Jim Wallis recently reminded me of G. K. Chesterton.
I was reading Wallis’ latest book, The Great Awakening.
In the book, he argumes that the old religious right coalition is being replaced by a new politics/faith alignment engendered by a new “great awakening.”
I don’t want to get into all his arguments here – though I admit I find them interesting.
It was one passage that jumped out at me.
Wallis argues that many evangelicals and Catholics are, “like most Americans … searching for a new political agenda that doesn’t fit the standard right-left battles of American politics and is more consistent with their deeply held values.”
He continues, “What would such a new political agenda look like, one that moves us beyond the color-coded cultural divisions of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ that the political class and media pundits continually impose upon the country? If many Americans are actually closer to ‘purple,’ as is often suggested what might be a compelling vision that could evoke their convictions, reflect their values, summon their commitments, and change America?”
That sounded familiar.
A couple of days later I picked up my copy of A Miscellany of Men, and spotted the essay “The Voter and the Two Voices.”
I had an Aha moment. That’s where I’d seen that notion before.
In that essay, Chesterton wrote, “The real evil of our Party System is commonly stated wrong. … The real danger of the two parties with their two policies is that they unduly limit the outlook of the ordinary citizen. They make him barren instead of creative, because he is never allowed to do anything except prefer one existing policy to another. We have not got real Democracy when the decision depends upon the people. We shall have real Democracy when the problem depends upon the people. The ordinary man will decide not only how he will vote, but what he is going to vote about.”
Chesterton goes on to contend, “A certain alternative is put before them by the powerful houses and the highest political class.Two roads are opened to them; but they must go down one or the other. They cannot have what they choose, but only which they choose.”
Sound like the “political class and media pundits” Wallis mentions.
Chesterton, like Wallis, then uses some colorful imagery in terms of what “suffragettes” might want to do with Mr. Asquith.
“Let us say (for the sake of argument) that they want to paint him green. We will suppose that it is entirely for that simple purpose that they are always seeking to have private interviews with him; it seems as profitable as any other end that I can imagine to such an interview. Now, it is possible that the Government of the day might go in for apositive policy of painting Mr. Asquith green; might give that reform a prominent place in their programme. Then the party in opposition would adopt another policy, not a policy of leaving Mr. Asquith alone (which would be considered dangerously revolutionary), but some alternative course of action, as, for instance, painting him red. Then both sides would fling themselves on the people, they would both cry that the appeal was now to the Caesar of Democracy. A dark and dramatic air of conflict and real crisis would arise on both sides; arrows of satire would fly and swords of eloquence flame.”
In this Presidential primary season, doesn’t this sound familiar?
“The Greens would say that Socialists and free lovers might well want to paint Mr. Asquith red; they wanted to paint the whole town red. Socialists would indignantly reply that Socialism was the reverse of disorder, and that they only wanted to paint Mr. Asquith red so that he might resemble the red pillar-boxes which typified State control.The Greens would passionately deny the charge so often brought against them by the Reds; they would deny that they wished Mr. Asquith green in order that he might be invisible on the green benches of the Commons, as certain terrified animals take the colour of their environment.”
“There would be fights in the street perhaps, and abundance of ribbons, flags, and badges, of the two colours. One crowd would sing, 'Keep the Red Flag Flying,' and the other, 'The Wearing of the Green.' But when the last effort had been made and the last moment come, when two crowds were waiting in the dark outside the public building to hear the declaration of the poll, then both sides alike would say that it was now for democracy to do exactly what it chose. England herself, lifting her head in awful loneliness and liberty, must speak and pronounce judgement.”
All well and good – or not so good – but what if red and green are not what the people want?
“Yet this might not be exactly true. England herself, lifting her head in awful loneliness and liberty, might really wish Mr. Asquith to be pale blue. The democracy of England in the abstract, if it had been allowed to make up a policy for itself, might have desired him to be black with pink spots. It might even have liked him as he is now. But a huge apparatus of wealth, power, and printed matter has made it practically impossible for them to bring home these other proposals, even if they would really prefer them. No candidates will stand in the spotted interest; for candidates commonly have to produce money either from their own pockets or the party's; and in such circles spots are not worn.”
As for the media pundits – “Nearly all the great newspapers, both pompous and frivolous, will declare dogmatically day after day, until every one half believes it, that red and green are the only two colours in the paint-box. THE OBSERVER will say: 'No one who knows the solid framework of politics or the emphatic first principles of an Imperial people can suppose for a moment that there is any possible compromise to be made in such a matter; we must either fulfil our manifest racial destiny and crown the edifice of ages with the august figure of a Green Premier, or we must abandon our heritage,break our promise to the Empire, fling ourselves into final anarchy, and allow the flaming and demoniac image of a Red Premier to hover over our dissolution and our doom.' The DAILY MAIL would say: 'There is no halfway house in this matter; it must be green or red. We wish to see every honest Englishman one colour or the other.' And then some funny man in the popular Press would star the sentence with a pun, and say that the DAILY MAIL liked its readers to be green and its paper to be read. But no one would even dare to whisper that there is such a thing as yellow.”
CNN vs. FOX, with maybe Colbert tossed in?
When it comes to issues, Chesterton says, we are given two choices, when there are many available: “What is plain is that it was not inevitable; it was not, as was said,the only possible course; there were plenty of other courses; there were plenty of other colours in the box.”
Chesterton notes, “The democracy has a right to answer questions, but it has no right to ask them. It is still the political aristocracy that asks the questions.And we shall not be unreasonably cynical if we suppose that the political aristocracy will always be rather careful what questions it asks. And if the dangerous comfort and self-flattery of modern England continues much longer there will be less democratic valuein an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing from them blindfold - and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.”
Sounds like the criticism of our two-party system in the U.S. - a system in which the parties are really much closer than they (and the political aristocracy and pundits) would care to admit. The Republocrats and Demicans that Ralph Nader cites.
Anyway, at least I discovered why Wallis’ point sounded familiar.
Maybe he had an Obama moment and used someone else's ideas and neglected to mention where he got them.
2 months ago