Reason and Civility in Politics

Come January we will have a national government that we have to live with, at least for the next two years. And now I wonder, what have we learned from the recent mid-term elections, and what do we have to look forward to?

One thing I’ve learned is that politics haven’t changed much since 1787, the year the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia adopted the Constitution and sent it on to the thirteen states for ratification. Our political landscape now is at least as contentious and infused with partisan rancor and competing interests as it was at the time of this nation’s founding.

One problem faced by our founders that will certainly sound familiar to us is the question of motives behind political positions. It was not always possible to discern whether another’s positions and advocacy were born of integrity and mutual regard. As Alexander Hamilton noted in The Federalist No.1, “we are not always sure, that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives, not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as upon those who oppose the right side of a question.” Apparently, having the truth and an opinion on its applicability did not prevent the more unseemly side of one’s nature from taking over, particularly in a political venue where the common good was at stake. Somehow, doing the right thing for the wrong motives isn’t really doing the right thing.

Another problem was the rivalry and animus that prevailed among political factions. In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison confessed his belief that adopting the proposed Constitution would “break and control the violence of faction.” He and others were convinced that the instability of a confederation of state governments would wreak havoc on the task of governing a disparate and dispersed nation. On the other hand, having a “well constructed Union” would reduce the tendency of political differences to produce a situation in which “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties” and “measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party; but by the superior force of an interested and over-bearing majority.” On this score, history has proven Madison wrong; rather than hold us together, the Constitution (or its interpretation) is arguably tearing us apart. Now we have factions plus special interest groups.

For Madison, factionalism and partisanship were rooted in human nature, but this did not make them “natural,” but rather inglorious and harmful. He understood “faction” to be “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Factions aplenty have we, and of such, no good can come.

Factions disregard or minimize the rights of some and their claims to full and free participation in civil society. Believing as he did that a unified government was essential for securing the rights of all, Madison was loath to affirm a human impulse that “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.”

One fairly certain result of the recent mid-term elections is that the level of acrimony in our political discourse and activity appears to be unrestrained. Partisanship has taken on an unreasoning, almost mind-numbing quality; somehow the measure of one’s political allegiance is to be found in the ardor with which one embraces a partisan cause and assails one’s opponents rather than in the ability to articulate a reasonable and informed position on the issues we face. Campaigns appealed more to fear than to principle, more to caricature than character, as they sought to gain or preserve personal as well as political advantage. Such self-serving and deceitful impulses evidently have been at work in politics for some time, and there is no sign that this is ending now.

But politics that creates demagogues and makes enemies of one’s opponents is more than a politics of incivility; it is a politics of immorality. Politics that strives mercilessly to gain or protect advantage lacks both a rational and a moral language by which it can be justified. Polarity in politics, whether it is bipolar or tripolar, ultimately makes all political institutions and structures ineffective and untrustworthy, rendering the body politic little more than an aggregation of discontents. That does not bode well for a nation that needs leaders and solutions as we do now.

Isn’t it strange how the public virtue of civility—and, one might add, the personal virtues of integrity and humility—are perceived as a weakness? Somehow we are given the impression that it is a sign of strength and commitment to disparage political opponents and distort their views in order to gain political advantage. There is no debate on the issues of the moment in any conventional sense, and most of the talking is around and past one another, and to someone whose approval and money matter. If there was a time when political leaders sought common ground to cultivate the common good, that time now escapes living memory. Even “compromise” has become a foul four-letter word.

Lost in all the din of our political discourse and campaign shenanigans was not just a set of solutions to our national problems, but a compelling and unifying vision that speaks to how individual liberty and socioeconomic prosperity are inextricably tied to a willingness to secure the well-being of all. As a nation, we have serious problems in this area, what with the rise in poverty, job stagnation, failing schools, and growing income inequality.

So it is noteworthy that a growing number of citizens in this country want a third political party as an option to the Democratic and Republican parties. According to a Gallup poll taken in September, 2010, more Americans now than in 2003 believe both major parties are inadequate and doing a poor job of representing them in government. The jump here is from 40% to 58% over that time span. Political liberals, moderates and conservatives have all seen a rise in interest in this question in their ranks, and now seven out of ten independents believe a third party is needed. But apparently, it’s not the Tea Party; clear majorities of those who oppose or are indifferent to the Tea Party Movement believe a third party is necessary at present.

Perhaps more so now then in the eighteenth century, we need voices of reason to speak out and contest the prevailing tide of our polarized political discourse. What we need is a public rationality, a way to conceive, assess, discuss, and adjudicate matters that affect us all. Such a public rationality need not be totalizing or oppressive of diverse points of view or political ideology. Rather, as John Rawls argues, public reason is manifest when those who hold various opinions and advocate the adoption of their policies are able to “explain the basis of their actions to one another in terms each could reasonably expect that others might endorse as consistent with their freedom and equality” (Political Liberalism, p. 218). Put differently, the legitimate acquisition and use of political power is correlative to the principles and ideals that all free and equal citizens of whatever political ideology would recognize as reasonable. Thus, the burden is on politicians to explain in recognizably rational ways how a policy proposal enhances the freedom and equality of all and not just a small minority of stake-holders.

Freedom and equality require that all members of a civil society regard one another with respect. This applies to opponents in the political arena as well as citizens in the everyday places of our common life. Persons whose values and commitments are rooted in the Christian tradition ought especially to bring their convictions to bear on political discourse and matters of public policy; embracing a faith tradition does not disqualify one from participating as a person of faith in political discussion and decision-making.

But neither does being a person of faith in the public sphere mean that one has extraordinary insight into one’s political opponents or exceptional knowledge about how to achieve the goal of human flourishing. A public faith is not an arrogant faith. As Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, has pointed out, one of the major functions of religion in our recent spate of political elections has been to canonize fear, anxiety, and anger in our view of the world and our political situation. In the absence of an alternative political or religious narrative that evokes a sense of compassion and solidarity in the struggle for well-being, this polarizing effect is all that a religious perspective has to offer.

And of course, people of faith can disagree, and they do. The disagreements that matter are those at the intersection of faith and public life. Such disagreements are not in themselves the problem. Rather, the problem is the presumption that some think they know better how others should live their lives, and thus they seek to impose and enforce ways of life that constrict rather than enhance freedom and the prospects of flourishing. Former Senator John Danforth (R-MO), in his book Faith and Politics, notes: “The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life…. The problem of American politics is not the different positions people take—disagreeing on positions is the nature of politics. The problem is the divisiveness that makes civil discourse, much less reasonable compromise, so difficult today” (10-11).

How Christians think of themselves and others, whether there is honor and respect accorded to those in and outside the faith tradition, and whether regard for different political opinions is more than sanctimonious judgment are all matters related to a profession of love for God and one’s neighbors.

I find myself increasingly unwilling to accept the tenor of our current political discourse. I don’t care much for the lack of civility in politics, and I’m convinced more now than ever that participating in public life on the basis of self-interest alone is counterproductive to the common good. There are legitimate differences of opinion and viable alternatives in strategies to secure the well-being of all.

The willingness to navigate and negotiate these differences is paramount to an ethic of civility and thus to our civil democracy. We need to call out our political representatives and leaders and demand that they conduct themselves and our business in ways that any reasonable citizen would respect.

So I think I’m going to call my representatives in Washington and Springfield and let them know how disgruntled and disappointed I am. I would not object if you did the same.

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