St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community

St. Olaf College

Oles on the Election

Love and Politics: Two Sides of the Same Coin

By Alexander Betley October 23, 2016

Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.

In case you haven’t noticed, lots of people are talking (screaming?) about politics these days, and a lot of them are saying how they’re tired: “I’m tired of racism. I’m tired of anti-intellectualism. I’m tired of liberal smugness. I’m tired of white privilege. I’m tired of hate and anger and fear. I’m tired of money in politics, and I’m tired of status-quo foreign policies. I’m tired of working people getting shafted at the behest of neoliberal economic policies. I’m tired of religious factioneering. I’m tired of discrimination and prejudice. I’m tired of the media. I’m tired of the debates. I’m tired of Clinton. I’m tired of Trump.”

Yes, we’re all tired. We’re tired of a dysfunctional democracy. The media doesn’t help. Social media, especially, doesn’t help. Sometimes I wonder if we actually realize how rabid we’ve all become, liberals and conservatives alike. All of this resulting in an explosion of vitriol, and then, tiredness.

But today, instead of being tired, I’m going to try something new; something novel. I’m going to try and be hopeful. Because, frankly, 23 years old is too damn young to be tired.

However, let me begin by taking a walk down memory lane…

Our country was founded by a small bunch of well-educated white dudes in powdered wigs. They wrote “we the people,” but as is often pointed out, “the people” seemed to be narrowly defined. It didn’t include women. It didn’t include slaves. It didn’t include the indigenous or indentured servants. It was mostly predicated on possessing some type of wealth. Thus, non-property holding white males, too, were largely excluded. What is more problematic for many observers is that thousands fought and died for the idealistic liberal principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Such sentiments, of course, remind one of the epigram that “wars are fought by the poor for the benefit of the rich.”

However, as radical author and professor, Michael Parenti, has noted, “The old trick of using democratic rhetoric to cloak an undemocratic class order can backfire when people begin to take the democratic rhetoric seriously and translate it into democratic demands.”

This is largely how I view American history– whether or not enlightenment thinkers and their inheritors intended for people to take their rights seriously– the democratic seeds that were sown took root and have implanted themselves in the American consciousness. Hence, you have Abraham Lincoln, many years after the founding of the United States, proclaiming at Gettysburg the importance of this liberal, democratic vision: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Hence, you have Frederick Douglass, expressing in his 1845 memoir on slavery, the liberating reality of freedom from oppression and servitude. And hence, you have Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, printing in their journal on women’s rights, that “The true republic– men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”

The list goes on: the right to collective bargaining, civil rights for blacks, women’s rights in the workplace, the rights of the disabled, the right to marry whomever one loves, and on and on. The democratic consciousness– the desire for equality, freedom, and justice– these are the American values that unite us. Despite the real existence of class differences, these principles are the engine behind progress and move our country forward.

My intent here, in this short amount of space, is not to dismiss with many of the bleak and dark realities of our country. My intent is to demonstrate and express that, despite these realities, our country has harnessed the democratic ideal– through shootings, lynchings, public shamings, and beatings; through forlorn-ness and pariah-ness and hatefulness; through hundreds of thousands of men dead, through forced servitude, through fire-hoses, through assaults on labor, we’re still here. Rights have been won, and our country is stronger. All of this sacrifice stemmed from people demanding their democratic rights become reality– and, many times, if not for themselves, for their children and grandchildren. For posterity.

Fast-forward to the present, and we’re all tired; tired and frustrated. It’s easy to see why. I think most would’ve thought that, being so far removed from our long-gone wigged friends of the revolution, we would’ve figured out this whole democracy and tolerance thing.

Instead, “crooked” Hillary is a liar. Donald Trump is a fascist. The democrats are two-timing gun thieves. The Republicans are a bunch of anti-intellectual inbreds (just writing this, I can hear the war drums beating in the distance, armies marching to battle, fueled by anger and hatred of their fellow citizen). No matter how you spin it, our politics have devolved into the worst partisanship of “Us vs. Them.” Political pundits and media personalities force-feed this baloney down our throat, as though some grand cosmic final battle were about to be waged, and that, simply put, one must choose a side, then attack viciously.

Now, I’m not calling on people to neglect real and fair differences of opinion. Diversity of opinion is what drives democratic debate. Nor am I calling on people to accept racism, sexism, and xenophobia– as a societal standard, such debates ended long ago. Seeing the erasure of such awful sentiments materialized is the task of the current generation. We are well aware we have our work cut out for us on this point.

However, as it now stands (and as I alluded to at the beginning of this essay), we are all getting tired. Though I, young as I am, feel it too, this worries me. How can we get tired now? How can we choose the easy way out of reverting to political tribalism when it’s so painfully obvious that political tribalism has failed us? In a country more marked by political identity than love of one’s neighbor, how can we sleep at night?

I don’t know who is going to win the presidency in a few weeks. Despite all the polls, such soothsaying is beyond my capabilities.

One thing I am certain of, however, is that no matter who wins the presidency, it won’t magically erase our political vitriol and hate. Such changes require a revision of national consciousness, and the changing of a national consciousness by a divided, beleaguered people running on the short-run burst of a hate addiction is unlikely. Moreover, change isn’t won in an election.

So today, I have chosen to try and take up the words of Martin Luther King Jr: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

I think we all want the same basic things: prosperity, freedom, justice. Together, these values have pushed our country, and much of the world, forward. I also think we want to love and to be loved. Unfortunately, I feel the former values are contingent on the latter. It might just be that in this country, at the root of our problems, we have a love deficit.

However, that can be changed. To love or to hate is a choice all of us must make, and it’s most difficult when, many times against our intuitions, we must love the unloveable.

I propose we choose love nonetheless. As King said above, “hate is too great a burden to bear.”

About the Author

Alexander Betley is a St. Olaf Senior from O'Fallon, Missouri majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He is studying abroad this semester in Copenhagen, Denmark.