October 12, 2013

Of Government Shutdowns, the Gospel, and ‘the Politics of Self-Esteem’

– By Alan F.H. Wisdom

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson believes he has found the culprit in the current standoff regarding the federal budget and debt ceiling. “The curse of U.S. politics is that it’s become less about interests and more about ideologies,” Samuelson avers. He charges that “ideologies breed moral absolutes, rigid agendas and strong emotions.” Hence the paralysis as the Republican House of Representatives and the Democratic Senate and White House seem unable or unwilling to reach any compromise.

The columnist prefers earlier days when politics was mostly a competition among interest groups grabbing at the government benefits pie. Such differences could be more easily reconciled by dividing slices among the interest groups, according to Samuelson. But now, he says, politics is dominated by “the foot soldiers of ideological causes,” who “don’t usually enlist for tangible benefits for themselves but for a sense that they’re making the world a better place.”

Having more such “high-minded people” might appear to be a good thing; however, the columnist begs to differ. The problem, he contends, is that ideologues on the left and right are driven by a desire to “feel good about themselves.” This “politics of self-esteem,” the striving to validate one’s worth by taking up righteous crusades, is a harsh taskmaster. “It suggests,” according to Samuelson, “that you don’t just disagree with your adversaries; you also look down on them as morally inferior. It’s harder to compromise when differences involve powerful moral convictions. Indeed, if politics’ subconscious payoff is higher self-esteem, it makes sense not to cooperate at all. Consorting with the devil will make you feel worse, not better. What’s more satisfying is to prove your superiority by depicting your opponents as dangerous, thoughtless and morally bankrupt.”

Self-Esteem Gone Wild

The above sounds like a pretty fair description of the “debates”—more accurately, mutual denigration contests—that we see daily on the floor of Congress, in the pages of the newspapers, and in social media postings. It’s all about proving that “we are the good guys” by exposing the wickedness and stupidity of the other side.

Samuelson does well in warning against this intoxicating, toxic brew of self-righteousness. But he errs in equating “the politics of self-esteem” with “ideology.” Former champions of interest groups—William Jennings Bryan, for example, in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech—were certainly capable of working themselves and their audiences into a stupendous self-righteous lather.

The cult of self-esteem, especially in our society today, involves much more than political ideology. With ever larger numbers of Americans growing up and living apart from the stable families and strong communities that nurture an enduring sense of personal dignity, so many are desperate to find validation.

American affluence and leisure afford opportunities to seek validation almost anywhere—in wearing the hippest outfits, eating the healthiest gourmet foods, listening to cutting-edge music, watching the most sophisticated films, traveling to the most exotic locales, having the latest electronic devices, being environmentally conscious, using the most up-to-date and sensitive lingo, associating with the most respectable people, insisting on a “world-changing” career, or embracing the most righteous political causes. This is not just the politics, but also the fashion, the cuisine, the art, the technology, the society, and the economy of self-esteem. The high personal stakes that people attach to these lifestyle choices are revealed in the stringent demands for “correctness”—the need to assert not only that my choices are good, but that other choices are unacceptable.

We Are All Ideologues

“Ideology” isn’t an attribute possessed by only a few fanatical “foot soldiers.” Every one of us has an ideology. The difference is that some individuals are conscious of their ideology and acknowledge it, whereas others imagine that they are just “pragmatists” following “common sense.” One person’s “common sense” is another person’s “ideology.”

Our society needs sound ideologies that illuminate reality. It needs people with “powerful moral convictions” to call us to something higher than the pursuit of self-interest. But the trick is to advocate those convictions out of a broad concern for the common good, not out of an insecure need to demonstrate our righteousness by identifying ourselves with “the good people” (one ideological faction) who are resisting “the forces of evil” (the opposite ideological faction). The first approach aims to bring people together, to the extent possible; the latter approach necessarily divides people against one another.

An Ideology that Isn’t ‘All About Me’

Does our ideology have to be subservient to our fragile, inflated self-esteem? Or is it possible to conceive an ideology that teaches us:

  • that our knowledge is always partial and imperfect and therefore we ought to be humble;
  • that we are all sinners whose motives are never pure;
  • that even if our motives are pure, our actions will sometimes have unintended negative consequences that outweigh the good we meant to do;
  • that political beliefs or actions (or any other beliefs or actions) will never be sufficient to validate us as whole persons;
  • that the only reliable basis for self-worth is the unconditional love of our Creator and Redeemer, “while we were yet sinners”;
  • that we are called to love our neighbors—even our ideological adversaries—with the same love with which we first have been loved?

Yet this ideology just described is merely speculative and theoretical. There isn’t really any such ideology, is there?

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