Whither the Wicker?
Guest Post by Rob Hadding
I’ve been watching politics since I was about ten. My earliest political recollections are of the 1972 Republican and Democratic conventions. I was captivated by the theater of it all. The speeches were full of pathos, the nominating process was full of drama, and it seemed like everyone was full of enthusiasm for the possibilities that lay ahead if their man (or woman – Shirley Chisholm ran that year) won the day. It all seemed so important. I’ve watched coverage of almost every political convention since, if with significantly less awe. Somewhere along the way since 1972, I began to see what every other informed observer of American politics sees. To say that I’ve grown cynical is to say a true thing.
My political cynicism found an easy friend in the hell-in-a-handbasket eschatology of Dispensationalism, and quicker than you could name the next candidate for antichrist, I was a full-blown pessimist. But over time, I found pessimism to be exhausting – there was never a payoff. When things just keep going from bad to worse to worser, the only thing there is to feel good about is the destruction of the universe, and, frankly, that kind of a downer.
Imagine my relief, then, when I was introduced to a more hopeful eschatology. It took me a long time to sort out, but once I finally did it was like I had been given permission to feel good about the creation that God called good in the first place. He isn’t just going to blow it to smithereens; he is going to put it all back together again, but this time more glorious than ever. In fact, new creation had already begun in the resurrection of Christ. Antichrist, meet Jesus Christ. You lose.
But in a sense, this just caused me further consternation. I had abandoned the theological titanic that is Dispensationalism, but my political cynicism had only grown. Speeches, conventions, elections, and bad leaders accumulated, and things only appear to grow worse. How can someone remain optimistic when the handbasket is moving so fast?
Well, last week something happened that sparked hope. Now, it’s only a spark, and the kind of hope it inspires is not in any sense ultimate, but it was like nothing I’ve seen in some time. On the floor of the United States Senate, the junior senator from Kentucky stood for thirteen without a pee break on principle. In accordance with Senate rules, and armed with the conviction to stand up and say, “Hell no,” Rand Paul hijacked the Senate for the day to make a point. The filibuster of John Brennan’s confirmation to the job of CIA Director was not to block Mr. Brennan’s appointment (he admitted at the outset that he did not have the votes to succeed in doing so), but to call attention to the use of drones against American citizens, both on and off American soil, without benefit of due process. Specifically, Mr. Paul was calling out President Barack Obama and his chief lawyer, Eric Holder, to give a clear answer on whether they understood it was within the president’s power to order a hit on an American without a trial to establish guilt. Up to this point a clear answer had not come, though the question was clearly asked.
This moment is probably not in itself a tide turner. Even though it seems that Mr. Paul did get a clear, yet terse, response from Mr. Holder the following day, and even though Mr. Paul raised awareness on the issue of drones – both of which were his stated objectives – this event does not in itself change the course of the nation, or usher in a new age of openness in government, or make the president any less likely to do everything he can to drive the America Bus into oncoming traffic.
But something very real happened on that day that gives me reason to think that the handbasket could take another direction. This is evident in the way the day unfolded. At the beginning, it looked like Rand Paul, a chip off the nutty ol’ Paul block, was going to make a long-winded speech. It would be well reasoned, of course, and would score some points with the Tea Party crowd, but would accomplish just north of nothing. But as the day progressed, a swell of tweets and status updates formed. A website emerged to clock his filibuster. Activity in the Senate Chamber increased. Other senators rose, requesting time to ask questions without asking Senator Paul to yield the floor as a show of support and to give him a moment to rest his voice. C-SPAN 2’s existence was justified. I went to bed that night before he had finished. I said to my wife as I turned out the bedroom light, “I hope he’s still going in the morning.” But by the time the day had ended, Mr. Paul had done something that hadn’t been done in a long time – he captured the imagination of the political right, and gave them something to be excited about.
In just thirteen hours – which is a long time to stand without peeing, but not so long if you’re talking about the history of the world – a freshman senator breathed life into his party and into those of us who had lost all confidence in the Republican Party after the nomination of Mitt Romney. In a single moment of political theater one began to think that all just might not be lost.
Let me be clear: I don’t think the answer to our ills is political (in the common sense of the term). I don’t think that Rand Paul is the great hope of the nation, or even of the Republican Party. I am not sure he would make a great president. But on the day of the filibuster, he lit a match in the political darkness, and it may be that that match touches a candlewick – or a fuse. One thing is certain: Rand Paul stock went up that day, and he may just be the leader conservatives have been looking for.
But what really strikes me about the whole thing is something more hopeful. That is, as fast as that things can change. Even though things look like they are hurtling toward certain disaster, in just a moment things can change. Who knows what the effects of this event will be? It could be the beginning of a massive re-framing of the conversation about the economy, morality, and so on. It might not be. But for me, it has persuaded me that good things can happen, and I am free to be optimistic even in the face of what appear to be overwhelmingly bad circumstances. It can all change quickly.