Moral Implications of Partisanship

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last night, a diverse group of political hands met at Georgetown to discuss the moral implications of partisanship. The evening’s discussion was the fifth event sponsored by John Carr’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life and one can only hope that these discussions permeate the otherwise intellectually moribund political class that currently calls the shots in this city.

The night opened with incisive comments from Bishop Robert McElroy, auxiliary of San Francisco. I have noted before that +McElroy is one of the finest, and may be the brightest, bishop in the United States and his talk only confirmed that impression. At once provocative and very clear, +McElroy  began by praising those who make the sacrifices necessary to enter politics but also reminded them that “the political vocation is a profoundly moral one,” and that “the moral end of politics is the achievement of the common good in society.”

+McElroy noted that the founders were deeply suspicious of partisanship or what they called “faction.” They thought parties were necessarily divisive and there is no shortage of echoes of those early American criticisms today. And with good reason. But, as +McElroy noted, parties have also served as vehicles for the common good. He mentioned the formation of the Republican Party in the late antebellum era, and how it did what parties do, bringing large numbers of people into political participation on behalf of an important goal, the defense of “free soil.” He cited the Democratic Party’s enactment of the New Deal in the wake of the Depression and the progressive reforms of both Theodore Roosevelt’s Republicans and Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats. “Catholic social teaching envisions a vital role for parties in advancing the common good,” +McElory told the audience. They are “uniquely powerful to stimulate participation.”

But, there is a downside. Bishop McElroy noted that excesses of political partisanship make it essential that all public officials limit their allegiance to party as the be-all and end-all of political leadership. “Party pressure can distort legislators’ perception of the common good,” he said, a point that is too infrequently made. And, he argued that voters guided by Catholic social teaching are confronted with a deeply conflicted sense of party allegiance today. He urged Catholics to risk becoming “insurgents within their own parties,” challenging party orthodoxy when it conflicts with Catholic social teaching, leavening public discussion, and reminding all political actors that the moral end of politics remains the achievement of the common good.

+McElroy articulated six principles that he suggested could help Catholics estimate the proper sense of values in assessing political partisanship. First, parties are called to reflect broad participation in the political process, and this must take precedence over electoral advantage. One thinks of the voter-suppression efforts in some states, all justified by the false claims of widespread voter fraud. Second, political culture must recognize the role of conscience for legislators, and that this must trump party loyalty. Third, he called on politicians to examine those structures that create gridlock.

The fourth item on +McElroy’s list was vital: There is “great social peril in the fact that our party structures track with racial and ethnic divisions.” +McElroy’s fifth principle was that parties must find ways to avoid being dominated by money, a theme that came up later in the night with the panel of political participants. +McElroy closed on an upbeat note, urging both parties to bring their noble history to a new generation of voters.

Bishop McElroy’s talk was greeted not only with applause but intense attention. The people in the room, especially the panelists, seemed a bit surprised to find a bishop who was so well-informed about the current political landscape and, at the same time and just as astonishing, one capable of challenging the status quo without once sounding like a culture warrior or a partisan himself. It was a tour de force and I hope that the bishop’s talk will be published soon and in many venues. It deserves wide attention.

Carr then led a panel discussion on the moral implications of partisanship, and the panelists, each in their own way, demonstrated evidence of what +McElroy had encouraged, the willingness to be “insurgents” within one’s own party. Kathy Dahlkemper, a former one-term congresswoman from Pennsylvania, talked about the night she and other pro-life Democrats appeared before the House Rules Committee, during the chamber’s consideration of the Affordable Care Act, to make the case for the Stupak Amendment which would have attached the Hyde Amendment’s prohibitions on taxpayer funding for abortion to the ACA. The Rules Committee Chair asked her who she was – it was her first term. She told her story of being a single mother, who got pregnant when she did not expect to, but kept her child and could not have been happier. Dahlkemper told the audience that on that evening she said to herself, “This is the reason I’m in Congress.” She also told how she approached the Susan B. Anthony List for support, seeing as the group’s stated objective is to elect pro-life women, but they declined to support her because she is a Democrat.

Michael Steele, the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and chairman of the Republican National Committee, talked about the first time he and the rest of the Cabinet met with Governor Bob Ehrlich to discuss a death penalty case. Ehrlich favored the death penalty, as did the rest of his colleagues but Steele, a Catholic, was opposed. When asked his opinion, he explained his opposition to the group and they all thanked him, including the Governor. In the event, the Governor decided to execute the person, but Steele had made the case in the inner sanctum. Courage is required to do something like that, even when the cameras are not watching.

The two other panelists, former White House press secretary Michael McCurry and political strategist Mark McKinnon, brought a different perspective to the discussion, and evidenced one of the most obvious facts about political life in Washington, the power of unelected campaign strategists. McKinnon floated the idea that, instead of trying to limit the influence of money on politics by requiring disclosure, perhaps Congress should make it a felony to disclose campaign contributions: The contributions would go through the Federal Election Commission and to their intended target, but that target, the candidate, would not know from whom the money came. Interest groups and rich folks could still fund their causes, but they could not turn their contributions into access. It is a provocative idea but one doomed to fail. If a group of candidates meets with Sheldon Adelson and, a few weeks later, millions of dollars show up in their campaign treasury, they will know the source.  

The evening finished with comments by Republican Congressman Walter Jones and Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. Both have broken with party orthodoxy – Jones on the Iraq War and Kaptur on abortion. Both have paid a price for their distancing themselves from party orthodoxy. Both spoke passionately about how their faith informs their public service. Both are the kind of insurgents within their party that this town needs more of.

Let's finish on that point. I encourage readers to ask themselves: Do you start with your partisan political bias and then shape your religious views to fit it, or the other way round? Do you let Catholic social teaching challenge the partisan orthodoxies, and your own opinions, on political matters? Neither party is a good fit for Catholic social teaching: Do you expect the party to change or the Church? Most importantly, Are you willing to be an insurgent within your own party, or even within your own social network, to advance the common good, defend human dignity and promote a less bellicose foreign policy? Last night, those of us in attendance met some courageous folks who are willing to be insurgents within their own party. It can be done. And, it is no use complaining about partisan gridlock unless all of us are willing to follow Bishop McElroy’s call and the example of people like Dahlkemper, Steele, Kaptur and Jones, and challenge our own prejudices and those of our fellow partisans. 

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