Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Cliff Notes from the Edge

Timothy Sherratt


December 14, 2012

By Timothy Sherratt

If an agreement is reached to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff by the end of the lame duck session of Congress, we will have gained fresh insight into our polarized polity. We will have learned that in pursuit of apparently divergent interests, polarization has its limits.

From the perspective of civility, care, trust and faithful representation of society’s needs and interests, this will deliver cold comfort. But it is important to know that the self-interest that propels democratic politics also propels politics towards resolution when both sides want resolution badly enough.

I am quite sure that we have a civility crisis. Trust, courtesy and care are in short supply. Particularly distressing is the evidence that the little courtesies have vanished, including the collegiality across parties that characterized the United States Senate not long ago. More than one senator has retired in the past year citing the collapse of such courtesies, which fall particularly heavily on the political moderate isolated by the intensity of the partisan divide.  

And it is doubly distressing that representation has been sacrificed on the altar of polarization, for polarization is to a significant degree artificial, the product of primary election politics and gerrymandering.  

Despite these distressing features of the current political divide, should it come as a surprise that democratic politics is not populated by a single “democratic type,” but instead by people and groups who want to get their way? I don’t think so. That much was right in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous dictum that the Constitution was “made for people of fundamentally differing views.”

The fiscal cliff talks, in other words, are ordinary politics, not distorted politics. Some of their worst features may fade when new issues and alignments shape American politics. But no golden age is set to resume when someone discovers the elusive fix to partisan hostility. Augustine was right to play down the expectations of true justice in this world. Why should we think, why should Christians in particular think, that managing our common life would not be fraught with basic disagreements?

But rough justice can still be smoothed out. Here Christians have important contributions to make.

Above all, it is vital to know what the goals are and to keep them in plain sight. In Michael Sandel’s words, “Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize. . . the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together.” What Sandel writes of markets applies with equal force to governments. The end of both is to serve persons and society.

If the talks do result in an agreement that pulls the country back from the cliff’s edge, we should not draw the equally faulty inference that all is well and that the system works after all. It will be no less important to try to point to better ways of doing things.

Christians should, I think, adopt a genuinely independent posture, neither right- nor left-wing as these are defined in American politics, but concerned to set the debate between governments and markets in the context of vital non-state and non-market human responsibilities.

It will not be enough to proclaim such a posture in isolation. It must form part of how believers negotiate their relationship with Democrats and Republicans. Christians’ support, in words, votes and other contributions, should not come cheap.

In this season of Advent, Anglicans affirm Jesus’s coming “in great humility” and his coming again “in glorious majesty.” Taken together, both phrases evoke the true nature of political power and authority.

Come, Emmanuel.

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”