Follow the Bright Young People from Politics to Culture
P Politics, it has been said, is the preoccupation of the quarter-educated. One of the curses of attending an Ivy League college in the early seventies was the ubiquity of politics. Politics were everywhere on campus: shouted from bullhorns, handed out in leaflets, agonized over in the dining halls. It was just as the poet said: The best lacked all conviction, while the worst were filled with passionate intensity.
After graduation, many of my classmates decided that the best thing they could do for mankind was go down to Washington and become Bright Young People. The idea was to work as a congressional aide for a few years, write some speeches, learn the legislative ropes, then head back to the home district and begin a meteoric political career ending at least in the U.S. Senate. Other professions in comparison seemed as interesting as stamp collecting.
Last spring I attended my 25th reunion (a rite of passage not to be missed) and there was not even a single state senator among the Class of '73. The closest anyone came to political glamour was being a Friend of Bill, which did not bring much in the way of bragging rights. Nobody, in fact, was much interested in politics. I sat on a panel about public service, and the session turned into a kind of confessional for everyone present: “I wanted to be like JFK, but now I'm doing town planning in Virginia,” or “working for prisoners’ rights in Texas,” or “trying to improve the public schools in Wisconsin.”
In other words, so far as this group of very intelligent baby boomers were concerned, the action was at the grass roots and not in Washington. What they were most concerned about was not politics, but the culture. There is a sea change taking place here, and activist Catholics ought to take note.
There is a lot of talk in the Church today about reclaiming the political initiative. While Catholics can never afford to ignore the political process, may I suggest that the real war is on the cultural front and not within the Beltway? In fact, if we are ever going to achieve a political goal like eliminating abortion, we are first going to have to change the culture.
Consider the soccer mom, that electoral trophy of the nineties. I recently asked a soccer mom — a suburbanite mother of two whom I happen to know — why she had voted for a very liberal candidate in the last Senate election. After all, I pointed out, her views about taxes and welfare and teachers unions were on the conservative side. Why vote for somebody who was still stuck in the sixties on these issues? Her reply was prompt: The other candidate, a Republican, was (somewhat) pro-life, and abortion for her trumped all other issues.
There you have it: The voice of the bourgeoisie at the end of the millennium. Too often, your affluent suburban mother is, above all else, into control — especially with regard to the number of children she brings into the world. She is acutely aware of the trade-off between a third child and a new BMW. While she herself might never consider having an abortion, she cannot conceive a political order which did not allow affluent women like herself to have that option if another baby upset the cost-benefit calculus that is always clicking away in the background. Christopher Dawson pointed out years ago that the bourgeois mind, which is always plotting its own comforts and privileges, is deeply antithetical to Catholicism.
Yet, in the long run, it is impossible for any society to attain true happiness and prosperity in opposition to the human goods proposed by the Catholic Church. The soccer mom, if she only knew it, is canceling a future full of soccer moms, although whether that cancellation comes quickly or slowly is anyone's guess.
Soccer moms voted for Clinton and are not terribly impressed by the case for removing him from office. They view impeachment not as a legal or political problem, but as a battle in the ongoing culture war. Clinton's dismissal would be a setback for the sexual revolution, and so cannot be allowed to happen, no matter what the evidence.
The soccer mom is not a political animal; she can go either Democrat or Republican. Rather, her attitudes are cultural. So if we are going to change the way she votes, we are going to have to replace the cultural baggage she carries into the voting booth. What will change her will be things she hears — from friends, at school meetings, or book circles, perhaps from the pulpit. She is a tough nut to crack. But she is waiting to hear from you — yes, you — out there in suburbs.
So, follow the example of my college classmates: Give politics a break and get to work at the grass roots. We are going to reclaim this culture one person, one family, one neighborhood at a time. Catholics, in fact, have been given their marching orders by Pope John Paul II to do just that, but most of us are slow to respond.
- January 31 - February 6, 1999