WHEN FACED with important challenges, human communities seem to vacillate between the poles of rethinking and entrenchment. Have conditions changed so much that we must rethink familiar assumptions? Or is it better to dig in and continue doing the same things ever more insistently?
Effective solutions, in the long run, usually turn out to contain elements of both rethinking and continuity. But, being human, our first response is usually to dig ourselves in deeper.
After the First World War, the League of Nations and the extension of local self-determination represented an effort to rethink, but that effort was eclipsed by the determination of the world powers to continue with business as usual — only more so. That, in turn, helped to move Europe towards a second World War. Only then did the rethinking that led to the Europe of today become possible.
The American electorate is facing its own set of challenges right now. Our economic crisis becomes more complex and forbidding by the week. Those on lower and middle incomes continue to lose ground as jobs dwindle and lending institutions foreclose on mortgages. Apparent gains in Iraq do little to obscure our failures in Afghanistan, or our limitations in dealing with Pakistan or Russia. There is little good news.
But does that mean that we are sufficiently distressed to choose rethinking over entrenchment? This continues to be the hope of Senator Obama’s supporters. The surge in Republican popularity, however, has confirmed the strength of our inclination towards entrenchment.
Ironically, Senator McCain and Governor Palin are running against “the Washington insiders”, which implies that they are running against their own party’s record. But what captures the attention of anxious voters is not the literal meaning of their words, but rather their reassertion of treasured slogans, and the confident claim that we already know how to handle whatever challenges the future may bring, if only we grit our teeth and get on with it.
Senators Obama and Biden, for their part, embody the pole of rethinking as fully as Senator McCain and Governor Palin embody the opposite pole of entrenchment. Senator Obama, in fact, embodies it quite personally, for his very person suggests that the rethinking will have to be broader than many still-racist Americans are ready for. For me, an academic living in the Bay Area, a multiracial America already exists. In much of the country, that is far from true.
I do not mean to suggest that the contest is settled. We are still many weeks from the election itself. The results will depend, in part, on how the challenges look by early November.
Ultimately, the future of the United States will look more like Senator Obama than Senator McCain because both demography and younger voters are moving in that direction. In the short run, it is still possible that this particular human community will choose to dig itself in deeper rather than stop to reflect.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.