Politics: Anonymous millions or a named few?

An opening now exists, as it hasn’t in a very long time, for the Democrats to be the visionaries. To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently—to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals [and look] to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era …Voters respond to ideas, and Democrats can stand for an idea: the idea that we’re all in this—post-industrial America, the globalized world, and especially the post–9-11 world in which free peoples have to unite to fight new threats—together, and that we have to pull together, make some sacrifices, and, just sometimes, look beyond our own interests to solve our problems and create the future.

Party in Search of a Notion. Michael Tomasky,
American Prospect, May 2006.

OK, I’m quoting a liberal publication and a liberal commentator. I’ve become a democrat, right? I’ve gone liberal—an out-of-the-closet lefty.

Am not! I am not a “Republicrat.” I don’t’ want to be a part of the political two-party machine—“Republicans eat at the trough of the free market, believing that kindness and generosity are bred into the corporate soul. Democrats worship at the altar of civil government, thinking that public service and pure motives are corollaries.” Having renounced my party affiliations, I can lob stink bombs on both sides of the aisle with equal abandon.

I have a couple of concerns about Tomasky’s thoughts. First, running for office, or promoting an agenda on the basis of “the common good” is just another way of marketing. “The common good” becomes a catch phrase and an aphorism engineered to turn the tide of the masses—the language of politics. An agenda is merely manipulative if it doesn’t have enough momentum to carry it beyond the election. Ideas and agendas must have practical application.

Second, Tomasky is a “true believer.” He honestly thinks that making “the common good” a plank in the party platform guarantees that selfless leaders, duly empowered by an electoral mandate, will look out for the anonymous masses. Good intentions and a utopian vision are dangerous commodities in the hands of governing authorities. To govern from one’s own moral high ground is tricky business. To his credit, Tomasky seems to recognize the danger. Later, he observes, “a common good that isn’t balanced by concern for liberty can be quasi-authoritarian (“coercive,” as the political philosophers call it). Common-good rhetoric and action must be tethered to progressive ends and must operate within the constitutional framework of individual liberty against state encroachment.”

Here, here!

But there are further problems. The coin of this realm is mammon. Wealth and power are the two sides of the coin with no qualitative difference between heads and tails. Seen from the top, the business of governing the anonymous millions will require making sweeping generalizations about “the people” and about what “society” needs. As I pointed out on September 1, 2005, the further institutions get from individual people, the more distant they become from the spiritual values that are dear to the heart of God, virtues like compassion, equity, generosity, kindness and self-control. Such virtues define what we sometimes call “godliness.” They are qualities that are fundamentally human and not institutional. These can’t be practiced in a world of anonymous millions, but among named ones with whom we sojourn.

And that’s only looking at the issue from the top where leaders are seated. Among the nameless millions are the ones swept up with the generalizations (and yes, I’m generalizing a bit myself here); the dehumanized ones on the lookout for a loophole in the system. And who can blame them? When one is part of an enormous social machine how is one to claim a shred of dignity except by taking what is offered and a little bit more if possible. It is the way that nameless masses assert, “I am not hoi polloi! I am a human being and master of my own fate.” Institutions have no faces, or if they do, they can tend to be bureaucrats.

To seek the common good for anonymous millions is the errand of the politico. The effort is noble, the outcome is bound to be disappointing.

Between the worlds we mustn’t see things in terms of anonymous millions but in terms of the community to which we belong. Anonymity, the badge of individualism, is not an option. Between the worlds the community is made up of familiar faces each with a name and a destiny. The common good is discerned, not from focus groups and pollsters, but from the ones we know. Christ-followers search for it and work for it among those whose hands they touch and whose lives they share. And there is more. The errand of the called-out ones is not only to love their Lord and to love one another, but also to demonstrate love for the world they are leaving behind after the manner of Jesus.

Though each such community may amount to only a handful, as they multiply between the worlds the common good can be discovered for millions—each one with a name.

One thought on “Politics: Anonymous millions or a named few?”

  1. “The aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
    — James Madison, Federalist #57

    “[A]ll will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.”
    — Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address

    What is the common good? How about “minimizing avoidable suffering.” This is the Democrat’s core moral value of moral empathy. Note that if you saw the “Passion of the Christ,” passion in latin means “the suffering.”

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