Monday, Nov. 5, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, November 5, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
For the left and the right, Tuesday’s midterm elections are being hailed as the ‘most important election of our lifetime.’ Is this true?
Tomorrow's midterm elections in the United States are amongst the most eagerly anticipated and much evaluated midterm elections in recent American history and the election hasn't even happened yet.
Just consider the fact that I hold in my hands right now two very different magazines with very similar cover stories. Mother Jones Magazine, coming from not only the left, but the far secular left in the United States, has the cover story, "The Most Important Election of Our Lives." And then, in contrast, Decision Magazine, the magazine with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a magazine that very clearly takes a position of conservative conviction on matters of politics and morality in the culture, it also has as its cover story, "Why This Is the Most Important Election of Our Lifetime." The subhead of The Decision Magazine article, "This year's midterms will determine the future for your children and grandchildren."
Now, we're looking at two very different periodicals, addressed to two very different, indeed polarized opposite segments of the American electorate, but the common assumption is, it's not just an assumption, it's a declaration in screaming words in the cover stories, this is the most important election of our lifetime.
Similarly, just looking at the major speeches given last night by former President Obama and President Donald Trump, you had those two individuals, both of whom have won American Presidential elections, declaring specifically that this midterm election might be more important than their own elections as President of the United States. Do they actually believe that? Maybe in one sense they do, maybe in another sense they do not. But they both understand that the big political game on the weekend before the midterm election is getting out the vote. And they both understand that a sense of momentum and urgency is important and so they both made the argument, just as you see in these cover stories from Mother Jones and Decision Magazine, the declaration that this is the most important election of our lifetimes.
Now, I have often pointed out in various election cycles that this declaration is almost assuredly true whenever it is made. That's simply because as we move forward in history, the political stakes don't go lower, they seem always to get higher. That means that this election is, in that sense, the most important election of our lifetimes. So also will be the 2020 presidential elections. Again, that claim will probably be made credibly in the 2022 midterm elections. That's just the way history is moving forward.
Furthermore, the divergent worldviews represented by these two very different magazines means that even though they share the same message on the cover, they have a very different, deeply divergent analysis in what you find inside the magazine. Mother Jones, coming from the left, explains that the only hope is a Democratic wave, a so-called blue wave, to reverse the Trump political revolution. On the other hand, Decision Magazine, keeping with the kind of argument you'll find from conservative media, is making the point that so much is at stake in the culture. Issues such as sexuality and marriage, national identity, that all of this means that the liberalizing and secularizing direction undertaken by the Democratic Party must be checked again.
So here you have these two worldviews, radically divergent worldviews, and here's where, as Christians, we need to understand that there is a sizable percentage of the American population for whom one of these cover stories makes sense and the other appears to be insanity. And of course, coming from the other direction, the judgment is virtually the mirror opposite.
But there is no historical development that has made the importance of these midterm elections so clear as the direct involvement of the President of the United States and his predecessor in that office. President Trump and former President Obama have basically worn themselves out on the partisan trail in working to elect members of their party in various elections. Most importantly, the United States House where every single seat is up for election or re-election. One-third of the United States Senate and a majority of the governorships in this nation. More than 30 gubernatorial elections will be held coast to coast.
The conventional pattern in American politics is that a newly elected President suffers a setback for his party in Congressional and Senatorial elections two years after the President takes office. Thus, if history is repeated on averages, President Trump's party, the Republican Party, is likely to lose a significant number of House seats, between 20 and 30, and also, if the average is true, to lose between one and three Senatorial seats as well.
But the anticipation of tomorrow's election, on the part of pollsters, researchers, and most responsible analysts, is that even though the Democrats have a good chance of gaining a majority, although in likely effect, a slim majority in the United States House, it is likely that the Republicans may actually add seats in the United States Senate.
But the historical development of having the President and the immediate former President on the campaign trail so energetically and speaking so candidly in opposition and criticism of each other, that's something that represents a genuine new development in American electoral politics. Let's understand what's new.
It's not unusual that the incumbent President would hit the campaign trail for his own party. It is also not unprecedented or unusual at all that the former President, even the immediate former President would also hit the campaign trail for his own party. What makes 2018 unique is the fact that the two are referring to one another so personally and so critically and, we might also note, so utterly consistently.
Renegotiating democratic norms: How the old game of electoral politics is being played by new rules
We've spoken often about the erosion of the norms necessary for the maintenance of a democratic form of government. One of those norms has been that when you are looking at Presidents of the United States and at former Presidents, criticism is generally muted. Especially when you consider the fact that the criticism of the immediate former President by the new President is considered to be something that should be restricted.
And the same thing is true on the other side. It's especially acute when there's a change in party between the two Presidents. The understanding is that the immediate former President should be very restrained in criticism of the new President. Why is that so? Is that just some form of politeness, is it some pattern of political etiquette? Or is there more to it? There is more to it. There are two specific issues that come into play here, one is domestic, one is international.
In the domestic sphere, it has been understood that the institution of the presidency itself, the respect and dignity of the President means that an incumbent President should not criticize his predecessor, that's fair game in the campaign, but once the oath of office is taken, there is a different set of rules, or at least there has been until very recently in American politics.
But the same thing is true of the immediate former President, especially of the opposing party. There is the understanding that a former President is to go, almost immediately, into a period of political retirement. And even as the former President as President had every right to defend his policies and his administration in the midst of the Presidential campaign, once the voters have acted and there is a President-elect, and most importantly when the oath of office is taken and there is a new President, both the new President and his predecessor in office are understood to have rules by which they operate.
Domestically, it is the respect for the Presidency and the continuation of the Presidential responsibility that is the concern. But internationally, it is the same continuity that is also reflected in this kind of democratic norm. The understanding that America's standing and esteem in the world through its Commander In Chief and Head of State, that depends upon a certain sense of continuity and respect between the new President and the former President.
Now, we're just two years into the Trump administration and it is clear that those norms have effectively disappeared. And that's true virtually equally on both sides. If you listened to the speeches that President Trump gave on Sunday and former President Obama gave on Sunday, it was clear that both were filled with explicit criticism, constant reference to each other, and furthermore, the argument that if the opposing party were not stopped, disaster would befall the United States and the nation itself is at risk.
There can also be no question that President Trump has himself renegotiated and violated those norms of democratic government by which the nation and former Presidents have operated. The President has used personal language, has used rough language, has used hyperbole. He has often gone into an attack mode. He has used names and has deployed that kind of name calling as standard fare in his campaigning and also in his presentations to the public as President.
But yesterday, President Obama, speaking to several different audiences, suggested that he, in contrast to President Trump, had been a unifier. Is that true? Well, let's just say that President Obama's way of presenting himself in public was always cooler, in media speak. He was known for his Obama cool, or trying to appear to be unflappable. He was much cooler in the form of his argument, much more restrained in some of the language that he used.
But yesterday, there was no mistake to be made in that President Obama was declaring the fact that even as he spoke on behalf of the unity of the American people, he continually hammered on issues that are anything but unitive of the American people and demonstrated once again the fact that if you're looking at our current historical moment, you cannot explain President Donald Trump without President Barack Obama. In a very real way, President Obama's partisanship on the left produced the Trump revolution and partisanship on the right. And we were reminded of that in the speeches the former President has given over the weekend, especially yesterday.
The President spoke of unifying the American people and of avoiding division, but he hammered the very divisive issues that marked his eight years in office. Let's just remember that it was President Obama who was sued by The Little Sisters of the Poor because in his Obamacare Affordable Care Act legislation, he pressed through a contraceptive mandate that violated the consciences of religious organizations, even groups of nuns, like The Little Sisters of the Poor, and of course others who had very deep religious concerns, theological and ethical concerns, rooted in their own religious beliefs when it came to that contraception mandate.
And furthermore, this is the administration that rammed through by executive order and by administrative regulation, the sexual revolution. And it also represented that sexual revolution in its priorities and foreign policy. And when we speak of the Affordable Care Act, we need to remember that it was President Obama who forced that through the United States Congress without a single Republican vote. Let's just say that when we talk about the erosion of democratic norms and political and ideological polarization in the United States, we're not talking about something that just began in 2016. Although, it's true to say, America has certainly entered a new chapter.
But as we have so often noted, when we look at the two political parties today, we really are looking at two fairly coherent political arguments that are based in two very different but equally coherent worldviews. The Democratic Party's worldview is increasingly progressive or liberal, and certainly secular. The Republic worldview is really, in so many ways, the polar opposite. And when you look at issue after issue, you really no longer have to do a Google search to figure out where the Republicans and the Democrats stand on these issues.
And what makes this midterm election cycle so particularly acute is that when we are looking at Congress, both the House and the Senate, and when we're looking at those crucial gubernatorial elections, we are looking, in so many cases, at electoral choices that are even more polarized than the 2016 American Presidential election was. When you consider the governorships in Georgia and in Florida, just to take two, you are looking at a political polarization that isn't less than 2016, it is greater than 2016.
Both of these political individuals, the President and the former President, are clearly taking the midterm elections personally. It is because both of them understand that the electoral decisions that will be reflected in the voting tomorrow are, to a considerable degree, personal responses to themselves. That is, the election has now been tremendously personalized and it has been for the last several cycles. When you are looking at the Democratic Party, you are looking at a very interesting phenomenon both in terms of who is on the campaign trail and who has been virtually absent. Who's been absent? Anyone named Clinton. The Clintons have been virtually banished from the election cycle.
The New York Times ran a half-page article on the absence of Bill Clinton, even from the kinds of elections in Arkansas where you might think he would come in handy for the Democratic candidate. As The New York Times observed, even the Democrats don't want to be seen with Bill Clinton. Is it because they see Clinton as too liberal? No, not at all. It is probably for two reasons. The Me Too Movement, but also the fact that Bill Clinton is now being rejected as insufficiently liberal. That's why Barack Obama is tremendously more possibly with the Democratic base.
Going into the weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran a major article with the headline, "Trump and Obama Fight For Legacies." And they had two different scare quotes, as they are known, taken from the two different political leaders. From former President Obama at a rally in Miami, "If all you do is make stuff up whenever it's expedient, society doesn't work, democracy doesn't work, and that's what's happening at the highest levels." On the other hand, President Trump speaking in Huntington, West Virginia, said this of Obama, "Lie after lie, broken promise after broken promise, that's what he did. Unlike President Obama, we live by a different motto, it's called promises made, promises kept."
So, if you're looking at this, at just the level of politics, you might say that what we see in this dynamic, well it might be summarized with the term, "game on". But even though this is the same game of electoral politics, it is clearly being played by new rules. And if these are new rules for 2018, we have no idea how the rules might be renegotiated for 2020 and subsequent election cycles.
But next, as we move on, thinking of the midterms tomorrow, upwards of 20 to 25 million Americans have already voted. There has never been such a number of Americans who have voted in what's now classified as early voting. What does that mean? Well, right now only 37 states, or you might say as many as 37 states, have some kind of early voting pattern. And what we're looking at here is what some count as a doubling of any previous early voting pattern, that is voting before Election Day.
So does this mean there's going to be a massive turnout? It probably does. But it also means that as Americans have newer options in how they vote and even when they vote, more Americans, more active voters are likely to take those new options, simply as a matter of convenience. Again, it's a change of democratic habit. There has been a longstanding democratic habit in the United States of Election Day. But given the larger changes in our society, it's now becoming an election season.
But the numbers would indicate a resurgence of interest in the 2018 midterm elections that wasn't present in 2014 or in 2010. Will that favor the Democrats or the Republicans? Well, the traditional assessment, the conventional wisdom is that alternative voting patterns favor the Democrats. Election Day favors the Republicans. But is that true? We don't know. These technologies are so new and these new methodologies and the timing in the means of voting are so new, there really isn't enough experience to have any base for making an adequate prediction. We're going to find out, but we probably won't find out until late tomorrow.
There are some really interesting newer issues and newer emphases in some of these midterm elections. Most importantly in the races for the governor seats. One of the new issues that is getting a lot of attention is the composition of the state courts. This has been particularly controversial in a state like West Virginia, but it is also now very much on the attention of conservatives and liberals that even though the Supreme Court is the ultimate political battle for the future of the nation through the judiciary, there should be attention to the state courts as well.
And that's understandable because so many of the issues that are adjudicated for Americans are adjudicated in state courts. And thus this has been an issue, the understanding that electing a governor, just like electing a President, is making a major decision in almost every state about who will choose the new judges.
Four more states prepare to vote on legalization of marijuana, proving that politics doesn’t stay local for long
And there are some other issues that vary state by state, but at least four states, as USA Today reminds us, are set to vote on laws related to marijuana. The USA Today article by Trevor Hughes has a headline, "Four States Set to Debate Pot Laws on Election Day." As Hughes says, "Legal pot is poised to spread further across the country this Election Day, with millions of voters casting ballots that could roll back marijuana prohibition in two states and expand access to medical cannabis in two others."
He goes on to tell us that in North Dakota voters may approve, in his words, "What would be the nation's most permissive recreational marijuana laws, allowing adults to grow, consume and possess as much pot as they want, without government oversight." That would put North Dakota in a very different position than virtually any other state. It would put the issue of marijuana almost totally beyond any kind of state regulation.
Recreational marijuana is also going to be on the ballot in Michigan where voters there, as Hughes said, "Are widely expected to approve a system to legalize, tax and regulate recreational pot."
Two other states, Utah and Missouri, are considering laws that would legalize or expand so-called medical marijuana. Of the two states is Utah that's most interesting. Of course because in Utah the culture is dominated by the Mormon Church. And what took place in Utah was a negotiated settlement between legislators and religious officials there, and that means the LDS or the Mormon Church, where, as Hughes reports, "The state's conservative residents are virtually guaranteed to see medical cannabis laws approved thanks to a deal struck between legalization advocates and religious leaders staunchly opposed to even alcohol and caffeine."
Now USA Today again stands virtually alone, singular amongst major media in the clarity and in the quantity of its coverage of the marijuana issue. But that is certainly a tantalizing sentence, telling us that in Utah the legalization of medical marijuana is virtually guaranteed because of the deal that was struck and the deal that was struck there was between legislative proponents of medical marijuana and the leadership of the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church, defined here as staunchly opposed to even alcohol and caffeine. So, what exactly is the deal they struck on marijuana? That is going to be interesting and we'll look more deeply into that issue in an upcoming edition of The Briefing.
But thinking of the standout position of USA Today on this, it is extremely significant to note that the editorial board of USA Today declared a position on these issues. Their editorial, published last Thursday, has a headline that is a question. "On Election Day, Will Two More States Go to Pot?" The editors of USA Today say that although marijuana has been sold legally in Colorado and Washington State since 2014, conclusions about its effects on public health and safety are either limited or mixed.
The editors go on to warn that there is significant evidence of two major dangers. One of them is the effect of marijuana on young brains, and that's not just of children and teenagers, but even of young people in their 20s who can legally buy and consume marijuana in both Colorado and Washington State.
And then there is a second danger the editors note and that is the fact that they state, "About 9% of those who use marijuana will become dependent, rising to 17% amongst those who start in their teens."
Now in one sense, marijuana is not the most important issue nationwide in these midterm elections. But as USA Today reminds us, all politics is local and for those living in these states, the laws or the changes to the laws that will be adopted by voter action will make a huge difference. And this is where Christians understand that politics, though local in the beginning, doesn't stay local. The marijuana issue is a part of larger pattern of moral change, even a moral revolution that is utterly reshaping the entire nation.
The fact that it is a national issue, inevitably a national issue, was made in an op-ed piece by the former Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner. The headline, "Washington Needs to Legalize Cannabis." Now, I'm not even going to look deeply at his article, it's just the fact of the article that's important because while he was a member of Congress and Speaker of the House, John Boehner was a staunch opponent of legalizing marijuana. But now everything's changed. And what has changed? Well, at least one thing that's changed is that John Boehner now effectively works for the marijuana industry.
In our final analysis, every hour that passes, coming right up until the midterm elections tomorrow, demonstrates with greater urgency and with greater emphasis the importance of the electoral process and the importance of citizens voting. The issues are that important. The political polarization is real and that is because the issues are so stark. It's going to be fascinating to see what American's do tomorrow, but one thing is certain, the outcome of this election will send a very clear signal.
Tomorrow on The Briefing, we're going to look at the media attention to younger evangelicals in the midterm elections. And we're also going to look at an important new case concerning religious liberty that the Supreme Court of the United States has announced that it will be taking. We'll have to hold that for tomorrow.
But I want to remind you that later today, at 3:00 pm Eastern time, I'm hosting another Ask Anything Live. It's going to be on Facebook Live and YouTube. And at that time I'm going to be answering your questions about theology, parenting, ethics, ministry and more. You can submit your questions even now at askanythinglive.com. Then tune in today at 3:00 pm Eastern time at Facebook.com/albertmohlersbts.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you later today for Ask Anything Live, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.