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The Grandeur of Politics

by Robert G. Middleton

Mr. Middleton is interim pastor of Central Baptist Church, Hartford, Connecticut. This article appeared in the Christian Century  October 24, 1984, p. 984. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


American political liberalism is not in a robust state of health. Not only out of power, it is also out of a program, and sometimes seems without a purpose. Unless something is done to change its present condition, it is unlikely that liberalism will soon return to power.

Such judgments are hardly original; they reflect a view widely held by observers of American politics. It is not surprising that this awareness of something seriously wrong with liberalism has produced many analyses of the condition and numerous suggestions about what needs to be done. New programs, going beyond those of Franklin D. Roosevelt and liberalism’s golden age, need to be formulated; and new strategies, bold and realistic, must be developed. But there is something else required, something less exciting than the task of developing new programs and strategies, but essential to any renewal of liberalism’s promise. The trouble with liberalism is that too many liberals are disenchanted with politics. We have had a strange procession of candidates who dislike the actual tasks of politics.

It is an indication of liberalism’s plight that my text for this homily comes from a conservative. “The grandeur of politics” -- a phrase that probably draws either amazed incredulity or harsh guffaws -- is from George F. Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft, first presented as his Godkin lectures at Harvard. “My thesis,” he writes, is that the most important task confronting Americans as a polity is, in part, a philosophers task. The task is to reclaim for politics a properly great and stately jurisdiction That task is both important and difficult. “To understand a reassertion of the grandeur of politics, you must risk a crick in your neck” (Simon & Schuster, 1983, pp. 21-26) Will’s “crick in the Neck” refers to his call to go all the way back to Plato, but for my purpose we need go back only to the 1960s to try to see what took place in that baffling decade to produce the current liberal difficulty.

The contemporary disenchantment with politics requires no extensive documentation. It is a distressing reality which touches people of all political persuasions. A single illustration of it is found in the declining percentages of participation in voting. In the past six elections, the trend has been downward. Of those eligible to vote, 64 per cent did so in 1960; 61.7 per cent in 1964: 60.6 per cent in 1968; 55.6 per cent in 1972; 54.4 per cent in 1976; 53.95 per cent in l980. A contrast is provided by Canada. where 75.5 per cent voted in 1980. These figures tell a graphic story and point to a serious problem.

Although this disenchantment with politics is, of course, unfortunate for all citizens, it is especially so for liberals, for liberalism’s cherished goals can he achieved only through the practice of politics.

Conventional wisdom finds the beginnings of the cynical dismissal of politics in Watergate; however, the disillusionment caused by the Watergate incident did not create this anti-political stance. Skepticism about politics, and particularly about politicians, rooted far back in American history, has never been totally absent. Watergate is better seen simply as a phenomenon that permitted citizens to express their already present cynicism and to feel morally justified in doing so. Watergate made being anti-political respectable. Ironically, the very event that drove Richard Nixon from office may yield him his final victory over the liberals he so disliked, if they use it as an excuse for abandoning politics.

Jimmy Carter’s experience illustrates what happens when the idea of the grandeur of politics is forsaken, even in the name of noble intentions. Carter’s basic convictions were certainly decent and liberal. But his successful campaign had in it a strange element: he seemed to scorn the very profession he sought to practice. Writing in Harper’s in December 1977. after Carter had been in office for almost a year. Henry Fairlie said:

For what Jimmy Carter seems to be offering the American people is yet another unpolitical President. A man who in many respects is superbly equipped as a politician seems to be earnestly striving to be something else. If the Presidency is in trouble as an institution, it is not so much because it has become imperial as that it has been made increasingly unpolitical

A president who is above politics will find himself ineffective in governing and soon out of office.

Our present situation is dangerous. Our liberal politicians are openly contemptuous of politics, and our population has gone on record in numerous polls as believing that little or nothing can be hoped for through politics. How did all of us, and especially liberals, get to such a point?

No answer to that question is possible without a careful look at what went on in the 1960s. By no means do I want to join the conventional chorus which sings the sad refrain that the ‘60s were a misguided aberration in American life and that their impact was wholly negative and unfortunate. What is needed is a balanced assessment of the period, acknowledging and rejoicing in its achievements, and admitting and learning from its follies.

Its follies go far toward explaining why the grandeur of politics has faded, to be replaced by a weary cynicism that often masquerades as sophistication. If a respect for politics is to be restored to liberalism, it will be necessary to recover a realism that was initially learned from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and was left behind during the idealism of the ‘60s. What replaced that realism needs to be examined with some care. Most of us are still puzzled by the ‘60s. When so much seemed possible, why was so little accomplished? What flaws were present to frustrate what in retrospect remain noble dreams?

To make sense of that decade, we need an interpretive framework, such as that provided by Samuel P. Huntington’s study American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Harvard University Press, 1981). Building upon Gunnar Myrdal’s statement of the American creed as embracing a commitment to democracy, liberty, individual rights and the limitation of powers, Huntington sees this creed as a basic aspect of American politics. To be sure, the creed does not always -- not even very often -- get implemented; but it remains our theoretical framework and is subscribed to by most Americans. As Huntington points out, it is precisely because of the creed that we have disharmony and disturbance, for while Americans believe deeply in it, they often find themselves unable to live up to it. “Americans cannot be themselves unless they believe in their Creed, and if they believe in their Creed they must be against themselves” (p. 63). As a result of this dilemma. American politics is characterized by an alternation between periods of creedal passion and periods of creedal passivity. Both are necessary and both bring particular problems.

Although the values of the American creed are always espoused in politics, they are usually not brought out and pursued with singleness of purpose. Periods of creedal passivity are far more numerous in our history than are those of creedal passion. In looking back over the course of American history, Huntington sees only four periods of creedal passion: the Revolutionary era, the Jacksonian years, the Progressive era, and the 1960s and ‘70s, with their protest and reform movements. Central to times of creedal passion is the perception of an ominous gap between ideals and institutions. This perception is then translated into determined action to lessen the gap and often into a growing confidence that the gap can be eliminated.

In times of creedal passion, the perception of the gap between ideal and institution produces an intense moral indignation. As the American creed comes alive for people, they become vividly conscious of the many ways in which its promise has been denied to certain groups. As a result, passions become enflamed and authorities are called into question; institutions are put under searching scrutiny, and any, however venerable, which does not demonstrate a willingness to change becomes a target of hot impatience. Gradualism becomes an epithet and revolution a watchword. No delay is to be tolerated, for too many have already waited too long for justice.

It is this fervor of creedal passion which produced the troubles of the 1960s. A significant feature of the period was the shelving of Niebuhrian insights into the social struggle. insights that seemed cautious to an era impatient for results. George Santayana’s comment that we Americans do not refute our predecessors, we pleasantly bid them goodbye, is perfectly illustrated in the changing fortunes of Niebuhr’s thought.

The development of creedal passion, making the achievement of the American creed’s values a matter of intense concern, and leading to the refusal to acknowledge any limits on such efforts, set the scene for the assertion of unrealizable political hopes. The failure of such hopes brought a harvest of political cynicism. It is a result which realism, if it had been taken seriously, could have prevented.

The moralism of the ‘60s political scene deprived politics of the flexibility that is essential to its effective functioning in a democracy. Like other periods of political ineffectiveness. the 60s saw an eruption of single-issue politics. Believing passionately in the importance of a particular issue -- there were a great many of them -- ardent partisans would brook no suggestion that they might have to give a bit to make common cause with people who were not quite “pure” on the issues vital to them. The kind of fastidious insistence on purity that characterized the politics of the period goes far toward explaining the ultimate meagerness of its achievements. The election of 1968 provides a perfect example. Hubert Humphrey, as part of the Johnson administration, was not “pure” on the Vietnam war issue. Hence a great many disenchanted liberals either sat the election out or did little on Humphrey's behalf. The popular vote was 31,710,470 for Richard Nixon to 30,898,055 for Hubert Humphrey. Liberals maintained their “purity" and the nation got Nixon for its president -- a high price indeed to pay.

Overlooked in this sort of strategy was a central fact of democratic politics. Periods of creedal passion, if they are to bring about significant changes and advances, must be kept within certain bounds. To be sure, those bounds are difficult to determine, and it is this difficulty which frustrates otherwise honorable ventures. Although there is no magical guarantee of strategy, an awareness of the dangers and a willingness to learn from past mistakes would help us to recapture a sense of the grandeur of politics.

No one needs to be told that it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain both passion and perspective at the same time, but to do so is essential if we are to have a democratic politics that can move liberals toward the goals they cherish. The great fault of moralistic politics is that it makes it so easy to assume the purity of one’s own group and the demonic nature of all who oppose one. Then civility is lost, and epithets become substitutes for reasoned discourse. The liberals of the 60s ended the decade with a heady sense of their own purity, but with precious little in the way of actual accomplishments. It is scarcely surprising if they began to blame “the system”  -- American political practices and institutions -- and excuse their own employment of inept strategies.

One of Reinhold Niebuhr’s lasting contributions to American political practice was his blending of Christian insights with pragmatic strategies. His sense of humanity’s sinfulness kept him from the dangerous assumption that any group -- whether of the oppressors or the oppressed -- had a monopoly on either virtue or wickedness. Never did his insight paralyze effort: it simply guarded against presumption and kept a measure of flexibility in policies. It is unlikely that Niebuhrian thought will ever be outmoded, but it is clear that it can frequently be ignored.

Political maturity recognizes that democratic politics requires clear goals joined to appropriate strategies. In an essay of great perceptiveness. Isaiah Berlin wrote of FDR:

He did not condone the abandonment of ultimate principles before the claims of expediency or of anything else; but political monasticism -- a search for same private cave of Adullam to avoid being disappointed or tarnished, the taking up of consciously Utopian or politcally impossible positions, in order to remain true to some inner voice, or some unbreakable principle too pure for the wicked public world -- that seemed to him a mixture of weakness aid self-conceit, foolish and despicable. He did not disguise his lack of respect for purists of this type. He did not always treat them fairly and his point of view is one which has, of course, been opposed, and indeed detested, by men of the greatest courage and integrity: but I should be less than candid if I did not confess that it is a point of view that seems to me superior to its opposite [Personal Impressions (Penguin. 1982. p. 31)]

That is the sort of responsible politics marked by grandeur.

If in the 1960s liberals practiced the politics of purity, they also erred in treating politics as redemptive. What is at best an art that makes modest temporal gains came to be regarded as an instrument of redemption. Everything had to be achieved -- peace and justice established, poverty eliminated, oppression overcome. And all this had to be done quickly -- indeed, at once. It was a frenetic politics of here or nowhere, and now or never. It was often a politics of fanatics (brilliantly defined by Santayana as those who redouble their effort after they have forgotten their aim).

It is now apparent that this effort was, at least in part, the attempt of a culture whose religious dimensions were fading to find some other area in which the religious passions could be exercised. Huntington’s use of the term “creedal” passion is appropriate, for a substitute religion was being sought. As in Luke’s parable (11:24 ff.), when the house was swept clean, demons rushed into it, and the last state of the man was worse than the first.

In his analysis of the ‘60s, significantly titled The Unraveling of America, Allen J. Matusow claims that a fanciful idea of what was possible lay at the base of liberalism’s debacle. When you have set your sights too high, reality may become hard to bear; the resulting disenchantment easily becomes cynicism.

Christian realism, had it been heeded in the euphoric and frenzied climate of the 60s, might well have reminded liberals that there are limits to what can be achieved in the political sphere. This realism would not have meant the abandonment of dreams, but only the relinquishment of fatuous hopes. Reinhold Niebuhr stressed the limits faced by those who sought to be active in social concerns. The dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood “is one which will never be fully realized. It is prompted by the conscience and insight of individual man, but incapable of fulfillment by collective man” (Moral Man and Immoral Society [Scribner’s, 1932], pp. 21-22).

Although liberal politics in America is at a low point, the sweep of our history is so filled with recoveries that no one has any right to despair. But if the liberal promise is to regain its faded luster, it once again will have to find politics, in the phrase of John Buchan, “the greatest and most honorable adventure.”


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