Soiled Politics

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           The ancient Greeks and Romans embraced a concept of society and the political community that is conceptually different, and fundamentally at odds, with the  American political tradition. Aristotle taught that "man...is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low on the scale of humanity or above it...inasmuch as he resembles an isolated piece at draughts..."



            In fact, the root of the English word civilization is derived from the Latin civitas. The Roman notion of the civitas was endowed with the same mystical meaning which the Greeks attributed to the polis: As a member of the civitas, the Romans, like the Greeks before them, believed that a man fulfilled himself and achieved his destiny - which was to discharge his responsibilities in the life of the republic - as a citizen. Through the civitas, therefore, one became a sociable, functioning human being and thus distinguished oneself from lower forms of life or from barbarians, who because of their lack of knowledge of politics could not create political institutions which would enable them to emerge from their servile state.

          Because the classical conservative tradition emphasized obligation as a correlative of right and insisted that citizenship required conscious and willing deliberation and participation in the political process, it was not uncommon that all of the male citizens of ancient Athens often spent days as members of the Assembly deliberating issues of war and peace and the merits of proposed laws. 

            More than two millennia later, here in the twenty-first century United States, notions about politics, citizenship and the obligations of citizens in an ostensibly democratic society stand in stark contrast to the ideas of the ancients. In 2004, a mere 55.7% of this country's citizens were able to find the time or summon the effort to even cast a vote in the presidential election. In the  2008, the number of U.S. voters increased only slightly to 57.1%, but decreased again in 2012 to a only 54.9% of the citizens eligible to vote. The numbers were even worse in the two most recent off-year Senate and Congressional elections: 36.4 % cast votes in 2014; that figure was down from the 37.8 % of voters who cast ballots in  2010. Voter turnout in the United States was thus among the lowest in the developed world.

          As a result of the failure of young voters, women and minorities to vote in those off year elections, the control of the United States Senate and House of Representatives reverted to the GOP. At the state level, the figures were even more daunting: Republicans were able to gain control of both the governorships and legislatures in 24 states; 70 of the nation's 99 state legislative chambers were now controlled by the GOP; both chambers of the legislatures became  GOP controlled in 30 states; and 31 GOP governors were elected across the country.

           The indifference of so many Americans to the political process only underscores the observation that politics - whether through active participation or abstention - has consequences. President Obama and the Democratic Party platform on which he was originally elected have been essentially neutered during the last six years of his presidency while the GOP has been empowered to wage unremitting war at the state and federal level against women, the LGBT community, minorities, the poor, labor unions, voting rights, regulatory reform, student debt, economic inequality, climate change and a host of other issues.
  
          Compounding low voter turnouts, a recent Gallup poll reports that 43% of those Americans who are registered to vote have declared themselves be Independent or unenrolled. The effect of that decision is that these unenrolled voters are unable to participate in the formulation of party platforms and issues. In addition, because they are unwilling to participate in party politics at the ward, county and state levels, they have ceded the power to choose candidates for public office and to advocate for policies to those voters who are enrolled and do participate actively in either of the two political parties.

          There are a number of plausible explanations for the current gridlock and dysfunction that characterize current American politics. Undoubtedly, the torrent of private money unleashed  by the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, the suppression of voting rights, and the continued success of wedge issues to divide a very low information and distracted electorate have all contributed to the trivialization of U.S. politics. So, too, has the disappearance of journalism as a serious, independent profession and its replacement by pundits and talking heads who endlessly prattle on about who is up or down without any effort to seriously analyze the underlying issues. But they bare only a share of the responsibility.
 
           The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maintain, echoing Thomas Aquinas, argued that  that  "the primary purpose of which men, united in political society, need the State is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the critical need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

           Social justice can never be achieved in apolitical culture where voters are so preoccupied with their own private needs and the acquisition and accumulation of things that they are unable to find any time to participate in the political process. U.S. politics - as exemplified by the current GOP Presidential campaigns - has devolved into to a food fight that is devoid or substance or any acknowledgment of the real problems that bedevil this country. 

           Americans who refuse to perform their civic duty to become informed about the issues and to actively participate in the political process have no one to blame but themselves.

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