This is a fun week—for the second time in as many days, we’re debuting a new writer here at Mere O. It’s a delight to be able to publish this guest piece from John Shelton.
“Everything begins as a mystique and ends as a politique,” observes French essayist Charles Péguy. In other words, that which begins as a pure idea—mystic, even transcendent—devolves into profane politics, the slow grind of policy divorced from any sort of sanguine idealism. The politique politician is an automaton, swayed by the slightest breeze of public opinion and party leadership. Such a man considers himself to be “eminently practical.” If he is always choosing an evil, at least it is the lesser of two. He takes what he can get; he desires the possible and worries not over the good, the beautiful, the true. He scoffs at Plato, even Aristotle. His man is Hobbes—Machiavelli, if he is forthright. He esteems them not for their realism but their cynicism. Such humdrum pessimism is fit cover for this man without a chest.
The mystique politician is not the philosopher satirized in Aristophanes’ The Clouds: staring up absentmindedly into the starry night, falling into a well. He is instead the philosopher of The Federalist Papers, the man who, if he stares up into the starry night, does so not unto stumbling but because he will soon travel there upon Apollo 11. He articulates the natural rights of humanity and believes in them sufficiently to fight till liberty or death. His is a lusty romanticism that purges the will to power of Nietzschean materiality with the fires of Platonic idealism. He is a Kierkegaard and not a Foucault; a martyr and not a critic. Where is such a person today?
Despite my grandiloquent prose, my rapturous patriotism, I am no Don Quixote. I clearly recognize that myriad problems afflict American politics. Something must be done and as I see it there are several possible responses.
First, one can insist falsely that such problems are not inherent to the American political tradition, that they first emerge sometime in the 19th or 20th century as a result of one woefully misguided group or another. Such a diagnosis is followed by an attempt to make America 1791 again, jettisoning every historical development since then by the wayside: welfare, nationalized school systems, and judicial activism are three of the most common nominations for the chopping block. (Note: judicial activism is often a cipher for frustration with Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges—not Bush v. Gore, nor, any longer, Brown v. Board). Sentimentality may make for a potential Oscar winner but in politics it is vicious.
Second, one can insist pessimistically that such problems are unavoidable due to various failures of the Founders. The most standard accusation, typically leveled by Alasdair MacIntyre and his followers, is that America’s founders were too liberal. Communities of virtue cannot emerge in the rocky and thorny conditions provided for by the atomizing forces of liberalism and capitalism, which dovetails in close company with liberalism. MacIntyre’s solution in After Virtue and other writings is to turn away from national politics and concentrate on local forms of association.
Rod Dreher, taking at least this last element of MacIntyre seriously, has advocated for the Benedict Option. I myself think that such an emphasis on community is crucial, yet can not stomach the implication that this turn towards the local necessitates an actual rejection of national forms of politics. After all, MacIntyre admits that the state is a necessary precondition, “without which none of our local communities could achieve our common goods” (Dependent Rational Animals 132).
There remains, then, a third option: hopeful realism. One can refuse the Scylla of false optimism and the Charybdis of pessimistic withdrawal. This would mean to embrace, warts and all, the American tradition. How can we attend to our politics in a way that recognizes their severe imperfections yet refuses to yield to despair?
As a Burkean, my belief is that we must do this in piecemeal fashion. Weber once quipped that politics is the slow boring of hard boards. We must then isolate the elements of our politics that have broken down and attend to their repair rather than their overhaul. As such, I intend in this essay not to offer some new theo-political revolution but rather a summons to reclaim an old theo-political virtue.
Alasdair MacIntyre once suggested that Péguy could save us from our vicious politics. MacIntyre said that “a response to this political condition has to begin with a reflection not on politics itself, at least as we commonly understand it, but on a reflection of metaphysics …” While MacIntyre chose to turn away from national politics, Péguy, his proposed antidote to our interminable disputes, spoke to the heart of a national scandal that divided France for nearly a decade: the Dreyfus Affair. Péguy called on France to become political traitors, to abandon the utilitarian calculations that thrive in politics as only invasive species can; in other words, he called on France to return to the taproot of mystique.
In the American political tradition, two fonts of mystique and politique predominate: the liberal and the conservative—each a scion of the Western Christian tradition in its own right. The liberal mystique enunciates the eternal dignity of each individual, purposed for transformation and glorification; the conservative mystique praises the divine vocation of the church, the family, the nation, and other institutions, each tasked with preserving the moral order and transmitting knowledge of truth and human virtue.
That there are two major streams of mystique driving the American experiment, embedded in its constitution of rights and laws, is not insignificant. Were there only one, a solipsistic individualism would reign—or a fascist collectivism. That there are two streams is definitive of American politics and is necessary for its weal. This is why libertarianism is the death of politics just as much as authoritarianism. Rights must always be balanced with responsibilities; without a shared community, there can be no shared justice. And without justice, the experiment fails.
At our country’s nascence, each ideology enjoyed its premiere articulator: for liberalism, Thomas Paine; for conservatism, Edmund Burke. Though neither was born in America, America was born in and to them. The interplay of their respective mystiques typified America at its most praiseworthy: it produced a stability bent towards equality and justice. Divorced of one another, each ideology begat the grossest moral abominations recorded in human history. Paine’s radical individualism charted the course for the French Revolution and bloodied Parisian streets. Burke’s conservatism winked the eye at monstrous social structures like the Atlantic Slave Trade. Yet only Paine was so bold as to declare the inalienable rights of all men over every government and institution. Only Burke was so bold as to declare the anarchy of French revolution and its political witch hunts a means that no end could justify.
The wisdom of the day reports that all of our problems arise because our nation is too ideological. But the wisdom of the day is no wisdom at all. Our conflicts arise, not because we are too ideological, but because we are insufficiently so. The wisdom of the day reports that there is no reconciling those who believe abortion is murder and those who believe a woman has the right to decide this for herself.
Though they may be right that the culture war between will never end, they are wrong to think this is a problem of ideology. The battle between pro-life and pro-choice lobbies is not a battle over mystique, it is a battle over politique. No doubt, these positions emerge from mystiques but they are not mystiques themselves. Rather, the conflict arises because politique has devoured the mystique from which it came. It is the loss of mystique in politics, not its presence, that has led to the trench warfare we have seen in Washington, DC.
Péguy proclaims, “All parties live by their mystique and die by their politique.” For some long time now, the Republicans and the Democrats have both been dying of a politique shorn of mystique. The liberals are not liberal and the conservatives are not conservative! Inside of the Beltway this is painfully obvious.
Any liberalism worth its salt will not admit of a social structure violating the rights of an individual human person: not with respect to liberty and the pursuit of happiness but most of all, not with respect to life. The human being has an inviolable integrity. And yet, this has been lost in much of the Democratic politique.
The case for unqualified abortion rights is not a product of liberalism’s mystique. Instead, it is liberalism’s political abdication of the rights of the individual. The liberal politique seeks to achieve its mystique’s noble ends—in this case, female autonomy—through self-mutilation. There can be no doubt that women face systemic sexism, sexual aggression, and significant economic and vocational pressures—all of which conspire to induce women into having an abortion. But political liberals must not buy freedom for pregnant women by cutting the unborn off from the protections of personhood.
Nothing could demonstrate this reprehensible politique logic so clearly as Representative Carolyn Maloney’s refusal last year to sign into law a bill stating that it is murder to refuse medical attention to a baby born alive. She said she was disturbed that anyone would want to undermine the rights of a woman and her doctor to decide what is best. In fact, Maloney was not alone—more than two-fifths of the House (all Democrats) voted to reject the bill.
Maloney’s politique ‘liberalism’ is light-years from the liberalism of the Civil Rights movement. Maloney’s freedom is understood as a freedom over: A mother should have total authority over the baby that is inside her— she is the lord of life and death. Her ‘freedom’ is the unfreedom of another, much as a slavemaster’s ‘freedom’ signified the unfreedom of the slave. But, she maintains, no one should stand between a mother and her absolute ‘freedom’ over her child. Maloney allowed the privacy of the mother to eviscerate the right of the unborn (even newly born!) child. In this argument she betrays herself as a politique and not a mystique liberal. She has failed to be liberal enough.
This is always the failure of liberalism: drawing the line of persons with rights too short. Once, a ‘person’ meant only white persons. Once, a ‘person’ meant only male persons. Now, a ‘person’ means only those who can vocalize their rights against their persecutors. Were Maloney and her friends truly more intersectional in their feminism, they would weep over the blood on their hands, as we all should for our complicity in Roe v. Wade. Yet if the liberals must abandon their diluted liberalism and return to its surging fountainhead, it remains for the conservatives to do the same with their own ideology.
Conservatives must become more, and not less, conservative. For many decades now the left has denounced the right, saying that its claims to “traditional values” was no more than demagoguery and power politics. There were many wide-eyed conservatives like myself who thought this no more than a nasty smear. When Republicans attempted to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998 over his sex scandal, they claimed that a political leader needed to be morally upright for the health and stability of the nation. This was not about “politics,” they maintained, but about truth, goodness, justice, and virtue. They said that Bill Clinton’s impeachment was about the integrity of the family. They lied. They lied and we all know them for liars because these same people now endorse a serial adulterer, a man who has destroyed the poor in his casinos, built a campaign off of racist and Islamophobic demagoguery, and profited off of slave labor to build his hotels in the Middle East.
Still, many of these politicians and faith leaders have maintained that they are voting on the issues and not with reference to Trump. This might sound like an appeal to the mystique of issues over against the politique of candidates. But it is only a masquerade. Trump is in his very own person both a mystique and a politique of power. He is a charlatan, a womanizer, a sexual predator, and a bully. Even (in the unimaginable scenario) where Trump both won the election and kept all of his promises (for the first time) to defend the unborn, conservatives would still win the culture war in the American legal system only to completely lose the actual culture. A man who boasts of sexual assault and his adultery with married women will finally turn the sexual revolution of the 1960s into the new normal. He will instantiate a new mystique of limitless, twisted machismo; a politique of making every compromise to gain the throne of his desires. He would bring the moral relativism we have all feared to its perfect completion.
Péguy offered an alternative to the destructive politiques of his day: to betray the Machiavellian calculations of politics. We will be called ‘traitors’ for our refusal “to enter into the derivative, parasitical, devouring politique.” And yet we must be such ‘traitors’ so that we do not become true traitors: those who sell their faith, their souls, and give their very selves up. We must not betray our faith, our ideals, or our values for a political victory. We must discern the dividing line between mystique and politique and refuse to budge over it. We can go no further, for, as Péguy warns,
Continuing, persevering, in that sense, is all that is most dangerous to justice and to intelligence itself. To take one’s ticket departure in a party, in a faction, and never to bother where the train is rolling to, and above all, what it is rolling on, is to put oneself resolutely in the very best situation for becoming a criminal.
In our desperation to win the culture war, we must not follow the path of wicked Saul, who called upon the Witch of Endor to shore up his position. We cannot afford the disastrous, Pyrrhic victory that awaits us there. We must be better conservatives. We must be better liberals.
John Schweiker Shelton is a graduate student at Duke University studying theology and political theory. He is also proud Virginian and alumnus of Thomas Jefferson’s university. When not inhaling ancient dust in libraries, he likes to crack open his collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.