Traditionally, in our political lives, our loyalties have tended to be relatively clear: We are Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, socialists or capitalists, big government supporters or devotees to individual freedoms.
Until the last four years, it might be said that these divided and opposing fidelities have served us rather well as a nation. Our government, our leadership, even our courts, have tended to vacillate between the two poles and persuasions, providing us with relatively peaceful transitions from one ideology to another, one party to the next.
But if the past four years have made anything clear, it is that this system of loyalties and persuasions is no longer serving us as a nation. We are, instead, divided, angry, hostile to one another’s beliefs, locked into immovable positions and uncompromising ideologies.
From where I sit, at least, this problem is not simply due to Trump or never-Trump, to Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer, to urban values or rural values, but to an increasing failure to direct our loyalties to enduring values rather than transient ideologies, to questions of character, rather than questions of policy.
Imagine, for example, that, when asked what our political persuasion was, we would answer, rather than “I am a Democrat” or “I am a Republican,” that “I am a supporter of truth-telling and compassion.”
Imagine that, when asked whether we are pro- or anti-abortion, we would answer “I am devoted to the ideals of human dignity and freedom.” Imagine that, when asked what party we support, we would simply answer “I am a supporter of whichever party, in the present moment, makes me feel the greatest solidarity with the rest of mankind.”
And imagine if, among the boxes we must choose between checking on our voter registration there was, in addition to “Democrat” or “Republican” or “Independent,” a box merely entitled “Humanist.”
I myself am, for the moment at least, a registered Democrat, but it is a choice for which I feel no institutional or enduring loyalty. If a Republican, or Republicans, were to emerge who satisfies my loyalty to what I consider the enduring abstractions (truthfulness, compassion, humility, trustworthiness, integrity, fairness, and generosity of spirit), I will, without the slightest compunction, consider myself — for that moment, at least — a Republican. (During my now-long life, there have been, believe it or not, many such Republicans, one of whom — David Souter — I had the privilege of working for.)
In short: I will pledge my loyalty to whatever person, or party, at that moment, most supports my enduring values, rather than my temporary politics.
If our voters and our citizens would begin to think this way, I am convinced, we would have a less divided nation, a more united citizenry, a less contentious public debate and a greater proclivity for compromise and reconciliation. We, too, could be, politically speaking, a post-genocide Rwanda, a post-apartheid South Africa, a post-Nazi Germany, a post-Trump America.
And you needn’t be a mere weakling, or a poet, to believe this. “Your personal core values define who you are,” the American internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist Tony Hsieh has written, a sentiment echoed in the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.
“Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny,” Gandhi wrote, and no life better illustrates that belief than his own.
A values-driven politics, rather than a policy-driven one, would, I believe, go a long way towards reuniting us as a nation, no matter how diverse our political beliefs may be. It would lead us to support values that go far beyond our momentary passions and that penetrate deep into our spirits and our hearts. For myself at least, should President Trump and his Republican cohorts, between now and election day, miraculously have a true conversion experience and come to genuinely embody those values, I will happily vote for them — wholeheartedly so.