Some time ago I blogged on “covenant path marking,” which is the use of a specific practice as a litmust test for covenant faithfulness. Politics, especially when it comes to the Supreme Court hearings for Alito, has succumbed to the same practice. It seems fairly evident to most reasonable folks that, for the Democrats, how one stands on the Roe v. Wade decision is determinative of a person’s character and capacity to judge and potential rulings on former decisions spell apocalyptic doom or millennial hope. Now John Kerry claims we’ve got an “ideological coup” about to occur. And all kinds of apocalyptic warnings are being fired through the media. Republicans are quietly waiting for the final vote to announce triumph.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, way back in 1841 when Abe Lincoln was still splitting wood and learning the lawyer’s trade and gearing up for an apocalyptic fight with Stephen Douglas, himself cut a path through these political impasses between what he called the party of “Conservatism” and the party of “Innovation.” He says these two parties “have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made.”
He continues: “On rolls the old world meantime, and now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities.”
The Conservative Party, he observes, “clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact.” And: “Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry.” Emerson’s being poetic here; I think I get what he is saying. Conservatives look to the past; Reformers turn their back on the past.
And Isaiah Berlin, in his classic essay on Leo Tolstoy, who had his own apocalyptic moments, said there are two kinds: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs can concentrate on only one thing; foxes spend their days being divided between hunting and hiding and snooping and snarfing. Berlin said Tolstoy was a fox who dreamed like a hedgehog. Perhaps so. What is so is that our politicians are mostly hedgehogs. Hedgehogs, to combine our ideas, are given to apocalypses because they focus too narrowly on one thing.
Increasingly, I find myself in this dilemma: I love the riposte and the struggle of political debates and the hedgehog clarity is refreshing at times; I try to assess both sides like the fox; but I tire of apocalyptic pronouncements based on hedgehog fidelity to “path markers” of genuine democracy. Just a few years back, the Republicans declared the USA was about to fall into the abyss, and Tim LaHaye’s books started selling to salve the conscience that somehow God would have to straighten it all out. Now the Democrats, who don’t have an apocalyptic prophet to write their stories, are worried we’re all gonna end up with TV cameras in our living and bed rooms while the Big Fella in DC watches our every move. Hooie!
We don’t need fiction. Politics is good enough. Politics has so many passionate moments of real stuff — until it comes to the prophecies.