While rereading To Change the World, I came across this passage, where Hunter almost anticipates my remarks:

Some argue that what we need is a redefinition of politics, one that is more capacious and capable of absorbing actions, ideas, and initiatives that are independent of the State.  The idea here is to reclaim or restore a “proper” understanding of the political.  Such efforts would, in principle, accomplish the same end I am describing here.  This position is certainly worthy of serious debate but as a sociologist who is attentive to the power of institutions, I am inclined to think that all such efforts will be swallowed up by the current ways in which politics is thought of and used. It is why I continue to think that it is important to separate the public from the political and to think of new ways of thinking and speaking and acting in public that are not merely political.” (emphasis mine)

Yes, there is a danger that attempts at reform might lead to the perpetuation of the standard way of doing things.

But then, there’s a danger that any presence might cease to be faithful and be co-opted by the power structures of the institutions in which it exists.

If anything, Hunter’s reply seems to unfairly single out politics as particularly resistant to reform.  What if the institution in question were, say, the academy with its (ostensibly) liberal bias?  We might want to rethink the academy, but any attempts to institutionalize those reforms from within the system would be just as susceptible to co-option by “current ways in which [academia] is thought of and used.”  Yet is not doing so simply one way of being “faithfully present” as an academic administrator?  Why, then, can’t politicians play as well?

Which is to say, bad ideas and ways of doing thing have a way of wanting to stick around, regardless of which institution they exist in.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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  1. Matt – I think your remarks about finding a new way to be political or expanding the idea of politics could be taken two ways, one of which is extremely problematic, the other of which is more helpful:

    1) The basic problem with the Democrats, as I see it, is that there isn’t a problem in the world that their state doesn’t have a solution for. It seems like to them everything is political, which in their mind means everything is the business of the state. Besides the obvious problems such a view poses for our ideas of liberty and freedom, such a view also causes stagnation in our policy proposals. Small scale example: My landlord is incapable of imagining a rule for our relationship as tenants besides “what is stated in codified legal documents and anchored through the exchange of money.” He leaves no room whatsoever for non-monetary, non-legal action within our tenant/landlord relationship. So it is with the Dems – they leave no room whatsoever for non statist solutions to problems. So when you speak of expanding our definition for politics, I think you have to frame it in such a way that you’re ruling out the above scenario. “Expanding our definition of politics to include communities beside the state,” or something like that would be a helpful clarifying phrase.

    2) I’m almost certain when you talk about “expanding politics” you mean thinking about politics in the more classical way as simply the issues regarding the health of the polis. This is a much more helpful idea and is one I could get behind. That said, as a history student I share Hunter’s reservations that it’s even possible to do such a thing. It seems like at this point in our nation’s history our conception of liberty is so small and the state is so large that any attempt at reforming politics will get swallowed up by the machine.

    I’m inclined to think we cast our vote on this in 1896 when we picked McKinley and empire over Bryan and local places. When you grant the legitimacy of empire, you inevitably demean the role of local places and the culture those places create and preserve. And those cultures are where we’re going to get that correct view of politics you’re talking about. So you can’t get out of this cycle of destruction until you denounce empire and return to localism. And in our world denouncing empire demands much more than simply reclaiming politics, it’s not less than that, but it’s much more than just that.

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    1. MATT: If anyone can “reclaim or restore a ‘proper’ understanding of the political” (presumably as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin conceived of the political), then you’re well poised to do it, and I’m here to be your cheerleader because challenging the discursive patterns will require courage, cogency, patience, and love.

      JAKE: Like you, I think the movement toward statism is inexcorable. Even so, what matters more than the state are the counter-polities like the family, school, and church, where localism can still thrive. We should conceive of ourselves, to borrow a memorable phrase from Neil Postman, as “loving resistance fighters.”

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  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Anderson, Zetify. Zetify said: RT @mattleeanderson Hunter on the Power of Politics http://bit.ly/cLpkzp […]

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  3. Jake,

    Thanks for the comment. Yah, I agree with non-statist solutions to things. I think that’s my basic point in my response to Hunter, though, even down to the death of the imaginative framework that we have for solving problems.

    To be clear, I don’t think I’ve used the phrase “expanding politics,” at least not in these recent writings. I wouldn’t want to frame it that way for precisely the reasons you identify.

    “That said, as a history student I share Hunter’s reservations that it’s even possible to do such a thing. It seems like at this point in our nation’s history our conception of liberty is so small and the state is so large that any attempt at reforming politics will get swallowed up by the machine.”

    This is where I become a progressive and rebel against your conservative instincts. :)

    As for your other points, I’ll refrain from responding so as to not incite a porcher-war. : )

    matt

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  4. Like you say, I think the problems in politics can easily be seen in other areas. Much of the time, “idea-based” policy fails because of power plays. As long as there are [fallen] humans there will be quests for power indifferent to quests for progress.

    However, just like in any other area of our lives, we shouldn’t try to escape some arena just because we find it difficult to succeed in. I get Hunter’s point and sympathize with him, but isn’t the whole notion of grace about how God can empower us as individuals (and, in turn, communities)? If God can use (and/or) redeem individuals in families, neighborhoods, churches, etc., I don’t see how He can’t do the same for those in politics.

    Note: I am not talking about God *redeeming* politics through some kind of moral legislation. I am merely talking about making it more “capacious and capable of absorbing actions, ideas, and initiatives that are independent of the State.”

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  5. […] Change the World.  Spilled plenty of words on this one, so I won’t say anything other than that it serves as a helpful resource […]

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