14 tentative conclusions on the U.S. presidential primary process

by Ken Sehested

1. Save us, Lord Jesus.

2. We reap what we sow. We have not sown righteously. Looking through a wide lens, we citizens really do get the politicians we deserve. We need to prepare for the possibility that things will get worse before it gets better—regardless of November’s election results.

3. We invest far too much in what happens in Washington, DC, or state capitols, or county seats, or city commissions. Long-term change begins with grunt work in neighborhoods. All politics—as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said a lifetime ago—is local. Systemic change is dependent on the patient, persevering work of shifting the conversation in nearby streets.

4. Systemic change requires new direction both in public policy and in public consensus. Getting re-elected (in the next election) is almost always a politician’s top priority, though there are some brave ones willing to risk riling major donors’ economic interests. Even our best know they can’t buck prevailing policy without significant demand from constituents.

5. Public policy, like the weather, is rarely the result of an electoral hurricane; rather, it is dependent on a gazillian on-the-ground changes in atmospheric conditions. You can’t expect to gather a thousand or a million people, tell them to blow real hard, then expect a windstorm.

6. As an old white man, it troubles me greatly that the three most-apparently viable candidates are old white men. (Repeat #1.)

7. There is so much more to politics than elections. Voting is the least time-consuming duty of engaged citizens. If you don’t devote time to building communities and constituencies—both within your principle interest group, and crossing boundaries and making allies with other groups and interests—voting is pretty futile.

8. In terms of specific policy proposals, I align clearly with Bernie Sanders. But I swear to God, he seems unable to speak in a way that doesn’t sound like he’s scolding children—literally, lowering his head and punching the air with his forefinger, as if thumping someone’s chest. Every significant electoral movement needs to say clearly what they oppose. But a movement based on mutual abhorrence will not have sustaining power

9. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t rise to prominence saying “I have strategic plan.” Rather, he said “I have a dream.” We all long for candidates who are at least as articulate about what they hope for as about what they oppose.

        "If you want to build a ship,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “don't drum up people together to collect wood and assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

        But don’t do binary thinking. Articulating a vision is not the same as daydreaming. Dr. King would not have gotten far without Ella Baker and Bayard Ruston. The 5 December 1955 mass meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, which voted to extend the one-day bus boycott, might not have attracted many participants if the Montgomery Black Women’s Council hadn’t stayed up all night mimeographing publicity leaflets.

        We certainly must demand that justice flow like the waters (Amos 5:24); but we’ll also need a committed company of plumbers.

10. It pains me to think that Joe Biden will become the Democratic Party nominee for president. He is a cold warrior and will wink at the looting of our nation’s wealth by major financial institutions. He is as beholden to them as Trump is to racist, nationalist, misogynist forces. The thing is, Trump can’t help himself; Biden, on the other hand, can help himself but chooses not to.

11. Personally, I voted for Elizabeth Warren, for a variety of reasons. The most important is that, of all the Democratic candidates, she has the closest direct ties to folk in small towns and rural areas, and others abused by large financial companies. (But Liz, compañera, your presidential prospects are fading. Please, please, please continue your devoted Senate career. Get more converts. Endorse minority candidates in Senate races around the country. Use every chance you get to opening a can of whoop-ass on Majority Leader M O’Connell’s thuggish grip on Senate gatekeeping.

12. Pete Buttigieg has, far and away, been the most articulate campaign voice on the intersection of religious values and public policy. I’m pleasantly surprised that, as a married gay man, he got this far. Mayor Pete, can you devote time tutoring our nation’s faith leaders? (And won’t you rethink your uncritical support of Israel’s apartheid policies?)

13.  Like many, your preferred candidate may lose. Do not drown in regret. As the Mexican proverb says: “They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds.”

14. Finally, remember this: “Nobody made a greater mistake,” wrote Edmund Burke, “than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Pay attention to the big picture. Survey all the many things needing to be done. (There will be more needs than you can see; pay no mind to that.) Assess what you can do. Then do it with all your heart, within one or more communities of conviction.

A postscript:

My commitment to (small “d”) democratic governance is not rooted in political philosophy but theological conviction. Democracy is an important way we practice nonviolence.

        To be clear, voting does not = democracy. Votes can be bought, manipulated, disappeared, and repressed. The mechanisms are constantly under threat. The examples in our own nation (and many others) are too innumerable to list—and more than a few are in the news even now. Vigilance is demanded . . . and demanding.

#  # #