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De-political

A few years ago I ordered James Davison Hunter’s book To Change The World.

He offers some tidy categories to understand how Christians interact with the world, he analyzes each, and presents his solution. I read this as a high school sophomore and it was a few years out of my comfort zone; I spent nearly 50 hours on the 286 pages.

I won’t try to re-articulate Hunter’s thesis- I can’t do it- just buy the book- or listen to this– but one smaller idea from the book recurred to me yesterday.

So I decided to return to JDH’s book for further reading. I’m collecting quotes as support for a future argument, but I’m posting them here, along with some current events commentary, for the public good.

I scanned the index for “politicization” and found these quotes, given in full paragraphs for context.

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily though the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them. (103)

JDH has just asserted that modern American society defines almost everything relative to the State (and those things not included are quickly becoming included), rather than relative to some other category, or just in and of itself. How do we see this effect in society?

Politicization is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicization provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological politicization is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content. (103)

Politicization impacts not just system-level factors, but individuals and the way they generate solutions to public issues:

My purpose here is not to suggest that the outcome of any particular issue is good or bad but rather to observe the historical tendency, in recent decades, toward the politicization of everything. This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues. (106)

This narrow focus on politics as the solution to all public issues leads to coercion, or more often the threat of coercion.

The politicization of everything is an indirect measure of the loss of a common culture and, in turn, the competition among factions to dominate others on their own terms. Our times amply demonstrate that it is far easier to force one’s will on others through legal and political means or to threaten to do so than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them. (107)

Later in the book JDH makes the argument (in many words) that democracy and the State, while related in many obvious ways, are fundamentally different. This has some implications: chiefly that the state is usually not subject to the popular will, but more interestingly that

there are no political solutions to the problems most people care about. Politics can provide a platform for dissent and procedures for establishing public order and, as just noted, the state can address administrative problems. This is what it is designed to accomplish, but this only happens through accommodation, compromise, and conciliation. The state can also address some of the legal and administrative aspects of these problems and in this way either help or hinder the resolution of value-based problems. Laws that prohibit discrimination against minorities are one important illustration of the constructive influence of the state. And while politics can only do so much, it is also true that bad politics can do truly horrific things. These are all good reasons to be involved in the work of creating and maintaining good government. The issue is really one of the appropriate expectations one should have of the state and its instruments. (171)

So after conceding that the State is itself amoral, he acknowledges its limitations:

What the state cannot do is provide fully satisfying solutions to the problems of values in our society. There are no comprehensive political solutions to the deterioration of “family values,” the desire for equity, or the challenge of achieving consensus and solidarity in a cultural context of fragmentation and polarization. There are no real political solutions to the absence of decency or the spread of vulgarity. But because the state is a clumsy instrument and finally rooted in coercion, it will always fail to adequately or directly address the human elements of these problems; the elements that make them poignant in the first place. As a rule, when the state does become involved in such matters, its actions can often create more problems through unintended consequences, not fewer. (171)

At best, the state’s role addressing human problems is partial and limited. It is not nearly as influential as the expectations most people have of it. It is true that laws are not neutral. They do reflect values. But laws cannot generate values, or instill values, or settle the conflict over values. The belief that the state could help us care more for the poor and the elderly, slow the disintegration of traditional values, generate respect among different groups, or create civic pride, is mostly illusory. It imputes far too much capacity to the state and the to the political process. (171)

The central problem underpinning all of the above limitations:

Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power- not only power, but finally about power. For politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere.  It depends on moral criteria, institutionalized and practiced in the social order, that are autonomous from the realm of politics. The problem is that the impulse toward politicization extends to the politicization of values. This means that the autonomy of moral criteria on which a higher practice of politics depends is increasingly lost. Today, most of the ideals and values that are discussed in public have acquired political content and connotations. Fairness? Equity? Justice? Liberty? These have come to have little or no meaning outside of the realm of politics. The other ideals and values that are discussed in public have been largely reduced to instruments for one side or another in the quest for power. Decency, morality, hope, marriage, family, and children are important values but they have become political slogans. (172)

I don’t think that JDH’s book argues for decentralized government, although that isn’t always bad either. Instead, it argues (specifically to Christians) we ought to see the public sphere as more than just the political sphere, and find other ways outside of the coercive structure of the State to solve public problems.

The thought that prompted this delve back into To Change The World was that perhaps the problems of structural racism displayed by current events involving black civilians and white officers do have a structural origin, but the structure isn’t a political one. JDH contradicts this hypothesis with his concession that “Laws that prohibit discrimination against minorities are one important illustration of the constructive influence of the state,” so maybe political solutions do exist specifically in the category of racial tension and resolution.

But problems like gentrification, street gangs in all-minority neighborhoods, legacy college applications, entrenched subconscious perceptions of other races, and more are all problems that, while having a political solution, can mostly be solved only though social or moral campaigns, individualized incentives, private charity, or other apolitical means.

So I remain skeptical that the main solution to questions of race require political consideration at all. We all know that, in the coming months, pundits will try to politicize even further questions of race and policing (oh wait, they already have), and the solution to that is definitely not political.

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