November 24, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, November 24, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Majority voters already decided on 2016 vote, exposing worldview division of American politics
Here is a shocking statistic for you. Even as the 2016 United States presidential elections are now almost still year way, 95 percent of likely voters have already made up their minds how they will vote. If that statistic shocks you keep in mind the fact that neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party has yet chosen a presidential nominee for the race, it looks like Hillary Clinton is the likely nominee on the Democratic side, there is not yet a likely nominee on the Republican side. So, in what sense does it make sense to say that 95 percent of Americans who will vote have already made up their minds? Well, it’s because of this, 95 percent of Americans are likely to vote in the presidential election simply based upon the fact of their partisan identification. That is a number that has been rising steadily in recent election cycles and it tells us a great deal about what’s now happening amongst the American electorate and also amongst those two political parties.
If you go back to the 1960s, the Democrats and the Republicans are fairly close to one another in terms of the party platforms. There were differences to be sure, but the differences pale over against the incredible contrast between the two parties now. For example, in the 1960 presidential election that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon, the reality is that the candidates held positions that were extremely close to one another. The choice being presented to the American people was a partisan choice, but that had more to do with the style of administration and who would control the various mechanisms of government rather than the question of which worldview was going to be elected to office. In one sense all that changed in 1964 when then incumbent President Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater. Goldwater had published a book entitled the conscience of a conservative and in one sense he was the first ideologically labeled conservative candidate in the modern sense to be nominated as the party’s nominee for President. But by the time you get to 1968 with Hubert Humphrey on the Democratic side against Richard Nixon on the Republican side, much less 1972 when George McGovern was defeated by Richard Nixon in an overwhelming landslide, and then you fast-forward to 1980 when Jimmy Carter was the incumbent Democratic President being challenged by the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan and then look at every successive election cycle since and you can see the great worldview divide that separates Republicans and Democrats.Show Full Transcript
But as we should note, we have not seen statistic such as this before. We have not seen the fact that in previous election cycles 95 percent of the likely voters are already more or less in the position of having made up their minds about their vote. On the other hand, when you think about it, it actually makes a great deal of sense. Look back to the 2012 presidential election when President Barack Obama was running for reelection over against the Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The Democratic and Republican parties in 2012 adopted party platforms that is the basic statement of their beliefs in which there were numerous issues of diametrical opposition. The Republican Party platform called for defining marriage exclusively as the union of a man and a woman. The Democratic Party platform called for the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Republican platform called for a pro-life position. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party platform, not only was assertively pro-abortion under almost any circumstance, but actually went even further to demand federal funding for abortions themselves. The worldview divide in American political life, especially in terms of the presidential level is now so remarkable that 95 percent of Americans it is estimated have already decided they will vote either Democratic or Republican, regardless of who the nominee of either party might be.
William Falk writing in the pages of The Week says,
“Here’s a strange thought to chew on a year before the presidential election: The votes of 95 percent of Americans likely to cast ballots are already determined. People who lean conservative will vote for any Republican who emerges from the scrum. Ditto for people who lean liberal.”
He then cites research by Michigan State political scientist, Corwin Smidt that,
“Confirms that the percentage of voters who are truly “independent,” [that means that they are not pre-committed to either the Democratic or the Republican Party], has plunged from 15 percent in the 1960s to just 5 percent today.”
Now one of the things we need to note quite carefully is that this doesn’t mean 95 percent of Americans versus another 5 percent. It means 95 percent of likely voters. That’s a very important statistical issue here. Looking at the current set of political conditions, Jonathan Chait writing in New York Magazine said something quite remarkable. He said,
“The dominant fact of American politics is that nobody is changing their mind about anything.”
That’s a rather cynical assessment, but on the other hand, it’s probably rather accurate as well. The reality is that on issues that now separate the two parties and this is extended from issues such as marriage and abortion to issues including national security, matters of economics, social policy and all the rest. Those issues now so divide the two parties that you’re really talking about a very small part of the American electorate that is up for grabs and might be convinced to vote one way or the other. Now keep in mind the fact that we’re going to be talking about over $1 billion spent on the 2016 presidential election. Keep in mind all the media attention, all the debates and all the rest. Now certainly some of that has to do very germanely with who will be the nominee of the two parties, but after that, hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to convince only a majority of the 5 percent of the truly independent voters who remain. That’s a stunning assessment of where we stand in America, but it’s also a very clear indication as those who operate from a Christian worldview will understand that worldview matters so much that it now is at the point where we can predict who will vote for whom simply on the basis of some selected questions about moral positions long before you get to issues of any economic complexity.
Looking beyond that bare 95 percent statistic there are some other worldview dimensions that also demand our attention. For example, Harvard’s Robert Putnam and David Campbell have pointed to the fact that one issue taken by itself largely explains how people will vote or at least how they did vote in recent presidential cycles and that issue is whether or not the voter attends church. If the voter regularly attends church and church services, there is an incredible predictability about the fact that that voter regardless of where he or she lives will vote Republican. And as we understand that has everything to do with the basic worldview realities long before any explicitly political questions are even asked. That question as to why people vote as they do made that review section on the front page of Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. Alec MacGillis, who is a political reporter for ProPublica, he has previously written about politics of the Washington Post and the New Republic. He asked the question,
“Who Turned My Blue State Red?”
That means who turned a state traditionally having voted Democratic to now being predictably one that votes in a Republican pattern. He asked the question, in particular, about two states, West Virginia and Kentucky. MacGillis focuses upon those two states because both have been marked by a trajectory in recent decades of voting Democratic, certainly throughout most of the 20th century, but all that changed in more recent election cycles and in Kentucky that was made very clear by the fact that most of the counties in Kentucky, including the majority of counties in eastern Kentucky voted for Matt Bevin, now the governor elect, a very conservative Republican candidate. Alec MacGillis is asking the question, why does this happen? Indeed he is asking it with a deeper degree of shock. How could this happen? He follows the pattern of Thomas Frank writing about Kansas some years ago, in asking the question, why are these voters voting against their own interest? Now here’s a very important worldview issue. Alec MacGillis’ concern is primarily economic; he looks at the vast amount of government expenditure that comes in the form of especially government programs to very impoverished areas of West Virginia, and of Eastern Kentucky. And then looking at the fact that those very states, or at least even those very counties increasingly vote Republican, he asked the question, why would people vote against their own interests? And we should note that means his perception of their economic interests. And yet a closer look at his article reveals that the point here is deeply and inescapably moral. MacGillis writes,
“Earlier this month, Kentucky elected as governor a conservative Republican who had vowed to largely undo the Medicaid expansion that had given the state the country’s largest decrease in the uninsured under Obamacare, with roughly one in 10 residents gaining coverage.
“It’s enough to give Democrats the willies as they contemplate a map where the red keeps seeping outward, confining them to ever narrower redoubts of blue. The temptation for coastal liberals is to shake their heads over those godforsaken white-working-class provincials who are voting against their own interests.”
So there you have his distillation of the argument. The map of the United States is going increasingly red with liberalism primarily concentrated in academic centers in a few urban areas, but primarily along the two coasts, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. Now as we should note that includes a large number of voters so large as a matter of fact that if voters on the coastlines voted in uniform fashion they can outvote the interior of the country in every single national election. So Alec MacGillis cites the concern of many Democrats who are wondering why are so many Americans, in their view, voting against their own economic interests? Then MacGillis answers,
“But this reaction misses the complexity of the political dynamic that’s taken hold in these parts of the country. It misdiagnoses the Democratic Party’s growing conundrum with working-class white voters. And it also keeps us from fully grasping what’s going on in communities where conditions have deteriorated to the point where researchers have detected alarming trends in their mortality rates.”
From that point in his article, MacGillis still stays primarily on the economic tact and what he’s talking about is the fact that even in these impoverished areas that have been historically very dependent upon government support, voters are increasingly and now almost predictably voting Republican, the party that has traditionally and currently held to the importance of a smaller government, rather than government expansion. But that’s actually the point and that’s the worldview foundational point. Voters in these portions of the country that had traditionally voted Democrat for decades have been voting Republican primarily because they do not see government and increased government spending as the answer to the problem. MacGillis actually puts his finger on it when he says, that many the voters in these areas actually see dependence upon this kind of government funding and government subsidizing what many of these voters feel is bad behavior. These voters have now turned from one party to the other. But at this point MacGillis’ analysis simply comes up far short, because he never gets to the big moral issues that are on the front pages virtually screaming at us from the headlines, and once that’s taken into effect we go back to the analysis published just in recent days in The Week. The reason why 95 percent of the American people in terms of likely voters have already made up their mind in terms of how they will vote in the 2016 presidential election, the reason that is true, is because there is such a substantial divide between the two parties.
Christians looking at this kind of analysis must understand that it is that most basic level of thinking, that most basic worldview level that explains why people even when they’re not thinking it through in consistent ways, actually usually get to their voting pattern based upon what they really believe to be true, what they really believe about right and wrong, what they really believe about the sanctity of human life, what they really believe about marriage and what they really believe in terms of the role of government, whether it should be expanded or contracted. The 2016 presidential election is already interesting, it’s just going to get more interesting and for those of us who seek to think through the lens of a Christian worldview, it’s going to get even more interesting than the politicians and the political scientists seem to understand.
Ages of Supreme Court Justices underlines significance of worldview of next President
Next, speaking of the 2016 presidential election, a lot is at stake and one of the primary issues at stake is the future of the United States Supreme Court. In a recent column, George Will of the Washington Post described this as a supremely important presidential issue which he says is being generally neglected because Democrats, in his words,
“Have nothing interesting to say about it and Republicans differ among themselves about the very same issue.”
He then points to a matter of math that ought to have our attention.
“When you look at the United States Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer is 77 years of age, Antonine Scalia is 79, Anthony Kennedy is also 79 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 82.”
So he says,
“Presidential candidates should explain the criteria by which they would select judicial nominees.”
While that is certainly true in the more general level of all federal judicial nominees, when it comes to the Supreme Court these issues take on an unbelievable importance in terms of our current political pattern. That’s because both other branches of government have been increasingly deferential to the Supreme Court and a part of that is their own cowardice, especially when it comes to Congress. Congress has deferred acting on many big issues of public policy, including issues of tremendous moral importance letting the Supreme Court basically decide these issues and then on the other side of a Supreme Court decision, both of the other branches of government have been generally quite subservient to the Supreme Court and we’re looking at nine unelected human beings sitting on this court and thus five people, that is a majority of the nine, can decide and they often do decide some of the issues of greatest importance, issues in which the Congress and the president should indeed have a very important role as well as a very direct political accountability. The problem with the United States Supreme Court in that sense is that it is virtually impossible to hold the court to account. The only influence by and large anyone has, whether liberal or conservative on the court directly, is by the nomination process in terms of the appointment to the Supreme Court, and that can come only from the President of the United States. Though the United States Senate must give advice and consent and that is confirmation to federal court appointments made by the president, the reality is that the power of appointment and nomination comes exclusively from the President of the United States. So in one sense, every time we elect a president we are electing the future of the U.S. Supreme Court and that in this case is particularly apt with the 2016 presidential election with four of the nine sitting justices of the Supreme Court, either right at age 80 or almost there, or in the case of Ruth Bader Ginsburg actually aged 82 already.
At this point, as is so often the case, George Will gives a deeper analysis that also deserves our attention. He says that the justices of the court on the left and the right, the liberals and the conservatives are basically divided over how they understand that government is supposed to work, how they understand that courts are supposed to work and how they understand a document like the Constitution is to be interpreted and applied. He refers to these two different trajectories as the Hobbesians versus the Lockeans, he’s talking about the philosopher Thomas Hobbes on the one hand and John Locke on the other. He says that the Hobbesians are basically the group that favors big government and the expansion of government and they look at the courts primarily in terms of the process by which the courts operate. They want the courts to follow a process that comes out with the result that they intend and that they hope for and they strive for. The Lockeans on the other hand, are those who believe in a more limited government and they believe that the courts should be limited to operating on the basis of principles. Now this also gets to the fact that when it comes to reading the Constitution, the Hobbesian so to speak, suggests that the Constitution is a living document to be interpreted anew in a generation present without any particular accountability to what came before or for that matter, any particular accountability to the actual words of the Constitution. The Lockeans on the other hand, are traditionally the more strict constructivist, they are those committed to judicial restraint to the actual strict constructionist understanding of the Constitution that means the words are to be interpreted on the basis of their vocabulary and their grammar and the intention of those who wrote the words and ratify the Constitution in the first place.
When you look at those two trajectories you understand that the liberal wing of the court basically sees the court as a vehicle, as a mechanism of political change to get the country where they believe it should go. Meanwhile, the Lockeans, the more conservative on the court, they believe that the court’s role is rather humble, it is indeed to prevent government from overstepping its bounds and to make certain the government operates within the confines of the Constitution. So the 2016 presidential race in the United States will pit two political worldviews over against one another, but the worldview issues go far deeper than politics and furthermore, the American people will be electing an understanding of the courts and of the Constitution in terms of how they vote for president. How many Americans, including American Christians understand this fully when they enter the voting booth?
Unintended consequences of suicide laws illustrates teaching role of law
Finally, Aaron Kheriaty, writing in the pages of the Washington Post, writes about what he calls,
“The dangerously contagious effect of assisted-suicide laws.”
He writes about the fact that when you have had the adoption of an assisted suicide law, very quickly there follows an uptick in unassisted suicides as well. He writes about the unintended consequences of legalizing assisted suicide. All suicides it turns out tend to go up after that legislative adoption. He cites a study published by British scholars David Jones and David Paton,
“Legalizing assisted suicide in other states has led to a rise in overall suicide rates — assisted and unassisted — in those states.”
He goes on to say,
“The study’s key findings show that, after controlling for demographic and socioeconomic factors and other state-specific issues, physician-assisted suicide is associated with a 6.3 percent increase in total suicide rates.”
Kheriaty who is an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the medical ethics program at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine warns that adopting legalized assisted suicide, actually lessens the moral argument against suicide and it also plants the idea of suicide in the minds of some who often carry it out in ways that follow predictable patterns. He writes about the fact and this should also be of interest to us that when a particular celebrity commits suicide there is an uptick in the number of others who do the same with the very same mechanism by which they bring about their deaths. And then Kheriaty writes about the function of the law, a very important moral argument, he writes,
“Finally, it is widely acknowledged that the law is also a teacher: Laws shape the ethos of a culture by affecting cultural attitudes toward certain behaviors and influencing moral norms.”
“Laws permitting physician-assisted suicide send a message that, under especially difficult circumstances, some lives are not worth living.”
Now when we look at this argument, we have to recognize just how fundamental it is and the degree to which that is undergirded by the Christian biblical worldview. It is Christians thinking upon the authority of Scripture who understand that the law always has this moral effect, whether it is intended to or not. And this is of course operative on the issue of assisted suicide laws, but it is a far larger issue than that. We simply have to wonder, however, even as Professor Kheriaty understands the moral dimension that is now very horrifyingly demonstrated in an increase in overall suicide after the legalization of assisted suicide, would he extend that same logic to an understanding of what’s happened in the assault on the unborn, or for that matter, in terms of laws legalizing same-sex marriage? In a similar fashion, the law does teach a morality and our laws now after the Supreme Court decision in June are teaching a morality that we believe is not only contrary to Scripture, but contrary to human flourishing. I give Professor Kheriaty credit for understanding the moral influence of the law as a teacher and yet Christians have to understand that doesn’t begin and end with the issue of assisted suicide. It’s true for all laws and that is what makes the lawmaking process in America of such urgent moral importance.