Most people who have reached my age have realized that they have a passion. There is something they could talk about for hours with you, something they devote time to and that they accumulate knowledge about. I know what my passion is. So despite the inherently precarious nature of writing this essay about politics, I know that that is my most significant and enduring passion besides my love for my family and for God.
Why is politics significant to me? What draws me to politics is its importance in society. Politics is crucial to all of life. Many people may dismiss it or try to ignore it. I can hardly blame them. Politics is distasteful at best, ugly at worst. It is consuming and grinding, an unending crush of back-and-forth between men and women in whom we place little confidence. Yet politics is crucial.
Everyone, whether or not they take an interest in politics, has passions and pursuits that seem totally unrelated to politics. I certainly have mine. I play trumpet in my school’s jazz band and I’ve been an avid runner for 6 years. Furthermore, we all have things we value that far transcend the political arena such as our friends, our families, and our faiths. Yet all of these things are still subject in some way to politics. Look at the 20th Century. Some of the greatest achievements of the greatest cultures in the world’s preeminent civilizations were swept away by the forces of politics. This isn’t political theory. This is Germany in 1933 or China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. When we get politics right, civilizations can flourish and progress. When we get politics wrong, nothing is safe.
And so while my other passions and activities and values are very significant to me, and while my family, friends, and faith are still more valuable to me than my interest in politics, I recognize that ultimately all of these things still depend on politics. If I lived in Iran, could I practice my Christian faith freely? If I lived in China, could my family have more than one child? Many people say they do not care about politics because it doesn’t affect them. They ignore politics at their own peril. While we do not face the oppression that other peoples do at the hands of their governments, we are still constantly affected by our government and its actions. Those who do not care about politics may wake up one day to find their lives greatly altered by those in power. They will care about politics then, but it could be too late. I write this not with disdain for those who don’t value politics, but with the understanding that politics matters. But before I go further, perhaps I need to explain what I think of when I use the word “politics.”
I divide politics into 2 categories. Let us think of them as levels, one being higher and the other lower. The lower level is the daily crush of tit-for-tat politics characterized by fighting, polarization, cynicism, personality, and spectacle. Much of this has real-world consequences and cannot be ignored in the moment. Yet most of it will fade away sooner or later. Politicians come and go, majorities are won and lost, money is raised and spent, and talking heads argue away on cable news. Does anyone remember Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States? He was born in Delaware, Ohio, 10 miles north of my home. As if to underscore how forgotten he is, his birthplace is marked by a very simple monument: a plaque that rests in front of the BP gas station where his childhood home used to stand.
But while Hayes is one of the most unknown presidents of American history, his election was far from unimportant. In 1876, he ran against Democrat Samuel Tilden and the election ended in a dispute over who the legitimate winner was. In exchange for allowing Hayes to become president, Republicans agreed to pull federal troops out of the South and end the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction. Without the federal troops to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments that guarantee equal protection for African-Americans, the South was able to usher in the era of legal segregation known as Jim Crow. Most people cannot tell you anything about Rutherford B. Hayes, but the impact of his decisions has reverberated throughout history and even to the present day.
This leads me to the higher level of politics, which deals with what truly matters and what will truly endure. The lower level, with its day-to-day debates over people and policy specifics is ultimately forgotten and becomes little more than a footnote in the annals of human history. But the higher level is concerned with the transcendent, the big ideas and movements that truly change the world. Ideas have consequences. Every debate in the lower level of politics is ultimately about a larger set of principles and values that is a part of the higher level of politics. These are the questions of liberty and tyranny, of capitalism and socialism, of freedom, equality, and justice, and the purpose and responsibilities of government and citizenry. These enduring questions demand answers, and people put forward their beliefs and ideas to resolve them