Humane Politics

We cannot realize our personal goods apart from the common good

There’s no vacation — etymologically, “empty time” — in politics. Nor even “holidays,” though our holidays are far removed from true holydays. So, yes, I’m on the campaign trail again. Dianne Feinstein, California’s very senior senator, has reached the tender age of 90 and won’t be running again. Why not, then, think big? Let’s at least dream great dreams. Who has proposed a change that reaches to our civic roots? Mark Ruzon, the candidate of the American Solidarity Party, has. I’m delighted to serve as his campaign manager.

A Stanford Ph.D., Ruzon is a software engineer in Silicon Valley. The father of four children, he is decidedly family-friendly. Families, he notes, “are the fundamental building blocks of American society, and these days they are in trouble. To start, we’re not creating very many of them anymore: only 45% of Americans are married, and 29% have never been married.”

Not surprisingly, Ruzon is consistently pro-life. In his words, “We have outlawed many forms of discrimination, yet we legalize discrimination based on birth status with a sentence of death. I also oppose the death penalty, euthanasia, and torture. Human dignity requires humane living conditions.” His vision is clear-eyed, demanding, and scriptural: “Whatever our differences, we are to love one another as we love ourselves.”

In the context of classical political thought, Mark Ruzon models the virtue of civic friendship. He recognizes that we cannot realize our personal goods apart from the common good. Building up the common good, moreover, requires honest leaders who will chart our course in doing those fundamental things that require that we come together — that is, the political enterprise.

The late Robert Bellah, a former contributing editor of New Oxford Review, articulates the workings of civic friendship in his classic Habits of the Heart (1985), a text written with a group of friends. Bellah was a Berkeley sociologist with a commitment to asking why. Polls and surveys and trends were never enough for him. Why, he asked, are we the way we are?

“Individualism and Commitment in American Life” is the subtitle of Bellah’s classic. Indeed, he identifies an entrenched individualism as our nemesis. A humane politics calls on us to recognize that “the individual self finds its fulfillment in relationships with others in a society organized through public dialogue.” Such dialogue emerges in local communities that can be “the forerunners” of the broad change that leads to “the transformations of our institutions.” Such communities must, in turn, orient themselves to the shared concerns of the nation.

But humane politics becomes the merest fiction if, and it often seems this way, the majority of us treat politics as a spectator sport. Politics of that sort turns into interest-based marketing and public relations messaging. Citizens become consumers. Ratings, fueled by rants, carry the day. In self-protection, decent people turn away from public life.

But neither will an idolization of the political give rise to a genuinely humane politics. Politics alone is just another failed god. The authentic common good includes the good of each person rather than absorbing it into any dangerous totality.

How much does civic friendship and political honesty matter? In an era of chaos, St. Augustine wrote, “If, as time goes on, people become so corrupt as to sell their votes, and entrust the government to scoundrels and criminals, then the right of appointing their public officials is rightly forfeit…and the choice devolves to a few good men.” This is a sobering verdict, especially since there are so many ways of selling one’s vote and so few good leaders to redirect us.

We dare not forget that “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless the Lord keep the city, the watchman wakes but in vain” (Psalm 127: 1). Repentance befits both personal and political reform. If we take this to heart, the campaign trail, for candidates and their managers, will take us in the right direction.

 

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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