The Death of Politics, revisited with critics in mind

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 18, 2016

I was happy to see a good crop of comments on last week’s essay, Politics is dead: This year, avoid the quadrennial silliness. And I was not surprised to see some comments which took strong and even heated exception to the position I outlined. As is usually the case with sensitive topics, some readers also jumped reflexively into condemnation mode, without making a serious effort to understand what I said.

One wonders, for example, how an advocacy of evangelization—and specifically of the need for evangelization before we can be politically successful—can be construed as “staying home”, “hiding under our beds”, “burying our heads in the sand”, “throwing in the towel”, “ceasing to oppose evil”, “refusing to talk about abortion”, and so on. Earth to critics: It takes far more courage and personal engagement (especially considering how our secular culture has molded us) to take up evangelization than to pursue politics.

To those who wondered whether I was recommending that people neither vote nor inform themselves about issues and candidates, I assure you that this is not the case. You will note that I emphasized two things. First, “for the vast majority of us, it is the height of folly to be distracted by an unmerited trust in American politics from our primary duty of strengthening the Church and proclaiming Christ’s message, a duty that is as civic as it is religious.” And second, “let us renounce our characteristic political silliness—and our characteristic political waste.”

It takes very little time and energy, and no money, to come to a reasonable conclusion about which candidate, if any, we should vote for in any given election. Since our culture is so far gone, we seldom have a candidate we can really approve, but we do sometimes have a candidate who is the lesser of two evils. So the prudential choice is usually between voting for the lesser of two evils or choosing to abstain from voting in the hope of inducing a party to change its platform in the future to attract the disaffected voters required for victory.

Please note that a conscientious decision not to vote is a proper exercise of civic responsibility. We must vote or not vote depending on what we think will be most conducive to the common good. One aspect of the political “silliness” I hope Catholics will avoid is the tendency toward self-deception in response to political campaigns—the psychological need to feel that we have a potential “winner” to back, and the corresponding need to condemn those who decide to vote for an unelectable third party candidate, or decide not to vote at all. Any of these positions can be morally sound, depending on one’s prudential evaluation of the possibilities for long-term political improvement.

I believe that if we correctly recognize how small the opportunity is for success in contemporary politics in the United States, we will avoid getting caught up in the frenzy of “the race”, and so avoid the distractions, the mutual recriminations, and the waste of resources to which unwarranted excitement so often leads.

A Question of Prudence

None of us has unlimited time, energy and resources. Being human, we are morally obliged to answer prudently the question of how we can do the most good. It is my contention that it is essentially impossible to pursue significant goods through politics in the United States at this time, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future, because our culture is too far gone to support such goods. The history of our efforts over the past fifty or sixty years seems to me to provide an unassailable proof of this thesis. If this perception is correct, then we must ask what other course is open to us to transform our culture sufficiently to render politics fruitful again.

None of us, I hope, would choose to evangelize others only because we think it will be politically expedient—because it is a way to win political battles. But surely it is very likely that politics will not be productive in the United States until far more people become sensitive to the natural law principles within which all legitimate politics must function. And it also appears to be true (as I mentioned in the original piece) that we have no realistic expectation that large numbers of people are going to spontaneously rediscover the natural law on their own. It seems far more likely that the shortest distance between two points is, in fact, evangelization.

As a result of this prudent assessment, I argued against getting caught up in politics to the point of expending excessive time, energy and money on our quadrennial political prospects. I admitted that I cannot condemn anyone for reaching a different prudential conclusion. But in keeping with my own conclusion, I urged everyone to turn away from what I see as hopeless political enthusiasm, lest they become distracted from the deeper, nobler and more promising course of evangelizing and strengthening the Church.

Alternative Viewpoints

One critic in Sound Off! (skall391825), in a comment which I took to be good humored, suggested that our duty was really the opposite of what I had said. We must “get into politics up to our ears”. He requested that “if you don’t want to get involved, please stay out of the way.” But this presupposes that there is actually anything to get in the way of! To the contrary, there is no Catholic, Christian, natural-law, or even remotely moral juggernaut thundering up the political road; indeed, there is no significant progress that I can possibly be accused of blocking.

This conventional rhetoric betrays what I have been calling our quadrennial silliness. It is temporarily rousing. But being drawn into it is a sure way to waste time, energy and funds.

I’d also like to mention the Sound Off! comment posted by herose4u3999, who insisted that “if Catholics across the board would not vote for pro-abortion candidates over the years, we would have a nation that is strong and mighty in the Lord.” There is a good deal of truth in this—and which of us has not, at one time or another, said exactly the same thing? But it cannot be used as an argument for redoubling our political efforts, for the sad truth is that, as things stand now, Catholics across the board will continue to vote for pro-abortion candidates (and for candidates committed to many other violations of the natural law).

Why? Because even Catholics are insufficiently evangelized. The Church herself is very weak.

This is one big reason politics is out of reach to those who care about the Good. It is another powerful indication that our culture is too far gone to support effective politics. In the last analysis, I am only making an argument for clear thinking. Since we do not have unlimited time, energy and resources, we must not waste our strength on remedies that cannot work. At the present time, and for the foreseeable future, political remedies are not available to us—just as they were not available to the Jews in Egypt, to Christians in ancient Rome, to Catholics in Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan England, and more recently to any person of good will under Communism.

But other kinds of remedies are available to us. This is why, under present conditions, it is exceedingly foolish to allow a fruitless politics to drain away time, energy and resources from the more critical tasks of evangelizing and strengthening the Church. Instead of looking for our quadrennial “fix” (this year, will it be Donald Trump!?), we should be increasing our commitment to spreading the gospel.

There are many things we desperately need to say to our brothers and sisters. Most of them are forbidden, by culture or even by law, in American politics today.


Previous in series: Politics is dead: This year, avoid the quadrennial silliness.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Leopardi - Jan. 21, 2016 11:35 AM ET USA

    Not voting or even just ignoring the 'circus' may be morally justified, as you say, but it certainly isn't a sound tactical approach (to wit: up to four new supreme court justices are at stake). Having said that, Jeff, the discussion that you have started and the thoughts that you have provoked are to the great credit of your entire CatholicCulture.org enterprise...thanks for that and God Bless.

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Jan. 19, 2016 8:07 PM ET USA

    Heh, you're not wrong. I just got my "Make America Great Again" hat in the mail. It'd be interesting to hear your take on how the economic structure of the nation influences the moral landscape. For instance, in a nation in which most women are in the workforce, traditional families suffer. When the family is weakened, there's more incentive to contracept or abort. The unemployed turn to crime. Lack of upward mobility kills the incentive to work hard, leading to hedonism. And so on.

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Jan. 18, 2016 11:26 PM ET USA

    Excellent practical advice, especially with regard to saying NO to the candidates and the PAC's and the many tentacles of the political parties all asking for your money. Say NO to them and redirect the money you would have given to them to more worthy causes. Still, one important question is at stake this November: the next three supreme court appointments (and who appoints them) will, I believe, be consequential.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Jan. 18, 2016 6:34 PM ET USA

    One thing I feel about this is that focusing on parties is a bad idea. I can't comment on the US situation, but in our last election (New Zealand), I could only find one candidate as our local MP who was willing to say that he was personally against abortion. Even the candidate from the so-called 'Conservative Party' wouldn't. I voted for the self-declared anti-abortion candidate, though I don't think much of his party's stand (he didn't win :-)).