Two-thirds of Americans can’t see themselves supporting either of the presumptive Presidential candidates. This is what the abolition of politics looks like.
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 68 percent of registered voters don’t see themselves supporting Donald Trump for president. A slightly lower percentage of voters are unenthusiastic about Hillary Clinton. This might be why many Americans are not planning to vote this fall. But is this good for American politics?
In the past, politics was viewed in a positive light. From the Greek polis—city—political institutions helped citizens band together to form communities. The Founders believed an elected official didn’t have to be a genius but should have “the most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society” (Madison).
This vision has been in decline since the end of the 19th century, and especially since the New Deal. American political culture has become politicized. Politicization is the turn toward law and politics to find solutions to almost every public problem. Business interests, higher education, religious institutions, media, minorities—you name it—all seek legitimacy through the rights conferred by Washington. This however is idolatry.
The Bible defines idolatry as loving anything too much (other than God). God loves everything but doesn’t love everything equally. He loves people more than petunias (not that there’s anything wrong with petunias). God’s loves are ordered. Our loves ought to be ordered; loving the things God loves in the order in which he loves them. We’re to love God, neighbor, then good food, friends, conversation, work, play, leisure, politics, and so on. Loving anything too little is ignorance. Loving anything too much (like politics) is idolatry. This captures American political culture. It’s idolatrous, or politicized.
Politicization ruined Bismarck’s Europe. In 1968, Henry Kissinger’s “The White Revolutionary” was published in the magazine Daedalus. He touches on Bismarck’s “new order” that was “tailored to a genius” who could win voters by “manipulating their antagonisms.” In politicized cultures, candidates stoke resentments while making outlandish promises. In Bismarck’s Europe, this would fan the flames of fascism.
At the end of the day, politicized cultures are unsustainable because they’re based on the “great man” (or great person) view of history, a 19th century idea that history is primarily shaped by heroic individuals. They exhibit superior rhetorical skills, charisma, and political savvy. The only problem with this theory is that it is mostly wrong. Influential individuals matter, but they operate inside institutions and, as Kissinger wrote, institutions only require “an average standard of performance.” They don’t require a savior. They can be sustained under a subpar leader. But they can’t survive a savior. Political saviors ultimately destroy institutions by not respecting constitutional limits.
This seems to explain the lack of enthusiasm over Clinton and Trump. Most Americans are not politicized animals. They’re honest, hard working people. They care about politics but are irked by the poisoned atmosphere of Washington. They look at the two presumptive candidates and ask can’t we do better than this? Apparently not. Most Americans want a responsible leader. Trump and Clinton are opportunists.
Kissinger wrote that a society led by opportunists “will doom itself” because they seek “to mold reality to their purposes.” Sensible leaders “adapt their purposes to reality.” This is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’ observation in The Abolition of Man. “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man.” It seems we’re witnessing the abolition of politics.
It’s taken over a century for American political culture to devolve to politicization. It won’t change by November. We’d be wise to reframe our political argument. I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Read it and decide whether Haidt offers a way forward.
 Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion (New York: Random House, 1967).
 As quoted in Niall Ferguson, Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist (New York: Penguin, 2015), pp. 697-698.
You appear to have missed the narrative of the personal being political, Mike. Leaving individuals vulnerable to their choice being surrendered to institutional or structural thinking. Discerning the spirit of a ‘prophet’ being a legitimate act. In addition, loving others as you love yourself. IMO poor teaching discourages ‘love’ for self to the extent God loves us. Judgement appears to have replaced discernment. The community of faith appears reluctant to journey with the personal http://philipyancey.com/the-gift-of-pain
and distress, leaving the vulnerability to journey with another ‘force’ of direction in reflecting the essence of an ‘idol’. Sadly, the ‘abuse’ of ‘peace, peace, where there is no peace’ is prevalent in political and religious communities where ‘sharing in Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection’ is neglected, cutting this verse short by intent.
Philippians 3:9-11Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC)
9 And that I may [actually] be found and known as in Him, not having any [self-achieved] righteousness that can be called my own, based on my obedience to the Law’s demands (ritualistic uprightness and supposed right standing with God thus acquired), but possessing that [genuine righteousness] which comes through faith in Christ (the Anointed One), the [truly] right standing with God, which comes from God by [saving] faith.
10 [For my determined purpose is] that I may know Him [that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly], and that I may in that same way come to know the power outflowing from His resurrection [[a]which it exerts over believers], and that I may so share His sufferings as to be continually transformed [in spirit into His likeness even] to His death, [in the hope]
11 That if possible I may attain to the [[b]spiritual and moral] resurrection [that lifts me] out from among the dead [even while in the body].
I was introduced to the concept of “politicization” vs “politics” by James Davison Hunter in his book, To Change the World. While I don’t like living in the situation described in this “Abolition” read, I acknowledge how far well-meaning Christians have come in seeking a political “savior” while staying distant themselves from trying to serve our risen Savior when such service requires a great deal of sacrifice. Christendom in its modern form, if in fact it exists at all, negates the charge to marry, have children, build houses and seek the welfare of the city. When Christians return again and understand that Jeremiah 29 concept better, we may be moving once again to the healthy exercise of “politics”. God save us!
Bob is a friend, a former state rep, and an evangelical. I feel for him.
In a nutshell, few evangelicals understand the distinction between politics and politicization. Politics is an institution. It’s good. Politicization is a culture. It’s not good. Cultures are the air we breathe… the water going through our gills. And therein lies the problem. Fish don’t know the difference between “good” and “bad” water. They only know water—the water passing through their gills. They are enculturated in whatever water passes through their gills. Most evangelicals are enculturated in a politicized culture. It’s the water passing through their gills. It is all they know. They are politicized but don’t know it. No one—not even Christians—get a free pass from being enculturated. God created us to swim in cultures, hence the first mandate—make cultures (Genesis 2:15). Over the last century, evangelicals have been poor at making cultures. They’ve have instead been molded by them. Bob, you see this. Your fish friends don’t. It is heartbreaking. But it’s also evidence of not being faithfully present in politics. It’s more the case that evangelicals have been unfaithful, politicized in a politicized culture.
I dunno Mike. Let’s say you’re right – and that you are the fish who can discern that the water passing thru your gills and everyone else’s gills is politicization vs. good politics. But are you saying that while involved in the deep end of good politics? And let’s say that there are many forms of good politics – like what you do – consulting on cultural issues. But: one of things you’re not doing is wading into the deep water of being in anyone’s campaign or anyone’s administration…you’re not in the belly of the beast trying to maintain good politics amidst politicization. So since you’re not, how do we know from you how to do this well? It’s too tempting to think that one knows how to do something from good theology or good philosophy – but when one wades in, and does well, that’s who I want to hear from. Are you reading from or meeting with anyone like that? Haidt, I don’t think, is involved in the deep end, is he? I hear so many Christians adjuring us to stay away from Clinton & Trump. But the opposite is true: we need Christians inside their camps helping the candidate or the winning administration to do better, to do well, to help the king rule well, as opposed to staying outside of it all.
Dave T: There is a way to get an outsider’s perspective–a roundtable. That’s mostly tyne infrastructure in which I work.
As an aside, note that George Will has decided to leave the Republican Party. He announced this Saturday. Hmmm…
Thank you Mike for one of your as usual thought provoking commentaries. I also appreciated the other replies by your colleagues. My only observation relates to one sentence where you mentioned the dislike for the candidates by the voters and the intention for many to stay at home and not vote. For me this is very discouraging and short sighted on their part without them fully considering the importance of their participation. It is certainly not what was contemplated in the brilliance of our beloved leaders who crafted the Constitution. It makes about as much since as George Will’s declaration he is abandoning the Republican party.
Lastly I don’t believe it is the Evangelicals who have failed our country and created the water we now swimming….I think the church as a whole needs to do some self reflection and realize our Church looks and reacts much like the culture around us. We certainly need repentance and Not voting is the last thing we need to do.
For Russell Brown and Mike: I may be late to knowing what you both may already know, but Better for America’s J.K. is a pal’o mine and is likely to deliver a very vote-able candidate. That makes this dismal election a bit more exciting. Stay tuned! (At least I think I might actually vote after all.)