On Some Problems with Political Discourse

Posted by Rev. Christopher Justin Brophy, O.P. on Oct 8, 2020 7:01:00 AM
Rev. Christopher Justin Brophy, O.P.

Brophy Election 1 title

There are several angles by which a Catholic political theorist might consider the upcoming presidential election. I suppose that as a Dominican, a member of the Order of Preachers, it only makes sense to hone in on the issue of speech. The state of our political discourse certainly stands at the center of our collective discontent with respect to our political climate. In this three-part series leading up to the election, I’d like to (1) diagnose some of the problems with our political discourse, (2) explain what political discourse is for a Catholic, and (3) consider what a Christian might hope for from politics.

A huge problem with our contemporary discourse is the ubiquity of social media news and political commentary. I, a lover of film, am tempted to judge St. Augustine’s treatment of the theatre in book three of his Confessions as a bit harsh. But Augustine’s main point is quite perceptive: the theatre can make us emotionally invested in an event without the possibility of performing the embodied exercise of the connected actions.

Augustine’s view is all too applicable to the moment. Social media “discussions” do not lend themselves to individuals staking out thoughtful claims—and making use of the intellectual resources such claims require—in agreement with or in opposition to flesh-and-blood individuals. True political engagement requires such thoughtfulness and intellectual risk. Rather, social media makes it all too easy for the user to identify with an abstract public. The user adopts (likes, retweets, or shares) a position or argument associated with a group of people he or she has never met in a forum that is completely removed from traditional civil society. 

If Augustine’s analysis of the theatre shows how social media makes political discourse self-indulgent, the 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt explains how it can become even more viciously destructive. Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” in her reflections on the trial of the Nazi criminal, Adolf Eichmann. Arendt noted how dull Eichmann appeared at his trial and concluded that his ability to commit heinous crimes was not borne from grandiose schemes so much as thoughtlessness. The desire of a person to be respected or to rise in the ranks professionally may in fact lead to an unthinking performance of criminal action. Thankfully, our circumstances are not so dire as Arendt’s. But it is clear that social media lends itself to a kind of public thoughtlessness connected to a desire for acceptance or to be liked. Whether it be vicious denunciations from high-ranking statesmen, or unthinking acceptance of unspecified abstracts like “science” for use in public debate, or public shaming of individuals for holding particular political views, such thoughtlessness is highly destructive.

The analysis so far paints a convincing picture of how social media threatens political discourse. But there remains a particularly American concern about the overuse of social media. Publius—the pseudonym for the Federalist Papers co-authored by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison—identified “factions” as the greatest threat to the burgeoning American Republic. Factions are any group of people who represent a particular interest. One means to control the problem of factions, Publius argues, is to commit to the formation of a large republic such that the factions will diffuse themselves. The larger the area of the republic, Publius reasons, the more diffuse factions become. In a smaller society, there are fewer interests. As a result, those interests grow in number and may eventually constitute a majority faction. There are many more diverse concerns in a large republic. It becomes more unlikely that any one concern can constitute a majority faction in the future. But social media, by easily and instantly bringing together those who constitute a faction, contributes to a breakdown of the delicate balance of power sought by the Framers of our Constitution. 

Publius argues that the benefits of a large republic include the geographic dispersion of citizens, thus preventing the formation of factions. But online mobbing prevents both geographic separation into diverse local communities and the legal protection of individuals. Factions, now more than ever, constitute a real threat to the unity of the Republic.

The problems are vast and the challenges are great, but the Catholic has a distinct contribution to make to political discourse in the United States. I will consider this contribution in the next installment.

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Featured image by Pete Simon via flickr; CC-BY-2.0.

Topics: communication, technology, Politics, social media, election 2020

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