Reflections on the Revolution in AmericaBy John Médaille for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
This article first appeared in Ethika Politika, the Journal of the Center for Morality in Public Life.
To all appearances, nothing happened. On Monday, we had a Democratic President, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House, and on Wednesday, after the expenditure of billions of dollars, we had a Democratic President and Senate, and a Republican House. But in that “nothing” there is concealed a revolutionary “something,” or rather several “something’s.”
Let us start with the small something, the condition of the Republican Party. It would be too easy to blame the defeat on the ineptitude of the campaign, but that would be to confuse cause and effect. The campaign was inept because it had nothing to say, or at least not anything that Bush wouldn’t have said, and “Bush” was the one thing the party couldn’t say. The very name became the party’s four-letter word, not to be mentioned in polite society, nor invited to the convention. Romney was forced to keep his plans vague, since details could only come from Bush’s coterie of neo-conservatives, the same people who brought us these crises, domestic and international. Any actual details would make it sound like the unmentionable name.
Not only did they not know what to say, they didn’t know to whom to say it. The shock that gripped the Fox News room was genuine. They could not accept that they had not won because their models showed them that they could not lose. Dick Morris, their polling guru, staked his reputation on a Romney landslide; Karl Rove, “Bush’s brain,” went into meltdown over Ohio, and even the more sensible George Will didn’t think it would be much of a contest.
The problem was that their portrait of America was painted in the wrong colors. Even since 2004, the nation was more Black, more Brown, and more Yellow. But the campaign addressed only Angry White Men, and even at that they could not accurately locate the cause of their anger. But here’s the rub: a nation with more African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians should be more conservative (and certainly more Catholic) not less so. Ronald Reagan was half-right when he said, “The Hispanics are conservative, they just don’t know it.” The Hispanics are indeed deeply conservative, with a conservatism deeply rooted in strong family and communal values; they just refuse to recognize the Republicans’ Corporate Capitalism as “conservative.” In this, they know the Republicans better than the Republicans know themselves.
The Republicans have joined themselves to a corporate oligarchy that can never be conservative. The Fox Corporation may tout “family values” on its news channels, but it does everything it can to destroy them on its entertainment channels. The message is clear: values are good only to the point where they might interfere with profits; then they are to be abandoned, since profit is the final good. The irony is lost on Republicans but apparent to everyone else.
Another irony is that the Unintended Consequence of the Citizens United decision might be the destruction of the Republican Party. They are more dependent than ever on a corrupt corporate oligarchy, an oligarchy that is completely out of touch with the nation and incapable of ruling. As G. K. Chesterton put it, oligarchy is not a government; it is a riot, a riot of the rich. They cannot rule; they can only ruin. The Republican Party, having become intoxicated with this endless source of funds, can only stumble around and cannot find its way.
But let us move on to more important matters and a more important institution: The Catholic Church. Here we can sound the depth of the Revolution by noting that on Election Day, four states did what no state has ever done before, in 32 attempts: approve at the ballot box homosexual “marriage.” Heretofore, this monstrosity, this ontological impossibility, has been imposed by courts or sometimes legislatures, but never before by popular vote. Most people were surprised by this. Indeed, there is a suspicion in some quarters that “marriage amendments” were sometimes placed on state ballots as a means of encouraging the Catholics and evangelicals to get out and vote. George Will, among others, thought that the presence of the marriage amendment on the Minnesota ballot would be sufficient to move that state into the Republican column. If that was ever true, it is certainly no longer true. This is revolutionary.
There was one group that saw this coming and made an all-in bet, two bets, in fact. That group was Obama’s political team. For Obama made two moves that seemed, at the time, to be counter-productive and wholly unnecessary. The second of these bets was Obama’s sudden endorsement of same-sex marriage, which occurred last May, fully six months before the election. Up until that moment, politicians of all parties could get around the issue by endorsing the fiction of “civil unions,” thereby hoping to mollify gay voters without alienating Catholics, Blacks, and Hispanics. By going all-in on this, Obama seems to have risked his re-election chances. But his campaign had made another calculation entirely, one that was related to his first bet.
That bet was the “contraceptive mandate,” issued last January. Contraceptives are cheap, Sandra Fluke’s objections notwithstanding, and there seemed to be little to gain and much to lose in picking such a quarrel with the Catholic Church. Catholics represent one-fourth of the electorate and have supported the winner of the popular vote in every election since 1972. So why do it?
I have no insight into the President’s campaign, but it is safe to assume that he has some of the best number crunchers in the business, and when they crunched the numbers, they saw things moving in their direction. The losses among white Catholics were small enough to be offset by gains elsewhere. That is to say, they bet that the average Catholic would not follow the Church on the issue of contraception.
And why should they? It is an issue the American Church has barely mentioned in the last 40 years. It is therefore hardly surprising that the vast majority of Catholic women, even those who attend Mass regularly, have used artificial contraception at some time. The Bishops themselves acknowledged this discrepancy when instead of fighting the issue on the evils of contraception, they chose to stage the wholly absurd “Fortnight of (Religious) Freedom,” as if the ban on contraception was merely a strange part of Catholic ritual, like the use of chasubles or the Lenten fast. The opposition to artificial contraception is not a mere “religious” quirk, but foundational to an integral view of human sexuality. It is the biggest technological change in history; every other technology magnifies some physical or mental power of man; this one changes the very nature of relations between men and women. It has demographic, economic, and sociological consequences which need to be exposed. But the bishops passed up the teaching moment to make a political statement, one that ultimately failed.
Indeed, the Church has been on a losing political trajectory for the past 40 years. It has mainly focused on the single issue of abortion. In itself, this is not a problem, since the sanctity of life is indeed a foundational issue. But it cannot be a foundation if it does not found anything; isolated and cut off from other issues, it becomes a part of “single-issue” and “interest-group” politics. What really happened Tuesday? The re-election of the President was the least of it; the more important event was the complete collapse of the Church’s political agenda.
That agenda, rooted in the politics of abortion, and marketed under the name “pro-life,” was aimed towards a “human-life” amendment protecting the human person from the moment of conception. But as things now stand, a similar amendment did not even carry Mississippi and could not pass the nation under current conditions. This is because only 20% of the people support a complete ban on abortion (Gallup); with such low numbers, even the Supreme Court–no matter who appoints the judges—would not touch it. The Church has put the political cart before the evangelical horse; we have to convert the nation before we can carry an election, not after. And in getting the proper order wrong, they cut abortion completely out of its doctrinal contexts, away from contraception on one side and the whole area of social justice on the other. In return, the Church got neither good politics nor effective evangelism. Further, they split the American Catholic population into two mutually hostile groups: those who ignore the abortion issue in favor of social justice issues, and those who do the reverse. This is not a strategy that can win either the evangelical battle or the political struggle.
Yes, a majority now considers itself “pro-life,” but that is only because the term has been dumbed-down to include all sorts of exceptions. In truth, 20% support abortion under all circumstances and 20% oppose it under any circumstances, and everybody else is in the middle. And these are the same numbers as in 1975. Nothing’s changed in 40 years. This is because the Bishops understand neither politics nor evangelization. They sold their flocks to the Republican Party and got nothing in return. And now, there is no longer a “Catholic Vote” for them to deliver to the lowest bidder; they have lost all credibility. We, the laity, will have to do the job ourselves.
But can the job be done? I think it can be, and we can accomplish a real change if we really want to. The Republican Party will go through a period of soul-searching, but in the end it will do what losing parties always do: try to become more like the winning party. This will further isolate the “paleo-conservatives,” the ones who really do oppose the individualism and corporatism of the age, and who really believe that the purpose of an economy is to serve the family, and not the other way round. So what will they do as the GOP moves leftward?
The way forward has been outlined by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, perhaps the most sophisticated and wide-ranging of the social encyclicals. Benedict rooted his encyclical in three documents from Paul VI: Evangelii Nuntiandi, concerning evangelism, Humane Vitae, concerning human life and contraception, and Populorum Progressio, concerning humane development. Evangelization rooted in human life and humane development. This is something that can have a tangible political component. It is one that would allow the anti-abortion movement to become a true “pro-life” movement. A true pro-life movement would indeed have uncompromising opposition to abortion as its base, but would also be pro-family, pro-women, pro-just wage, pro-ownership. It would be able to distinguish between common goods, such as education, infrastructures, and health care, which are allocated in some measure to all, and market goods, which are allocated by free market pricing mechanisms, with some getting as much as they want and others getting nothing at all.
Some might object to the presence of evangelism in all this, but in fact every political movement depends on some prior and on-going evangelization. There are no neat boundaries between the secular and religious domains, but rather a necessary inter-penetration. We must convert as well as campaign. And indeed, the reigning individualism and hedonism is as much a “religion” as anything else, and one who’s “evangelization” efforts—advertising—are supported with unlimited amounts of funds from corporate America.
Such a movement as I have outlined might be a third party, or it might be a caucus within the Republican Party, but in either case it would function as a swing party, moving its votes from party to party as the decisive influence on elections. For the reality of two-party systems is that the only votes that really count are the marginal votes, the “independents” that provide the margin of victory at each election.
Is any of this possible? I think it is. The current system will not work, and the crises we see are merely the working out of its internal contradictions. Obama will not make it work and Romney would only have made it worse. Change will come, whether we will it or not. The only real question is whether the change will come from collapse, or whether we will direct the change to better ends through peaceful means. But the only romantic impossibility is the status quo. There are, to be sure, those who would make the Church a part of what Dr. John Rao calls the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo, that trans-historical effort to always subvert the work of the Church into a prop to support “business as usual” and pre-empting any challenge to the powers that be. But the powers that be stand on increasingly shaky ground that will no longer support them.
A final word. I have focused on the role of Catholics and the Catholic Church. It seems to me that up until now, leadership in the conservative movement has largely passed to the Fundamentalists. They provided, as it were, the “lowest common denominator” for Christian concerns in the political agenda. While this may have made political sense at one time, I do not think it works any more. Wider concerns must come to the fore, concerns that reflect the greater richness of the Christian theology of the older traditions. In this, the Catholic Church, if it is true to its own teachings, is uniquely qualified to offer this leadership.
To be sure, the Bishops cannot be mere party bosses in mitres, always threatening their congregations with damnation if the vote” wrongly.” That is not their role. But the Church can provide invaluable support and guidance to a lay movement dedicated to advancing the kingdom of God, even in the confines of American political order. And this is both our religious and patriotic duty. For the Church’s work has never been just a matter of a purely individual salvation, but has always aimed at building up the world and the kingdom of God, as Benedict points out in Spe Salvi. We are concerned both with men’s souls and his integral development in human society. And we might indeed move the world and the nation closer to that kingdom.
And that would be a revolution worth some reflection.