True North

There are still a few ongoing recounts from Tuesday’s midterms, but most of us are aglow in the blessed cessation of robocalling. (If you hadn’t realized that political campaigning is exempt from National Do Not Call restrictions, you know now.) Most in the media, however, are afire about the coming legislative-and-executive Armageddon. And there are certainly battles ahead. None will fault those who doubt a New Spirit of Co-operation is about to dawn in Washington or in our state capitals. Democrats are from Venus; Republicans are from Mars – whatever. Since the founding of the republic, politics has been rancorous (consider the Adams-Jefferson fracas of 1800).

But never have I heard so often the phrase, “They’re all scum.”

Skepticism and sarcasm may be charmingly American, but we all know that won’t do in the long run. Democrat, Republican, and independent; liberal, conservative, or moderate: we’re all Americans, and we really must recover common ground before politics splinters into a zillion shards.

Enter Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus: a leader, a lawyer, a Catholic. In his latest book, Beyond a House Divided, Mr. Anderson sensibly argues that instead of simply rending our garments over every disagreement, Americans ought to look more carefully at the things about which most of us can concur. We need to recover consensus about what constitutes our national moral compass, not least because people of all stripes think the compass needle’s spinning crazily.

Carl Anderson

Where is America’s true north?

To find out, Mr. Anderson went straight to the American people. No, he hasn’t been telephoning us – pollsters have done that. Beyond a House Divided relies heavily on polling data, although it doesn’t take the data at face value, since opinions, which is what most polls measure, aren’t as important as values, which you see when you arrange the various polls like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: the individual shapes may be colorful, but only when they’re fitted together do you begin see the whole picture.

So what do we find? Among other things, Mr. Anderson writes, most Americans “look to family and religion for guidance in their lives. More than 75 percent think that hard work, integrity and education are the keys to personal success.” As Mr. Lincoln put it: “With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right . . .” And Lincoln was echoing George Washington’s insistence that political prosperity depends upon habits of “religion and morality.” The polls say we still believe it.

Of course the chattering classes, including the professoriate and the professional Left, beg to differ, which is why Mr. Anderson has set the bar so high: as far as he is concerned a consensus isn’t a consensus until the threshold of opinion on a given issue reaches super-majority status: two-thirds or more must either approve or oppose. Thus Mr. Anderson’s utterly sensible conclusion about religion in the public square:

To deny all religious expression in public places is fundamentally at odds with the idea that our rights come from our creator, not our government. Moving away from that ideal and putting our faith in government . . . is disquieting for the majority of the American people.

This is true. Eighty-four percent of us believe in God; a similarly high number in limited government. But what I fear may be missing from Mr. Anderson’s appraisal of our predicament is an emerging problem of modern democracy. Our system is based upon majority rule, which is good if our shifting majorities are fair-minded in the way the Founders imagined virtuous citizens always would be, and if the rights of shifting minorities are respected – and those minorities agree to be governed democratically. But there is a new insistence within the legion of dissent – which may comprise no more than 10 percent of the population – that democracy means that they (the dissenters) must also get what they want, even if on a given issue a majority (even a supermajority) says no. In fact, the minority now claims veto power over the consensus. Look at the way a California court trashed a state constitutional amendment, Proposition 8, that banned same-sex marriage. How does a court rule that a validly passed constitutional amendment is . . . unconstitutional? To be fair, the amendment passed with 52 percent of the vote, short of a super-majority. But if it had received 66 percent or even 99 percent, do we think that would have made any difference to the judge who ruled that the premises of Prop 8 are “irrational”?

But this is a quibble about America, not about Beyond a House Divided, which is valuable for making clear that on many of our most “controversial” questions, there’s not really much controversy at all. In fact, there is often broad consensus (on religion, business, leadership, and even on such hot-button issues as abortion and marriage), although in many cases you wouldn’t know it from the yowling of partisan media and pandering politicians. Above all, Mr. Anderson points to one thing that truly does unify Americans: generosity. (His book is an excellent companion to Who Really Cares by Arthur C. Brooks.)

“We are a people,” Anderson writes, “. . . who respect most those who volunteer their time for others, and those organizations that facilitate that activity. We prefer altruism to power, and see morality as our best chance for a better future.”

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.