Political Commitments and Doing Justice

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By Paul Otto

Most Republicans and Democrats know that they associate with their parties because they are conservative or liberal, respectively.  A close scrutiny of each party actually demonstrates that neither the party nor the conservative and liberal ideologies feeding them are monolithic entities--a diversity of opinions can be found among members of both parties.  Yet compromise between members of the two parties and constructive dialogue between their followers often seems impossible to accomplish.  Why is this?  I posit that, despite the nuances within each group, broad generalizations about the underlying commitments of each party are possible.  In fact, those broad commitments operate as fundamental beliefs. Understanding them clarifies the conflict and distrust between the two major political groups and points to the difficulties in pursuing justice in the current political environment.

At the root of each political movement is a deep distrust.  For political conservatives, it is a distrust of the public sector.  For liberals, it is a distrust of the private sector.  This can be most clearly seen in the two popular protest movements that have recently emerged.  First is the Tea Party, a movement ostensibly organized against higher taxes, but clearly against government generally.  This is not to say that they are all libertarians or anarchists, but the shared sentiment among Tea Partiers and other conservatives usually comes back to some degree of distrust of the government--it is too large, it is too imposing, it is too restrictive, and so on.

On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is clearly anti corporation and anti rich. While they may not all be socialists, the protesters share a deep concern about the moral failures of the private sector--the insensitivity to local markets, to the unemployed, and to the environment that corporations and the super rich seem to display.  Clearly, OWS protesters are not entirely opposed to the technology and goods produced for markets, but they believe that market forces, if left alone, run rough shod over the weak and powerless.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions--there certainly are, but it’s difficult for those with dissenting views to get a hearing.  One of the reasons may be attributed to what Alexis De Tocqueville called the “singular power” of the public, which “does not persuade of certain opinions, but…enforces them, and infuses them into the intellect by a sort of enormous pressure of the minds of all upon the reason of each.”  This is compounded by the role of popular media through which self-proclaimed leaders of both camps reinforce popular opinion without adding anything of substance to the public debates.  The influence of such media manipulators is often atrributed to the power and influence of the mass media itself, but doubtless such public personalities would have little influence if they didn’t tap into the fundamental political values held by their respective followers.

When the nation faces a historic economic crisis and the government is facing its own fiscal difficulties, and when dissatisfaction with the national state of affairs is being played out in city squares and town meeting halls across the land, partisan grandstanding is clearly a problem.  But the root of the problem lies not with our two-party system, nor with demagogic mass media commentators, nor with activists in the streets.  Instead, the problem lies with the inability to rationally consider the challenges facing our nation because of unwavering commitment to ideological principles that stand at odds to one another.  I am not recommending pragmatism as a solution--principled governing is still our best hope for creating a just society.  But the goal of creating a just society should be the principle which our political leaders follow and which shapes public opinion.  A commitment to justice may open our eyes to the fact that the government and the private sector are neither our greatest assets nor our worst enemies.  A commitment to justice may lead us to critically examine weaknesses in both the public and private sector and find ways to balance these two in order to benefit all citizens.

-- Paul Otto is a Professor of History at George Fox University in Oregon.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.