Of Many Things
By the late spring of 1932, Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president. He already had the support of more than half the delegates to the upcoming Chicago convention, and his closest competitors were Al Smith and John Nance Garner, the also-ran and might-have-been, respectively, of 1928. With the unemployment rate stuck at 20 percent and the most unpopular incumbent president since, well, ever, F.D.R. had what politicians like to call the luxury of ambiguity: Voters were so desperate for change, any change, that he didn’t have to spell out a legislative program, just flash his now-familiar jaunty smile and let the electoral clock run out.
But Roosevelt took it one step further. He made his lack of a legislative program the centerpiece of his campaign: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said that May at Oglethorpe University’s commencement. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” At Oglethorpe, then, Mr. Roosevelt came out as that almost always beloved American character: the bottom-line pragmatist, the guy who cuts through the cant and simply asks, “What works?” This was a very different approach from that of his fellow political practitioners elsewhere in America and in Europe, where the ideological warfare of the 1920s and ’30s had literally turned into a blood sport.
Mr. Roosevelt’s legacy, then, isn’t some dusty, dogmatic form of American market socialism but rather a principled, though unapologetically nonideological pragmatism. In that sense, F.D.R.’s approach is not entirely unlike Catholic social teaching, which also stresses the “must” and the “why” but largely leaves the “how” to the community to decide. “What are the most effective, just means to a more just and peaceful world?” Catholics are meant to ask, while deploying all the resources of our tradition in order to answer the question in a given political context.
That is the exact opposite of an ideological approach to politics. For an ideology, regardless of whether it originates on the left or the right, always answers its own question. This self-enclosed systematic worldview is often expressed as “the belief that everything that happens is explicable in terms of the relevant structure,” writes Kenneth Minogue. That is what makes these intellectual idols so popular. By virtue of their circular explanatory power, ideologies are seemingly omniscient.
Although ideological thinking is popular, it should be clear that it and the political narcissism that almost always accompanies it are essentially incompatible with a Catholic worldview. We share a vision of the political life that is centered on the common good, as Bishop Robert McElroy reminds us in this issue: “The sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more readily and more easily.... [E]very group must take into account the needs and legitimate aspirations of every other group, and still more, of the human family as a whole.” A more down-to-earth, or practical way of putting that perhaps is what Helen Alvaré writes in her debut column, also in this issue: “It might go a long way if Catholics managed to avoid two political tics: speaking as if a particular candidate or party embodied Christ-like love for all people; and forgetting how many proposed laws are a complex mix of good and bad.”
All in all, that’s pretty good political advice. We might try it out in the next election cycle. As someone once said, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.