We hear a lot nowadays about the polarization in American politics, between the two parties and between conservatives and “progressives” (as liberals have come to be called). What is not mentioned is that, due especially to ideology, the great casualty of our current politics has been integrity.
While politics is not known as a field that exactly encourages integrity—though that isn’t inevitable and wasn’t so at the time of our Founding Fathers, who despite imperfections were men of genuine character—the advance of ideological rigidity has substantially pushed it out of the picture. This has come mostly from the political left, as it has taken increasingly uncompromising and unreasonable—even irrational—positions, and the right has simply responded to it. So, polarization has resulted. Many on the right unwisely think they can “reach across the aisle” and reinstitute something like 1950s bipartisanship or a common front, showing how they can’t fathom the virulent nature of leftist ideology. In fact, by doing this and, it seems, persistently failing to seriously challenge and confront the left—that is, to keep marshaling the evidence and pounding away at it—when they get into power Republicans usually end up actually helping to advance the left’s agenda.
One could think of voluminous examples of the positions and rhetoric of the current political left that demonstrate this lack of integrity. I offer only a few. Even though entitlements are now responsible for most of the federal deficit and European welfare states are suffering, the left not only doesn’t want to rein them in but wants to expand them to more and more things (such as free college education). In fact, the left readily attacks anyone who even suggests cutting entitlements or retracting the federal social welfare role as wanting to hurt the poor and needy. Whenever anyone says that we have to deal with the massive problems caused by illegal immigration or even screen more carefully Muslim refugees because of legitimate concerns about terrorism, the left almost reflexively calls him a racist (even though the last time I checked Islam was a religion).
Similarly, while the left routinely favors centralizing power and having almost everything run from Washington, it calls for state and even local prerogatives when it comes to immigration with sanctuary cities and the like. Or, doesn’t the left scoff at anyone who claims that the problems of minority groups might possibly be caused by something other than widespread and even institutionalized racism? The left touts the authority of science and creates a picture of religious believers as obscurantists, but it regards as irrelevant such things as the biological facts of fetal life, the obvious physical differences between men and women, and any scientific facts that dispute global warming. It dismisses common human experience about, say, the likely consequences of unrestrained sexual activity. While promoting sexual libertinism, the left makes frantic claims about such things as a “campus rape crisis” while brushing aside the studies indicating that it doesn’t exist and ignoring—despite its supposed civil liberties consciousness—the many false allegations due to arbitrary university disciplinary procedures.
When one turns to current political controversies, we see the left five months down the road still unable to accept the results of the last presidential election and claiming that Hillary Clinton lost for a variety of reasons—without considering that her own campaign performance or the public’s simply not wanting her had something to do with the result. The left has screamed about Russia’s supposedly influencing the election when in the last decades of the Cold War, as Catholic columnist James K. Fitzpatrick pointed out, they thought it absurd for anyone to criticize the Soviet regime. We saw the left quickly grab onto a claim by one of his former law students that Judge Neil Gorsuch contended women abuse maternity leave even though the person making it is now a Democratic party operative and completely distorted the fact that the topic came up as part of a back-and-forth discussion in a legal ethics class and was drawn from the standard textbook being used.
And what about the leftist National Education Association claiming that Betsy DeVos would be “an actual danger to students” as Secretary of Education—apparently because she strongly supports voucher programs, tuition tax credits, and the like, which might prod the public schools to improve themselves? Then, there are the leftist activists who are stretching the meaning of unconstitutional action with regard to President Trump’s executive orders on travel from a group of terrorist-spawning Islamic countries and claiming that certain of his business activities violate the emoluments clause. Suddenly, however, after non-stop disparagement of Trump since November, some leftist spokesmen are opening up to him as he’s sounding more in agreement with them on health care. I could go on and on.
Political rhetoric, posturing, and tug-of-war aside, at bottom what these examples really show is a lack of integrity. This may be at a historic high—or, maybe one should say low—point in American political history. As their leftist ideology has hardened, the “progressives” seem to have shown little hesitancy about “pulling out all the stops” to try to advance it. That includes misrepresentation, deception, exaggeration, selective reciting of facts, inconsistent application of standards, ignoring obvious evidence, refusing to look deeper and more extensively into subjects, even outright lying or encouraging the propagation of untruth.
The most fundamental crisis of American politics today, then, may be a crisis of integrity. Integrity in politics isn’t confined to the narrow definition given by groups promoting governmental ethics. It doesn’t mean just bribery, influence-peddling, or even how the implicit promises politicians make to raise campaign funds compromises them. The more basic, typical problem involves all these other things.
It’s striking how few prominent people one hears about across the whole political left who appear to put integrity ahead of ideology. Alan Dershowitz may be one. Cornel West, the associate and friend of the eminent Catholic scholar Robert P. George, may be another. At least they see the need to be consistent and are attentive to the dangers that blind devotion to ideology has come to pose.
Why do we have this leftist-generated crisis of political integrity? As the left has become more ideologically rigid, it becomes like its increasingly not-so-distant cousin communism, which subscribes to the doctrine of “socialist truth.” That is, whatever furthers the cause of communism is held to be true. So, now, whatever furthers leftist ideological prescriptions is “good” and one can justify doing whatever is necessary for this—so long as it doesn’t outright, clearly violate the law of the state, which is the only law the left recognizes.
The last point suggests the next one. The most basic reason for this crisis is the left’s moral relativism and belief that, as the ancient Sophists said, “man is the measure of all things.” He is his own god. So, the end obviously then can justify the means. If that even means that the kind of even-keeled, sober-minded, respectful civic discussion and engagement needed to sustain a democratic republic such as the U.S. is to be dispensed with, so be it.
Is it just the left that has caused the crisis? No, the right is hardly above political manipulation, opportunism, and stretching truth. It’s just that for the left, in this age where ideology seems to trump everything, it seems to be sweeping and systemic. Liberalism has moved increasingly leftward since the 1960s, and as the Democratic Party has become more and more controlled and funded by hard left, rankly secular interest groups its politicians have become more unbending and unreasonable leftists. Maybe the fact that most who are politically active on the right have at least some grounding in tradition and genuine religion stops them from similarly going off the ideological deep end. Leftists, on the other hand, are “true believers” in their ideology—with its heavy Marxist underpinning (especially, nowadays, cultural Marxism)—which is for them, in essence, a substitute religion.
Actually, in the midst of this there is an even greater tragedy. The crisis of political integrity—as the examples mentioned and the routine leftist demonizing of those who disagree with them illustrate—makes clear an absence of charity. That has enormous implications for the well-being and stability of any political community. As Aristotle said, a truly healthy political society is one that is characterized by a community of friendship.
Stephen M. Krason’s “Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic” column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He 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. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His next book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield).