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

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

  • James Danielson

    I don’t see how polling data reliably can get at what people really believe. High proportions of Americans believe in God. Which God? More importantly, how does this belief in the existence of a God influence their lives? Polling data cannot tell us this. One reads that American Catholics get divorced (which implies at least some infidelity), contracept, and have abortions at the same rate as the rest of the population. Ok, maybe this suggests something about the moral commitments of the people doing these things, but if we are looking for some kind of common ground on which to build a social consensus for good government, polling data are too flat and unreliable for the job. Some years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr gave a talk in which he asked this question: If the authority of government rests upon the consent of the governed, and if the governed are too fragmented to achieve consensus on the function of government, does this not mean that the governed are incapable of giving consent and that therefore government has no legitimate authority? Whatever one thinks of the question or its answer, this does neatly raise the question of the nature of governing authority. If it arises from consensus, and we seek just such a consensus, I personally fail to see how we can move in that direction on polling data. I suspect that if we need polls to figure out who we are and what we want, we’re too large, geographically and otherwise, to have a common view of things.

  • Brad Miner

    Mr. Danielson: As always, you make valid points. However, as I wrote in the column, Mr. Anderson uses polling only to indicate the extent to which most Americans are in concert about many issues on which the media meme is disunity. We move nowhere based simply upon polling data, but we can make real progress towards justice when we recognize that most people agree on what that is – and that the just society we seek today is the one designed by the Founders and (to a great extent) embodied in Catholic social teaching.

  • Achilles

    I took the polls to be slight corroborating evidence. What did Chesterton say about taking the pulse of entire ages? It doesn’t take too discerning a mind to see that the media is at diametric and even diabolic odds with the vast majority of our great country still trying to parley the moral capital of our forefathers into dividends for our progeny. That 25 % must be what the world mistakenly calls “the educated”. The elite will waste our moral capital on immediate gratification returns.

  • Gary Williams

    Among social psychologists the phrases “compartmentalized thinking” or “low integrative complexity” refers to the tendency among some to make assumptions or speak out an issue in ways that are clearly at odds with what they had just said about it — often only a short time earlier.

    This apparent hypocrisy results from only using negative memories of a person, his religion or lack of one (for example…could be anything) to arrive at some sweeping opinion of “all them …..s!” . But in another situation will be recalling a positive situation involving the same people or religion to reach the opposite conclusion, somehow keeping the two contrasting anecdotes completely separated in their mind without ever integrating the two into some third, more balanced opinion of the entire matter.

    I bring it up here because I see several commenters speaking on an article that raises the issue of religion in public life, with repeated assertion of how the framers of the Constitution would disapprove of recent moves to ban religion in publicly owned venues and schools. I see quotes from Founding Fathers and some other original statesmen that would seem to support that opinion as well. But nowhere do I see any reference to the First Amendment of the Constitition of the United States of America despite it’s extremely high relelavence to the very matter in question here!

    How is that possible? Clearly the authors of everything I see here are all bright, rational, literate people. Neither do I suspect any to be deliberately avoiding it so they can promote their POV using an incomplete picture or half-truth to decieve us all.

    No. What I see happening here is something I see happening very frequently on blogs that are written by or aimed at social and politically conservative individuals. Nor am I the only one.

    Researchers, when looking at differences in cognitive development and personality traits between various kinds of people and groups, consistantly find the highest scores on measures of low integrative complexity and compartmentalized thinking among those who identify as social/political conservatives. And there is little doubt that this very feature of the conservative personality is one that leads to most charges of hypocrisy and/or extremism being hurled from those not sharing their particular viewpoint.