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

Political Symbolism and Elevated Political Discourse

Timothy Sherratt


April 29, 2011
by Timothy Sherratt

In 1964, Murray Edelman’s The Symbolic Uses of Politics distinguished between political symbols that gave imaginative expression to substantive policies and those that merely substituted symbol for substance. As Michael Gerson’s piece on Former Congressman Tony Hall’s recent fast demonstrates, Hall’s action falls wholly into the first category. It was undertaken against a background of commitment to the plight of the poor and hungry in every position the Ambassador Hall has held. It mirrors, too, an earlier fast in 1993 on the occasion of the eclipse of the House Select Committee on Hunger. Hall’s credibility separates his action from hollow symbolism and raises real questions about the place of this traditional Christian practice in contemporary policy deliberation.

Gerson frames Hall’s action as a call to responsible governing, arguing that at a time of budgetary crisis, indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts are an “abdication of governing.” It is hard to disagree. But he might have gone further.

The ever-toxic quality of what passes for deliberative democracy lends greater urgency to such actions as Hall’s fast. The multiple causes of our polarized politics, from gerrymandered districts that inflate the distance between blue and red, to the zero-sum quality of a politics handicapped by an antiquated electoral system, make a genuinely deliberative democracy elusive at best. The abdication of government reflects more than a moral failure to consider the plight of the weakest members of society; it echoes just as loudly the forces that continually convert governing into politics.

Since the 2010 elections, however, the gridlock predicted for a divided government has not materialized. But the substitute process has resembled not so much deliberation and measured compromise as horse-trading: on the Bush tax cuts, for example, each side got some of what they wanted, making reluctant concessions to their opponents. Horse-trading does not encourage careful examination of the elements of policy, let alone the moral calculus so central to wise and prudent governing.  No wonder that the budgetary deliberations succumbed to simpler calculations and to the false justice of “across-the-board” cuts and to the deceptive equity of asking for everyone to make sacrifices.

The restoration of the international food program must have been a satisfying outcome for Hall, who now sets his sights on the 2012 budget where proposed cuts are even more draconian. Does his achievement enable us to draw general conclusions about the contribution his fast may make going forward?

I am inclined to agree with Gerson’s modest conclusions. Hall’s fast was a principled stand for evidence-based and principle-based decision making. To the evangelical community, it brought a particular message of the need for Christians to take their civic responsibilities seriously. That message will resonate with evangelicals, one hopes, because of their reluctance to embrace civic responsibility as a core human task—a task that should not be confused with a fervency for political causes.

Hall’s 28-day fast, which he brought to a close with exquisite timing on the Feast of Easter, invited a lost eloquence back into American politics. On its own, to be sure, it cannot sustain the burden of fully restoring that eloquence. What I have in mind is the loss of a public discourse fully able to articulate in a language accessible to all Americans, a comprehensive message of care. One thinks inevitably of the biblical cadences of Martin Luther King addressing moral deficits in an earlier age, and of the disappearance of that rhetoric, and its receptive audience, from our own. Budget cuts and poverty have become themselves impoverished by the decline of rich, imaginative religious rhetoric in public life, rhetoric that lent purpose and direction to a public undertaking that embraced all of us as morally obligated members of one another.

Is it too much to hope that former Congressman Hall’s symbolic speech has given us back the words with which we can assert our care for the other in something other than the divisive language of our rights?

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College and a former Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.





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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.”