American politics, like American life, is more than D.C. and the federal government.
This was going to be a different column.
The federal government, made up of three branches as it is, provides a convenient typography for political actors and reformers. There are people whose theories of politics—that is to say, theories of power and justice—focus on the executive, with its quadrennial presentation of a diadem to a new small Caesar; others emphasize the balanced scales of priestlike judges, Anubis weighing the heart of the law and the feather of progress; meanwhile, many still look to the circus of the legislature, that ringed fantastic show where the backwoods meet boardrooms and Mammon cracks his whip.
That sort of taxonomy piece is common enough to the weekly columnist, who has to get in his reps and sets even in a slow news week. Maybe I’ll write it someday, but I probably won’t; after all, you can write it yourself now. Just sort the factions of whomever (the “new right,” commentators, Twitter personalities, etc.) into their primary branch of government: one, two, three.
I was diverted from this plan by a conversation with someone who works in state policy, though, and the realization that the hypothetical column, like so many other parts of our public discourse, takes D.C. as the default. But American politics, like American life, is more than the federal government.
The consolidation of mass media in the age of digital technology has increased the rate at which our culture has nationalized and homogenized, and partisan politics is at least no exception if not the pointy bit at the front. Conservatives, who ought to know better—being in theory and disposition skeptical of grand-scale social engineering projects and content to preserve things as they have been received and long endured—continue to fail to build where they are when the roof starts falling in, and look to D.C. and an election or lifetime appointment to save them.
There is no great virtue to a healthy conservative infrastructure—policy centers, leadership development, or what have you—in a comfortably red state, though I certainly don’t advocate complacency (big “philanthropy” is not complacent, and is coming for you). The test is whether Americans on the right—perhaps not the Republican Party, I’ll admit, though in some cases it’s the tool readiest at hand—are willing to fight for blue states and blue cities. It is tempting to abandon San Francisco and California to the spiritual desert, or desert literally if water infrastructure there continues on its current course, but that is to leave behind an inheritance, to commit an impiety. After he had been restored to the plain of Jordan by Abraham and his warriors, Lot needed angels to draw him out of Sodom.
The right has, against the left and its egalitarian sameness, a commitment to distinction, to orders of difference and responsibility and the true diversity found in places and peoples living according to their laws. Law and order is not a cage from which the citizen must be freed, but the trellis on which the individual, the family, the tribe, and the city can flourish and grow. To let a garden be overrun with weeds is not to return it to some born-chainless natural splendor, but to waste good soil, to let fruit to rot on the vine, to aid the advance of decay.
In a full continent such as ours, without a frontier to take and fill and build on, it is an admission of failure to pack up and go. Where there is anarchy and collapse, as there is in so many of our cities, there is opportunity for restoration; the answer to bad government, which is akin to no government, is not flight. It is good government. Some will give up and leave, but do not let it be all.
We must take responsibility where we are, and the power needed to bear it, so I ask you, if you live in a blue state or a blue city, to consider what must be done and how you can help do it. Get measures on ballots. Win seats on school boards, city councils, and county commissions. Start schools. Volunteer. Organize. Lobby your state house. Support your homeless ministries, the good ones, that seek to transform individual lives, not the nonprofit complex that has no incentive to make the social ill it pretends to address go away.
“And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” So said the prophet Jeremiah to the children of Israel in exile. We are all not truly home on this side of the grave. In my case for now, Jeremiah’s city is Washington in the District of Columbia, that other Babylon, and as I find myself captive here—imprisoned, I’ll admit, by some mix of motives high and low—I also seek a Beltway sort of peace, working here in national politics. Some things must happen at this scale. But most of you, dear readers, do not find yourself carried off to the imperial capital. Seek the peace of your city.