A rudderless ship on a treacherous sea

One of the many, many revealing things which historian Tom Holland brings to our attention in his important book, Dominion, (reviewed by James Bradshaw in last December’s issue of Position Papers) is the distinction between the secular and the religious which Christianity brought to our Civilization.

Properly understood, this distinction is embodied in Christ’s own words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” Philosophically the great elaboration of this teaching is rendered to us by St. Augustine in his City of God, where the journey of humankind in this world is described in terms of our harmonious – or otherwise – engagement with the affairs of the planet in the Earthly City and the life of the spirit in the Heavenly City.

What this distinction does not mean, of course, is that these two realms do not mix and merge with each other. They do, but ultimately do so in the consciences of each one of us, either well or badly – a good conscience requires that our actions in one realm are at peace with our actions, beliefs and understanding in the other. If not, our lives will be on a short road to the horror of rank hypocrisy.

All of which brought me back to reflect on a book written about two years ago by Isabel Hardman, now assistant editor of The Spectator. Why We Get the Wrong Politicians is a worrying book. It places before us a picture which tells us that all is not well in the affairs and workings of the Earthly City. She wrote this book in the context of British political life but our own everyday observation makes it clear, however, that the malaise in that system is one which is mirrored in many if not most western democracies. Nor is it just the rise of what we rather lazily call “populism” which is at the heart of our current winter of discontent. That is just a symptom of the deeper problem infecting our political souls.

Hardman’s book is the fruit of more than two years research carried out largely in the heart of the mother of parliaments. Essentially, the concerns she raises about modern political life stem from the breakdown of that vital connection between the governed and the governing. This crucial element in the structure of a functioning political system has been damaged to the degree that it no longer seems fit for purpose. The challenge which Hardman lays before us now is that of finding a solution to this rift.

It is a good book, descriptive and anecdotal rather than severely analytical. Despite its provocative title, it is a very balanced and honest examination of the workings of British parliamentary democracy, a kind of limited version of de Tocqueville’s 19th century masterpiece, Democracy in America.

On the one hand the elected governors have to be wise enough and willing enough to address both the deficiencies in the system and the personal inertia which for decades – if not for the best part of a century – has prevented them from doing so to date. On the other hand, the governed have also to be wiser and more willing to appreciate the very nature and limitations of the system they expect to serve their common good. As a consequence they must demand integrity and better leadership from their politicians. .

Among the things she highlights as blighting the judgment of all those who are seeking – or who should be seeking – the common good in the earthly city is the debilitating phenomenon which we now call the “bubble” effect.

The Westminster Bubble, she tells us, was first identified in the late 1990s. It was a description of the tight community of politicians, researchers, think tanks and journalists around Parliament. “It has gained increasingly negative connotations as an insular community in which insignificant things seem enormous and the things that matter to everyone else are ignored. Bubble members are out of touch with the rest of the world, and their lack of understanding of the people they purport to represent leads them to make serious mistakes on a regular basis.”

It is this which is at the root of the distrust which so many now harbour about the assemblies of their representatives in many jurisdictions, including Ireland. Hardman observes that MPs are the least trusted professional group, surveys tell us – below estate agents, bankers and journalists – with just 21 per cent of Britons saying they’d trust an MP to tell the truth.

A YouGov poll Hardman commissioned for her book asked those who wouldn’t even consider standing for Parliament what put them off. Forty-one per cent of them said, ‘I don’t like politicians and the way politics works’, and 16 per cent said, ‘none of the main political parties reflects my views’.

This is serious and is, to an extent, a form of disenfranchisement. If 16 per cent is bad, think of the 30 plus percent of the Irish who now consider themselves disenfranchised. Over 90 per cent of Irish legislators passed an extremely liberal abortion law (they deny that it is extreme, of course) with the effect that the 33 percent who clearly opposed abortion in a referendum in 2018 now consider that they have no effective representation in parliament.

In the Irish context two major factors have produced this chronic dysfunction in that country’s political life.

The first is the fatal three-way nexus which characterises politics there. The system is essentially one where a group of, at best, marginally trusted parliamentarians, locked into a rigid party system, represents the people. In her book Hardman does a great job of describing how the “necessary evil” – de Tocqueville’s term – of the party system militates against genuine choice in the British system. It is even more limiting in Ireland.

That group is assisted in the work of government by a cadre of elite public servants – particularly in departments with a brief for social policy – seriously infected with the left-leaning ideology dominating the Irish universities in which they were educated. This elite has been perpetuating itself in that ideological image for decades. Both these elements in turn are manipulated by a media establishment of the same essential colour. This part of the machine cheerleads when things are going according to its ideological principles. When they veer off course, pressure is applied to bring them back by seeking to mould public opinion to the desired shape. This is done partly by the cultivation of a range of pressure groups driven by the self-same secular liberal principles.

The second factor behind this effective disenfranchisement is effectively the child of the first – the collapse of trust in anything said by any of the people in power within this nexus. Surveys of this trust factor don’t exist in Ireland – suggesting perhaps the extent of control which the protagonists in this story have over the narrative about themselves.

Almost twenty years ago the late David Foster Wallace summed up what he saw as a major factor behind the killing of political interest among the young in America. Guess what? It was distrust. Things have moved on inexorably since then but there is little doubt but that what America is now experiencing politically is the direct descendant of what Wallace drew attention to.

Wallace was commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the late Senator John McCain in the primaries for the US election of 2000. At that time McCain, rightly or wrongly, was the face of honesty in US politics. As such he seemed to electrify youth with a promise of integrity. Eventually his campaign was snuffed out by his party’s power-brokers, but before that happened Wallace explained McCain’s appeal in terms of his express commitment to telling the truth. McCain often finished his rallies with this refrain:

“I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.” (sic)

Wallace did not think it was that simple. “But you have to wonder,” he wrote. “Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie? Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s résumé and candour, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four —- it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie ‘How would you like it if. . . ?’”.

“Render to Caesar…” The truth, a foundational truth of our Christian civilization, is that without each of us rendering to God that which God asks us to render – honouring truth, serving justice and loving each other as children of a Father who is God himself – rendering to Caesar will be a meaningless sham. A world without God, as Nietzsche tragically foretold, will be a world of misery and barbarism. A political life in which political activists work as if God did not exist will be grim indeed. For as long as the earthly city lasts it needs to be inhabited by souls whose consciences tell them the difference between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice – and ultimately between good and evil. The secular world, devoid of the perceptions which the City of God brings to it, is like a rudderless ship on a treacherous sea.

This article incorporates material from earlier Garvan Hill posts and in this form has now been published in the print and online August/September edition of Dublin based magazine, Position Papers.