Earlier this year, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen wrote a piece for the American Conservative entitled, "A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching." While the media obsess about Catholic divisions between liberals and conservatives, Deneen argues that the really interesting debate and fault line exist within what, for lack of a better term, is the conservative side of Catholicism.
He spoke of one group, what one might call neoconservative Catholics, who believe essentially that "there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism." On the other side are those “radicals” who "reject the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible." They are "deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism, . . . of America's imperial ambitions, and wary of the basic premises of liberal government."
Deneen's article, while seemingly academic, has quite a lot to say to us here in Michigan. While specifically about a Catholic debate, his article highlights a larger unease that many people have with American democracy and the narrow partisan boxes into which we feel increasingly pigeonholed. Indeed, one of my fellow Brunch columnists, Jeff Polet, is the editor of Front Porch Republic, a diverse group of voices offering many similar criticisms as the radical Catholics from a variety of perspectives. And while the problems might be largely insoluble politically, the implications of the larger discussion that is ongoing, necessarily have a political component. And that is where Michigan enters the picture.
Michigan may just have the building blocks for a third way politically — one that finds ways to regulate market capitalism and foster a communitarian approach to politics that puts the common good ahead of individualism.
This is, after all, the land of the Reagan Democrats, the blue collar union workers who pulled the lever for Reagan in droves. Michigan also has a strong tradition of pro-life political candidates from both parties. While it is becoming increasingly hard to be a pro-life Democrat, it is still possible here.
Unions have certainly lost sway. Michigan's union membership peaked in 1989 at 26 percent and has fallen to just over 16 percent, but that is still 5 percent higher than the national average. A strong union presence changes the dynamic between workers and employers in a way that can help foster a different sort of politics. Moreover, the impassioned and involved young people who are increasingly flocking to Detroit and Grand Rapids, in particular, also seem to be fed up with politics as usual.
Anecdotally, I can say that many of the young religious people I know, while deeply concerned about issues such as abortion and the breakdown of the family, see their faith as all-encompassing and speaking to every last thing in life from sex to how cities are laid out. In short, their faith has something to say about how their food is grown and cultivated, where they live and how they travel to work, how society should care and conserve the environment, and how society cares for the poor and most vulnerable. They find themselves politically homeless and critical of the choices put in front of them.
Given these various strands, interests and pressures, the time and place might be right here in Michigan for a third way politically that takes the valid criticisms discussed by Deneen and finds a way to implement them practically in our political system.
What this might look like is to be determined, but it would likely have a local focus – on town, city, and state – rather than national politics. It would find ways to support families through civil society but also governmental programs – especially working poor families. It would find ways to promote mass transit systems that help the poor and the suburban travel to our cities' downtown cores without the need of a car. It would find ways to promote small farmers who raise crops and animals in an environmentally sustainable and ethically conscious way.
These may all seem like general propositions, but those broad policy areas are very much areas where a consensus could be found among people who are dissatisfied with conventional political categories.
There are certainly potential roadblocks. Given the individualism at the heart of both the Republican and Democratic parties, it is not clear that we can buy into a politics that sees government's role as coordinating and fostering the common good. The stunning and speedy shift of consensus on what marriage means, which has led to a situation in which anyone who raises a voice in defense of traditional marriage being branded a bigot, also might make the needed political alliances untenable.
How does one combine a pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-organic farming, rural Christian with a post-Christian, pro-gay marriage, urban young person into a workable political alliance? It may be that the politically homeless are so diverse that they cannot find a way to forge a common home to create a third way. Still, given the current options, making an attempt is at least worth the effort. The worst that could happen is that we remain mired in our current situation. The best that might happen is that we find a politics that is responsive to people who aren't the caricatures presented by MSNBC and Fox News.