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How Much Does Politics Matter?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 27, 2012

I’ve been writing a great deal about politics lately, because it is a presidential election year in America. But Catholics cannot afford to have faith in politics, especially in the current Western situation. The Psalmist was quite right when he advised Israel to “put not your trust in princes” (Ps 146:3).

In the United States, throughout my entire lifetime, there have been only the most modest of effective differences between the candidates fielded by the two dominant political parties. Despite differences in rhetoric, there never seems to be a great deal of difference in the long-term direction of their ultimate policies. Government continues to grow, regulations become continuously more burdensome, the waste of material and human resources increases apace, personal morality erodes, social stability declines. Policies denounced by the loyal opposition are typically endorsed and continued once the opposition gains power, only to be denounced in turn by the dispossessed original party.

There are, it seems to me, four reasons for this, which generally apply in all Western nations:

  1. Our deepest problems are social or cultural, and ultimately spiritual. We no longer have among our people a significant commitment either to common purposes or to the virtues which produce social stability, prosperity and cultural achievement. In these broad areas, government and politics are dependent on culture. The necessary changes are not primarily political. What is needed is a better understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to be happy—and the moral strength to pursue the right ends.
  2. As a general rule, politicians seek power not solutions: Even in democracies—some would say especially in democracies—politicians, who almost always wish to obtain and retain power, will not typically address problems honestly or advocate the kinds of sacrifices necessary to effect significant change. It is the nature of the political animal to make deals, both moral and immoral, to ensure greater and more permanent power. Those who are sincerely trying to do substantial good will in most cases be voted out of office for telling the truth.
  3. In regimes which depend on votes, politics gravitates toward the cultural center (which is rarely healthy): Whether in a two-party system or in coalition governments, variations in ultimate policy are limited. The policies proposed to win over the respective activists in party primaries, who may have very significant philosophical differences, are altered to appeal to the rank and file, and then altered again to secure the cross-partisan cooperation necessary to govern. The result is that significant change is rare except in the direction in which the dominant culture is trending anyway.
  4. The unworldly are generally a small and ineffective minority: Those who are willing to embrace the self-denial necessary to form themselves in truth, obey the natural law, and respond to God in sacrificial love are generally a small minority. They are called to be an important and vital leaven, but they will seldom be more than that. Their political victories will most often occur only when what is right can be shown to correspond to a widely understood self-interest. Thus moral progress in the social order is actually most likely under the pressure of disasters which demonstrate the bankruptcy of old attitudes and habits.

This does not mean that politics is unimportant, or that elections are utterly useless. Clearly, political activity—like every human endeavor—makes its own contribution to the health or sickness of the social order and its overall culture. But elections are quite a spectacle, replete with overblown claims and counter-claims, breathtaking promises, and lies so numerous that they never get sorted out. There is a real danger of getting caught up in periodic political enthusiasms, a danger of convincing ourselves that if only we can win this election, everything will be different. We have a tendency to drop everything else to focus on the campaign, to contribute breathlessly to political causes, to exaggerate both the importance of victory and the dangers of defeat.

The issues before us are certainly significant enough, and I have done as much as anyone to attempt to persuade others to cast their votes morally, in a way that genuinely promotes the common good. But it does seem unlikely that a positive moral consensus will be formed in what is left of Western culture anytime soon. In our time, I suspect, we are most often called (politically speaking) to be voices crying in the wilderness.

The ultimate solution, of course, is conversion and cultural formation. While it may not be possible to shift the culture as a whole at the present time, it is still necessary to form mini-cultures in individual persons, families, schools, businesses and even some local communities. This is necessary first and foremost for the salvation of souls, but also because culture is never static. If Western culture improves, it will improve because of efforts at conversion and Christian cultural formation. If, as is more likely, it continues to decline, then it will eventually collapse, and in the resulting misery those who have fallen will be far more likely to follow (or be cared for by) those who offer a truly alternative lifestyle—a lifestyle which, in the midst of shattered illusions, will once again appear personally, socially and culturally attractive.

Though I write about politics from time to time, I have always been wary of it. In our current cultural situation, it does not seem capable of bearing fruit in any reasonable proportion to the cultivating effort. I worry a little too about the disillusionment that inevitably follows our election cycles, especially among the young; and about the accommodations too often made by those who have been disillusioned so often that they equate it with wisdom. And I fear for the salvation of those who make morally insupportable political decisions in order to remain within their comfort zones.

Finally, I confess that it both annoys and concerns me when it becomes periodically more difficult to attract attention and support for—how shall I put it?—the deeper and more enduring mission of enriching faith, strengthening the Church, and forming Catholic culture. This is, of course, our mission. It is a mission not infrequently endangered by the forgetful preoccupations of political mania. It requires the attention, prayer, dedication and support of all who read these words. As the man says: Let’s be real.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Oct. 12, 2012 5:59 PM ET USA

    This year I've made peace with my decision to sit out the election and in fact any future election. I feel like I can do more good by praying for and helping those in my small circle and trying to bring them to the security of the Faith by example than by throwing my hat in the ring for the "business as usual" three ring circus of the political system. "We have here no abiding city" as St. Paul says. Best live like we believe it instead of pretending we can fix the world by the ballot box.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 28, 2012 12:36 PM ET USA

    Democratic institutions compel a moral approach to voting. It is shameful that the Church (and here I include all Christians) have so neglected and abused their moral influence on so many people. Where, I wonder, aloud, will the evangelizers be able to work to achieve significant conversions of heart?