Truncated Politics, Truncated Persons? Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A sampling of the news of the week: Our friends at the Franciscan University in Steubenville announce that they will have to discontinue the policy of offering medical insurance for their students, for they would be required under the rules promulgated under Obamacare to fund contraceptives and abortions or pay a knockout fine.

A black minister in Maryland, a Democratic member of the legislature, has been active in the resistance to same-sex marriage. President Obama’s support now for same-sex marriage has moved him to outrage. But it has not moved him from his determination to vote again for a man who would use all of the levers within his hands to advance a policy that this minister regards as massively destructive.

Jamie Dimon, the head of J.P. Morgan, has been suffering deep embarrassment over the loss of $2 billion in genius hedges gone awry. He complains of new regulations under the Dodd-Frank law, suffocating business. 

These are measures brought forth by a Democratic Congress, spurred on by a Democratic president, and Dimon has been known as a “big” contributor to the Democratic Party. Will his experience break him from his attachment to that party, or can we bet that he will continue to hold to that party for those “cultural” reasons that have attached people in his circle to the so-called liberal party?

At every turn, we hear that it’s the economy that will be the main determinant in the vote for president this year. But then again, isn’t that what we heard last time, and in 2004, 2000, 1996, and 1992 (“it’s the economy, stupid”)? That may indeed be true, but it has quickly become a mantra that has blocked out all contrary sounds.  

The sluggish economic recovery under Mr. Obama has borne even more severely on black people, and yet it is taken for granted that blacks will still vote for him at levels of 90 per cent or more. It seems that something similar is at work with the recoil of Hispanics from the Republicans, whether rightful or wrongful. Ethnic tensions have always been a part of the mix in American politics, and the loyalties may hold even through the ups and downs of the economy.

We are persistently faced with evidence that people care profoundly for things other than the state of the economy, even when joblessness has remained high. But earlier in the year, the problem of the economy was seen as part of a problem much deeper, running to the constitutional order.


The problem of Obamacare was a problem of the government moving to a monopoly of control over medical care. It promised a vast extension of the power of government, with the government now willing to: 

  • nationalize parts of the automobile and banking industry;
  • favor public unions over private employment;
  • put public money into businesses with political connections;
  • make more and more people dependent on the support of the government;
  • require Catholic adoption agencies to go out of business if they will not place children in the custody of homosexual partners;
  • and now force Catholic institutions to fund and endorse contraception.

We had a sense, for a while this spring, that the political class regarded these issues as worth talking about. They ran deeper than the state of the economy because they involved what we used to call “the terms of principle” on which a people lived.

I raise this issue now, with a certain alarm, because we have had settling in for a long while the notion that we cannot talk any longer in our politics about these questions. The cliché has taken hold that people care foremost about the economy, and that some people are actively hostile to hearing politicians talk about anything other than the economy. To talk about marriage or abortion is taken as the sign of a zealot, of someone willing to unsettle the public.

Mr. Romney over the last week has been putting the accent on the deficit. That is no doubt an important issue, but it is also abstract, and it would be a mistake for him to let slip the sense, taking hold earlier this year, that this election was really a moment of judgment on those “terms of principle” on which we live.  

At a certain point would it not be apt for a conservative candidate to ask: Are we really the kind of people who would prefer to see doctors and nurses leave their vocations because they don’t wish to engage in abortions? Do we really want a government that would compel a private Catholic college to drop its medical insurance because it doesn’t wish to endorse contraception? Is that the kind of people we wish to be, the kind of people we have become?

Among the lessons taught by Lincoln was that a statesman finds a way of leading people to talk about the things that are truly central even though people may not wish to talk about them. My concern is that we have produced a truncated discourse on politics in this country, with a strong aversion to talking about those matters of moral consequence that people do in fact care about. 

And if we come to settle more firmly into the grooves of that kind of politics, the question is do we become the kind of truncated persons who fit that truncated political world?

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and the Director of the Claremont Center for the Jurisprudence of Natural Law in Washington. D.C. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.
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