How to get to a better political discussion
Five insights from the latest book by Pope Francis
America has no shortage of commentary about how divided and broken its politics is; that was obvious from the flood on insta-analysis produced in reaction to President Joe Biden’s speech this past week. But few of these commentaries offer a pathway forward to move beyond the dysfunction and division grounding in a deeper theory of the case about what’s the best way to approach politics.
Faith traditions offer a rich, deep vein of thinking that can provide valuable concepts to believers and non-believers alike who are interested in figuring out a way to make life better. The concept of tikkun olam from Jewish tradition is centered around human action to “repair the world” by acting in constructive ways towards others and is grounded in the notion that we all bear a responsibility for the material and moral welfare of others as well as ourselves. In several faith and philosophical traditions, the notion of the “common good” is central.
In America’s politics today, we’ve lost quite a lot of the connectivity to overarching intellectual and philosophical traditions. In many ways, political parties and leaders skim the surface in articulating visions with any depth. They are too busy manning the barricades and rallying their supporters, and that’s part of the reason why the political spectrum is in such disarray.
In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis offers a diagnosis of the current political moment we are in globally and how to achieve societal progress and historic change. Secular liberals will be doubtful because of this man’s specific positions or the fact that he derives them from his own interpretation of divine authority, and many conservatives will view him simply as a figure who espouses fringe views about economics and environmental policy.
Whatever your own personal religious or philosophical beliefs or ideological orientation, here are five key points worth pondering about the current political moment:
1. Populist politics and technocratic managerialism offer a road to nowhere.
The book was written during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, and it reflects upon the political moment we’ve been in for several years – polarization between different populist strands and a response by technocratic managerialism.
The central problem with populism, according to Francis:
“Populisms are often described as a protest against globalization, although they are more properly a protest against the globalization of indifference. At bottom, they reflect a pain at the loss of roots and community, and a generalized feeling of anguish. Yet, in generating fear and sowing panic, populisms are the exploitation of popular anguish, not its remedy. The often cruel rhetoric of populist leaders denigrating the “other” in order to defend a national or group identity reveals its spirit. It is a means by which ambitious politicians attain power…”
“In the name of the people, populism denies the proper participation of those who belong to the people, allowing a particular group to appoint itself the true interpreter of popular feeling. A people ceases to be a people and becomes an inert mass manipulated by a party of a demagogue. Dictatorships almost always begin this way: sowing fear in the hearts of the people, then offering to defense them from the object of their fear in exchange for denying them the power to determine their own future.”
At the same time, Pope Francis argues that simply turning to technocratic management of the economy and the state on its own isn’t a solution, either, because it is a “distorted mindset” that despises the limit that another’s value imposes.
In other words, our politics should strive for a synthesis of competing views on the broader societal common good, rather than a politics that is simply a clash of competing identities or narrow policy proposals aimed at achieving power.
2. Attempts to offer incomplete or partial accounts of history run the risk of leading societies to repeat past mistakes.
In America and around the world, there’s an important struggle over history, but at times the debate has become caustic and divisive, rather than seeking to construct something that is deeper and broader that builds coalitions. Francis warns against efforts that seek to judge the past through the lens of the present:
“Some wanted to project onto the past the history they would like to have now, which requires them to cancel what came before. But it should be the other way around. For there to be true history there must be memory, which demands that we acknowledge the paths already trod, even if they are shameful. Amputating history can make us lose our memory, which is one of the few remedies we have against repeating the mistakes of the past. A free people is a people that remembers, is able to own its history rather than deny it, and learns its best lessons…”
“The ignominy of our past, in other words, is part of what and who we are. I recall this history not to praise past oppressions but to honor the witness and greatness of soul of the oppressed. There is a great danger in remembering the guilt of other sin order to proclaim my own innocence….”
3. Creating space for better discussion and a synthesis of different views has a greater chance to produce progress and consensus.
Pope Francis outlines the damage done within open societies by the current dominant mode of debate:
“How do we act in contexts of tribal division when our politics, our society, our media seem at times to be one long shouting match, in which opponents seek to ‘cancel’ each other in a game of power? The growing verbal violence reflects a fragility of selfhood, a loss of roots, in which security is found in discrediting others through narratives that let us feel righteous and give us reasons for silencing others. The absence of sincere dialogue in our public culture makes it ever harder to generate a shared horizon towards which we can move forward together…”
“As the paralysis of polarization sets in, public life is reduced to a squabble between factions seeking supremacy.”
He offers a general, broad direction as a possible remedy – the need for dialogue that seeks to foster greater respect of different views:
“Our main task, however, is not to disengage from polarization but to engage with conflict and disagreement in ways that prevent us from descending into polarization. This means resolving division by allowing for new thinking that can transcend division. In this way, divisions do not generate sterile polarizations but bear valuable new fruit. This is a vital task for our time of crisis. Faced with huge challenges that must be tackled on many fronts at the same time, we need to practice the art of civic dialogue that synthesizes different views on a higher plane.”
This is all easier said than done, given the dominant mode in our politics and media, a point that Pope Francis acknowledges:
“Some media are caught up in the post-truth culture, where facts matter much less than impact, seizing narratives as a way to wield power. The most corrupt media are those that pander to their readers and viewers, twisting the facts to suit their prejudices and fears.”
This broader media and political environment impacts how politicians operate – as well as those analysts working at research institutes.
4. The need to avoid troll power and a walled off, fundamentalist mode of thinking.
The “us versus them” mentality dominates politics and gets more of the spotlight in all forms of media than the quieter forms of debate and dialogue in public life, and it produces narrower thinking. Francis criticizes the closed-minded, more fundamentalist mode of thinking – a dynamic that affects all parts of America’s political spectrum.
“The indignation of the isolated conscience beings in unreality, passes through Manichean fantasies that divide the world into good and bad (with themselves always on the good side), and ends in different kinds of violence: verbal, physical, and so on.”
There’s no simple remedy to dealing with the destructive force of troll power that aims to tear down opponents, but Francis offers an idea based on our experience in trying to stop the spread of coronavirus – a form of social distancing from those who have the virus in our public debates:
“Like coronavirus, if the virus of polarization cannot transfer from host to host, it gradually disappears.”
5. Re-center the debate on a more inclusive politics.
Years ago, some research institutes and thinkers on the left engaged in broader thinking aimed at developing and applying the concepts of the common good. But in more recent years, there has been a trend away from more universalist thinking and towards more narrow perspectives in politics that are fixated on specific policy proposals benefiting smaller sets of citizens.
Pope Francis identifies the weaknesses of an excessively narrow focus on individualism and the missed opportunities in not striving towards a broader dialogue that looks at the common good:
“Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens, and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.”
“It is not enough to adjudicate between different parties and interests, or to think in terms of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, as if the interests of the majority trump all the other interests. The common good is the good we all share in, the good of the people as a whole, as well as the goods we hold in common that should be for all. When we invest in the common good, we amplify what is good for all.”
These broad observations don’t offer a political strategy for the Biden administration to garner the votes to get support for its latest proposals to Congress, nor do they offer concrete ideas to those poised to oppose those proposals in the debate that will unfurl in America in the coming months.
The Pope’s diagnosis and general prescriptions offer some food for thought for those who are looking for a way to get out of the current political moment we’re stuck in and take America’s politics off the low road it’s been on for years.