The Meaning of Politics

The widespread popular discontent that so defined the 1992 election campaign continued unabated into the first year of the new president's term. It would not have mattered who won. Most people's disaffection with politics as we know it now runs so deep that it is the beginning assumption of most conversations about our public life.

While the Clintons haven't changed that, they have contributed to the start of a much needed discussion. On April 6, Hillary Rodham Clinton made a now-famous speech in Austin, Texas, while her father was dying. For saying that "a sleeping sickness of the soul is at the root of America's ills" and suggesting we need a politics characterized by a new sense of caring, community, and higher moral purpose, the first lady was pilloried by the media pundits and moguls.

In expressing her longing for spiritual values and political life to fit together, Clinton called for a new "politics of meaning" - a phrase borrowed from Michael Lerner and Tikkun magazine (one of my favorite publications). That brought Lerner into a media feeding frenzy by a cynical press who seemed extraordinarily threatened by any notion of politics beyond self-interest and the struggle for power.

Clinton was dubbed "St. Hillary" by The New York Times Magazine, and Lerner was portrayed as her self-appointed guru. The White House has since distanced itself from Tikkun and a bruised and battered Lerner now reflects that he may have made too much of his connection to the Clintons. Yet, the questions that both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lerner were trying to raise are absolutely critical to the discussion of politics we most need to have. Those issues will not go away.

CORNEL WEST'S Race Matters was, in my view, the most important book of 1993. West raises many of the same concerns about meaning, but from the perspective of the most troubling social crisis we face - the violence and chaos of our urban mean streets. He identifies "the nihilistic threat" confronting us, writing that neither the "liberal structuralists" nor the "conservative behaviorists" have an adequate vision to deal with the problem's political and spiritual depth. West calls for a "politics of conversion" that addresses the "hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness" in our society today.

This fall, Attorney General Janet Reno took the real issue of television violence and crime away from the exclusive domain of the Religious Right. She is one of few law enforcement officers who addresses the true causes of crime while also refusing to excuse the behavior of those who go around "hurting people." They simply must be stopped, says Reno, and the conditions and values that produce such behavior must be transformed.

She has forthrightly challenged television, marshaling the overwhelming evidence from many studies that TV has made our society more violent. Reno didn't blame the whole problem on television, praising the good that it can do. But in no uncertain terms, the attorney general told the television industry to clean up its act voluntarily or face the consequences of its inaction. In taking this decisive and admirable stand, Reno showed a profound understanding of how cultural issues decisively shape our political life.

THE INTELLECTUAL AND spiritual vitality of our public discussion of politics received a very sad blow this year when the publication of Christianity and Crisis came to an end. Since the heady days of Reinhold Niebuhr, its first editor, C&C helped map the moral terrain of political discourse for many - both inside and outside of the churches.

I differ with Niebuhr on some tenets of political morality and sometimes did with Christianity and Crisis as well. But no one could deny the importance of its contribution to the search for a political vision with theological integrity. Especially in recent years, the publication had given voice to the voiceless in our world, helping us all to understand the first principle of politics from a biblical point of view: The moral health of nations will be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable in their midst. With the demise of Christianity and Crisis, Sojourners lost a sister publication and a valued dialogue partner.

All of these events, and many others this past year, have further framed the discussion of the meaning of politics. That discussion must now move deeper, wider, and, most of all, forward. The only alternative is even greater public disaffection. And we really can't afford that.

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