In his address to the United States Congress in September, Pope Francis said, “Politics is . . . an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” His words certainly inspired pangs of conscience in the gathered legislators. His positive vision of the vocation of politics, however, also stands in stark contrast to the “anti-establishment” fervor that is playing such an important role in this year’s election campaign, and that has been building for some time. Of course, this sentiment is fueled by real cases of criminal malfeasance and the documented, outsized influence of the wealthy over our political process. But at its heart, anti-establishmentarianism is based on a much broader dis-ease with public institutions, which in the political realm translates into a sense that the democratic process itself is inherently corrupting. By insisting that politics is indeed a noble vocation, Catholic social teaching then is in a very particular sense “pro-establishment.”
In their 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein argue that the increasing polarization of American politics in the past three or more decades has led both sides to attempt to delegitimize the other. One’s political opponents are not simply wrong, they are corrupt, incompetent, immoral. Opposing policy prescriptions are lambasted in increasingly apocalyptic terms.
Mann and Ornstein go on to say that the Republican Party, in particular, has contributed to this atmosphere of delegitimation, although it affects our entire political discourse. For one, the delegitimizing tactic was perfected during the Republican Revolution of 1994, led by Newt Gingrich, and has now set the norm for how politicians do business. Second, these more polarized Republicans are motivated by an ideology that delegitimizes government itself, that sees the government as inherently corrupt and incompetent. Whatever their views on the issues, the public has absorbed this distrust of politicians and the political process.
Anti-establishmentarianism feeds on itself. Delegitimizing tactics make the dialogue, compromise, and coalition building needed for successful democratic governance much more difficult, and then the failure to effectively govern this brings about reinforces the suspicion that politicians are incompetent or corrupt. As Mann and Ornstein note, the delegitimation of politics feeds indiscriminate anti-incumbent sentiment, the call to “throw them all out”, and the fascination with “outsider” candidates. Today’s “outsiders” toss out those who only yesterday claimed that mantle themselves (consider Donald Trump and Ted Cruz’s feud over who is the real “outsider” candidate). In the process we lose the experience, knowledge, and relationship-building needed for effective governance, again creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of incompetence and ineffectiveness.
The process of political polarization has also been accelerated by the process of “self-selection,” our tendency to live and work with people like us, to read and watch media consistent with our own views, etc. Self-selection biases our perception of politics, creating the impression that most people think like us. The political analyst Sean Trende has noted how this bias has impacted this year’s presidential campaign. He shows how this phenomenon helps explain our political and cultural elites’ surprise at the rise of Donald Trump, because the world of his supporters is largely foreign to them. But I think self-selection can also help explain the popularity of anti-establishment candidates such as Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trende mentions that self-selection leads us to think that our “side” is stronger than it is, so when our elected officials fail to follow through on their promises, it is easy to blame it on incompetence, corruption, or the nefarious influence of elites. We refuse to admit that our ideas might in fact be unpopular, or we reject compromise as a sign of weakness, and send a new crop of anti-establishment outsiders to repeat the process all over again.
We can see these problems all around, but the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders provides some illustrative examples. One of the most frequent criticisms of Sanders is that he seems not to have given much thought how he will push his bold agenda through the divided institutions of government; when pressed on the issue in an October debate, his response was that he would inspire a “political revolution” by “having millions of people coming together.” Sanders assumes that a hidden majority of Americans support his proposals, and that there is therefore no need to compromise with the (popularly-elected) Republican-controlled Congress.
More recently, a number of Sanders supporters created a chaotic scene at the Nevada Democratic Party state convention, culminating in death threats toward the state party chair and vandalism of the state party headquarters. Fueled by the campaign’s rhetoric that the Democratic primary process had been “rigged” against their candidate, the Sanders supporters had misunderstood the rules of the convention process, believing that the state party leaders had cheated them. A flurry of viral videos and social media posts on sites frequented by Sanders supporters cemented this misunderstanding in the minds of thousands. Here again we see a disregard for long-standing democratic procedures, the assumption of corruption, and the self-selection of information.
It is important to keep in mind that this anti-establishment phenomenon is not limited to politics. For decades, Gallup has tracked the drastic decline in public trust of a number of important institutions besides government, such as “big business,” unions, the news media, and “organized religion.” Sociologists have noted the decline in community engagement for a long time. Catholics should be the first to admit that in some cases the decline in public trust in these institutions has been well-deserved, but the widespread nature of the phenomenon tells us that something deeper is going on.
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes that contemporary society is characterized by the “colonization of the public by the private.” While this certainly includes the privatization of government functions, he means more broadly the transformation of the public spaces and institutions devoted to the common tasks of community life into spaces for self-reliance, self-expression, and self-disclosure. For example, my students who identify as “spiritual but not religious” or who otherwise are turned off by “organized religion” often express the sentiment that being bound by the traditions, rituals, and beliefs of a community unduly limits their ability to authentically express their own beliefs and spirituality; many of these students are drawn to non-denominational communities with informal worship and few doctrinal requirements. Bauman warns that the consumerist mindset is penetrating all facets of public life, while those issues that require dialogue, compromise, and collective action remain unaddressed or hidden from sight. I believe this helps explain our nation’s anti-establishment mood.
My friend Charlie Camosy has argued that this year’s presidential campaign, presumably pairing two of the most unpopular candidates in modern political history—Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—against each other, creates a golden opportunity for a political realignment guided by the millennial generation and (by and large) in line with the vision of Pope Francis. If it were only a matter of a realignment of salient political issues, Camosy may be correct. But as this article by Ron Fournier, cited by Camosy, makes clear, the millennials more than other generations have internalized the privatized, anti-establishment mindset that contributes to our political malaise. As Fournier writes:
The trouble is that Millennials believe traditional politics and government (especially Washington) are the worst avenues to great things. They are more likely to be social entrepreneurs, working outside government to create innovative and measurably successful solutions to the nation’s problems, even if only on a relatively small scale.
As a model for political engagement, this sounds woefully inadequate. These “social entrepreneurship” projects would be self-selected by their progenitors, would not require input from the various stakeholders involved, and most importantly could not possibly address many of the most serious collective issues we face as a nation, such as climate change, institutionalized racism, immigration reform, etc. Addressing these problems will require the very traditional political institutions—political parties, pressure groups, community organizing—and tactics—compromise, lobbying, respect for democratic procedure—to which millennials, and Americans more generally, seem most averse.
A politics truly inspired by the vision of Pope Francis would strengthen our political institutions and communicate their value and importance. Of course, we must also work to reform them—making them more transparent and more responsive to their constituents, and limiting the role of money in politics. But we must resist the temptation to delegitimize government, political parties, and the institutionalized democratic process, all of which are necessary for us to accomplish our common tasks and solve our common problems together.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.