The Shrug of Electoral Good Faith

“It is true that as soon as the result has been announced, this passion is dispelled, all returns to calm….” 

Russell Shaw ends his marvelous piece on American politics, voting and the Catholic conscience by noting the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s astonishment at how our passionate national engagement with the issues (and occasional enthrallment with our ideologies) could so quickly morph into acceptance and a peaceful period of transition. Years later, visiting in 1921, when eager immigrants were pouring in from Europe and the memory of a dreadful civil war still nibbled at the national psyche, G.K. Chesterton remarked on the similar seemingly casual American mind-set of the early 20th century when he wrote, “Tradition . . . means that it still matters what Penn did 200 years ago or what Franklin did a hundred years ago; I never could feel in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago.” The characteristic shrugging off of events once they are concluded is not an indictment against the American attention span, nor a suggestion that we lack an exquisite sense of occasion. Chesterton had encountered immigrants seeking a better life and citizens motivated toward unity. In a healthy republic, one which can boast a sturdy assumption of good faith between rivals, there can be no better response to a settled outcome — be it an election called a week earlier, or a ballgame ended an hour previous — than a resigned shrug and a return of the attention to one’s own concerns. That they found this remarkable at all betrays Chesterton’s and de Tocqueville’s European sensibilities, informed by monarchies, peerages and class resentments that occasionally boiled over. America, by contrast, was birthed in blood, but her constitution codified a sort of perpetual and paradoxical revolution: through regularly scheduled elections, ideas and policies could be upended as a matter of course, with new notions and programs put into place without the shedding of blood or dirsupting the next day’s duties to commerce, agriculture and invention. 

That assumption of good faith was the balancing key to the remarkable peace of our political transitions; it allowed political rivals to believe that — win or lose — their opponents were competent people; that if they differed in means, the nation’s best interests were their common ends. When John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory in 1960 sparked rumors of ballot-box tampering, Richard Nixon nevertheless conceded. He made a very “American” good-faith assumption that he and Kennedy shared a desire to see America prosper; if a challenge might foment poisonous distrust, better the nation maintain its sense of itself — and its processes — as something uniquely levelheaded. 

Recent elections have shaken some of that faith. The seismic rumbling begun in 2000, when the presidential election was marred by too-early calls from the media, a division between popular and electoral votes and a drawn-out court challenge, is still reverberating. Inauguration day of 2009 found a newly elected president openly dissing his predecessor and jubilant victors loudly jeering the departing president as his helicopter passed overhead. Our press daily demonstrates that most of its members have voluntarily surrendered their freedom to report genuine news in order to advance their agendas and shield their preferred candidates. Our government, rather than protecting our constitutional freedoms, seems intent on infringing upon them. Good faith is no longer assumed by anyone, and our unwillingness to shrug off an outcome — in the arenas of politics or even in sports — suggests that our spirits are spoiled and unsettled and in need of a new sort of balancing key. I believe that key can be forged by Catholic thinking and our Church teachings, which conform to no ideology at all. Weighing each issue against our common responsibilities to the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of life, the stewardship of creation and accountability to the Creator, the Church’s ambition is to serve the Truth. The Truth being Christ Jesus, all of our good-faith assumptions can reside therein. TCA 

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate, and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she also blogs as The Anchoress. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com