Politics as a Form of Public Education

As we head into another election season, we’ll see the customary television sound bites, vague bloviating speeches by politicians far and wide, politicians pandering to different groups with a host of promises, and the usual recent practice of “gotcha politics.” While the fundamental causes of the woes of our electoral politics are poor citizenship formation and democratization—the Founding Fathers established a republic, not a democracy, and as Federalist 10 makes clear they shared with all the great classical political philosophers a deep suspicion of democracy—we can’t expect in the short run to do much about this. We at least can try to get those politicians inclined to the “conservative” side—to use an inadequate and misunderstood term—to see that the stakes in American politics nowadays are nothing less than the preservation of our constitutional principles and what’s left of Western civilization. Further, the politicians who do apprehend this reality, even if inadequately, need to be urged on to recover the long-lost educative function of politics and to develop both the sophistication and courage to carry it out.

That means, of course, that sound bites, platitudes, avoiding “touchy” subjects, gearing political discussion to the least common denominator in terms of voter understanding, and, yes, utterly sacrificing the “bigger,” long-run questions to the often elusive hopes of immediate electoral success cannot be the norm. Immediate electoral success accomplishes little if the Republic and the culture are in shambles.

In The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic, I tried to show how the political order fashioned by the Founders progressively—especially in the twentieth century—turned into something much less desirable. The overriding object of our politics now has to be to try to recover it—and, to the degree that politics can, the culture that spawned it.

The recovery of the crucial educative function of politics requires, to be sure, a political savviness—I like the 1930s term “moxie”—that seems so often to elude the politicians, and others, who go up against the left. Besides having a sound substantive understanding of the questions of the day, they have to master rhetoric (in the best sense of the word). The old expression, “it’s not what you say but how you say it,” is pertinent here. The left should not be permitted, as is so often the case, to define the terms of the debate. There needs to be a proper mix of education and confrontation. Indeed, to effectively carry out the educative function of politics one has to first create the conditions that make it possible, to clear out the obstacles to it. What this means, among other things, is that one has to “call out” the left. The spotlight must be put on what has become their increasingly irrational and potentially destructive socio-political perspective and agenda. So often, the very things they accuse their opponents of—such as the fraudulent “war on women”—are exactly what the left is doing, or will obviously result from their initiatives. They should also be confronted about their manipulation, deception, and opportunism.

 

It’s not just opposing politicians who should be vigorously confronted, but their enablers and allies like those in the media. So during the Republican primary presidential debates in 2012, when George Stephanopoulos pulled the contraception issue out of the hat, it wasn’t enough just to tell him (as Romney did) that he knew that wasn’t really an issue in the election. The candidates to a man should have repeatedly hammered him for the rest of the debate for using his journalistic position to manipulate the facts, act unfairly (the left is always telling us how they’re interested in “fairness”), and assist Obama and the Democratic party. He should have been put on the defensive, instead of them. That might have nipped the “war on women” in the bud.

As far as contraception is concerned, it has regrettably become a kind of “third rail” in American politics—in fact, almost a kind of (perverse) sacred ground. It’s a good example of how politicians won’t get anywhere near something that has become almost a way of life—no matter how much trouble it’s caused. While I don’t expect politicians to lead the way in the fight against contraception, I do expect them to—repeatedly—set the record straight. The Republican candidates could have showed the hypocrisy of the “war on women” claims and made a masterful effort at the educative function of politics by presenting some facts about the serious health dangers of contraceptives to women. Instead of just trying to run away from the issue once Stephanopoulos raised it, they should have kept reiterating these facts on the campaign trail—along with showing with hard facts and data how such leftist shibboleths as easy divorce (another third rail) and sexual liberation have disproportionately disadvantaged women—to make the “war on women” their issue instead of the other side’s. If people won’t listen to moral, philosophical, or even commonsensical arguments about contraception, chastity, and the like, they’ll pay more attention to the personal consequences (again, not what you say, but how you say it). As stated, politicians don’t lead the way on these subjects, but sensible discussion and rhetoric might encourage the unsung efforts of the people working in other domains about them.

During the 2012 campaign Representative Todd Akin probably lost a Senate seat for himself and found the Republican Party and even normally sympathetic commentators running to dissociate themselves from him because of how he answered a journalist’s gotcha question about abortion and rape. The episode demonstrates how candidates opposing the left must be prepared to address the whole range of possible questions and think about the wording to choose—and also should be careful about who they give interviews to. It also points to what is the best way to deal with the issue of abortion for “hard cases” (which is usually a false issue raised by people supporting abortion on demand). Besides pointing out the small percentage of abortions sought as a result of rape, a pro-life candidate should “call out” the inquisitor, accusing him openly of insincerity: it’s a gotcha question with, simply stated, a pro-abortion agenda. The best way to argue against abortion here and in all cases, of course, is to focus repeatedly on the conclusive facts about the unborn child’s humanity—regardless the circumstances of his conception. The aim should be to put and keep pro-abortionists on the defensive and hold the rhetorical higher ground—provide the truth and, more, keep pounding it home. As important as sound arguments are, however, many people need to be touched personally. So pro-life candidates could do no better than to occasionally have pro-life speakers who were conceived in rape but whose mothers chose life (such as Rebecca Kiessling)—or abortion survivors or just women who have suffered physically or psychologically from abortions—join them on the campaign trail.

Finally, how do pro-family candidates tackle same-sex “marriage”? This is actually harder, given the now deep-seated convoluted thinking about rights and equality. Rights are now viewed as essentially grounded in desires—personal preferences—that should prevail as long as someone is not obviously hurt by their exercise. Equality means that everyone should be able to exercise the same rights. Isn’t that just fair? Our individualistic ethos also makes contemporary Americans unable to recognize damage to the social fabric and how that ultimately can hurt people. Since people need to hear about harms, candidates cannot go easy on active homosexuals; there is no way to oppose same-sex “marriage” without targeting sodomy. So, the significant health consequences of homosexual practices must be repeatedly emphasized, as must the fact that their being allowed to “marry” will not check the tendency to have multiple sexual partners (as some claim). The obvious harm of that for any children present—who were, say, adopted or from IVF or a previous heterosexual relationship or marriage—must be underscored. The emerging evidence, anecdotal and from studies, of the range of deleterious effects generally on children reared in same-sex households must repeatedly be pointed to.

Still, with the aggressive efforts of the homosexualist movement to debunk even the soundest research, pro-family candidates can’t be content with discussing empirical social science evidence. Like it or not, on this issue, they have to take the educative function of politics to a deeper level. They have to make a part of their stump speeches a commonsensical and even philosophical—as Mortimer Adler said, “philosophy is everybody’s business”—defense of true marriage. That means explaining why companionate marriage, which helped spawn the current confusion, doesn’t work. The starting point here is with the reality that most married couples instinctively grasp: that, as Professor Gerard V. Bradley once put it, children cement a marriage. They probably will even have to speak about another almost verboten topic of recent decades: how men and women actually are different and why children need both. If they are uneasy about feminist attacks, they should occasionally feature thoughtful women critics of feminism at their campaign events. The effects of such efforts, of course, will reach beyond politics to help right the struggling culture.

All this, of course, is not politics as we know it, but politics as it needs to be in this current time. Naturally, some people will say that it will not work. Conventional political wisdom says otherwise. They might be prompted to say that Dr. Krason should stay in his ivory tower and write and teach about politics; he’s not a campaign strategist and doesn’t know the realities of it. Yes, I guess we should just trust the judgment of the multi-million dollar political consultants and operatives with their short-term horizon and “politics as usual” mentality—who keep losing big elections for anti-leftist candidates.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is James Stewart in the filibuster scene from Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” released in 1939.

Stephen M. Krason

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Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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