We need a politics in which politicians matter less
Perhaps some among those who saw it, defying the eye-blink memory of the news cycle, remember a fuzzy screenshot from the Republican debate in Texas on Feb. 25 that spread around the Internet. To the left, Marco Rubio grips his podium firmly with his right hand and glares into the camera; Ted Cruz, to the right, is talking with his fingers firmly clasped together, refusing to relinquish the floor while Donald Trump, eyes closed in a blink, taunts him from the center. Below them, CNN’s closed-captioning reads, “[unintelligible yelling].”
There is a place for such things. Over the long course of this latest election circus, yelling has resonated enough to unsettle the “inevitable” match between the Bush and Clinton dynasties. From both left and right, it has expressed a certain truth about the deadlock of systems; it has granted a semblance of people power. And yet, that yelling risks leaving even the victors with—what? Anything intelligible enough to celebrate?
These Lenten weeks I have taken it upon myself to ponder the first of Pope Francis’ four strange maxims in “The Joy of the Gospel,” a saying he has been repeating for more than 40 years: “Time is greater than space.” As much as this sounds like some kind of physics, for Francis it has to do with the careful politics he has been playing for so much of his life.
It’s about the tension between the horizon of utopia and the limits of the present; it’s about the need to win and the powerlessness that can settle in even after one does. “Giving priority to time,” he writes, “means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.” It means selecting leaders who are less concerned with assuming power than with what will happen after they’re gone. It means, in trust and hope, enabling one’s society to choose its own future, not imposing one through domination.
I’ll come out and say it: The winner of the election should not matter. Not this much, at least. We are spending way, way too much time worrying about who will be president—measured in the span of months, measured by proportion of attention. The future of our society will draw much more from the processes we undertake in the meantime. Yes, yelling can have its uses; I’m not pleading for mere civility, which can be just as toxic as its opposite. But yelling alone, plus a winning candidate, will not a better society make.
“We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing,” Pope Francis writes in the exhortation. It is, rather, “reaching a level of maturity where individuals can make truly free and responsible decisions.”
What gets in the way of our listening and our freedom? There is the “big money” in campaigns that is finally arousing the ire of populists and that holds truly unconscionable sway. We need to unify behind efforts like this spring’s Democracy Uprising and Mayday.us that seek to root out this disease. There is the creeping custom of crass partisanship that prizes conquest over truth. There is the longing to turn time backward, rather than welcome the change and possibility it brings; “The Joy of the Gospel” quotes the 16th-century Jesuit Peter Faber, whom Frances was soon to canonize: “Time is God’s messenger.”
Maybe this: Ask not what you can restrain or control; ask what you can foster.
I suspect that to hear each other better, we need a politics in which politicians matter less. For all the ritual denunciations of politicians by politicians, we are obsessed with them. We depend on them to deliver us our supposed democracy. But democracy is not about them, it’s about us. Rather than longing for the perfect president, we need a civic culture that cleaves to liberty and justice no matter who gets the unenviable job of overseeing it all. That means wider participation and accountability everywhere from our workplaces to our churches to our elections. For now, God protect us from whomever among this cast of fallen creatures we elect.
To choose time, Francis writes, is to “accept the tension between fullness and limitation.” That means relinquishing the urge to put one’s faith in a Caesar. It also means working within the constraints of the present; right now this election and its addictive yelling matches have come to matter immensely. But the how should matter more than the who.