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Democracy’s Achilles Heel

October 31, 2020 (888 words)

Manipulating the emotions of the general public is how our nation’s business is conducted on a daily basis. Then comes election season, when the fear-mongering ratchets up to a fever pitch.

Despite this regularly-scheduled rise in unpleasant sloganeering, nobody really seems to mind. We take solace in the freedom that is our most valued possession. Secure in the knowledge democracy is the system of political organization that best delivers on the promise of absolute freedom for every citizen.

But this broad-stroke version of “freedom” can yield people who do little more with their time than indulge selfish desires, instead of drawing on and calling forth their better nature. And “democracy” can boil down to the cognitive elite trafficking in exaggerated rumors that will coax the rank-and-file into emotional choices instead of rational decisions.

The smartest people on both sides of the aisle are equally guilty of resorting to the lowest common denominator in their discourse. The tragedy is how all partisans have an element of truth in their basic premise. But instead of working to elucidate that truth and educate the public, they let their core message get lost in a flurry of poor word choices.

The justification for this sorry state of affairs is something no one feels comfortable acknowledging. The common rabble is unable and/or unwilling to sit still for a detailed explanation of anything. Our collective attention-deficit disorder forces the smart set into dumbing everything down and making broad appeals to emotion.

This is not how things were supposed to play out, what with all that high-minded talk about an informed citizenry being a pre-requisite to a healthy democracy.

As a Catholic “revert” and a moderately successful small business person, my adult instincts naturally inclined me to a conservative political bent. And that lasted for a good twenty years or so. But the more I ponder the Church’s long-standing social teaching, the more dismayed I am at the superficiality of the conservative position as it is popularly articulated regarding our socio-economic predicament.

For instance, you may have heard a “soft totalitarianism” is taking hold in our country. This trend will only worsen should Joe Biden win the presidency. Those same sources ominously report how Wall Street doesn’t like increased government regulation, or any increase in corporate taxes. Somehow this news is spun to agitate the average middle-class voter into a deep concern for making sure our richest citizens can continue to become even richer.

This particular example of emotional manipulation is executed under the rhetorical cover of “such policies will remove incentive for investment, which drives all economic growth.” While this formulation does indeed express some truth, what goes unsaid is how these days merely turning a profit is not good enough for our cleverest investors.

One must be able to earn the highest profit humanly possible in order to make any undertaking worth the effort. Social considerations such as creating jobs that will sustain a community and contribute to the common good never enter the equation.

I am afraid to report this superficiality also extends to some of our religious leaders – at least the ones I pay attention to and respect. We practicing Catholics have been told in no uncertain terms voting for Joe Biden is a sin. Any thought of addressing economic inequity and predatory financial practices is out the window. Because Mr. Biden, and the entire Democrat establishment for that matter, supports a woman’s right to choose, favors marriage equality, and advocates for the newly-emergent cause of LGBTQ rights. All these policy positions are regrettable, no question about it.

But overt political support for what often devolves into destructive personal behavior does not constitute any sort of enforceable public mandate. No woman is being ordered to have an abortion. No two people of the same gender are being told they must marry. And no one who “identifies” as something other than what their anatomy clearly announces them to be is now being forced to “transition” into something else by a liberal regime.

These innovations in the realm of sexual morality are the natural by-product of our national obsession with liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A pluralist democracy like ours actively encourages its citizens to seek out their own unique definition of happiness, wherever that search may lead.

This radical philosophical framework presents an inscrutable problem for those who cling to the heartwarming notion our nation is Christian at its core.

The Catholic spokespeople I most admire are constantly referencing what they claim is the hallowed principle of religious freedom. They see it as an impenetrable shield that should allow orthodox Catholics to practice what they believe in the public square. But these well-meaning clergy and lay persons don’t seem to realize this same reckless sense of freedom allows everybody else to practice whatever wacky idea may pop into their head at any given moment, or at any stage in their lives.

Even more confounding is how the conservative pursuit of “economic freedom” undermines the integrity of the “religious freedom” certain Catholic leaders invoke with such passion, especially at election time. It turns out both forms of freedom – economic and religious – result in moral anarchy. So far this has escaped the notice of all those who have proudly adopted the conservative brand, and consider themselves defenders of the faith.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
October 31, 2020

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