Civility is now a cosmopolitan watch-word, coupled with a sensationalist non-partisanship which seems to be sweeping the American religious elite. Undoubtedly the vitriol of American election cycles has fuelled its star struck launch into religious circles, which—at least in that country—probably need a deep, civil breath. Talk of civility in America may yet prove the political equivalent of a time out on the stairs. They earned it, no question, but with elections among Americans, religious folk need to relearn how to disagree better, not less. The peace of the culture wars must not be the post-apocalyptic quiet of high-minded independents’ partisan withdrawal. If we don’t like the rules on the playground, the lesson isn’t to storm off, it’s to change them.
This is the point that is badly missed by Senior Fellow John Seel in his blog yesterday, “A Moderate Moment.” His misread of The Newsroom is instructive. He describes fictional anchorman Will McAvoy as “a clarion voice for independents” equally disdaining both Democrats and Republicans for their casual lies and dirty tactics. But while McAvoy may be a moderate, he is no independent. Part of the delightful drama of The Newsroom is McAvoy’s unapologetic Republicanism. He saves his harshest criticisms for the Republican party partly because he counts himself firmly among them. His picture of the Republican party might pass the moderate mustard test nowadays, but it passes no such test for non-partisan-party-pooper independents. Will McAvoy believes stuff, and he believes that stuff is best represented by the Republican party. His rages and rants are couched in that simple, consistent truth: he may despise some of what his party has become, but it’s his party.
The lesson Will McAvoy has for us is one about partisan reformation, not retreat. McAvoy’s long-winded speeches are nostalgic, certainly. The opening title of The Newsroom oozes nostalgia, like The West Wing, like almost everything Aaron Sorkin puts his mind to. But the heartbeat of Sorkin’s dialogue is not just petty, if clever, barbs at political opponents. It’s the firm conviction that former-love-interest and McAvoy producer MacKenzie McHale scrawls onto a hasty flipchart in the season pilot. After a sophomoric question, “What makes American the greatest country in the world?”, McHale writes and McAvoy repeats to the crowd, in one of the series’ finest moments: “It’s not, but it can be.”
That sophomore reappears for narrative closure at the end of the first season, when McAvoy answers her somewhat laughably naïve question again. This time, though, the student is in his office applying for an internship at his news agency, after being publicly berated by McAvoy for her silliness. For her courage and conviction McAvoy rewards her with the simple invocation, “You do.” You make America great.
McAvoy is not moved by her moderate independence, or her non-partisan cred. He is moved by her conviction to join a broken system, her courage and audacity to apply to a man who publicly humiliated her, because she thinks she can help make it better.
What makes America great? People who join political parties. While card-carrying partisans earn the derision of independent elites, these folks put on their boots and wade through the sludge, the toxic waste that has become political debate. These are the people who have the courage and the confidence to work for reform from within, rather than sulk on the sidelines about how stinky it all is. Politics in a pluralist, hypermodern society is a kind where we learn to argue using logic we don’t believe, for principles we don’t entirely accept, to make a position, a policy, a system, better than it was. It is predicated on compromise, on concession, and on constructive disagreement.
America’s parties have become so toxic because the moderates have fled. Contrary to Seel, maybe it’s not that “when parties abandon Kardashian-like campaigning, moderates will start listening”, but “when moderates join the parties, they’ll abandon Kardashian-like campaigning.” That’s the kernel of truth nestled in the snappy drama of The Newsroom: the system is our system, it’s worth joining, and it’s worth reforming. Culture without war still needs parties.