The American political impasse (yes, and everyone else’s, too)
Why don’t we get the political choices we want? Many deeply committed Catholic voters are asking themselves this question during the American presidential campaign. For decades now—certainly as long as I’ve been politically aware, and perhaps throughout American history—there has been relatively little difference between the presidential candidates put forward by the two parties which dominate American electoral politics. There never quite seems to be an option that deeply satisfies Catholic sensibilities. Why?
In fairness, I think we must first ask whether this assertion is true. An alternative viewpoint, for example, would argue that there has been a significant difference between the Republican and the Democratic parties on abortion since the Supreme Court declared abortion a Constitutional right. There is even a significant difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the extension of the abortion license, as there is between the platforms of their respective parties. There are other significant differences as well. Nominally, Democrats favor big government, entitlements, and the rejection of the natural law on nearly all sexual and bioethical issues. Nominally, Republicans favor small government, a self-reliant free market, and (how should I say this?) a relative reluctance to tamper with traditional moral values (which are generally derived from the natural law).
But in practice, how much difference has there been? Even when in power, Republican leaders have made no strong and consistent effort to reduce the size and cost of government or to restore the natural law as the fundamental basis of political morality. While it is true that Democrats tend to push the envelope more than Republicans on sexual and social issues, Republicans have in all but rhetoric shown themselves repeatedly to be essentially content with the status quo. And Republicans have also repeatedly demonstrated a penchant for the use of military force overseas, as if the natural law is suspended whenever it comes to questions of foreign policy. Not only has this been frequently wrong in its own right, but it has also repeatedly created domestic dissatisfaction which causes many people to want to return Democrats to power. But here we go again: The Democrats, in their turn, do the same things.
So serious Catholics are always between a rock and a hard place when it comes to American political choices. Again I ask, why should this be? There are, I think, two reasons—but they are actually reasons which, mutatis mutandis, apply to nearly every society in every age.
The first is that the United States has never had a securely Christian, let alone a Catholic, foundation. From the first, our political attitudes have been mired in a confusion of Christianity (seriously weakened by the existence of multiple conflicting sects) and secularist utopianism (inherited largely from the so-called European Enlightenment). This accounts for America’s proud exceptionalism, our national sense that whatever we do must be right, and our nation’s almost Messianic self-conceptualization as a secular city on a hill, a light to the nations. From a Catholic point of view, these attitudes already represent a serious perversion of genuine religious insight. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, worldly.
Now, to some extent, every nation on earth can make the same complaint against itself. Its theoretical underpinnings are not firmly rooted in the natural law, nor are they sufficiently formed under the clarity of Divine Revelation. In some societies, the Church is virtually unknown, in others her influence is far too weak, and in still others her influence—and so the influence of the Faith—is distorted by the consistent and often serious flaws of her members, and not least her bishops. When it comes to public policy, the episcopate not infrequently either uses its influence poorly or provokes by its behavior an anti-Catholic reaction. These problems are at their worst when bishops usurp the role of the laity in politics and policy—whether it is by acting as princes in the early modern period, favoring the ancien regime in the nineteenth century, or seeking to become “players” in the modern State. In times of crisis, of course, even the episcopate tends to return to basics, which is why we see American bishops talking more, at last, about the political role of the laity and the pressing need for subsidiarity in political affairs.
In any case, the simple fact is that nearly every society, including all those significantly influenced by the Church, can rightly claim that it “has never had a securely Christian, let alone a Catholic, foundation.” And this leads me to my second reason for our lack of significant political choice, which is simply this: Political affairs are inescapably worldly. As St. Augustine pointed out in his monumental work The City of God, the problem is not just that there is seldom a correspondence between the city of man and the city of God. The problem is that by their very nature the two are co-existent but never the same.
Because of what I have called American exceptionalism, Americans often have special trouble recognizing this critical truth. Every four years, seriously committed Christians in America (including many Catholics) start thinking that, with the right strategy, this time around we can field candidates who really matter, and through them effect significant change. Yet each time around, things drift out of control once again and, as a long-term trend, disaffection with the political process increases while participation declines.
We have fallen prey to a superficial “maybe this time” attitude toward politics which tends to blind us to the radical cultural changes which must be effected for political activity to make a significant difference. Indeed, the proper response to the “maybe this time” question is a simple and categorical “No”. Not this time. Not any time. We cannot solve our most fundamental problems through politics, and neither can anyone else. Politics, by its very nature, is doomed to be habitually dominated by the worldly for worldly ends. Therefore, significant political successes can be achieved only under the pressure of severe and universally perceived necessity or by making people less worldly in their habits and objectives.
In other words, by its very nature, politics follows culture. While it is certainly true that political decisions are part of the cultural mix, and can have either negative or positive influences on culture in their own right, it is also true that with respect to large trends and fundamental shifts, politics always and everywhere produces some combination of self-interest and whatever its practitioners have been formed culturally to do. Given the essential worldliness of political concerns, and the kinds of people who are most easily drawn to those concerns (e.g., to making the rules and to controlling the affairs of their neighbors), it is also a given that it takes a very strong formation for those involved to keep politics on a generally positive course.
We ought not to be surprised that, in a simpler age, the early Jesuits immediately set themselves the task of tutoring the sons of the nobility and establishing schools for the wealthy. We, of course, have preferred to place our education under public (i.e., political) control, but that is a lament for another day. The point here is that we cannot make political progress in the modern world without working long and hard on the transformation (and particularly the conversion) of the culture in which politicians are nurtured. Indeed, I do not think it is too much to say that—much like John Paul II living under Communist rule—the only significant contributions we can make at present are not political but cultural.
This is because the current culture makes positive political contributions all but impossible. A rotten culture produces rotten politics. Space prevents me from tracing all the implications of this principle for political action today. But this is precisely why we do not get the political choices we want.
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