Posts Tagged Politics

Politics and the Pope

It would be unfair to say that this morning’s Papal speech to Congress has been the subject of immediate politicization, since that started even before the speech was given.

Lachlan Markay noted on Facebook how embarrassing it was to have pretty much everyone in Washington picking and choosing favored parts of the speech.  Michael Walsh (alias David Kahane) implored non-Catholics to just shut up about the Pope, since he’s not an American politician.

Markay is right, that the attempt to claim the Pope for one’s own side is a trivializing exercise, mostly to the politicians involved.  And Walsh is right that non-Catholics probably don’t understand Catholic doctrine very well.

That said, it’s pretty much an impossible situation for our political culture.

The Pope is a religious figure, which we tend to see as a non-political figure, who doesn’t fit neatly into American political categories.  At the same time, he’s giving speeches where he opines on manifestly political topics, in an inherently political town, including one to an inherently political body.  Not discussing these issues in a political context would be absurd.  And indeed, why does the Pope speak on these subjects if not to influence the real world debate?  Of course, that’s what he wants, and his means of doing do is to influence the moral framework through which Catholics see these issues.

To those who don’t like mixing politics and religion, though, the Papal visit a good reminder that almost all political arguments are inherently moral ones.  Virtually every question in the public arena today is cast as a moral matter – from health care, to the environment, to welfare, to foreign policy, is a moral question.  One of the reasons that conservatives tend to lose these debates is because we’re terrible at pointing out that our side has at least as good a moral argument as the allegedly caring Left.  (It’s actually a far superior moral argument, but for purposes of this post, we’ll settle for there being two sides to the coin.)

That doesn’t mean the government has to get involved in everything, or that it should be a sectarian tool. But even libertarians make moral arguments about policy – they just claim that it’s more moral to leave the government out of most things.  The case is a bit of a bank shot, but it’s got solid fundamentals – if capitalism raises people out of poverty, and if moral societies are more robust when mediating institutions are strong on their own, then a smaller government usually is more moral.

Where libertarians tend to lose out is when the judgment that the government shouldn’t be making moral calls leads them to complain about any moral judgments at all, and I’ve seen this happen – a lot.  Both Thomas Merton and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik would agree that no man is an island, that societies exist in the real world, and that they only work when they can internally enforce moral norms.

There is also some slight difference between starting from Catholic doctrine and arriving at political conclusions, and working backwards to find support for your politics in religious thought.  The reporting on this Pope’s comments has been so truly awful that I really can’t tell how much of it is the press trying to co-opt the Pope for its lefty agenda, and how much really is organic.  Much of the criticism of Pope Francis comes from people who assume he’s doing the latter.

It’s the same problem as when rabbis talk about politics from the pulpit, making the Reform rabbinate the marketing arm of the Democratic Party.  Tradtional Judaism, which is to say, actual Jewish thought grounded in sources and Jewish law, is anything but socialist and redistributionist, anything but passive in the face of existential threats.

The fact that it, too, doesn’t fit neatly into contemporary party politics doesn’t meant that it doesn’t have something to say about contemporary controversies, or provide a framework that can inform the Jewish point of view on those subjects.  It’s why the work being done by the Tikvah Fund, which works in the other, proper direction, is so admirable.

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Scott Walker vs. the Mandarins

A recent column in The Federalist explains why Scott Walker’s success despite not having a college degree, much less an Ivy League degree, is so threatening to the emerging aristocracy:

But behind that, there is a more visceral reaction. The real purpose of higher education is to learn the knowledge and skills required for success later in life. So if someone has already become a success, whether or not he went to college is irrelevant. If he has achieved the end, what does it matter that he didn’t do it by way of that specific means? But for the mainstream elites, particularly those at the top level in the media, a college education is not simply a means to an end. It is itself a key attainment that confers a special social status.

There are no real class divisions in America except one: the college-educated versus the non-college educated. It helps to think of this in terms borrowed from the world of a Jane Austen novel: graduating from college is what makes you a “gentleman.” (A degree from an Ivy League school makes you part of the aristocracy.) It qualifies you to marry the right people and hold the right kind of positions. It makes you respectable. And even if you don’t achieve much in the world of work and business, even if you’re still working as a barista ten years later, you still retain that special status. It’s a modern form of “genteel poverty,” which is considered superior to the regular kind of poverty.

If you don’t have a college degree, by contrast, you are looked down upon as a vulgar commoner who is presumptuously attempting to rise above his station. Which is pretty much what they’re saying about Scott Walker. This prejudice is particularly strong when applied to anyone from the right, whose retrograde views are easily attributed to his lack of attendance at the gentleman’s finishing school that is the university.

Paul Johnson, in The Birth of the Modern, explains what such a society can end up looking like, and how it differs from pretty much everything American:

China was that worst of all systems: a society run by its intelligentsia, a cathedocracy ruled from the scholar’s chair….

The system was obnoxious because it placed scholars at the top, followed in descending order by farmers, artisans, and merchants.  What it meant in practice was that the country was ruled by those who were good at passing highly formalized examinations.  So early 19th-century China, with its rapidly increasing population, had many of the symptoms of underdeveloped Third World societies today, especially an overproduction of literate men (not technocrats or scientists) in relation to the capacity of the political and economic system to employ them usefully.  The educational system trained Mandarins for official life in the narrowest sense, not for anything else, least of all commerce….

As the intelligentsia grew in size, the ethics of the system were progressively destroyed.  Degrees, studentships, and places in the academies, as well as the statutory jobs themselves, were all in time put up for sale… All these men had high notions of their worth and healthy appetites for power and money.  All that they had been taught in the academies was how to write examination essays.  All they learned in their jobs was how to translate the minuscule slice of power each exercised into money, in the form of bribes from those whose activities they controlled…

We’re not quite at that point yet, although the outlines are clear enough.  It’s much too much to suggest that the path of Merit vs. Mandarin will be determined by the 2016 election, but how we react to Walker’s success without a degree is a marker on how far we’ve gone along this path.

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Notes on the State of Virginia

Coming as I do from Virginia, I like to keep an eye on the politics of the old country.  Virginia is one of the few states to hold its elections in odd-numbered years.  As a result, their elections are often seen as better bellwethers than the Congressional mid-terms.  (This is a little odd, inasmuch as, in the last 11 gubernatorial elections, Virginians have voted against the party in the White House.  Virginia governors can’t succeed themselves, but they can run again after sitting it out, and Mills Godwin holds the distinction of being both the last Democrat elected under a Democratic President, and the last Republican elected governor under a Republican President.)

This year, the Republicans entered the post-2010 Census elections with 58 seats in the House of Burgess- er, Delegate, and 18 seats in the State Senate.  Holding the governorship meant that they needed only one seat to regain control of the State Senate.

The results show the perils and power of redistricting.  Unlike in Colorado, state legislative redistricting is done by the legislature itself.  With a split legislature, the Senate and House agreed to draw their own maps for their own chamber, and to abide by the other house’s map.  So the Senate Democrats and House Republicans, essentially, got to draw the maps for the Senate and House, respectively.

The Republicans ended up taking an astonishing 67 seats in the House, but they could only manage a 20-20 tie in the Senate.  That’s good enough for control, but the Republican Lt. Governor will be spending a lot of time up at the state capitol building over the next two years.

These results mask the utter collapse of the Democrat party in the Old Dominion.  Though they’ll never say so, the Democrats made a strategic decision to sacrifice the House to try to hold onto the Senate.  Of seven Senate races decided by less than 10%, the Democrats won five, and came within half a percentage point of a sixth.  In the House, they lost all six.

Statewide, the Democrats received an aggregate 34% of the vote in the House, and just under 40% of the vote in the Senate.  The Republicans out-polled the Democrats roughly 3-2, and still ended up with only a tie.  Democrats didn’t even bother to run in 12 of the 40 Senate districts.  (Republicans vacated the field in only four.)   In the House, it’s even worse.  Republicans didn’t compete in 27 districts, but Democrats only ran in 54 districts.  Put another way, the Republicans could have lost in almost every contested race, and still won control of the House.

This may be a mixed blessing for the Republicans.  As Colorado House Republicans have found out over the last year, governing with a majority of one vote is often worse than being in the minority; in effect, you don’t have working control of the body.  You can kill and pass lots of stuff in committee, but when it gets to the floor, the minority can almost always count on standing together in opposition, while they need only pick off the squishiest member of your caucus on any given vote.  The net result for Virginia may be that the Republicans are perceived as having full governing authority, while not necessarily having full governing power.

For 2012, though, it’s probably very good news for Republicans.  I can’t imagine President Obama carrying the state, and even a popular ex-governor like Tim Kaine will be facing a daunting structural deficit (something Democrats are excellent at creating).


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