The first in a three-part series, where prominent Catholic writers explain and defend their political orientation.
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In late 1993, I worked for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to redevelop a poor, black neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The area felt remote, almost uninhabited. From my front porch, I would often see lone African-American men walking by or riding their bicycles, clutching open cans of beer. Aside from churches, the only real institutions in the neighborhood were governmental ones — a high school, a hospital that floated on Medicaid and Medicare payments, and a non-profit housing company that existed because of the hospital.
The lesson I learned from the experience was obvious but instructive: There is no money to be made helping poor people. Businesses and profit-minded individuals create wealth for the able-bodied, but neither can be relied upon to serve the poor and working classes. Just read Milton Friedman.
As someone who has grown to appreciate Catholic social teaching, I believe that the basic test of any civilization is how it treats its least citizens. In my personal and professional experience, I have concluded that the federal government is a better vehicle than business or the free market to meet that test. That’s why I am a Democrat. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus (1991),”The more that individuals are defenseless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and in particular the intervention of governmental authority.”
To be sure, the current national Democratic Party is not fully committed to those ends. It countenances violence against society’s most vulnerable — the unborn. In fact, it muzzles those Democrats who wish to speak out in defense of the unborn, as former Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey learned. As a result, I vote for pro-life Republican presidential nominees rather than pro-choice Democratic ones.
Yet political parties are not eternal entities. Like sports franchises or church groups, their leadership changes hands. At present, secular liberals control the national party machinery. When a good new group arrives on the scene and wrests the presidential nominating system from them, I will vote Democratic once again.
I hope to get the chance to do so. Part of an upcoming book of mine examines the history of the national Democratic Party from 1948 to 1968. In researching this topic, I was struck again by all that the party achieved in helping the have-nots. It extended full legal protection for African-Americans. It lifted most elderly people out of poverty. It gave health insurance to the aged and infirm. And it prevented tens of millions of Americans from going hungry.
In each case, the federal government accomplished those goals. Businesses and the free market, by contrast, either opposed them or were indifferent. Southern storeowners discriminated against black customers. The American Medical Association opposed the laws that created Medicare and Medicaid. No businesses pushed for the enactment of the minimum wage or food stamps.
I don’t mean to imply that the federal government is the only or best vehicle for social justice. As Centesimus Annus states, “The individual, the family, and society are prior to the state . . . and the state exists in order to protect their rights, not stifle them.”
I also don’t mean to imply that the federal government is necessarily a beneficent force. Some federal programs are downright rotten. Welfare encouraged recipients not to get married and to stay dependent on the dole. Many urban public housing projects were dominated by the ranks of the poor.
Why do some federal programs fall short? The answers can be found in any political science textbook: Either the given program fails to adapt to changing social circumstances, has the wrong incentives for recipients, acquires a small but powerful constituency that opposes change, or is met with indifference by the public.
But those problems merit our concern, not our scorn. What the Democratic Party needs, as the nation needs, is a new leadership class that seeks to overcome those obstacles. This class would have the toughness and soulfulness of Bobby Kennedy, the prudential wisdom of David L. Lawrence, and the compassion and Christian conscience of Robert P. Casey.
I don’t begrudge good Republican politicians. But at a time when America’s wealthy and middle classes are growing estranged from and sanction violence against the poor and vulnerable, I hope and pray that the great Democratic public servants of years past can inspire those of today and tomorrow.