Would US Elections Still Astound de Tocqueville and Chesterton?

If you’re not subscribing to The Catholic Answer, perhaps the September/October issue running up to the elections will get you to consider it.

There, along with some excellent regular columns and the very help Q&A’s that define the magazine, you’ll find Russell Shaw writing about how Catholics should prepare to vote, and hitting on five notions:

1. Voting is a moral act — don’t vote frivolously or selfishly.

2. Don’t compartmentalize politics and morality.

3. Don’t absolutize politics, but don’t excessively relativize it either.

4. In speaking and acting on political questions, don’t let your passions take control.

5. Form your conscience through study and prayer, then vote on the basis of moral principle, especially the common good, and your honest judgment of which candidate or candidates will do the best job protecting and promoting it.

Do read Shaw’s full and wise exposition. He offers good advice for finding balance and forming the conscience in this most noisy and distraction-laden campaign season. And it’s not just for Catholics, you know. Share it with your friends.

In the same issue, I jump off of Shaw’s piece to ponder what Alexis de Tocqueville and G.K. Chesterton had to say after observing American campaign seasons and elections, and whether their experiences still hold as true:

Russell Shaw ends his marvelous piece on American politics, voting and the Catholic conscience by noting the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s astonishment at how our passionate national engagement with the issues (and occasional enthrallment with our ideologies) could so quickly morph into acceptance and a peaceful period of transition. Years later, visiting in 1921, when eager immigrants were pouring in from Europe and the memory of a dreadful civil war still nibbled at the national psyche, G.K. Chesterton remarked on the similar seemingly casual American mind-set of the early 20th century when he wrote, “Tradition . . . means that it still matters what Penn did 200 years ago or what Franklin did a hundred years ago; I never could feel in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago.” The characteristic shrugging off of events once they are concluded is not an indictment against the American attention span, nor a suggestion that we lack an exquisite sense of occasion. Chesterton had encountered immigrants seeking a better life and citizens motivated toward unity. In a healthy republic, one which can boast a sturdy assumption of good faith between rivals, there can be no better response to a settled outcome — be it an election called a week earlier, or a ballgame ended an hour previous — than a resigned shrug and a return of the attention to one’s own concerns. That they found this remarkable at all betrays Chesterton’s and de Tocqueville’s European sensibilities, informed by monarchies, peerages and class resentments that occasionally boiled over. America, by contrast, was birthed in blood, but her constitution codified a sort of perpetual and paradoxical revolution: through regularly scheduled elections, ideas and policies could be upended as a matter of course, with new notions and programs put into place without the shedding of blood or dirsupting the next day’s duties to commerce, agriculture and invention.

That assumption of good faith was the balancing key to the remarkable peace of our political transitions; it allowed political rivals to believe that — win or lose — their opponents were competent people; that if they differed in means, the nation’s best interests were their common ends. When John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory in 1960 sparked rumors of ballot-box tampering, Richard Nixon nevertheless conceded. He made a very “American” good-faith assumption that he and Kennedy shared a desire to see America prosper; if a challenge might foment poisonous distrust, better the nation maintain its sense of itself — and its processes — as something uniquely levelheaded.

You can read the rest, here

Ed Morrissey on Paul Ryan
Rebecca Hamilton on enthrallment

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About Elizabeth Scalia