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Politics as a Form of Public Education

via Crisis Magazine

by Dr. Stephen Krason

stephen krasonAs we head into another election season, we’ll see the customary television sound bites, vague bloviating speeches by politicians far and wide, politicians pandering to different groups with a host of promises, and the usual recent practice of “gotcha politics.” While the fundamental causes of the woes of our electoral politics are poor citizenship formation and democratization—the Founding Fathers established a republic, not a democracy, and as Federalist 10makes clear they shared with all the great classical political philosophers a deep suspicion of democracy—we can’t expect in the short run to do much about this. We at least can try to get those politicians inclined to the “conservative” side—to use an inadequate and misunderstood term—to see that the stakes in American politics nowadays are nothing less than the preservation of our constitutional principles and what’s left of Western civilization. Further, the politicians who do apprehend this reality, even if inadequately, need to be urged on to recover the long-lost educative function of politics and to develop both the sophistication and courage to carry it out.

That means, of course, that sound bites, platitudes, avoiding “touchy” subjects, gearing political discussion to the least common denominator in terms of voter understanding, and, yes, utterly sacrificing the “bigger,” long-run questions to the often elusive hopes of immediate electoral success cannot be the norm. Immediate electoral success accomplishes little if the Republic and the culture are in shambles.

In The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic, I tried to show how the political order fashioned by the Founders progressively—especially in the twentieth century—turned into something much less desirable. The overriding object of our politics now has to be to try to recover it—and, to the degree that politics can, the culture that spawned it.

The recovery of the crucial educative function of politics requires, to be sure, a political savviness—I like the 1930s term “moxie”—that seems so often to elude the politicians, and others, who go up against the left. Besides having a sound substantive understanding of the questions of the day, they have to master rhetoric (in the best sense of the word). The old expression, “it’s not what you say but how you say it,” is pertinent here. The left should not be permitted, as is so often the case, to define the terms of the debate. There needs to be a proper mix of education and confrontation. Indeed, to effectively carry out the educative function of politics one has to first create the conditions that make it possible, to clear out the obstacles to it. What this means, among other things, is that one has to “call out” the left. The spotlight must be put on what has become their increasingly irrational and potentially destructive socio-political perspective and agenda. So often, the very things they accuse their opponents of—such as the fraudulent “war on women”—are exactly what the left is doing, or will obviously result from their initiatives. They should also be confronted about their manipulation, deception, and opportunism.

It’s not just opposing politicians who should be vigorously confronted, but their enablers and allies like those in the politics educationmedia. So during the Republican primary presidential debates in 2012, when George Stephanopoulos pulled the contraception issue out of the hat, it wasn’t enough just to tell him (as Romney did) that he knew that wasn’t really an issue in the election. The candidates to a man should have repeatedly hammered him for the rest of the debate for using his journalistic position to manipulate the facts, act unfairly (the left is always telling us how they’re interested in “fairness”), and assist Obama and the Democratic party. He should have been put on the defensive, instead of them. That might have nipped the “war on women” in the bud.

As far as contraception is concerned, it has regrettably become a kind of “third rail” in American politics—in fact, almost a kind of (perverse) sacred ground. It’s a good example of how politicians won’t get anywhere near something that has become almost a way of life—no matter how much trouble it’s caused. While I don’t expect politicians to lead the way in the fight against contraception, I do expect them to—repeatedly—set the record straight. The Republican candidates could have showed the hypocrisy of the “war on women” claims and made a masterful effort at the educative function of politics by presenting some facts about the serious health dangers of contraceptives to women. Instead of just trying to run away from the issue once Stephanopoulos raised it, they should have kept reiterating these facts on the campaign trail—along with showing with hard facts and data how such leftist shibboleths as easy divorce (another third rail) and sexual liberation have disproportionately disadvantaged women—to make the “war on women” their issue instead of the other side’s. If people won’t listen to moral, philosophical, or even commonsensical arguments about contraception, chastity, and the like, they’ll pay more attention to the personal consequences (again, not what you say, but how you say it). As stated, politicians don’t lead the way on these subjects, but sensible discussion and rhetoric might encourage the unsung efforts of the people working in other domains about them.

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