For many Catholics, the most troubling aspect of the presidential campaign season is the feeling of political homelessness. Just when one of the candidates begins to sound sensible, something completely outrageous emerges out of his or her mouth. No single candidate seems to be addressing the many important policy questions of our day.
Put simply, there are no prominent candidates for president of the United States who have a campaign platform that significantly reflects a consistent ethic of life or the principles of Catholic social doctrine.
This is not altogether surprising. Catholics should always feel at least slightly uncomfortable working with candidates and political parties. Candidates and parties are the amalgamation of a variety of ideological and economic interests, aims and principles coalescing around individual persons. They are never going to reflect fully the views of well-formed Catholics or the Church.
Still, we are right to expect more from the candidates and to feel a little less politically alienated than many of us do.
What has transpired thus far in presidential debates, and in the media’s coverage of the campaign trail, does not reflect positively on the state of political discourse and public life in America. But, we get the candidates and political culture we deserve.
No room for nuance
An unserious electorate puts up with a media culture driven by profits. Political debates are filtered through a prism of conflict that focuses on personalities more than principles. Candidates talk about, and thus the media highlight, the issues important to small groups of activists and delegates in the political parties to whom the candidates must pander, not necessarily those with the greatest impact on human dignity and the common good. There is no room for nuanced positions, which can be manipulated and do not fit into a sound bite safe for consumption by an electorate with a short attention span.
Catholics must shoulder our share of the responsibility for the state of American politics. There are quite a few of us, and we can have a big impact, at least numerically, as shown in the quadrennial discussions about winning “the Catholic vote.” (Whether such a thing even exists today — and it is doubtful — is another matter.)
Catholics — either refusing to embrace the Gospel-centered principles of Catholic social doctrine and let those shape their political views, or alternatively, willfully ignorant of those principles — have instead been co-opted by partisan ideologies and have settled for candidates who think in abstractions and focus on rigid, “either/or” solutions to the issues.
Transcending consumer politics
If we want the parties and candidates to more closely reflect the views of Catholic social doctrine, then we must be the change we seek.
For example, political party platforms are developed by party activists who attend precinct caucuses and who introduce resolutions to be included in the platform. In large measure, party platforms are made by the people who show up.
In 2010, 19,273 people attended the Minnesota Republican caucuses, and 22,968 people attended the Minnesota Democratic caucuses. In 2012, those figures were 48,916 and 17,376, respectively. In other words, in an election year, between 40,000 and 65,000 people — or roughly a little more than 1 percent of the state’s voting age population — are responsible for identifying the issues that are the focus of both campaigns and legislative sessions, as well as picking the candidates from which all of us must choose during an election cycle.
Now, consider this: There are hundreds of thousands of voting-age Catholics in Minnesota. If just a small fraction of us attended precinct caucuses and introduced resolutions, it could significantly alter the face of our two major political parties. Certainly, changing our political culture is more complicated than just showing up at the precinct caucuses. But such a Catholic presence could mark a significant turning point in terms of aligning our politics more clearly with a consistent ethic of life.
Politics is more than partisan political activity or electioneering. Fundamentally, it is about civic friendship, and there are numerous ways we can show solidarity with and concern for others. But, elections and the legislative process matter as well. Being a faithful citizen means working creatively to change the dynamics and structures that impede the common good.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.