Thursday, December 13, 2012

Picking a Party

R.R. Reno writes for First Things, a rightward-oriented journal, founded by the late Rev. Richard Neuhaus, which provides a platform for conservative cultural criticism, conservative-oriented politics, and conservative Catholic and Protestant religious views. These represent, of course, at least three different world-views, which are not necessarily always in harmony (despite the common invocation of the "conservative" label). When they get mixed together (almost always driven by a political agenda), the mixture can get even more problematic.
Thus, in his journal's January 2013 issue, Reno recommends to Catholics that they support the Republican party. There is, of course, nothing wrong with recommending that someone support a particular political party. The problem arises when one's recommendation is based on ostensibly religious grounds. In 19th-century Imperial Germany, there was the Catholic Center Party. In Europe after World War II, there were Christian Democratic parties. The United States has never really had anything quite like that. If, historically, particular denominations identified more with one party than the other, it was more likely an ethnic association rather than a religious one, more a matter of socio-economic status and the group's social and economic interests than religious doctrine. Reno reconginizes this - sort of - in his claim that a century ago American Catholics were encouraged to identify with the Democratic party "not necessarily because it was an ideal or even reliable vehicle for the Catholic vision of a just society, but because it was the political force that would defend them and their flocks." 
It would seem reasonable, therefore, to apply that same test to today's politics. Catholics have prospered in America, and undoubtedly there may be some in that top 2% that might expect to benefit from the Republican agenda. Most, however, are either middle class - increasingly squeezed by an economy increasingly stacked against them - or recent immigrants - more likley to be poor (and possibly undocumented). If Reno wants to sway such groups to the Republican party, he needs to show how their needs and interests would be better served by such an allegiance. Merely asserting it is insufficiently persuasive.
Reno himself recognizes his problem. "It's not going to be easy," he admits. "The Republican party is a coalition tempted by libertarian dreams and dominated by interests that act as though keeping down the top marginal tax rate is the great moral issue of our time." The President could hardly have said it better! If Republicans want to make a pitch for middle class and immigrant allegiance, by all means they should try to do so - by advocating policies that are in those constituencies' interests. When (and if) they start doing that, their party, the two-party sytem, and American politics in general will be better off.
Meanwhile, trying to argue a particular poltiical preference should be religiously necessary remains problematic - and in the end not much more likely to succeed than the view that supporting the restoration of the Bourbon monarch in 19th century France was a religiously necessary (as opposed to a poltiical or social or cultural) strategy.
As a practical matter, American voters have seldom responded well (at least not over the long term) to primarily religious partisanship.  Perhaps, as Reno suggests, at one time American Catholics were encouraged to identify with the Democratic party. I wonder about that. When I was growing up, almost everyone I knew as a Democrat, but I can't recall anyone every framing his/her party affiliation in religious terms. In any case, that was then,and now is now. While I think there are multiple factors contributing to and/or explaining the decline in religious identification among the young, there certainly seems some credible basis for believing that the politicization of religion is at least one of those factors. 
More fundamentally, the reality is that both political parties have embraced and are increasingly identified with policies which have contributed to our contemporary trajectory of moral and cultural decline. The contemporary crisis of marriage and family life, for example, is certainly due in part to the liberalization of divorce laws and the philosophical transformaiton of marriage from primarily a social institution for the forming of the next generation to a private relationship between two persons. But it is also a consequence of economic changes which have increased inequality and radically reduced opportunities for lower socio-economic status young people, making it much more difficult for them to establish stable families. In fact, it can be argued that, absent the social and cultural destablization caused by a market economy and economic individualism, lifestyle changes embraced by the "left" (like no-fault divorce) would never have happened.

1 comment:

  1. Has inequality really increased, and are opportunities really radically reduced for lower socio-economic young people?

    It seems to me that in the not-too-distant past, social inequalities were much more entrenched in our society. African-Americans, for instance, had huge obstacles standing in their way toward economic and social opportunities. Women had fewer options, as well. Few people went to college or universities, compared to today. Today, African-Americans are on every college campus, and women actually outnumber men as college students. Here in Tennessee, the state lottery supports financial assistance to any student who can make the grade (and the standard is not very high, frankly).

    I think you're right in insisting that Reno needs to show how the Repubs will meet the needs of groups they hope to attract, and that "merely asserting it" is insufficient. At the same time, I think you need to show how the market economy and economic individualism caused the social and cultural destabilization of which you speak, rather than simply asserting it. A lot of people might take issue with that claim, insisting that there are a whole variety of factors that contributed to this destablization, much moreso than the market economy and economic individualism. Thanks!