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Stop Overrating the Discourse
What John Hagee teaches us about politics
I’m part of the “discourse.” I like to think that I matter, as I’m sure do other writers and public personalities that I engage with. I put takes out there, try to tell people what they should think about this or that issue, and reach an audience that is disproportionately wealthy and influential. It’s far from ridiculous to believe that some congressional staffer or executive branch bureaucrat might see an argument I make about civil rights law or the importance of legalizing prediction markets, and act on that basis. Or, more likely, they might hear about some argument I’ve popularized from someone else. Outside of my views on any particular issue, I like to think that I can have a deeper influence by shaping how some people think at a more philosophical or ideological level, though this is hard to prove.
That said, I think that there’s a bit of a tendency for those of us involved in the discourse, particularly on Twitter, to think it is all that matters, while ignoring social forces and movements that are not part of it. I thought about this point when I saw Inez recently doubt that many people are motivated to support Israel out of a belief that doing so can help bring about the end of the world.
This position is most famously associated with Pastor John Hagee, who is the founder of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. His branch of Christian Zionism, which holds that Americans should support Israel so it can fulfill its role in the end times, is a form of dispensationalism, which refers to the belief that biblical prophecy unfolds through earthly events.
Until recently, I’d never thought that much about John Hagee. This was a name you heard a good bit during the Bush era as a kind of crazy Evangelical preacher. I assumed that the media simply exaggerated his influence due to their interest in portraying Republicans as irrational theocrats, and when they largely, with some exceptions, forgot about the man because they moved on to primarily fighting “racism” and “disinformation” rather than religious conservatism, I stopped thinking about him too. But I was recently surprised to see him pop up on Fox News after the events of October 7.
This led me to do some digging with regards to Hagee’s reach and influence today, and find out that he is indeed much more important than I would have imagined. One of the first things that I saw was that he had 932K followers on X, despite the fact that you would think his fanbase would be quite elderly and not frequent users of the site. A recent thread by Michael Tracey documents Hagee’s ideology and his influence over American politics. Christians United for Israel, the organization that he runs, claims 10 million members as of late 2020. When Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, Hagee delivered the benediction prayer. His events regularly draw some of the most important figures in Republican politics, with CUFI welcoming Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, and Ron DeSantis to their 2023 summit.
It is little wonder then that funding for Israel was the first major piece of legislation that Republicans passed in the Mike Johnson era, although the bill remains in limbo due to its inclusion of cuts to the IRS, which Democrats oppose.
I don’t have that much of a problem with Hagee having a great deal of influence, since I pretty much take a maximalist pro-Israel position in the Gaza conflict. Whether people get to the same place for religious or secular reasons isn’t that important to me. As I told Tracey during an X Space, it would be much more frightening if he thought that Taiwan or Ukraine was the Holy Land, since an uncompromising position on those conflicts could lead to a nuclear war. But pushing around the Palestinians, or even bombing Iran out of loyalty to Israel, carries no similar risk.
Regardless of whether one agrees with him or not, I think Hagee’s influence has a broader lesson for American politics. Inez doesn’t know anyone who supports Israel because doing so will bring about the end of the world, and I don’t either. It’s true that I haven’t seen polling on how common this view is. It could very well be rare, but what we do know is that dispensationalism motivates the guy who is maybe the most influential American outside of government on the right on the issue of Israel. The funny thing about the important role that Hagee plays in our politics is that it would be hard to design a human being more antithetical to everything that the “cathedral” represents, yet there he is. I highly recommend watching some of the clips Michael has been posting, as it’s very amusing to contemplate Hagee and his church having more influence over Israel policy than Peter Beinart, at least whenever a Republican is in the White House.
I touched on a similar theme in my essay on conservative political victories over the years. Pro-life, pro-gun, and homeschooling types aren’t really represented all that much in the discourse, though politicians do their bidding when they get into office. I read the WSJ and other sophisticated conservative magazines and newspapers, am generally aware of what Fox News is covering, and of course I’m always on political twitter. Conservatives aren’t hostile to these positions, they just don’t talk about them much, though I’ve seen more pro-school choice content as the issue has come to be associated with the culture wars in education.
Of course, I’m not the first person to note that Twitter is not real life, but when people say that, what they usually mean is that voters think differently than people who are active on social media. That is true, but this perspective ignores activists and interest groups without much of an online presence, or even one in the press, but with a great deal of real world influence, who may not be any more representative of public opinion than Twitter is.
The point here is that the discourse is important, but overrated. Last night, Republicans once again got destroyed at the ballot box on the issue of abortion. I’ve spent my time since then linking to my previous articles on the topic and Tweeting about the political implications of the election results. Yet even if I convince everyone I reach on Twitter about this, I doubt it’ll matter that much, at least at the state level — though federal judges might be a different matter — since the pro-life movement is optimized for political action rather than winning debates on social media. A lot of right-wing intellectuals are moderate or even liberal on the abortion issue and wish it would go away, but they’re not nearly as important as grassroots activists.
There seem to be equivalent dynamics on the left, where some of the most influential pundits of the last few years with the biggest impact on the discourse have tended to hold sensible views on issues like nuclear power, school closures during covid, and wokeness having gone too far. But left-wing activists tend to take the opposite position on each of these issues, and very often get their way. I was surprised to recently learn that two years ago, New York shut down a major nuclear power plant. Every liberal I read in the press seems to believe nuclear power is a great thing, and I don’t think that’s based on a selective consumption of media, since I sometimes browse op-eds in the NYT and The Atlantic and can’t recall ever seeing anyone take the opposite position. But discourse is one thing, and political power is another, and there are apparently effective interest groups on the left that still cling to a 1970s-style degrowth mindset.
Personally, I’m at peace with having less influence on the world than John Hagee. In fact, since I want Israel to crush its enemies, I wish him the best. But the problem with overestimating the importance of the discourse is that it leads to a false view of what is actually important. For example, trans is much more prominent in the discourse than abortion rights, but the latter has more impact on election results, and of course the lives of women. Remaining unaware of the influence of Christian dispensationalists because they don’t show up on your twitter timeline or write many op-eds in the Wall Street Journal will lead you to underestimate how deep rooted Republican support for Israel is. And for those who want to influence public policy on any issue, it’s a mistake to focus too much on what people are talking about at the expense of understanding what government officials believe and the incentives that they face.
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