What's Tony Thinking

Living from Hope or Fear


This is the kind of preacher-ly question or sermon title that I don’t like because the “right answer” is so obvious.

Nevertheless, I have found it to be an important, even a critical question, at different junctures in my life. “Okay, Tony, are you going to live from your fears or your hopes?” Are you going to pull back or step out?

And . . . I think it is the  real question facing our country these days.

A correlate of fear is often anger. Some of the leading candidates for the Presidency rely on stirring our anger and fear. Trump of course. But also Sanders and Warren.

To be sure, anger is at times appropriate. There is such a thing as “righteous anger.” I sense that in Elizabeth Warren, probably Bernie as well. But it’s also easy to overplay the anger card because in its own way, anger is quite heady, even intoxicating.

Bernie strikes me as “running under the influence,” so to speak. Trump invites his base to drink deeply of a mix of anger and resentment, as well as fear.

In a recent column David Brooks assessed the “stories” to be told by “progressives” and moderates. He argues that moderates have the better story to tell.

That may be a hard sell because moderates do not, by and large, deploy anger and fear.

Their stock-in-trade is, well, moderation and hope. We got problems, but they aren’t the whole story.

Moderates don’t trade much in anger or its emotional satisfactions. Moreover, they are not as eager as anger/ fear crowd to identify “the enemy.” And having an enemy is also a very powerful personal and political toxin, with just enough truth in it to be believable.

I was struck in the Democrat’s “Debates” how clearly Warren, Sanders, and to a lesser extent O’Rourke and Castro, identified the enemy right off the bat. Big corporations, Big Pharma (is there any “little pharma?”) and capitalism.

Others, like Bennet, Hickenlooper, Delany and Klobuchar took the more moderate approach. But they, with the possible exception of Klobuchar, didn’t get much traction.

Here are two germane paragraphs from the Brooks piece.

“In the moderate story, government has a bigger role than before, but it is not a fighting, combative role. It is a booster rocket role. It is to give people the skills needed to compete and flourish in this open, pluralistic world. It is to give people a secure base, so they can go off and live daring adventures. It is to mitigate the downsides of change, and so people can realize the unprecedented opportunities.

“Statecraft is soul craft. Through the policies they choose, governments can encourage their citizens to become one sort of person or another. Progressives want to create a government caste that is powerful and a population that is safe but dependent. Moderates, by contrast, are trying to create a citizenry that possesses the vigorous virtues — daring, empowered, always learning, always brave.”

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned either Biden or Harris. Biden is clearly in the moderate camp, but he’s playing a lot of defense, in part because of his (diminishing) lead and also his age. Harris is harder to tag. She doesn’t seem to embrace the progressive agenda of Warren and Sanders, but it’s hard to tell what she does embrace — other than rhetorical slice and dice.

It is a time when fear haunts us on many fronts and not without good reason. But there’s a kind of despair that lies not far beneath the surface of contemporary fear.

From a theological point of view our cardinal sin is no longer the overweening pride of earlier, more self-confident eras. It is less our titanic desire to be “as gods” that bedevils us than our our refusal to be human.  Courage is diminished and our hope relinquished. Despair not pride is today’s besetting sin.

Cory Booker and Mayor Pete may be two of the field who can combine a more progressive agenda with a hopeful narrative.

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