As the recent fiscal cliff showdown illustrated, politics in America has become entrenched in rigid partisanship, characterized by last-second “Hail Mary” solutions to serious problems. Writing for The Cresset, Houghton College professor Peter Meilaender urges us to listen to the “mild voice of reason” that James Madison calls for in Federalist No. 42. The American political system can only successfully function through compromise. So while we ought to hold our convictions strongly, we must realize that the political realm is a place for humility, pragmatism and consensus—not stubborn, ideological puritanism.
In saying this, I am not making a mealy-mouthed call for “moderation.” To the contrary: a pox upon those who self-identify as moderates. Firm convictions about political matters are all to the good; partisanship is all to the good; vigorous debate is all to the good. There is a type of politician and pundit that prides and preens himself on avoiding “partisan excess” and strives carefully to take positions located exactly between whatever are taken to be the standard Republican and Democratic positions. These people are political publicans praying on street corners. The point is not to abandon our convictions, but to have the humility to recognize that others may reasonably disagree while remaining well within the bounds of morally acceptable policy. As Edmund Burke once said, in his famous speech urging conciliation with the American colonies, “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens, than subtle disputants.”
This attitude alone will not solve our problems. Institutional reforms may also be necessary. Rethinking our use of primary elections, for example, might be a helpful place to begin. But such a “Christian pragmatism,” or perhaps “Christian realism,” would be a welcome contribution to our ongoing economic debates. It would be a step toward making compromise solutions more attainable, solving our serious problems, and restoring a measure of deliberation to our democracy. It could help the mild voice of reason speak more clearly and, in the process, forestall the unlearning of democratic self-governance.