Whatever political outcome one wishes for in the coming election, it would be foolish to think that either the re-election or the defeat of incumbent office holders will solve the deep problems afflicting the American political order. Over 20 years ago, I wrote that the American political order suffered from the equivalent of “walking pneumonia.” That sickness is now acute.
A fundamental concept of Catholic social thought is the idea of a common good. While the term can denote the well-being of a people as a whole, akin to what The Federalist Papers refers to as “the public interest,” in a specific sense a common good refers to something that can only be shared in common and cannot be divided in pieces and be possessed by individuals or smaller groups. It is a common end achieved through common actions. Examples of common goods are a marriage by itself (as opposed to the shared material goods of a marriage), friendship, a healthy environment with clean air, the rule of law and a healthy political order. Our lack of a healthy political order is a grave social ill apparent both to Americans and, to our embarrassment, to foreign observers.
It is in plain view that many of our fellow citizens are so frustrated with our political system that they have fallen for populist rhetoric to condemn all “politicians” or government itself as evil. (Others are taking out their frustrations by tearing down statues.) This situation derives not from bad ideas or faults in the American people but rather from lacking the common good of a functioning political system. One possible result of such dysfunction is that a citizenry will so hate government and the political class that they, justly frustrated, turn to demagogues or revolutionaries, who express their alienation from the political order.
Our lack of a healthy political order is a grave social ill apparent both to Americans and, to our embarrassment, to foreign observers.
It would be wrong to blame this outcome on our citizens’ lack of judgment or virtue or the qualities of candidates for public office. Ours is meant to be a government of laws, not of men. It is our institutions that fail us, not our fellow citizens. We have not had the common good of a functional political order for decades. As a result, our political culture has degenerated. We should be grateful that the current situation makes this clear. In the film “Network,” the unhinged news anchor Howard Beale persuades his viewers to open their windows, stick their heads out, and cry “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The messages of many recent elections have been that the people are mad as hell and won’t take it anymore.
We would do well to pay attention. For Catholics, our tradition, expressed in the modern social encyclicals of the popes, calls us to this duty. Understanding the causes of our loss of the common good of a functioning political order is the first item on the agenda for implementing Catholic social thought; without this, we cannot answer the call of Pope Francis, in “Laudato Si’,” to develop “a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision” (No. 141). Without a just and well-functioning political order, we will not be able to face any of the challenges facing us at home or abroad.
Well-intended reforms have destroyed the ability of our political parties to function as vehicles of citizen participation in democratic life.
The answer to this problem will not fit into a television sound bite, or even into an op-ed piece. We need to learn to distinguish between our written, or de jure, Constitution and a secondary system of primary elections, party rules and campaign spending regulations that form a secondary, de facto Constitution that is increasingly out of sync with our founding document. Well-intended reforms have destroyed the ability of our political parties to function as vehicles of citizen participation in democratic life. We need to stop seeking political victories at all cost and vilifying the people who disagree with us; instead we need to work together to renew our political order. Then, sharing in the common good of a functioning political system, we can get back to the normal democratic life of creative debate, disagreement and compromise (a nearly forgotten concept).
The Lumen Christi Institute, of which I am executive director, hosts frequent conferences with bishops, economists and scholars that have focused primarily on economic questions. Yet many of these issues—including the crony capitalism described at one of our conferences by University of Chicago's Luigi Zingales—result from a government in which special interests prevail against the common good (in the sense of public well-being).
The people are mad as hell. Let’s pay attention to them and get to work.