For those of us who find it impossible to cast a vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on November 8, this poem by Artur Miedzyrzecki, written during Poland’s Solidarity revolution, has a certain resonance:
What does the political scientist know?
The political scientist knows the latest trends
The current states of affairs
The history of doctrines
What does the political scientist not know?
The political scientist doesn’t know about desperation
He doesn’t know the game that consists
In renouncing the game
It doesn’t occur to him
That no one knows when
Irrevocable changes may appear
Like an ice-floe’s sudden cracks
And that our natural resources
Include knowledge of the venerated laws
The capacity to wonder
And a sense of humor
“The game that consists in renouncing the game” doesn’t mean refusing to vote for president this year. I intend to write in a candidate I judge fit for the office, which is not a description I can apply in good conscience to Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump. But however one resolves the presidential dilemma this year, perhaps serious Catholics can agree on two other matters, thinking about our civic responsibilities over the short term and the long haul.
Mrs. Clinton’s unintentionally self-revelatory crack about the “deplorables”—into which category she would likely drop every Catholic committed to religious freedom in full, marriage rightly understood, color-blind equality before the law, and the right to life in all life’s stages and conditions—suggests that smart voting down-the-ballot is absolutely crucial this year. If the Scourge of the Deplorables is elected, it will be essential, over the next four years, to maintain the tension between an aggressive Clinton administration and the national legislature. If Mr. Trump takes office on January 20, 2017, it will be just as urgent to have a Congress as committed as possible to life, religious freedom, constitutional government, and colorblind equality as a counterbalance to who-knows-what will be coming out of the White House.
So the short-term task seems clear: Do everything possible to elect a pro-life, pro-religious-freedom-in-full Congress, then work overtime to holds its members to those commitments between now and January 20, 2021.
As for the long haul, orientation is crucial and a proper orientation begins with a frank acknowledgment that American political culture is sick. I don’t believe the illness is terminal, nor do I believe that four years of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump in the White House will necessarily finish off the Republic; if that’s true, then we’re in such bad shape that we’re already finished. But the sickness in our political culture is serious and it reflects the pathogens that have been at work for some time in the general culture.
What are they?
• A raw individualism that conceives “freedom” as radical personal autonomy because it thinks of the human person as a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is the full meaning of “human rights” and the primary task of government.
• A lack of commitment to the common good, which shows up in everything from bad driving habits to declining volunteerism to tax cheating to declaring a pox on politics and sitting out elections.
• The vulgarization of popular culture and entertainment, which has so deeply wounded our politics that they’ve become another form of reality TV, producing a spectacle that should shame us into a collective examination of our consciences as consumers.
• The confusion of “success” with sheer wealth by individuals, businesses, and corporate boards, which empties economic life of its vocational nobility and inculcates a counter-ethic of beggar-thy-neighbor competition that’s a grave danger to markets and a threat to the capacity of free enterprise to help people lift themselves from poverty.
• A grotesque misunderstanding of “tolerance” and “fairness,” rooted in an even more comprehensive delusion about what makes for human happiness, which isn’t “I did it my way.”
The list could be extended ad nauseam, but perhaps the basic structure of our situation is in sharper focus. We must rebuild American political culture so that, at its presidential apex, it is far less likely to produce such a mortifying choice as the one created by this election cycle. That requires the rebuilding of our public moral culture. And that is a task for several generations, which must begin now, at the retail level.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.