Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation this week. Filling in for him is Robert Christian, editor of Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. He is a doctoral candidate in politics at The Catholic University of America and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. Winters will be back next week.
For Catholics who hope to follow church teaching on faithful citizenship and all others who share a commitment to the whole life perspective or consistent life ethic, both the Democratic and Republican parties can only be viewed as deeply flawed and unappealing. It is no surprise, then, that many choose to become political independents to inoculate themselves from the pettiness generated by partisan politics and the temptation to conform to party purity at the cost of their convictions.
These desires -- to avoid the crass partisanship that dominates our public sphere and to retain one's commitments to both social justice and the defense of innocent life -- are certainly commendable, but under our current political system, it is often a serious mistake to register as an independent. Joining a political party with those who share only a partial commitment to one's ideals may carry risks, but it allows one to make a greater contribution to the common good. Entering the muck of partisan politics may be unpleasant, but it is a better path to creating real change in American politics.
We live in a hyperpartisan era. The result has been a breakdown in the basic functioning of government. Compromise has become a dirty word in D.C., and even simple solutions are too difficult for a do-nothing Congress to pass. Savage capitalism goes unchallenged, economic inequality grows, a faux-meritocracy becomes more narcissistic and detached from the problems afflicting the average American, and our system of government has degenerated into a plutocracy. At the same time, social libertarianism spreads along with social indifference. Those embracing bourgeois values try to strip the weak and vulnerable of their innate dignity. License and liberty are confused, and certain "rights" are fabricated by those seeking power, wealth and control.
Today's Republican Party acts as a servant for the rich (the makers not the takers), the handmaiden of plutocracy. Old-fashioned conservatives who believed in prudence and responsibility, caution and frugality have given way to a fanatical crew of economic libertarians who draw inspiration from extreme theories and even vile cult leaders like Ayn Rand. Republican members of Congress are obsessed with overturning "Obamacare" and leaving millions of Americans without health insurance. On foreign policy, many are excessively bellicose and/or committed to a narrow conception of the national interest that cannot be reconciled with the global common good.
On economic policy, the Democratic Party has drifted to the right along with the Republicans. As Michael Stafford correctly notes, the party is now a center-right party on economic policy if measured by a global standard. A number of the major initiatives pursued during President Barack Obama's presidency, including "Obamacare" and the failed cap-and-trade climate legislation of his first term, were, in fact, Republican creations in the 1990s. Conversely, on social policy, libertarianism has gained strength, particularly after the wave election of 2010, which wiped out most electorally vulnerable moderate and pro-life Democrats.
So why would anyone join either of these two parties? Because change does not come from picking the lesser evil in a general election. If communitarians remain independent or leave their current party, this will only reinforce the dominance of liberals in the Democratic Party and conservatives in the Republican Party. This ideological purification of the parties would perhaps not be a problem if the United States had a multiparty system that featured a centrist Christian Democratic party, but in our two-party system, the result is diminished influence for those who drop out. Only through activism within one of the two major parties, or at least participation in party primaries, can the dominance of doctrinaire liberals and conservatives be challenged and ultimately overturned.
This does not mean one will have to vote the party line in every election. It does not mean that one has to support candidates they don't like. It does, however, mean one cannot be so obsessed with their own purity that they can't find a single candidate to back in the country. It does mean joining groups where there is not a consensus on every single issue. In short, it means recognizing that politics is the art of the possible and that the pursuit of justice requires some measure of pragmatism, including the decision to pick a party.
I have chosen the Democratic Party. I believe the party's historic belief that government can help improve people's lives and its commitment to helping the weak and vulnerable are more compatible with a whole life approach and provide a good foundation for overturning its callous disregard for the lives of unborn children. As a fellow for Democrats for Life of America, I try to make some small contribution to organizing and representing the more than 20 million pro-life Democrats in the country and the millions of others who sympathize with Democrats for Life but remain outside of the party. Breaking the dominance of pro-choice economic elites in the Democratic Party and creating a bigger tent without an abortion litmus test for potential candidates will not be an easy task, but I view it as infinitely more achievable than convincing the Republican Party to make room for those who believe in economic justice.
Yet I hope others will take on that challenge. I would love to see a group like Republicans for Social Justice arise and challenge the Republican Party's own elites. Nothing would be better than seeing both parties transformed by those who are both pro-life and pro-social-justice, committed to the dignity, worth and equality of all.