This article is reprinted courtesy of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
Yeats is on my mind, following last evening's election returns. Remember the line? "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold..."
The church's years of efforts in America to support public policies that reflect its moral vision were dealt a blow Tuesday evening. This is true for its traditional concerns for social issues like support for the poor, welcoming the immigrant, stewardship of the environment and so forth. It's no less true for the church's work for progress on the moral issues that have been its crusade in recent decades. Indeed, most importantly, last night was a setback for all of us who have been working for progress against abortion.
Other Catholic commentators will disagree with such analysis, of course. Every nook and cranny of American public life is now suffused with ideological division and Catholics are as divided by their cable news channels and partisanship as Americans generally. I'm enough of a social scientist to suspect that my thinking, too, is compromised by these numbing ideologies.
But, my argument that the church was a loser in this election is not based on worries that Democrats lost or that Republicans won. No, my argument is that the moderates lost and that, in particular, moderate pro-life and pro-Catholic social teaching candidates were defeated by currents in contemporary American political life that are pushing both the GOP and the Democrats toward their respective right and left wings. Not only do both of those wings stand in tension with the church's traditional teachings, but their polarization undercuts the possibility for any real advance on the issues that are priorities for the church.
What are the losses that I have in mind? Let me use two House races to illustrate the larger trend: Republican Joseph Cao in Louisiana's 2nd district and Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper in Pennsylvania's 3rd. Both of these Catholic incumbents are anti-abortion advocates. Both, too, evidence in their votes and public comments a sensitive appreciation of the larger parameters of the church's social teachings. Both, moreover, are the sorts of moderates within their respective parties who might be inclined to reach across party lines and work for policies that the majority of American Catholics want on moral and social issues. Both, however, were especially targeted by opposition parties and lost last evening because moderates are cannon fodder in the ideological war that is contemporary American politics. Dozens of moderates from both parties went down in this election cycle, with the losses of pro-life, moderate Democrats most evident.
For American governance this is bad news. Democracy theorists argue that legislatures depend on moderates for the coalition formation, the bi-partisan cooperation, and the compromising that are so necessary for governing. But, Catholic concerns are directly impacted, as the disappearance of moderates like Cao and Dahlkemper moves the two parties toward policy positions that are worrisome from the perspective of the church's teachings. Overnight the number of anti-abortion Democrats in Congress was decimated. What lesson will that party take from such losses? I worry that it will be the wrong one.
On the GOP side, what lesson will be learned when compassionate conservatives like Cao go down while libertarian and "gospel of wealth" Tea Partiers promising to axe government do-gooders are in the ascendant? It's pretty hard to see now how the bishops' hopes for immigration reform--given the new realities of the GOP--have any chance. Let's also not forget that libertarians are theoretically lukewarm (at best) on issues like abortion. Most importantly, though, the loss of pro-life moderates on the Democratic side makes it awfully hard to see how pro-life forces will be able to cobble together a coalition in Congress for any measurable progress on life issues.
So, what's to be done? The church's teachings stress that Catholics are obliged to promote a politics of the common good--that is, a politics not motivated by partisanship, or ideology, or private interests. The ideal of the common good holds out a response to the polarization that now sunders America's public life. Like any ideal, realization is hard to imagine given the crooked timber of humanity. But, the way forward for our policy concerns depends--it now seems--on changing the corrosive climate of current politics. As Catholics, it's past time to put aside the temptation to use the church's social and moral teachings as wedge issues to sharpen the kind of polarizations that made last evening's election such a loss for us. And (not to sound too grandiose about what to expect) to the extent that we can bring the ideal of common good into the discourse of American public life, we'd not only be helping prospects for our own policy concerns, we'd also probably be helping American governance.
How's this for a starter idea? Perhaps when the American bishops convene this month, they might address the worrisome implications of excessive partisanship and ideological polarization from a Catholic vantage point.