue. We have preserved our independence for over 200 years. But if we don’t want the United States government carved up into spheres of influence by foreign powers in a global economy, we need to do something about this problem. It’s a very serious problem and I’ve outlined in the book about a dozen ways in which foreign money can get into United States elections.”

“There are about a dozen ways of getting that foreign money into our elections, whether or not Justice Alito, or anyone else, thinks it’s legal. And this I’ve analogized to the twenty-one-year-old drinking age. It’s illegal to drink under the age of twenty-one. But I can assure you it’s a lot easier to get foreign money into a US election than it is to get booze onto the typical college campus in the freshman dormitory.”

“…what do political conservatives lose with our present system of campaign finance? They lose faith in limited government, right?”

“Yes. You’re going to have more government spending for more expensive government contracts. You’re going to have regulation that is designed to appease those who make the largest contributions, but regulation often hinders small business in favor of big businesses. And even with respect to big businesses, many of them are in the situation where they have to pay money to politicians in order to get the regulatory regime they want. So you have lots of regulation, with lots of loopholes; each loophole bought with campaign contributions and then lobbied in by the K Street lobbyists. And that’s not the way our economy should be regulated at all.”


Distinguishing Duke and Trump From Other Politicians

Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Author’s Note: The church should be non-partisan in elective politics. This includes organizations like At the Threshold that are not official but purport to speak to issues theologically and on behalf of concerns of the church. It is extremely rare for the church to find itself having to speak out against a serious candidate for office, much less a nominee of one of the two major parties of the United States, much less a nominee for President. But there are examples in history – too important to ignore – in which it is clear that the obligation of the church demands, or should have demanded, that it take a stand against certain leaders and forms of leadership. Without identifying reasons in the abstract, At the Threshold has been offering a series of statements about the candidacy of Donald Trump that should reveal why we think just such an exceptional case has arisen. Please be aware that these statements are not written due to political opinion, but are based on careful employment of well-honed moral theology.

Recently I asserted on behalf of At the Threshold that the voter who supports Donald Trump on certain selected matters, and thus chooses to support his election, is supporting all of what will happen if he becomes President. The point was that Trump has promised to take actions and positions as President so toxic that voters should balk at supporting some of his positions unless willing to take responsibility for all. An analogy was drawn to the White Supremacy position of David Duke.

Someone I dearly respect asked: “What is the precise distinguishing factor(s) between applying this ‘if support some, then support all’ principle to Trump and Duke but not to all candidates?”

The difference is that there are some candidates who take certain defining positions that are “out of bounds” of what is tolerable and become personifications of actions and ideas that must be rejected unconditionally by the electorate. Their leadership is to be categorically rejected. David Duke has been recognized as one such politician; Donald Trump should be another.

David Duke could not be supported on ordinary matters, like tax reform, because standing by him on anything would have conferred on him more power and standing to use in his fight for white supremacy, hyper-nationalism, and thuggish authoritarianism. In the story that was previously used, for the State Treasurer to support him on an issue such as tax reform would have been taken to mean that the official was supportive, or at least open to, his stand on race.

Normally it is appropriate to support candidates without agreeing with them across the board. To support Bernie Sanders on equalizing pay for women does not mean one must oppose the international trade agreements he criticizes. Nor is it clear that a majority agrees with him on either issue; they are matters currently being debated and not yet settled. But to support Trump on his stated plan for tax reform, and thus to vote for him on that basis, is as well a vote to endanger the world, to exclude people of certain religious beliefs and affiliations, to denigrate and discriminate against women, to elect someone who will say and do anything without regard to truth or even to personal belief in what he himself is saying, etc., etc., etc. He cannot be supported in one or more parts deemed desirable without bringing about proposals that must be avoided. It is an either/or vote. That indeed is unusual, but in this case it is very real.

The distinction we are talking about has to do with how absolutely positions taken by a candidate must be avoided. In something like nuclear proliferation it is damningly close to absolute. Throughout my adulthood, the greatest fear has always been that some crazy person, some greedy maniac, or some terrorist group might get their hands on nuclear power and use it against a city or region. If the nuclear power is available, “the market” will find it. Do we no longer fear that rogue leaders and/or nation states will gain the use of nuclear bombs and use them?

A policy like excluding Muslims may not be absolute — eventually the policy could be corrected — except in how real flesh and blood human beings and families will suffer the consequences in the meantime, and especially except for the great violence done to our values, traditions, and identity as a nation. Then, there are the issues that were once in conflict, but finally have become settled. Often a minority of citizens may continue to hold to a position after the controversy over right and wrong has been clarified and decided, and even when it would be unacceptable to go back on that settled resolution. For example, we have decided that slavery is wrong and being the United States of America is good. Yet, 38 percent of those who voted for Donald Trump in South Carolina acknowledged that they wish the South had won the Civil War; another 38 percent say they aren’t sure which side they wish had won, while just 24 percent say they are glad the Union won. Thirty-five percent of Cruz supporters said they thought the U.S. would be better under the Confederacy.

There must be a line drawn between disagreement and political “debate” over a controversial issue, such as when the south largely refused to allow most black citizens to vote, and when that issue has been settled, as after the civil rights movement and voting act. To revive the previous controversy is unacceptable and must be avoided. Trump’s candidacy has raised several of these kinds of issues.

Then, there are issues on which we have been moving rapidly toward political resolution, but on which Trump would reverse course. We could decide that women are just less worthy as workers and deserve less pay, but women are about done with that kind of suppression. We can rely on fear for our basic motivations, but that is doomed to become exhausting, oppressive, and counter-productive. The United States can try to become a modern empire on a model like the old Roman Empire – but that is fantasy and immoral. We could try to maintain a white majority in the US, but that will prove a simple denial of reality. We could raise established and fundamental issues of civil rights again, but that is just asking for pervasive pain. Racism in many of its manifestations is definitely at stake in this election, but we must move forward instead of backwards. Keeping Muslims out of the US and many of Trump’s other promises comes pretty close to the sort of ridiculously negative standard exemplified in slavery. But there are other proposals that are even closer to an absolute “NO”: like a proposal to proliferate nuclear weapons! 

Another valued friend that I deeply respect opined that change is needed and that it is Trump who would bring it about. I can appreciate the way most of us are sick and tired of all politicians seeming to play the same game in which “the fix” is on and “we the people” are not in on it; I share the yearning for some genuine political reform. But going where Trump would take us is only to jump from the frying pan into the fire.