A couple of days ago, I took the Political Compass test, something which I have done from time to time over the last few years. While my results were much as they were on previous occasions that I took the test, the test and my growing dissatisfaction with it gave me reason to reflect upon many of the assumptions that inform the commensuration of political positions, reducing each position a fixed point within a common set of metrics, in this case a dual-axis model.
What such a model distorts is the nature of political positions as relative positions in a particular and situated conversation, rather than absolute and fixed positions on a spectrum or compass. Political positions are seldom straightforward applications of an overarching political philosophy to a pliant reality, but a prudential, situational, and hermeneutical conversation between principles and ends and the nature, identity, and history of the social and cultural order with which we must engage, a patient conversation from which tentative proposals for measures apt for the achievement of those ends can be suggested and pursued.
In articulating such a position, I may be betraying a characteristically British and especially Anglican ‘contemplative pragmatism’ (to borrow an expression from Rowan Williams), a stance that may not be shared in a country like America, which historically has generally been more hospitable to ideologically driven politics, and lacked the sort of fondness for the via media and incrementalism that British political sensibilities can encourage. Nevertheless, I believe that a deeper appreciation of the contextual character of political discourse and thought can give us a fruitful pause before jumping to conclusions about the motivations of those other Christians who espouse politics that bewilder or trouble us.
A related problem with the Political Compass typology is that it confuses questions of ends, means, and agencies in an obfuscating manner. A commitment to a certain set of social or political ends does not generally commit you to the support of a particular set of means for the achievement of those ends, nor does it commit you to investing certain agencies with the authority with which to pursue them. Unfortunately, the questions that arise in such areas are typically elided, in a manner that leads people to presume that the failure to achieve a shared commitment to a particular set of means or the empowering and investment of responsibility in a particular agency betokens a lack of common ends (for instance, a wariness about many social welfare programmes can genuinely coexist, and even be prompted by, a deep concern about the social condition of the poor and a desire to achieve a more just society). There are many tools by which certain political ends might be achieved and the tool or agency that might be suitable in one context might not be so apt or available in another.
Conversely, common support for particular political means and empowered agencies can frequently mask deep divergences in underlying philosophies and desired ends, in a manner that renders us forgetful of the need to interrogate the philosophies of those with whom we share political alliances. Even alien philosophical genotypes – the objects of more probing political taxonomies – can produce the mistaken mutual recognition occasioned by temporarily similar phenotypes.
Finally, politics and its affiliations tend to be less about some rarefied calculus or abstract structural system of societal organization than such typologies suggest and more about profoundly human and personal realities, things such as love, trust, sovereignty, rootedness, identity, belonging, duty, and sacrifice (something that thinkers such as Paul Kahn have emphasized against the assumptions of much liberal political theory). Rather than being about the optimal calibration of the dials controlling the variables in a vast social machinery, politics is chiefly about symbols and persons, rituals and identities, boundaries and stories. One’s political affiliations will thus be powerfully informed by the development of a political and social imaginary, something that runs much deeper and stronger than policy commitments or mere abstract political theory can. If this is indeed the case, understanding the politics of another person or group, especially from another culture, requires a far more powerful and attentive engagement of a sympathetic imagination than typically envisaged.
All of these concerns are in the forefront of my mind when trying to understand the political thought of my American brothers and sisters, thought forged within traditions that have arisen from a very different history and been formed by contrasting political sensibilities. At Matthew Lee Anderson’s invitation, and taking up Steve Holmes’ challenge, I have posted a guest piece over on Mere Orthodoxy, in which I try to fumble my way towards a better understanding of the political thinking of American Christians, especially those on the right.
I am not without views, yet politics is an area where I feel keenly the scale of my ignorance, my insufficiency to hold opinions with great firmness, and where I occasionally feel a little intimidated by the assurance of so many others around me who seem to have made their minds up on every conceivable political issue. While I listen to many other people’s thoughts, my reticence to speak to this area means that, for the most part, I steer clear of the topic on my blog and elsewhere. However, as I think that it is important to venture out from cleaving to the shoreline in our uncertainty and to test our mettle and gain insight on the open waters of debate, I hope that those who read this blog will understand and appreciate the starting of a conversation on this subject.
My piece is a quest for understanding, exploring certain of my intuitions about the difference between American and British politics, which may or may not be on target. Most of all, it is an invitation to the sort of conversation that might yield both mutual understanding and greater self-awareness. My primary goal here is to learn from those who have a very different perspective on matters to my own. A transatlantic conversation on the nature of Christian politics and wise political judgment in our contrasting contexts is one, I believe, that is well worth having, holding the potential to alert us all to our particular blindspots, protect our political reasoning from co-option by national partisanships, and encourage a firmer sense of the forces that inform our political sensibilities.