With the Republican convention just over and the Democratic underway, now seems the moment for at least a mild defense of our party system, which I often hear Catholics and other Christians denounce.
The reason for the denunciation is simple and I sympathize with it: we get exasperated when party leaders don’t champion the issues of particular importance to us, and we hate feeling taken for granted. I can’t remember the last time a political conversation in Catholic circles didn’t finally come around to a sigh and a whine that neither of our two national parties fully embodies the Catholic approach to every question.
Pardon me for saying this, but, Duh.
For starters, on all but a very few questions, faithful Catholics have plenty of room to disagree with each other. Pope Benedict XVI has identified three Catholic “non-negotiables”: the right to life; the defense of marriage; and the right of parents to educate their children. On most other matters, while there are moral principles to be applied, there can be a variety of legitimate ways to apply them, and it’s the role of the laity to use intellect, experience and expertise to figure out how best to advance the common good at this particular moment in time.
More to the point: what do we suppose a political party is? A small, ideologically pure group of like-minded people isn’t a political party; it’s an interest group, or in the parlance of our founding fathers, a “faction.”
The framers of our Constitution had a wise understanding of human nature. They feared ill-advised policies being adopted if heated (but fading) passions and haste carried the day over reasoned debate, or if any one group gained too much power for itself. They crafted a political system which made it extremely difficult for any single faction to hold sway. One of the most famous of the Federalist Papers —#10—explains this at length.
I marvel at how often we complain that our political process makes it difficult to get things done. That isn’t a bug; it’s a feature that protects us from tyranny.
If you can’t get anyone beyond your own limited circle to support your bill or your candidate, either you haven’t done due diligence in reaching and persuading your fellow citizens, or you must consider the possibility your agenda is narrowly partisan and most people don’t want it. No one gets merely to impose his ideas on others.
The purpose of a political party therefore is to aggregate various smaller interest groups and ideas into a majority strong enough to advance the principles they hold in common. By their very nature parties are loose affiliations of people and groups whose ideas are not perfectly aligned or may even contradict one another in important respects.
Political parties are messy and hard to love for that reason, and since the coalitions within them shift over time, there’s no reason any person of principle need be loyal to one for all time.
They serve a vital purpose nonetheless: they preserve civil peace, which, as St. Augustine taught, is the primary purpose of the political order and the necessary ground for many higher goods.
The Founders saw that without an instrument like a major political party to bring people together, factions have a constant tendency to fly apart in all directions, and democracies are in danger of collapsing into civil war. Because of the aggregating power of the major parties, instead of a million splinter groups all at war with one another, we can have two loose coalitions having a (basically) civilized debate over policies.
The spectacle may not be very edifying, but in our fallen world, the large parties are the best vehicle for a huge nation filled with all kinds of folk to grope towards justice while maintaining unity.
What do Christians get from parties? Not necessarily platforms or positions or candidates worthy of support. But we do benefit from the tranquility of order and the liberty which peace makes possible. And that is fertile ground on which we can freely practice our faith, evangelize and engage the political order to persuade more of our fellow citizens of the attractiveness of our Church’s moral and social teachings.
So, even when we’re tempted to call them the stupid party and the evil party, please: a little respect.