Before 2016, Catholic notions of solidarity and subsidiarity had been ignored by both parties for decades.
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In 2016 there was a broad unease simmering in America—and the media and the entire political class, both Republican and Democrat, were completely out of touch with this reality. Americans knew in their bones that something was not right, but the reasons for this feeling were hard to articulate. What Americans were really sensing was that our country’s leadership class had lost sight of the common good. In America, the common good was suffering.
Viewed from Washington, D.C., New York City, Silicon Valley, or Los Angeles, in 2016 everything in America seemed, if not great, then at least “fine.” America had survived the Great Recession and there was sustained, if muted, economic growth: the GDP numbers looked “fine,” the Dow Jones average looked “fine.” There was a consensus among the political class—again, of both parties—about the general contours of public policy to be pursued in the years ahead, which were more or less the same policies that had been pursued for years or even decades. That consensus championed a frictionless globalized capitalism overseen by transnational expert-led institutions. The ever-freer movement of goods, services, capital, information, jobs, and people would generate greater and greater global wealth.
While this fluid global economy might lead to job losses for some Americans, the economists said, that was more than compensated for by lower consumer prices for all; in extreme cases there was always the welfare state. And if some Americans were made uneasy by the dizzying pace of cultural transformation brought on by mass immigration, feeling no longer at home in the land of their own birth… well, they would just have to get used to it.
America, in this view, was primarily not a nation but a marketplace, and America was midwifing into being a whole new world order, a borderless order of cosmopolitan market freedom that would in time extend to every inch of the earth. If there were nations that held out against the emerging global liberal consensus, they could be bribed or threatened into conformity through international aid (either given or withheld). Alternatively, American military power could be brought to bear to bring recalcitrant regimes to an end.
This last point seemed to be a deeply held commitment among the Washington policy elite. President Obama had been elected in 2008 in part on a promise to end America’s costly and evidently futile wars in the Middle East. Nevertheless, after eight years of the Obama presidency, American troops remained in Afghanistan and Iraq; American power had been used to end Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya; and American military assistance was owing to various groups opposing the Assad government in Syria. All that on the watch of a “peacemaker” president who had himself rejected the militarized Washington foreign policy consensus. America’s political class—elected Republicans and Democrats, unelected senior of officials in Washington—had become addicted to war.
One elementary aspect of Catholic social teaching is that the followers of Christ seek peace, not war. While war is sometimes necessary and just, exacting conditions must be met. As trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives—not to mention hundreds of thousands of our adversaries’ lives—were expended in America’s “wars of choice,” the American people could sense that something was not right. A nation fighting foreign wars without end was not attending to fractures in the common good at home.
Two other principles at the heart of Catholic social teaching are solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity is an aspect of the virtue of charity. It is willing the good of others as we sense a common bond that unites us. In political terms, it is preeminently a kind of “friendship” among fellow citizens, carefully cultivated by statesmen. Because we participate together in a political community, we share a common good, and so we spontaneously feel a responsibility to assist those within our political community who are experiencing difficulty. We want each part of the nation to contribute to the flourishing of the whole, and we want our fellow citizens to receive the respect due to that contribution. And so, we support public policies to foster such participation. Solidarity is “normal” in a well-functioning political community. This principle of solidarity is sometimes in tension with the “rugged individualism” that is usually celebrated in America. It is because of solidarity that Catholics were so prominent in the early labor union movement and in developing many aspects of America’s welfare state. Both were initiatives to bind up an America fractured along lines of socio-economic class.
Subsidiarity is a principle that holds that matters of public concern should be addressed by the lowest competent authority. In other words, responsibility for addressing a societal issue should be local whenever possible. Responsibility should not be usurped by higher authorities unless absolutely necessary. This principle is, in the first instance, rather closer to another often celebrated American ideal: suspicion of big government. But there is also a difference. Subsidiarity is open to the involvement of higher authorities when lower authorities are failing to fulfill their ends: in fact, it demands it. But the involvement of higher authority must aim at creating conditions for restoring the lower authority to its rightful role and healthy functioning. The higher authority must not displace the lower. The vision behind subsidiarity is of a vibrant civil society in which families, businesses, professional associations, unions, municipalities, and much more are each vigorous in making their unique contributions to the good of the whole, the common good.
These principles of Catholic social teaching may seem very abstract, but they illuminate something about America’s predicament in 2016. While metropolitan elites thought the economy was doing “fine,” in fact for a generation globalizing trade agreements and the offshoring of industrial employment had shattered the lives and communities of millions of Americans. But no one in charge had even noticed. It was during the 2016 election that most Americans learned for the first time that an opioid epidemic had long been raging in our country, with annual overdose deaths in recent years exceeding the total number of American dead during the Vietnam War, every year. And it was about the same time that Americans learned that “deaths of despair”—from suicide, overdoses, and alcohol- related liver disease—had grown to an alarming level. So much so that the life expectancy of white Americans had actually been declining for many years.
Even today, these quite shocking facts about our society seem to be of no particular interest to our news media. Hollywood has not been producing poignant films about this American carnage. Public policy to address the “root causes” of so many ruined lives has not been anywhere near the top of the agenda for Congress. Again: in 2016, barely anyone in authority in our country had even noticed that any of this was happening. What this reveals is a crisis of solidarity. The prosperous classes that have benefited materially from global supply chains and the financialization of our economy seem to feel no special obligation toward their countrymen who have been left behind in this great transformation. The “winners” of the economic system built to facilitate globalization effectively treat their working-class fellow citizens as expendable, as cogs in a worn-out machine that is being discarded. It is difficult to imagine a deeper wound to the civic friendship that should animate the common good.
How can this be? How can this fracture have been allowed to happen? Well, one reason is that the propaganda offensive in favor of the “high-tech economy” was so great, and so self-flattering to urban elites, that it warped their vision. An America dedicated to free markets must not try to save the jobs of the past! Americans must embrace the jobs of the future! That had been the optimistic message for decades, and American schools and universities responded by greatly expanding STEM programs. But most of the best tech jobs seemed to go to H-1B visa holders imported from India. For too many Americans, the “job of the future” turned out to mean driving for Uber.
There is another reason why this socio-economic fracture had been allowed to develop. The attention of our political leaders was simply turned elsewhere. Specifically, their attention was focused on—and our leaders were often obsessed by—identity politics.
When President Obama was first elected in 2008, nearly all Americans, whatever their partisan differences, could celebrate together the harbinger of a “post-racial” America. Slavery had been America’s original sin, and after the Civil War legal segregation continued to perpetrate a horrible injustice against African-Americans. Such policies and the racist attitudes that went with them had been a grotesque violation of the solidarity that white Americans owed their fellow citizens, and this abuse went on for decades. In recent decades, however, the country had rooted out the worst forms of racism and mandated legal equality, and even affirmative action, to draw the nation together. Over the course of two generations, African-Americans had clearly advanced, as was just. And now, America had elected a black man to the highest office in the land. It was an optimistic time. There was a sense of moral achievement, the coming together of one nation, the United States of America.
But that sense of moral unity, of solidarity, of embracing the vision of a post-racial America did not last long. For President Obama staffed his administration with leftist activists strongly aligned with the tenets of multiculturalism and the latest academic theories of “intersectionality.” These activists were keen to push identity politics as far as it could go, and in a Democratic administration they had their hands on the levers of power. So while President Obama often gave voice to a stirring rhetoric of integration and unity, in fact, the doctrines of identity politics demand the cultivation of racial and ethnic division, a prickly minority resentment against the majority culture. Instead of a post-racial, color-blind America—e pluribus unum—identity politics demands a near obsession with race in every aspect of life. Failure to recognize and honor racial difference is seen as a kind of cultural “erasure,” a crime against identity. For the intersectional “woke,” there is no interest in integration: why, after all, would a black or brown or yellow American want to integrate into an odious “whiteness”? Their only concern is to “heighten the contradictions” so as to eventually overthrow the “power structures” of American freedom and democracy. What exactly they imagine will follow, and why exactly it will be better, is never quite clear.
While these strange, cultural Marxist notions had once been confined to certain less reputable corners of the ivory tower, during the Obama administration they became the basis for public policies that touched all Americans. They also became the common coin of the media’s understanding of the moral baselines of American politics. As attention was turned to an ever-burgeoning list of “identities” and the markers of their “recognition” in society, America’s leadership class lost sight of the ordinary difficulties of working men and women, of all races and ethnic backgrounds, struggling to raise families under macroeconomic conditions that systematically disfavored their contributions to society.
Identity politics was thus a great distraction from the globalist economic disruptions that affected the lives of millions. Because our leaders were focused on healing identity “wounds”—microaggressions—they felt entitled to give themselves a pass on binding up any systemic macroeconomic wounds. As Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) noted:
Corporate America and the celebrities that hawk their products talk up corporate social responsibility and social justice at home while making millions of dollars off the slave labor that assembles their products. Executives build woke, progressive brands for American consumers, but happily outsource labor to Chinese concentration camps.
More than that, however, it was also becoming clear in this heyday of multiculturalism that a basic assumption of identity politics is that there can be no common good between identity groups. In the intersectional way of seeing the world, groups were necessarily caught up in a zero-sum game. It was not enough that one group go up: another must go down. Above all, identity must be reinforced by consciously rejecting any offer to come together; identity is reinforced, always, by pushing apart.
In 2016, American Catholics with ancestors who had built labor unions to heal the divisions caused by industrial capitalism knew, but could not quite articulate, that Americans needed a different deal than the globalist capitalism on offer from both parties. American Catholics with ancestors who had embraced the melting pot knew, but could not quite articulate, that identity politics was a social poison that needed to be rejected utterly. American Catholics knew that somehow, someone needed to step forward to break with the policy consensus of recent decades and restore a common American commitment to the common good.
Brian Burch is the President and Co-Founder of CatholicVote.org (CV), a national faith-based advocacy organization headquartered in Madison, WI. CV was founded to organize, inspire and mobilize the Catholic vote through education, legislative advocacy, and direct political action. He is also the co-author of the American Catholic Almanac, and has appeared on FOX News, CNN, and has been covered in the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Catholic News Agency, National Catholic Register, NPR, and other national publications.