Politics, Partisanship, and Partisanism

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

It’s always been etiquette in social situations to avoid religion and politics. Fights about these two important areas of life are not a new thing. I would contend though that what has occurred in our time is a move beyond politics and beyond partisanship to partisanism. Let me explain what I mean.

Politics: I know people who say they just don’t want to talk about politics. I haven’t figured out how we live without talking about politics. “Politics” comes from the Greek polis, the word for city, and has to do at root with the affairs of the city. The city was the state in ancient Greece. Since then, we have created additional levels of politics at state and national levels. Decisions about school curriculums, trash pick up and recycling services, policing, the creation and maintenance of state parks, the right of way of roads, what taxes we pay, and the regulations that govern interstate travel all are political.

Politics exist because more of us exist than simply our own households. We all have our ideas of what makes a good place, a good society. Politics is the process of how we figure out together how human societies best flourish. Good political processes are essential to a healthy society. When these processes cease to function well in promoting the common good, social orders deteriorate. Not all at once, perhaps. Societies may live for a while on the capital of formerly constructive political processes. I think that is our current predicament.

Partisanship: If you have two human beings, you probably have disagreements. Often, a number of people will take the same side against others. In many countries there are multiple groups with particular interests. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing because it allows diverse interests to have a voice in political decisions all have to live with. Effective politics recognizes the situations that need to be addressed for the health of a society, allows different voices to be heard, and arrives at compromises that aren’t perfect, but work, at least imperfectly for everyone. Healthy partisanship ensures that all the citizens are considered and that political solutions are ideally common good solutions, not favoring some citizens over others. Partisans keep in mind that they represent a certain interest but also serve those with different interests. Maintaining that tension is important if you believe in the equality and value of all your citizens.

Partisanism: I looked. It is actually a word. I see partisanism as a distortion of healthy partisanship. It is where party ideals become ideology and there is a kind of absolutism about it that says we are right and they are wrong. The point is not seeking some form of common good, but simply the good of our party, our group. Wrong people don’t deserve good. Partisanism stirs up a religious fervor befitting the fact that it is an -ism. If partisanism can’t get its way it obstructs and often complains that the other side is unwilling to compromise. What is really the case is that the extreme positions sides are forced to in these situations brook no compromise–only winners and losers. Nothing is left on the table. We only allow either/or. There is no room to consider both/and.

Partisanism at its worst becomes political extremism in which pretenses of principle are jettisoned for the ruthless exercise of power. It might be a form of fascism on the right or a form of statism on the left. In history, this always ends badly in the loss of human rights, and often, a succession of violence.

As a follower of Christ, I believe both that politics reflects an aspect of the “culture mandate” given Adam and Eve and that in a world of finite and fallen human beings the best that can ever be obtained are proximate goods. Any move toward the absolutism of partisanism and political extremism ignores these realities and substitutes an earthly kingdom for a heavenly one. Hence, I believe at best politicians work for proximate solutions that listen to and serve all those represented by them. I believe it is essential that our parties strive toward this kind of political work and that as a citizenry, we support that work and stop vilifying political compromise and negotiation. Might we release a kind of creativity when we free politicians from the tyranny of “either/or” politics to explore what “both/and” might look like?

I hope those of you reading don’t try to argue with me about what “they” did, whoever “they” are. I’m not interested in those arguments because I’m not interested in that kind of partisanism. I don’t mind a politics where we have different ideas of the common good as long as the common good of all our citizens is our aim. Any other politics is unworthy of us because implicitly we are saying that there are some Americans we don’t need, some Americans who don’t count, some who don’t have the same value as human beings. I’ve watched us espouse the idea of all being created equal on July 4 and ignore it the rest of the year for too long. We won’t get it perfect but a politics that relentless pursued the common good, and vigorously resisted partisanism, could get it better. No matter your party, that’s a politics worth talking about.

Review: Christ and the Kingdoms of Men

Christ and the Kingdoms of Men, David C. Innes, foreword by Carl R. Trueman. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Explores the civic and political responsibilities of Christians and the proper purposes of government.

This past electoral season underscores the urgency for the need of principled foundations for our political life and civic engagement. Here, as elsewhere, Christians ought look first at the foundations of their faith, as revealed in the scriptures. David C. Innes sets out to do this. It is important to note at outset that this is framed within a Reformed perspective reflecting theological convictions of Calvin and Abraham Kuyper.

Innes begins by grounding this theology in the Kingdom of God, revealed in his rule over creation, working through the vice-regency of human beings, even pre-fall, to fill and govern the creation, and in a fallen world, to provide various institutions of authority from the family to government to restrain evil and to provide for peaceable conditions allowing people to flourish secure in their life, health and possessions. With the coming of Christ comes not only redemption but the inauguration of God’s kingdom or rule that will transcend all earthly kingdoms, of which we are still necessarily a part, until the return of Christ.

Centering on Romans 13:1-7, Innes develops the proper role of government in the punishment of evil, protecting life and property, and positively protecting the exercise of piety and morality and liberty. Good governments praise the good. The challenge is governing in a fallen world, one where trust may not be assumed. Innes writes thoughtfully about the “political problem,” the tension between the power involved in government’s exercise of its proper role, and the restraints needed against excessive power. He explores Lockean government, upon which western democracies are modelled, both in the limits placed upon government and the creation of individual self-sovereignty under the law and its assertion of radical personal freedom.

Innes would argue for an ordered civil society in place of radical individualism, with limited government by the consent of governed under the rule of law. Running through this is the idea of subsidiarity, that what can be done at a lower level ought not be done at a higher or central one. Rights are what we would expect of one another. Following Romans 13, the proper response of one is submission to the government, save where this conflicts to obedience to God.

Up to this point, I would find myself in basic agreement. It is where Innes goes with the question of resistance that troubled me. He speaks of the role of inferior magistrates who ought act when those above them fail to act in the interest of the people. By this, he offers theological justification for the American Revolution. My problem is two-fold, at least. I do not find this principle of the inferior magistrate in scripture but only cited by the author in Calvin’s Institutes. Secondly, the same principle has been used to justify nullification in the lead up to the Civil War, and the secession of states that led to this costly and bloody war. Some use similar principles to argue for overturning authorities exercising public health powers in pandemics by mandating masks and other prudent measures for the common good (while ignoring ordinary measures like traffic laws that exist for similar reasons). At very least, it seems this idea, unless hedged about by the rule of law, may be arbitrary and dangerous to the public order.

I’m also troubled that this is the only form of resistance Innes proposes. I do not find any treatment of either the prophetic resistance of the Old Testament, nor the faithful resistance of the church against empire evident in Revelation. I do not see him put forward warrants for protest and non-violent resistance on the part of citizens that arguably in many societies has brought about political changes (I think of the Velvet Revolution of the Czech Republic). It does not seem that Innes envisions a society where people are subject to political oppression and do not have “inferior magistrates” to act on their behalf, unless this doctrine allows that leaders of such movements act in this role.

However, I must commend Innes on the concluding chapter for his discussion of citizenship and statesmanship. I do find here some of what I missed in the previous chapter in the role of a good citizen under tyranny. In more ordinary times, he also stresses the civic duties of citizens in the pursuit of the common good and the role of those who govern as statesmen who work, even in a pluralistic society, to preserve the liberties of all and the common good.

I think Innes offers a good, clear outline of a Reformed theology of government and the citizen. I would suggest that if one wants to read in this area, one not confine oneself to this book, but read more widely. Some suggestions may be found in the recommended readings. I would also suggest James Skillen’s The Good of Politics (review). Skillen comes out of the Reformed tradition, but draws on a much wider array of sources. However, this book lays out good basic groundwork for the basis and purpose and limits of government within God’s purposes, and the proper role of citizens.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Compassion (&) Conviction

Compassion (&) Conviction, Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, Foreword by Barbara Williams-Skinner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A handbook for better political and civic engagement, overcoming the highly polarized character of our current discourse and the unhealthy assimilation of the church into politics.

I, like so many of you, struggle increasingly with two things. One is the character of our political discourse, that turns everything into an either-or choice, down to the wearing of masks in a pandemic, a practice uncontroversial throughout most of the world. The other is the increasing captivity and assimilation of blocks of Christians into our political divisions, on both conservative and progressive sides, where Christian ethics and convictions on a range of matters must be muted in the pursuit of a few political aims. The Anabaptist in me is tempted to flee it all, branding it as “just politics,” a mere shadow of the polis of the church, the harbinger of God’s in-breaking kingdom. And yet, I see the examples of believing people in scripture and history whose faithful lives and witness functioned redemptively within political structures. And government, around which our politics revolve, is a God-ordained structure to bring order and justice within society, and, when at its best, to protect the most vulnerable among us.

The authors of this book, described as “the AND Campaign’s guide to faithful civic engagement” renew my hope that a better form of political and civic engagement is still possible. The AND Campaign‘s stated aim is:

TO EDUCATE AND ORGANIZE CHRISTIANS FOR CIVIC AND CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT THAT RESULTS IN BETTER REPRESENTATION, MORE JUST AND COMPASSIONATE POLICIES AND A HEALTHIER POLITICAL CULTURE.

This book combines principle and practice to flesh out that aim. The authors begin by setting politics within the broader Christian mission, contending that faithfulness always comes before political wins. They offer a civics lesson on how our government is constituted and the First Amendment protections both from a state church and the state’s intrusion into the life of the church. This does not preclude the influence of Christian principles in political discussions pursuing the common good. The authors emphasize how our engagement must be shaped by compassion and conviction, love and justice. They discuss how we engage partnerships and partisanship without losing our identity. They offer guidelines for messaging that is clear, well-researched, persuasive, loving, and convictional. They give clear-eyed direction for engaging racial injustices and pursuing racial reconciliation while avoiding destructive mobs. They instruct readers in effective advocacy. And they offer practical guidelines for maintaining civility.

I particularly appreciated the following guidelines for partnerships and partisanship:

  1. Be confident in your identity in Christ.
  2. Get to know your partners and understand their endgame.
  3. Identify the objective and shared values.
  4. Identify differences and conflicting views.
  5. Don’t isolate the issue.
  6. Don’t take on your partner’s identity.
  7. Protect against losing your identity through active critique. (pp. 69-72)

All this underscores two major themes of this book. One is the theme of AND in a time of either-or. Their approach is one of reconciliation, that cares for both fetuses and mother, for both people of color and police. Yet it is also an approach grounded in truth and justice. The authors repeatedly speak of pro-life convictions, they uphold advocacy, oppose systemic racism, and counsel avoiding those who would engage in destructive mob violence.

The second theme is that our political and civic engagement, as every area of life must be shaped by our mission and ethics as Christians. We must never submerge our identity for political aims, no matter how good and holy those aims may seem. We are to do this confidently but humbly, not arrogantly, and to love those who oppose us.

It is a time when the only alternatives for Christians appear to be political captivity and assimilation or isolation that withdraws from and political involvements. The authors invite us to principled and loving engagement in civic and political affairs as acts of Christian faithfulness that undergird rather than undermine our Christian witness. They offer biblical principles and practical guidelines. This is a vital book for such a time as this.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Republic in the Ranks

a republic in the ranks

A Republic in the RanksZachery A. Fry. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of political loyalties in the Army of the Potomac, and the influence of junior officers and the experience of war among enlisted men, resulting in Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 to a second term.

At one point, it was not at all certain that Abraham Lincoln would win re-election. The Army of the Potomac suffered defeats or at best partial victories against the Confederacy. There was a growing Copperhead movement of Peace Democrats pressing for a settlement that would restore the Union without resolving the issue of slavery–a return to the status quo. This was further complicated after Lincoln cashiered General George McClellan, a popular leader among his men despite his lackluster record. Eventually, he became the Democratic presidential candidate on the Copperhead platform. Many in the senior command of the Army of the Potomac still supported him. Yet in the end, the Army of the Potomac overwhelmingly voted for Lincoln.

In this work, Zachery A. Fry explores the hotbed of political discussion that was the Army of the Potomac, and how their votes ended up solidly in the Lincoln column. The Army was united by loyalty in its commitment to defeat the Confederacy and restore the Union. But there were two different ideas of loyalty. One group was loyal to the constitution, wanting to restore the Union, but without enforcing abolition and the emancipation of slaves. They favored a negotiated settlement and supported the Democrats. The other group was loyal to the Republican administration and its commitment to emancipation and hard war.

Fry traces the evolution of the political views in the ranks as the war progressed. At the beginning, most didn’t have strong political views as much as a rage militaire response to Southern secession. The initial battle experiences, both defeats and victories, and the dashing figure of McClellan led to a divided Army, during the Peninsula Campaign, and especially after he was relieved during the extended pause after the Maryland campaign. Things began to shift as Joseph Hooker took command as more and more junior officers led their men in loyalty to the administration. A combination of being excluded from voting by many Democrat-led states and the realities of what they saw in the South fostered support for the administration. Democrat generals in the upper ranks continued to advocate for the constitution and peace with the South. While a number of veterans refused to re-enlist, tired of war, they continued to advocate back home for Lincoln. The endorsement by McClellan of the Copperhead platform cemented the loyalty to the Republican/Union ticket leading to their overwhelming support of Lincoln.

Fry takes us from the big picture to the unit level, citing unit resolutions and the advocacy of individual officers. What is clearly apparent is that junior officers closest to the men had much greater influence that the senior officers who inclined toward McClellan. He offers a chronological bibliography of unit resolutions that document the political evolution in units. He also provides an appendix with unit-by-unit election returns beginning with 1863 gubernatorial races.

This is a valuable work for all Civil War buffs and scholars as well as those who study the impact of political beliefs inside the military and how those beliefs are formed. The role of junior officers is especially important. It seems that, equally, the alignment between battlefield realities and administration policy was significant. Soldiers would not accept politics that undermined the significance of their efforts or rolled them back. Fry helps us understand the political dynamics within the Army of the Potomac, and why Lincoln was re-elected despite the efforts of Peace Democrats.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Running For Our Lives

Running for our Lives, Robb Ryerse (Foreword by Brian D. McLaren). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: A northwest Arkansas pastor decides to run in a primary against one of the most powerful Republican representatives in a grassroots campaign to restore a say in government to ordinary citizens.

Robb Ryerse was a political junkie. He was also a pastor whose developing ministry led him to political views at variance with many of his fundamentalist counterparts. It led him eventually to launch a counter-cultural and inclusive church in northwest Arkansas. It led to weeping when the nominee of his party was elected president in 2016 and joining others who were concerned about the way our political process was going.

All this led to Ryerse being recruited by Brand New Congress to run a grassroots campaign oriented around the common good of the everyday American. He went to a “Congress Camp” with a number of candidates from both parties including Antonia Ocasio-Cortez. What is striking is that Ryerse went as a Republican running against a Republican incumbent. He finds himself at variance with his party, not with the philosophy of governance, but rather with positions on healthcare, climate change, and immigration that have become immigration. He discovered that for all their disagreements, he could find common ground by focusing on the common good with those at Congress Camp who did not share his party affiliation–something they all wanted to take to Washington.

One of the key issues he explores is the issue of campaign finance. He argues that you will only have a Congress responsive to everyday citizens when they, and not big donors fund the campaigns, something Antonia Ocasio-Cortes was able to do. The challenge: this will probably take a constitutional amendment unless Americans refuse to support candidates funded by big money interests.

He traces the high and low points, the latter including a party dinner in a remote part of the district where his name was mispronounced and no one would talk to him. On the other hand were voters dissatisfied with the direction of the party who listened. A documentary crew follows his run from when he pays the $15,000 entry fee set by the party, his early high hopes and his increasing realization that he just didn’t have the votes. He ended winning 15 percent of the vote.

He ended the race a changed person. He reached a position on gun control that focused not only on the right to bear arms, but the “well-regulated” character of a citizenry who did so as a basis for gun legislation that did not take weapons away, but did govern how they could be obtained as part of a package of common sense gun legislation. Most of all, he became even more convinced of the need for a movement that focused on the electing of everyday people by everyday people committed to the common good. So when the invitation to become executive director of Brand New Congress to continue this movement, he said yes.

I suspect a number of people who read this review would not agree with all of Ryerse positions. I don’t. But what strikes me is that Ryerse argues for the kind of politician that I think we need to change the character of our legislative branch — people committed to seeking the common good of our citizens. What Ryerse does not answer is what it takes for such candidates to unseat a heavily funded incumbent on a shoe string. His support from everyday people, which he prided himself on, only amounted to $30,000, a paltry amount compared to his opponent. He can pride himself that he ran a principled race all he wants, but the truth is, he didn’t even come close to being elected. Nor did he generate enough of a movement of “everyday people” to even make the race competitive. Does that say something?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Clingan’s Chronicles

Clingan's Chronicles

Clingan’s Chronicles, Clingan Jackson. Youngstown: Youngstown Publishing Co., 1991.

Summary: A memoir of Youngstown political writer and office holder, Clingan Jackson.

Clingan Jackson was a newswriter, and later political editor of The Vindicator, Youngstown’s newspaper from 1929 until 1983. His life spanned most of the twentieth century (1907 to 1997), and this memoir, published six years before his death chronicles not only his life, but nearly a century of local and political history in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. As you can imagine, covering political life in the Mahoning Valley makes for an interesting narrative!

Jackson actually begins his account with family history of both the Clingans and the Jacksons that make up his lineage and how they came to Coitsville Township, what eventually became part of the East side of Youngstown. We learn about the family homestead on Jacobs Road (still standing) and how they were among the early settlers of the area. During part of his youth, his immediate family moved to Carbon, Pennsylvania, just across the state line, while he attended Lowellville High School in Ohio, holding his first political office as class president of his class of fifteen.

He spent his college years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, majoring in English and History, good preparation for a political writer. He describes the typical experiences both of learning and social fraternities, and the highlight of hearing Will Rogers speak. Reading this narrative, one senses he sought in his own writing to be a commentator on politics in the vein of Rogers.

After graduation, he returned to Youngstown in 1929, and almost immediately hired on with The Vindicator. At the end of 1929, he received notice that his job was ending, but when he went to turn in his key, the publisher let him stay on until he found another job. He ended up staying fifty-four years.  His account of covering The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was one of the most riveting parts of the book. Here is a portion:

“Ed Salt, a Vindicator photographer, and I were dispatched to Poland Avenue to cover the tense situation. It was growing dark by that time, lights were being shot out and hundreds of men were milling along the street. We parked near the fire station and started walking down the sidewalk. As we passed by a bush, we saw its leaves completely eliminated as a shotgun blast rang out. Being a brave man, I went back to the fire station; needing to take pictures, Salt pushed onward.

When I arrived at the station someone exclaimed, ‘Salt has been shot.’ Mustering my courage, I went to his rescue, and found him with his white shirt completely bloodied. I got him into the car, and we headed up Poland Avenue. Although the street was barricaded, I persuaded the pickets to let the car through by explaining I had a passenger who needed to go to the hospital.”

His tenure as political editor spanned the presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. Perhaps one of the little known facts about Jackson that came out in the book was that he was a pioneer in political polling and his polls more often than not were right on the money. The Gallup organization consulted with him on his methods. His book narrates his coverage of a number of the national political conventions during these years as well as the local politics of Youngstown, and particularly its shift over time to a Democrat Party-dominated town. We meet both office-holders and party leaders, including John Vitullo who helped lead the Democrats to their ascendancy.

One of the unique aspects of Jackson’s career is that he both covered politics and held office at the same time, and satisfied his publisher with his ability to impartially cover politics. He held office as a city council person in Lowellville, and state representative and senator. Later, he was appointed to a number of state commissions. His career was distinguished by introducing the first strip-mining act, helping create the state Department of Natural Resources, and participating in commissions that laid out the state’s interstate highways and later, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. As he writes about his various association with both Democrat and Republican governors and other leaders, one has the sense that he, like Hubert Humphrey, was a “happy warrior,” far removed from the partisan vitriol of the present day.

His final chapters reflect back over his career, his retired life (although he continued contributing articles for the Youngstown-Warren Business Journal into the 1990), and his three marriages. Though aware of his own failings, what makes this part of the book quite wonderful is the deep joy and gratitude evident as he thinks of his times, his acceptance of his own mortality, and his thankfulness for each of his wives, two of whom pre-deceased him. He wrote of his three wives, “Good fortune is a necessary element of most any man’s success, and mine was having three farm girls for wives.”

The book includes a number of photographs of his life, surroundings, and of the people and places of Youngstown. Between each chapter are columns he wrote between the 1950’s and the 1990’s.

The voice in this memoir is warm and personal and has the feeling of a transcription of oral history. It strikes me that his book is a memoir of what might be looked back upon as a golden age of journalism, politics, and perhaps, the Mahoning Valley. People interested in any of these subjects will enjoy his account.

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Although published in 1991, I learned that new copies of the book may be purchased by contacting The Business Journal (the last publication Jackson wrote for) at 330-744-5023 Ext. 1008, asking for Eileen Lovell. Cost is $20 plus sales tax.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Clingan Jackson

Clingan's Chronicles

Clingan Jackson, on the cover of Clingan’s Chronicles

Recently, one of the followers of this blog recommended reading Clingan’s Chronicles written by Clingan Jackson. I remembered his columns from when I delivered The Vindicator, and who read him avidly as one of the first eighteen-year-olds to get the vote. I’m in the middle of the book, which is a fascinating combination of memoir, and history of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. Particularly its political history.

Clingan Jackson was the long time political editor at The Vindicator. He not only knew the political history of the Valley better than anyone of his time. He helped make it as a State Representative and later State Senator in the 1930’s. In 1950, he finally lost his Senate seat to Charles Carney, who later represented the Youngstown area in Congress. During his time at the State House, he introduced the first strip mining act, and later helped create the Ohio Department of Natural Resources–an environmentalist long before this became a cause. He ran for governor in 1958, losing badly. He also served on several state commissions.

Jackson was born into one of the “first families” of Youngstown. Ancestors, the McFalls, actually lived as trappers on Dry Run Creek (where McKelvey Lake is now located) even before John Young first established Youngstown. His great grandfather, John Calvin Jackson settled in the Coitsville area on the east side of Youngstown in 1804. His grandfather, who served as a Mahoning County Commissioner in the 1870’s and helped engineer the move of the county seat to Youngstown, built the family homestead on Jacobs Road. Clingan Jackson was born on March 28, 1907. He says one of his earliest memories was seeing his father come in on a snowy day to announce the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. It was a political family where heated discussion was common and not all agreed.

Jackson’s parents moved around. For a time, they lived across the state line in Hillsville where his father worked at the Carbon Limestone Company. He was allowed to attend Lowellville High School because of his Ohio roots. He joined his brother John at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1925 and returned to Youngstown after graduation in 1929. He worked at the electric company for a few months and then started working for The Vindicator for $25 a week. His first job was fetching stock quotations from local brokerages, which gave him a first hand glimpse of the panic when the market crashed in October of 1929. He covered the beginnings of the labor movement in Youngstown in the early 1930’s and the Little Steel Strike of 1937. His narrative captures the risks reporters of his time went through to get the story:

“Ed Salt, a Vindicator photographer, and I were dispatched to Poland Avenue to cover the tense situation. It was growing dark by that time, lights were being shot out and hundreds of men were milling along the street. We parked near the fire station and started walking down the sidewalk. As we passed by a bush, we saw its leaves completely eliminated as a shotgun blast rang out. Being a brave man, I went back to the fire station; needing to take pictures, Salt pushed onward.

When I arrived at the station someone exclaimed, ‘Salt has been shot.’ Mustering my courage, I went to his rescue, and found him with his white shirt completely bloodied. I got him into the car, and we headed up Poland Avenue. Although the street was barricaded, I persuaded the pickets to let the car through by explaining I had a passenger who needed to go to the hospital.”

It turns out that Salt was covered with shotgun pellet wounds, none serious.

Youngstown Vindicator Clingan Jackson 09011968

Part of Clingan Jackson’s column from the September 1, 1968 Vindicator, the Sunday after the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention

He became the political editor of The Vindicator in 1938 and continued in that role until 1983. He covered every president from Roosevelt through Reagan, and the congressional terms of Michael Kirwan, Charles Carney, Lyle Williams, and Jim Traficant. Although a lifelong Democrat, and at times an officeholder, his real fascination was with the practice of politics and he was able to cover Democrats and Republicans impartially. He was one of the pioneers in political polling, and the accuracy of his polls brought him to the attention of George Gallup.

Andrea Wood did a feature for WYTV on Clingan Jackson toward the end of his tenure at the Vindicator, in 1980. It is fascinating to watch him hunt and peck at a computer terminal while chomping on his trademark cigar. He comes across as the classic newspaper man. She later helped him with the editing work on Clingan’s Chronicles.

He retired from The Vindicator in 1983. He went on to contribute a column to the Youngstown-Warren Business Journal into the 1990’s. He passed away on March 26, 1997, two days shy of 90. He joined a number of his ancestors who are buried in the Coitsville Presbyterian-Jackson Cemetery. He was married three times, with two of his wives preceding him in death, Virginia and Thelma (“Billy”). His third wife, Loretta Fitch Jackson owned Loretta Fitch Florist at the intersection of Routes 616 and 422 in Coitsville. He wrote of his three wives, “Good fortune is a necessary element of most any man’s success, and mine was having three farm girls for wives.”

Sources:

Clingan Jackson, Clingan’s Chronicles (Youngstown: Youngstown Publishing Co., 1991)

Ted Heineman, Senator Clingan Jackson” Riverside Cemetery Journal, 2009.

Andrea Wood, Monthly News Magazine — WYTV, February 1980.

 

Choosing Barabbas

800px-GiveUsBarabbas

PD-US, “Give us Barabbas” from volume 9 of The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer, published in 1910.

But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”

Luke 23:18, New International Version.

We’ve just come through a weekend that began with the submission of the Mueller Report and concluded with the Barr summary. I will not be discussing this report, of which most of us still know very little. Rather I want to discuss a more basic reflex of the partisans of our national political discussion.

Those who identify with the president seem to feel that their hero has been vindicated and already are thinking about what could be done under his leadership with four more years to “Make America Great Again.”

Those who identify with the other party in our national political discussion are already in a vigorous quest to find the person who will lead them, and the nation out of what they see is a political wilderness. There are quite a cast of rivals: Amy, Andrew, Bernie, Beto, Cory, Elizabeth, Kamala, Kirsten, Jay, John D, John H., Julian, Marianne, and Tulsi. Joe Biden is still considering as are a couple of mayors and several others.

It is going to be an interesting two years.

What I want to focus on is our quest for political messiahs. I want to propose that when we pursue political messiahs, no matter the party stripe, we are choosing Barabbas.

The reference goes back to the gospel Passion narratives.  The Roman governor, Pilate, under pressure to kill an innocent man, Jesus, tries to find an out with a practice of granting the release during the Jewish Passover festival of one of the prisoners sentenced to crucifixion. As an alternative to Jesus, Pilate offers an insurrectionist, someone who had challenged Rome’s rule, perhaps a political messiah to some. Pilate obviously miscalculated the crowd’s loyalties. They ask for the insurrectionist and murderer rather than the healer and teacher whose worst act was clearing the temple and preaching of a kingdom not of this world.

Then, as now, there was a hunger for political leadership that would help a nation realize its hopes and dreams, in this case political independence from the Roman empire. Now we want leaders who will guarantee religious freedom, economic greatness, health care for all (or not), green policies (or not), welcoming immigrants and refugees and/or protecting our borders, and on and on. I don’t necessarily think it a bad thing to aspire to many of these, but I’m troubled by the messianic dreams that we require our politicians to feed that they will inevitably disappoint. They will no more bring in religious, economic or social utopias than did Barabbas bring an end to Roman rule.

When we look to political leaders to be our messiahs, we are choosing Barabbas, and Barabbas will fail us.

The other thing I want to propose is that we cannot choose Barabbas and Jesus. This is particularly addressed to those who identify as Christian–of any stripe. Essentially, the act of putting hope in any political messiah is to say, “away with Jesus!” What concerns me about the political idolatry in many of our churches, whether of figures on the right or left, is that we are giving an allegiance to others of which only Jesus is properly deserving, and neglecting the political order of which he is the leader. When we surrender the church to be in the vanguard of an earthly political order, we forsake the priorities of Jesus’s political order, one that transcends nation, economic status, age, gender, ethnic background and one that promotes, not division, but justice and healing of these fault lines, creating “a beloved community,” in the words of Dr. King.

Finally, I would have you think of this. When we seek political messiahs, we not only choose Barabbas, we “crucify” Jesus. While we cannot physically put Jesus to death, when we claim to be followers of Jesus but seek political messiahs, we often turn others away from Jesus. It is striking that “nones,” the religiously unafilliated, are now the largest single group in the US, tied with those who identify as Catholic, and greater than Evangelicals who are second according to the most recent General Social Survey.

This is not a call to give up political engagement, but rather to re-order our allegiances. Instead of viewing political leaders, particularly presidents, as messiahs, could we not return to simply viewing them as public servants serving the public good? I would suggest that at best, the public good is a proximate good. Utopias of the right or the left are dangerous, in my view, and may end up as tyrannies. Might we not, instead, look for those who might serve well and leave things a bit better than they found them?

It also strikes me that when we stop looking for messiahs, we stop looking for charismatic figures. We look at character–for measures of integrity, courage, wisdom. We look at demonstrated capability and convictions. We also remember that all human beings are at best “magnificent ruins.” We stop putting them on pedestals only to knock them down.

Whether we embrace Jesus or not, might it be time, and past time for us to stop choosing Barabbas?

Review: Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth WarrenAntonia Felix. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2018

Summary: A biography of the Democrat U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, from the financial struggles of her family, her academic life and the research that changed her life, and her work protecting consumers that led to her Senate run.

“She persisted.” These words became a rallying cry when Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter from Coretta Scott King during the confirmation hearings of Jeff Session to the cabinet office of Attorney General. The letter spoke to Mrs. King’s contention that Sessions, as a federal judge had taken actions that chilled the exercise of voting rights by black citizens. She was interrupted once, warned of impugning the character of a fellow senator. The second time, Mitch McConnell stopped her, and she was forced to take her seat after the Republican dominated Senate voted to silence her. He said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And she did. Banned from speaking in the Senate, she read the letter on a live Facebook video.

This was just the latest instance of a persistence born of a commitment to advocate for those our system often overlooks. It began, according to Antonia Felix, in Oklahoma, and her own family’s struggles to make ends meet. She watched her mother go to work save their home when her father had a heart attack. She had a passion to teach when becoming a homemaker was society’s vision for women and struggled in her early years between these two visions. A love of debate led to a scholarship to George Washington University. Her love for Jim Warren, high school sweetheart, led to a move to Texas, and completion of her degree at the University of Houston in speech pathology. A teaching job ended when she became pregnant. Struggling with the life of a stay at home mom after a move to New Jersey following her husband’s job, she enrolled in Rutgers Law School, which she described as “an advanced degree in thinking.” Completing law school, she and Jim moved back to Houston, with a second child, a son.

An offer to teach the legal writing at the University of Houston Law Center launched her career–and led to the end of her first marriage, as conflicts between her and Jim made it clear they had different marriage and life visions. She met her current husband, Bruce, at Houston. The biography goes on to trace her legal career as she moved to Texas, Penn, and eventually Harvard.

More significant, and especially for someone like myself who works with academics, Warren was transformed by her research. When she began her legal career, she was influenced by a law and economics course taught by Henry Manne in a program funded by the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, essentially a right wing group. One of her research interests was bankruptcy, particularly in a period when bankruptcy laws had made debt relief more accessible to financially troubled families. There were many advocating for tougher laws, contending that people were gaming the system and irresponsible. She ended up studying thousands of bankruptcy cases and came to a very different conclusion that contradicted her right wing leanings. She discovered lending and credit card practices that created debt loads that pressed families to limits at which a job loss or illness would push them over the edge. Terms buried in credit card agreements and sub-prime loans for those qualifying for better terms were the most outstanding examples.

It transformed her into an advocate for consumers and led to her helping set up, under the Obama administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. In a landmark journal article (reprinted in the book) Warren argued,

“It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street–and the mortgage won’t even carry a disclosure of that fact to the homeowner. Similarly, it’s impossible to change the price on a toaster once it has been purchased. But long after the papers have been signed, it is possible to triple the price of the credit used to finance the purchase of that appliance, even if the customer meets all the credit terms, in full and on time.”

Bank failures and the sins of Wall Street in 2008 made her a fierce advocate for regulatory reform and finally convinced her to run for the Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2012. Opposition to efforts to roll back reforms made during the Obama years has made her a visible object for attack, including her claims of Indian heritage. The book includes the transcript of an address to Native Americans where she addresses this.

Warren is up for re-election this year, and has acknowledged that she is giving serious consideration to a run for the presidency in 2020. This book does have something of the feel of a campaign piece, introducing the wider public to Warren, addressing criticisms without making new ones. But it also did reveal something extraordinary that impressed me. Here was an academic whose research changed her mind and compelled her to act on what she found. She didn’t remain a “one dimensional scholar” remaining detached from her findings. She moved to work in government to apply those findings in ways that made life better for the people she studied. She cared more about truth than ideology, and allowed evidence to change her mind, and then showed the courage of her convictions over and over in advocacy. She persisted.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One of the Problems With Our Politics

Ohio_US_Congressional_District_12_(since_2013)

The Ohio 12th Congressional District as of 2013.

This is the congressional district, the Ohio 12th, in which I live. Do you see the problem? Why would you create a district like this?

I live in northwest Franklin County, in the city of Columbus, just below the dotted county line above which is the word “Powell.” Columbus is the focal point of most of our lives–where we work, the teams we root for, the politics we pay attention to, the parks we play in, the libraries and other public services we use. There is a highly populated sliver of this district in northern Franklin County outside I-270 with a tongue reaching down into Clintonville, significantly, all west of I-71, a significant ethnic demarcation line in that part of the city. Why would you carve up the Franklin County portions of the district like this?

Much of the rest of this weirdly shaped district is exurban or rural populations. Delaware County to the north has seen an explosion of affluent home construction by upper middle class individuals. Some contend that Delaware County carried George Bush in his slim election victories in Ohio. In national campaigns, Democrats come to Columbus, and Republicans to Delaware County. Morrow, Richland, Licking and southern Muskingum Counties are heavily rural counties. Why would you draw up a district like this?

The answer, very simply, is to make it a safe Republican seat. Only for eight years in the 1930’s, and two years in the 1980’s has the Ohio 12th been held by a Democrat. Why do I write about all this now?

As I write (a day ahead of posting), we are having a special election in this district. Pat Tiberi, the Republican representative vacated his seat in January. Troy Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville, and Danny O’Conner, a Democrat from the northern part of Columbus, are contesting the seat both now for the remainder of the unexpired term, and again in November for a new two year term. It is the one congressional election between now and November and HUGE amounts of advertising money on both sides have been poured into this race. Polling indicates the two candidates are separated by a mere point, statistically insignificant. Everyone is looking at this race as to whether there will be a “blue wave” in November.

Some of the craziness of this gerrymandered district is reflected in a remark made by the Republican candidate on his last campaign stop in his home town of Zanesville on Monday, August 6. He said:

“My opponent is from Franklin County, and Franklin County has been challenging. We don’t want someone from Franklin County representing us.”

It happens that one-third of the population of the district lives in that sliver of northern Franklin County and the remark seems to suggest that “us” somehow doesn’t include Franklin County, or that if the candidate from Franklin County were elected, he wouldn’t represent the “us” the Republican candidate was speaking to.

That’s the problem with gerrymandering. Political leaders of either party don’t have to think about representing everyone–only the base that gives them an election margin. Draw the district along the right demographic lines and you usually don’t have to worry. Both parties do this, which helps account for our highly polarized political conversation and gridlocked political process. A March 26, 2018 New York Times article states that at that time, only 48 of 435 House seats were considered “up for grabs.”

The sad thing is that representatives end up representing only some of us. If the Republican candidate wins, I wonder if he will represent me because I live in “Franklin County.” If the other wins, I’m sure some will wonder if their voices will be heard. Furthermore, this focuses on how we differ and not on what unites us, as Ohioans, and Americans. It seems to me that one could run focusing on what unites us even in our current gerrymandered district. But failing to hew to current party orthodoxy could be costly. If more districts were competitive, candidates would have to develop positions that reflect the concerns of all the district. And they would have to serve and listen to all the district during intervening years.

I think it a good thing that the race in my district is competitive. But I am concerned that this reflects more a political moment of resistance to a president unpopular in some quarters than the result of a consistently competitive district. Our political process needs to be built on something better than waves of political discontent or balkanized districts of safe seats. We have passed redistricting reforms in Ohio this spring that await the 2020 census. The process won’t be complete until 2023. We’ve yet to see what will result.

What can we do in the meanwhile? One thing as citizens is to identify and focus on the issues that affect all of us and not allow ourselves to be divided by the political parties. All but the super-rich face the issue of the cost of health care. No matter what we think about causes, all of us face the effects of climate change. We may not have it so bad in Ohio right now, but what happens when other parts of our country come seeking our water, or start moving here when other places become unlivable? How are we dealing with opioid use that are turning cities into war zones and rural areas into places of despair and grief.

The other thing is to pay attention and communicate about the things that matter to us–call, write, email, visit, and if we are not being heard, use our free speech rights to write in newspapers, on blogs, and to protest publicly.

We’ve let this happen to our country. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into demographic units and played up to on “hot button” issues instead of demanding responsible governance across the board and political leadership that values all of us and calls us together to pursue the best for our country. Today, and in November, we vote in my congressional district. It’s easy to collect my sticker and say I’ve done my duty. But as citizens, it has only begun.

[Written Tuesday, August 7, 2018] Update: Republican Troy Balderson narrowly defeated (a one percent margin) Democrat Danny O’Connor. A Green party candidate accounted for much of the difference in the other two candidates’ vote totals. They run against each other again in the November general election.