Can Politics Ever Provide the Solutions We Need?

ShakespeareI am sorry I’ve had to be away from the blog for a few weeks. I have been writing tons of things — including the last draft of my book — and just not able to spend my Saturday mornings lately in this special reflective time. I hope we can pick up where we left off.

I’ve been thinking about politics lately. I’ve been wondering why we are so endlessly barraged on a daily basis with the voices and faces of our politicians and political commentators. When some national or international crisis occurs, our political figures are the first to appear on our screens. Somehow we assume they are in the know. They must be the ones with the best answers, the most insight, the most wisdom.

Somehow we believe this must be democracy in action. But what does the health of our democracy have to do with pushing forward politicians as our most able and only voices on issues that matter?

Should every kind of national debate always be framed by our politicians? Do they really have more insight and wisdom into the deeper issues of our identity as a people or our all-important interface with other cultures and nations around the world?

I am fond of Samuel Johnson’s sharp message for politicians in the 18th century: “How small of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or Kings either cause or cure.” I have come to agree with Johnson.

But in America today we have “a tendency toward the politicization of nearly everything,” says the eminent sociologist of religion and culture, James Davison Hunter, in his brilliant new book To Change The World.

Hunter contends that “politicization … has gone so far as to affect our language, imagination, and expectations. The language of politics … comes to frame progressively more of our understanding of our common life, our public purposes, and ourselves individually and collectively.” Then Hunter adds, “The realm of politics has become in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life.”

This is what I worry about most. When the imagination is infected in this way, I fear our lives will be reduced. We will be limited in what we imagine for the future. Our possibilities will be narrowed.

This cannot be a good thing, can it? Hunter says, “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.”

Why is this happening? “My contention is,” says Hunter, “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.” He adds, “The politicization of everything is an indirect measure of the loss of common culture …”

“Vibrant cultures make space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, and artistic and literary expression, among other things,” says Hunter. As we seek to make the world a better place, we might ask ourselves where have all the philosophers and theologians gone? Why are these voices not prominent in our public square? Where have all the poets gone? How about historians and artists? We need the richness of language and thought and insight that come from these quarters to enter into our public space once again.

I am reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s great book Finally Comes the Poet. To just this kind of thinning of our public discourse, Brueggemann asks, “Is there another way to speak? Is there another voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced?” I believe we must educate for these alternative voices in our midst. Because, says Brueggemann, “Such speech … assaults imagination and pushes out the presumed world in which most of us are trapped. Reduced speech leads to reduced lives.”

“There are no political solutions to the problems most people care about,” Hunter concludes. We must “demythologize politics.” And as we do we need to create fresh, new, expanded ways of talking about things that matter. Politics alone just won’t get us there.