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Overlooking the Polity, Idealizing the Nation


Overlooking the Polity, Idealizing the Nation

James W. Skillen

            The word “politics” (of Greek derivation) is used in the United States today to mean many things: political life in general, the political system, government and citizenship (of Latin derivation), lobbying, campaigning for elections, and much more. The word is also used to refer to bargaining for power and dirty tricks in any area of life. For some Christians, politics is the devil’s playground. For others it’s the means of protecting life, liberty, and property, and in some circles a vehicle for promoting policies to help those in need.

            THE POLITICAL WHAT—In my view, politics should always be thought of in relation to public governance. But WHAT do governments govern? If governments govern something and if politics entails everything that goes into influencing, gaining access to, and controlling government, then the question of WHAT needs to be answered. My argument in this opening gambit of our conversation will revolve around the following thesis. One of the central problems underlying American politics and government is that the WHAT is undefined or overlooked. For this reason, I believe: 1) the American political system is not functioning well; 2) making a case for what should be done to overcome the malfunctions is very difficult; and 3) charting a course for constructive Christian political engagement is almost impossible.

            The WHAT to which I am referring is the polity, the public thing (a res publica), the political community, which is not a family thing, or an educational institution, or a business corporation, or a faith community. It might more specifically be called a public-legal community whose members are related to one another as “citizens-in-law,” not as members of a family, or a university, or a business, or a church. Citizens-in-law and their government together constitute a polity.

            LIBERAL IDEOLOGICAL BLINDERS—A major reason why the WHAT of our American polity remains largely undefined or overlooked is the understanding or doctrine of governance that controls our thinking and action. There is no doubt that an American federal republic (res publica) exists. But the liberal tradition of ideas and beliefs, which undergirds the entire spectrum from conservative to liberal, from right to left, obscures or denies the republic’s identity as a community of obligations in its own right. The presupposition of liberalism is that the United States is the product of a contract among free individuals who have agreed to hire a government to protect their lives, freedom, and property. The government, in this view, is a means to the end of individual freedom, a servant of individuals who are the government’s originating sovereigns. The contracting individuals do not recognize that as citizens in relation to a government that has the power to make and enforce laws they are bound together as a public-legal community that is quite different than a private contractual relationship.

            At the far right of this ideological spectrum libertarians believe that since the autonomy of the contracting individuals is the first principle of government, a government that collects taxes and acts for any purpose other than to protect the life, freedom, and property of free individuals is engaged in theft and overreach. At the far left of the spectrum the first principle of government is to do whatever its sovereign creators want it to do to enhance their lives and try to ensure equal freedom for all individuals. Politics, then, consists of bargaining and brokering among contracting individuals to achieve what each one wants.

            By this time in American history, life, freedom, property, and private contracts have expanded to include everything from stock ownership to the right to define one’s gender, from Social Security income to a corporation’s right to act as a legal person, from a rancher’s grazing rights on public land to food stamps and crop price supports, from restrictions on polluting industries to taxes on property, consumption, and income. In a political system shaped by liberalism we should not be surprised to find that our representative legislators (those elected to stand in for sovereign individuals) have become little more than interest-group brokers. Nor should we be surprised that our civic discourse is scattered incoherently in all directions as various groups of individuals try to advance innumerable causes and desires. The words spoken and the laws passed have less and less meaning as individuals and government alike descend into confusion, frustration, paralysis, and the feeling of powerlessness. Today there is, for all practical purposes, no common legislative, executive, or judicial focus of attention on the wellbeing and justice of the national polity as a whole. The words “polity,” “political community,” “republic,” “commons,” “public trust” are seldom used. There is no WHAT there.

            CONSTITUTIONAL INADEQUACY—More about political ideology is still to come, but here we need to draw into our conversation another major feature of our political system’s weakness, namely, the constitutional structure of the American federal republic.

            The U.S. Constitution was built on the presumed priority of state governments and states’ rights. The federal system was constructed from the bottom up, not from the top down. The founders, wanting maximum autonomy for the states, granted to the federal government only two major responsibilities: defense and the regulation of interstate commerce. Responsibilities for the governance of schooling, corporations, family life, health, transportation, welfare, and much more were, and still are, held by the states. The federal government was granted no authority to initiate legislation or take executive action in any of those areas.

            Let me offer an illustration: after World War II when there were several reasons for building a nationwide highway system, presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower could propose the construction of such a system only as a national defense project. Congress and the president had no authority to build a nationwide transportation system. However, a project of national defense was different. Members of Congress simply needed to cajole (bribe) their state governments to cooperate in building and maintaining a national defense, inter-state highway system. That was not too difficult to do since the feds would put up most of the money and would work with state transportation officials in its planning and in the employment of local workers for its construction.

            Today, few of us would deny the fact that the United States has become a national polity and is no longer merely a coalition of state polities. Yet the Constitution continues to operate on its founding purpose of serving state polities, defending the nation from foreign enemies, and regulating interstate commerce. The one exception to that fact was (is) the Bill of Rights, which was included to protect free individuals in all states from federal government overreach; the Bill of Rights was not intended to encourage direct federal governance of a national polity. However, with amendments added to the Constitution after the Civil War, those civil rights became enforceable on the states by the federal judicial system. That is why today a high percentage of state and national struggles over social, economic, familial, educational, and other matters lead to legal battles over civil rights that often reach the Supreme Court.

            ELECTORAL REPRESENTATION—Another important element contributing to the inadequacy of the Constitution is its system of representation for Congress (both House and Senate) and the office of the president. Because the federal government was created to serve the states, not to govern a national polity, our system of elected representatives is designed to represent the states. Every elected representative to the House of Representatives and the Senate is chosen by local elections in each state. We have no Representatives or Senators elected by a nationwide electorate even though Congress is our national legislature.

            Even the U.S. president is not elected directly by a nationwide vote but by an Electoral College made up of electors chosen from each state. That is why Donald Trump could lose by nearly three million votes to Hillary Clinton in the national popular vote yet still win the election in the Electoral College. As strange as it might sound, American citizens as constituents of a national polity have no opportunity to elect and hold accountable members of Congress and the president by a direct vote of the nationwide constituency. Consequently, what we witness in Washington is seldom a deliberative legislative and executive process but rather one of bargaining among state-dependent representatives whose first obligation is to the people in their states or smaller voting districts. In addition, when members of Congress work on legislation, they are typically bargaining with powerful national interest groups (bankers, farmers, businesses, labor unions, insurance companies, defense contractors, and many, many more). Today, those interest groups have a far greater influence on most members of Congress than do the voters in their districts. This further helps to explain both the reduction of Congress to a collection of interest-group brokers and the growing sense of powerlessness among voters that is evident in low turnout for elections.

            THE GLUE THAT MOST UNITES AND DIVIDES US—Return with me now to the ideological dimension of our hobbled, ill-functioning political system. In my view, the conservative-liberal spectrum of liberal ideology is most influential in the legislative process of governance. But since the WHAT of the polity is undefined or overlooked by that ideology, we have to look elsewhere to find what most Americans have in their hearts and guts when they think of the nation as a whole. This is where our ideals of the American nation come to the fore. The American nation we idealize is not the governed republic but the mythic, god-chosen people, the new Israel exceptional among all nations.

            There are basically two major ideals of the nation in play and they are at odds with one another in a curiously interdependent way. The ideal I first want to introduce was the founding ideal that remained dominant until early in the twentieth century. This was the nation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP) united in their covenant with the god who led them to this promised land. The nation in this inspiring myth is an Americanized derivation of Israel’s exodus story (originating with the New England Puritans). A new Israel was led across the Atlantic Red Sea, through the wilderness, and into the new promised land.

            By the mid-twentieth century, the ideal of America as god’s chosen people was boiling down, for wider secular appeal, to the “exceptional nation,” still considered unique among all nations. The nature of that ideal and its disconnect from the processes of governance helps to explain our odd American divide between “loving America” and “belittling government.” Ronald Reagan promised in campaign speeches to get government off the backs of the people in order to save the nation. Government, especially too much of it, threatens individual and market freedoms. So most white Americans love the nation but distrust (and in some quarters even hate) government.

            There is a second ideal of the nation little noticed by most Americans until around the end of World War II, though anyone paying attention to what led up to the Civil War and followed from it would be aware of it. This American ideal also derived from the biblical exodus story and began to take shape long before 1776, emerging from the songs of slaves praying for God to free them from their Pharaoh—the white slave masters. They too looked ahead to freedom in a promised land, but they were not looking for an exit from this land in order to cross the sea to another place. Rather, they wanted to become full and free participants right where they were, within America. But of course for them to be free would require elimination of the slave master’s right to own human property and inclusion of non-white people in all the privileges of WASP-controlled America. Moreover, as the conclusions of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement testified, the African American ideal of a free, equal, and all-inclusive nation depended on a strong federal government and judicial system to act on the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all humans are created equal.

            The two ideals just sketched both spring from the biblical exodus story; both appeal to divine promises and intervention; and both cry out with the same desire for “freedom.” Yet the two stories and national ideals are diametrically opposed to one another: the oppressive Pharaohs are different; the views of government are at odds; the ideas of who is a legitimate American do not square, so the contrasting ideals are incompatible. The ideals have roots as deep as any religion, and many commentators and scholars have identified them as civil-religious in character. So the America that is supposed to unite us in love for the nation is the America in which we are deeply divided about the identity of the nation we want to love. Furthermore, to the degree that these two exodus stories are mutually exclusive, they pit Americans against one another in all-or-nothing conflict that makes cooperative governance nearly impossible. This is why I would argue that most of our battles over government policies and judicial cases are at root battles over the ideal of America. They are battles for monopoly control of the power to establish the true ideal of the nation to the exclusion of all un-American ideals.

            One additional factor needs to be drawn into the mix here. In our federal system the American president functions in two roles: the head of government and the head of state. In other countries these positions are typically held by different persons. The queen of England, for example, is the head of state while the prime minister is the head of government. Given our ideological divisions and system of representation, I believe it is now the case that during presidential elections voters are focused far more on the head of state (the leader of the nation) than they are on the head of government. Voters are looking for the candidate who best represents the ideal of the nation they hold dear.

            WHAT MUST BE DONE?—I should state frankly here that I do not believe the changes necessary to address the critical conditions of American government and politics will be made. The liberal and civil-religious ideologies are too deeply rooted and the Constitution too highly prized to allow most citizens even to contemplate the fundamental reforms I recommend below. The American republic is, in my estimation, falling farther and farther away from being a healthy polity on its way to becoming an increasingly conflicted and unstable plutocracy. On its present course, concentrated wealth will gain increasing control of government while battles over competing ideals of the nation will continue to fuel culture wars. Our res publica will decline into little more than a market in goods and labor to the advantage of those who call the governing shots, and elections will function as sideshows of cultural conflict over the true identity of the nation.

            Because I believe there are no quick fixes for our predicament, the following outline suggests what, in my estimation, should be done. These proposals can also serve as my recommendation for the aims of Christian political engagement.

            1. The first change necessary for reform is a conversion at the deepest level of American political culture, conversion to a vision of the nation as a governed polity. American civil-religious nationalism must be displaced by a growing civic commitment to the work of building a shared public trust, a just republic. This will mean acceptance of a more modest understanding of what a nation can and should be, namely, a civic community in which the diverse citizenry work to achieve and uphold a shared public trust. For the majority of citizens this will entail relinquishing the belief that the future of their lives and of the world depends on America being Number One in the world and the model for all nations. For many Christians it will mean giving up the deeply held belief that the Christian way of life and the American way of life fit together hand-in-glove as God’s light to the world.

            2. Closely related to the first change must come the replacement of our dominant liberal ideology with a publicly minded, public-commons understanding of politics and government. Without such a change, government will continue to be thought of as simply a means to the ends of individual autonomy and economic, scientific, and technological progress. A sound and stable polity must instead be a community whose aim is to equitably balance multiple needs and demands for the sake of the republic’s common good. Without constitutional, governmental, and popular commitment to the priority of upholding a just polity, interest-group politics will continue to dominate and eventually bury any idea that government officials are supposed to be public servants committed to wise statesmanship for the common good.

            3. The third change we need is a significant rewriting of the Constitution to make it fit for the governance of a nationwide polity. The governments of states and localities can certainly be retained, but the federal government must become representative of the nationwide political community and capable of governing it directly. To achieve the accountability under law of members of Congress and the president directly to American citizens, and to make possible the meaningful representation of all citizens in Congress, a reform of the electoral system is required. Elsewhere I have proposed a system of proportional representation for the House of Representatives that would eliminate all gerrymandering, help to build disciplined national parties, and subordinate interest groups to the parties so they can no longer fund candidates and directly lobby members of Congress.

            There are, of course, many things citizens can do in organized ways to promote a more healthy and just republic. I am not dismissing or belittling such actions. In my estimation, however, all such actions will remain sideshows with diminishing influence if fundamental changes are not made.

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Reader Comments (1)

Now I ask this question as much to assist your interlocutor to understand your viewpoint (at least to the degree that I understand it in your US context) as to maybe help clarify more generally what you are getting at for readers. You say in the first listed necessary change that "a conversion is needed at the deepest level of American political culture, conversion to a vision of the nation as a governed polity." But this follows hard on the heels of the statement: "I should state frankly here that I do not believe the changes necessary to address the critical conditions of American government and politics will be made." Now, although you go on to explain the changes and how hard it will be it might be useful to say more about your belief that these changes won't occur. What's the stumbling block here? Christian readers, perhaps like Harry, may come to the conclusion that you have "sold the pass" on this, and yet you are willing to hold this (sad/pessimistic) belief. "The liberal and civil-religious ideologies are too deeply rooted and the Constitution too highly prized to allow most citizens even to contemplate the fundamental reforms" you are recommending in your conclusion. So then what is it in your view that prevents this conversion, that hinders you from an optimistic confidence that your three changes will be taken up by repenting Christians? Another way of asking this may be: why have you not given up? Why aren't you a pessimist? If I read Harry's response to your paper it seems he is politely avoiding saying that you are. He does say that you are not putting your faith in the right place. Are we also dealing here with typical ways US Christians have an essential "upbeat", "booster" worldview? You say "for many Christians it will mean giving up the deeply held belief that the Christian way of life and the American way of life fit together hand-in-glove as God’s light to the world." So are you saying that US Christians are hardened against the conversion of their own political vision? Are you saying that US political life is characterised by a hardened commitment to a political view that makes the (presumably Christian) nation of US the norm for public (and global) governance?

December 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Wearne

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