What Counts as Political?

It is common to find an overly narrow view of what makes a statement or event “political.” This can be seen in Ross Douthat’s editorial, “Mr. Beck Goes to Washington” (New York Times, August 29, 2010).

Douthat writes that the August 28 Restoring Honor rally lived up to Glenn Beck’s promise of being “an explicitly apolitical event.” But as he describes later in the editorial:

There was piety — endless piety, as speaker after speaker demanded that Americans rededicate themselves to God. There was patriotism: fund-raising for children of slain Special Forces vets, paeans to military heroism (delivered by Sarah Palin, among others), encomiums to the founding fathers. There was an awards ceremony on the theme of “Faith, Hope and Charity,” in which community-service prizes were handed out to a black minister, a Mormon businessman and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols. And since this was (as you may have heard) the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, there was a long tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

How does this count as apolitical? The question of Christianity weighs on every politician seeking high national office. Tea Party organizers and others have explicitly named the importance of some kind of Christian values to politics and governance. Praising military sacrifice is bound up with political values. Military personnel are honored for their obedience to government commands. Saying that it is noble to subject individual conscience to the commands of leaders is a statement that deals with the fundamentals of politics. Duty is defined as answering the call of service regardless of how honest that call really is –– just let the higher-ups decide that for you.

Even the choices of which American values to emphasize, and which interpretations of historical figures to promote, are political decisions. As is the choice of where to hold the event in the first place.

Opposition to conventional values is frequently labeled political, and therefore inappropriate in certain settings — like school or patriotic celebrations. Dissent is political while supporting the establishment is just going along with what is. In this way some things are placed outside the bounds of political discussion. The premises are off-limits and only the implementation can be tweaked.

But Douthat’s characterization of the Restoring Honor rally as apolitical appears to be for a different reason. Douthat says that the event “floated entirely on patriotism and piety, with no ‘get thee to a voting booth’ message.”

The assumption is that things are only political if they explicitly involve a political office or ballot measure. This view ignores what lies below the surface: The political climate from which campaigns spring or which they try to appease or co-opt.

Such a view leads to an incomplete picture of politics. It leaves out questions on the role of the Pledge of Allegiance, the shaping of ideas, workplace issues, new methods of economic transaction, perceptions of the military, ideas concerning sound character, and other things that greatly influence the arrangement of power over the individual’s life.

To open the realm of political change to more people, and open the future to new possibilities, it is essential that the political nature of everyday encounters be examined. “Where do you work?” and “Do you support the troops?” are as political as the question “Who will you vote for?” The influence of establishment ideologies on the functioning of politics ought to be recognized and questioned.

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