The Dominance of Politics by One Sphere of Society
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Americans report a lack of personal agency, that most seem to feel that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Following the line of theological insight in David Tracy’s work, The Analogical Imagination, we may picture society in three distinctive spheres of activity, however much they may overlap and interrelate: that of the cultural, of the polis, and of the technological-economic-bureaucratic.

The cultural realm of society is that which examines the tradition that has been handed down, offers values, fosters ideas, contributes its own creativity, and so passes on the cumulative tradition to the next generation. This realm of activity includes the academy, the arts, religion, and so forth.

The polis is concerned with governance and decision-making within society. In mature democracies are found structures and institutions that provide checks and balances to safeguard against the ability of one part of government to dominate others.

The technological-economic-bureaucratic sphere is composed of those structures and stratification systems designed to determine the most effective and efficient means to carry out all the economic and technical development of society. This includes everything from factories to scientific labs to Wall Street.

One reason most Americans feel a lack of agency is that there is one sector of society whose specialist seem to be much more in charge than those of who specialize in the other two spheres. The techno-economic realm seems to feel that it’s leaders and experts should be the decisive agents of political control, and in fact that they were handed the lead as a feature establishing the conservative movement. Others have increasingly awaken to the reality that they have less and less say, pretty much in inverse proportion to the extent that those with enough money have taken charge of the elective politics. Ironically, even those within the inner workings of the techno-economic realm feel that they too lack agency. This is due to the fact that they are working against the way the system is set up, and while they can dominate, they can’t take over. Instead, what is happening is that the system has slowly but surely been breaking down and simply not working. Even though a businessman with the reputation as one of the most successful ever is the nominee of one of our two major parties to be elected President, it should be apparent that the business community has itself lost control – almost totally.

Let’s start with the theory of how different spheres of society are designed to work together in a democracy, over against the political system in which one of them takes over.

There should be no room to value any one realm of society over against the others, or to think that one is more important, more pure, or more humanistic – or more of a response to the call of God. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or essentially flawed in any of the spheres of activity within and on behalf of society. The working cooperation between the three, all gears interlocking, is paramount.

However, there is indeed an inherent dynamic of competition between the three spheres. Part of this arises out of the conviction of those primarily engaged in each, that what they are doing is of crucial importance. But this virtuous and highly motivating perspective can become problematic when it is becomes one of superiority, when people dedicated to their sphere of activity begin to think that their expertise and judgment is so superior that they should be able to make decisions about the other two spheres, and protect the self interest of their realm of society over and above the others. It can also happen when one realm begins to think that the other two should leave it alone to function as it sees best, without the checks and balances of things like regulations. This has, in fact, occurred in many societies, and we know the results well.

When the polis absolutely dominates we term it a dictatorship. For example, it often is the military that emerges from within the sphere of the polis to take over and run all sectors of society. When the cultural realm takes over, as Plato dreamed in his desire for philosopher kings, it is usually a theocracy that succeeds. That is, it is usually the religious sphere taking over to dominate all parts of society. When the techno-economic-bureaucratic sector is running the whole show we have a plutocracy – or it has sometimes come to be termed an oligarchy. None of these forms of totalitarian government have ever been something North Americans want.

There is a strong tendency today to be dazzled by the glittering successes and attractive simplifications offered by modern technology and a business driven economy. The Greek farmer embraced the plow as a wonderful new technological device, but brought to that and the other technological advances of his day a worldview that took them in contemplatively. The Greek took technology, like all of life, and absorbed its fascinating betterment for productivity and lifestyle into the harmony of the created order, into the logos (the driving rational principle) of the universe.

The worldview we have inherited, unlike that of ancient Greece, leads us to use the methodology, the goals, the criteria for technological-economic-bureaucratic success as values in and of themselves, to employ the motivating urges of the technological-economic-bureaucratic sector pervasively throughout society, far beyond the proper boundaries and without stringent regulations and other forms of checks and balances. The United States has developed a society that can be defined, by and large, as a consumerist society. Everything seems to be for sale, and the value of everything is viewed in terms of what it is worth on “a market.”

The consumerist understanding of human nature is at fault rather than technology itself, though consumerism and the popular accessibility to high-technology seems to elicit tendencies from each other which builds onto the problem. The capitalistic system also tends to reward capital as a value in and of itself, such that there is now a tendency to rely too much on financing, that is, on making money out of money, than on producing goods and services. Indeed, one way of using money to make money is in giving it to politicians and reaping the rewards that can be elicited – legally and illegally – through legislation and executive powers.

There is much to be said here, but for our purposes let us simply say that when we combine all the factors with the domination of money in politics, we find ourselves today rapidly approaching a state of plutocracy, and the church should want that to be avoided. The genuine Christian never fares well in totalitarian government, that is, when government is totally dominated by one realm of government. Is it surprising that this is true even when the theocracy is identified as Christian?

Is it surprising that the path we have been on has taken us too far and thrown us into a crisis? Are we ready to us wake up and smell the smoke? Are we ready to correct the relationships between the three spheres of society?

Reaction to Globalization and Deindustrialization
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Globalization is a fact. This is producing a very different mode of operation internationally and domestically. Americans are finding the change highly exciting, very scary, and often painful. Some are all for it; some are absolutely against it; many are just confused and waiting to see what things look like when enough of the smoke clears.

Trade agreements are opposed by politicians on the left and on the right, from Bernie Sanders to organized Labor to Donald Trump. Others who also represent both the left and the right, from President Obama to most Republicans in Congress, are all for free trade and the agreements that enhance it. That alone is confusing enough.

If you understand it and embrace it you are pleased that globalization is widening and deepening in almost every conceivable dimension. Anyone can do business with anyone else anywhere. America’s hardware, software, automobile, pharmaceutical, and other companies all depend more than ever on sales abroad for their growth; 40% of the S&P 500’s revenues are international. The American economy is increasingly dependent on globalization with respect to the inflows of talent and investment and outflows of goods, services, and capital seeking higher returns. If you are in favor of all this, it is very likely that you would be in favor of opening America to engagement with the whole world in more ways than simply doing business. You are, if you will, “open” to internationalism and the whole new dispensation about how the world works.

If you have lost a job because manufacturing plants are closing down, or if you live in large regions of the nation where the pain of unemployment is being broadly shared, you are likely to blame the movement of companies abroad and view international labor competition as unfair. It is likely that you would be more closed to “internationalism,” generally. For example, you would be more likely to resent the immigration of new peoples into the land, and perhaps not only because of labor competition, but because of a rising wish to be left along and closed to the rest of the world. Besides open borders and free trade, you might resent cosmopolitan culture and global intervention. You might just find a candidate appealing who is for closed borders, trade barriers, local and nationalistic culture, and an America First foreign policy.

In an age of anxiety, that closed posture might have a shot at winning. On trade agreements, for example, though supporters represent both the left and right wings of the political spectrum, the opposition is moving into the lead at this point: 60 percent of Republicans, 49 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independents believe that trade agreements are mostly harmful (according to a Brookings Institution/Public Religion Research Institute study).

OK, but where does this picture leave us? Here is the reality, and so, “get over it:” globalization is here to stay. We have to adjust, pitch in, and continue to work for the common good.

Take the movement of American manufacturing to foreign lands:

It is tragic to see the suffering caused by those whose jobs are taken abroad, but then it is also tragic to see the suffering of human beings in other countries who lack jobs and livable wages. Christians are just as concerned for neighbors who are far off as for neighbors who are near. The evidence is stacking up to indicate that globalization is better for the world, and if that is so, then Christians must be ready and willing to work for the good of all.

Meanwhile, there is always going to be “the next China” to attract labor-intensive, low-wage manufacturing. In fact, America’s efforts to bring back home one or two million manufacturing jobs pale in comparison to the nearly 100 million manufacturing jobs that are flowing out of China and recirculating to places where there is cheaper labor costs: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and other low-wage, low-skill countries.

The output of American made goods by American companies will continue to decline because the math still clearly favors arbitrage – (1) producing at the cheapest price and (2) closest to one’s customers. The combination of cheaper labor and being able to build close to the customer is the optimal way to manufacture. Indeed, the American manufacturer is discovering that building closer to the customers they are reaching right at home can be cheaper than the savings to be made by hiring cheaper labor elsewhere. In an age of globalization, the hope for increasing American manufacturing is largely in having foreign companies build locally in order to be closer to the Americans to whom they hope to sale what is manufactured. This is apparent, for example, with Japanese cars.

The best way to increase manufacturing at home is not to try to bring plants and companies back, but to improve the infrastructure, making it easier to build and sale across the land. Of course this includes improvement of the social infrastructure in states and cities wishing to attract high-wage business, e.g. schools, broadband availability, culture, etc.

One other fact should be taken into account as workers loose manufacturing jobs: a relatively new problem is about to overtake American workers: robotics. The only hope going forward is to provide training for new jobs and new skills, while supporting those who will need to be retrained.

Take those trade agreements:

Is it not clear enough that The US got the deal it wanted with Iran regarding nuclear weapons production because it had entered into trade agreements with countries that cooperated with the imposition of economic sanctions?

Are enough people paying attention to what “the turn to the East” has meant to American business enterprises, and how much damage would be done economically if the US does not enter into pan Asian trade agreements that are fair, innovative, and foresighted? A study by Peter Petri and Michael Plummer estimates that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would boost American incomes by $131 billion.

Does anyone think Mexico would have become as democratic and economically healthy without NAFTA? And, the flow of Mexican and US immigration during Obama’s term has mainly been the voluntary exiting of Mexicans on their way home to capitalize on the growing economy. The smartest thing the US can do is to send job creating and socially stabilizing supply chains back with those people returning Mexico, investing there. America should begin to think of itself as the heart of an integrated North American supercontinent. The infrastructural, economic, cultural, and strategic blending of north America has become an irreversible fact.

Though developments are still so rapid and so fluid that it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions, overall and on balance there is evidence that globalization is good for the American economy. A study by the Peterson Institute found that past trade liberalization laws added between $7,100 to 12,900 in additional income to the average household. And, a more efficient manufacturing system makes it possible to divert resources into things that improve the quality of life. Neil Irwin points out that Pittsburgh has lost 5,100 steel jobs since 1990, but it has also gained 66,000 health care jobs over the same time.

Is Government the Problem, or A Way to Serve One Another?
Written by:
Joe Morris Doss

Almost every American feels that he or she lacks agency; we all seem to share a feeling that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Peter Wehner, in an op-ed column labeled American Politics and Conservative Thought recently lamented in reflection on “…how my party could produce Mr. Trump as its nominee…” He arrived at this conclusion:

“A friend of mine pointed out to me that part of the problem is that we are drenched in distaste for the actual practice of politics, and there’s an unstated sense among conservative activists in particular that the activity of governing is somehow illegitimate.

“Instead of arguing for the dignity and necessity of politics – instead of making the case for why the give and take, the debate and compromise, are both necessary and appropriate – activists and their counterparts in government disparaged it. This helps explain how Mr. Trump seized on deeply anti-political feelings and used them to his advantage, why Republicans so devalued any focus on policy this election season, and why the former reality television star was rewarded for his vast ignorance on issues. That can work only with people who disdain the government and the activity of governing.”

Mr. Wehner is dead-on! Some fifty years ago, when JFK was President, young Americans saw elective politics and governmental office as an idealistic way to serve their fellow citizens and the nation as a whole. One can hear the clarion call to service in that famous line of Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what the nation can do for you, ask what you can do for the nation!” Civic classes had taught that citizen engagement for the common good was what made American government different from those of other lands, and while young Americans felt sorry for peoples living under other forms of government it was assumed that it was just a matter of time and circumstance before all peoples would discover truth, justice, and the American way and manage to become like us. We assumed that “democracy” meant “citizen political participation.” We assumed that the very purpose of democracy was to serve one another, to share with one another, and to unite in and through government to resolve problems and fight the cause of right.

Churches are among the many American institutions and organizations dedicated to serving the public as well as individuals, performing good works and striving for the good of society. The mainline and institutionally traditional churches – Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox – share a grand picture in which God’s creation is moved toward fulfillment through history. Peace and justice – social, economic, and legal – are special concerns of focus for the Christian church. Even so, we have learned where the church’s boundaries are regarding elective politics, and we understand that the government is entirely unique and irreplaceable in its reach and ability to bring together all citizens to accomplish things no other institution can. There will be no peace and/or justice without political action and the successful functioning of government.

Abraham Lincoln, of course, said it best. The victory at Gettysburg gave him new confidence that the time had come to proclaim that the unique American idea of government – an astoundingly new ideal – was finally going to become constitutionally founded and could become actualized. Such a government as was articulated by the founding fathers and being fought for in 1863 is not a necessary evil, not a great monster rising from the depths that has to be borne for the virtue of enforced order. This form of government was not to exist merely as a means to protect the properties and rights of those so endowed, or for a ruler, or any body of officials, to lord it over the people. Lincoln declared the definition of the government of the United States of America: “…government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

But then, Ronald Reagan challenged that in his slogan: “Government is the problem!” This was the summary of the political platform on which he ran and was elected President of the United States. On that premise he established the conservative movement as the dominant political force up to this very day. “Government is the problem” became the established mantra, the consensus attitude, the driving force, the assumption, of the conservative movement, and that it became the attitude of most Americans.

Mr. Wehner, perhaps a bit belatedly, is indeed correct: a government cannot function unless it is considered legitimate. It is even more basic, more penetrating in importance, for government itself to be considered legitimate. If not, the result will be that nothing gets done. And that, in fact, is the picture of our national government at this time. Congress increasingly has been unable to act, and the majority sees a “prevention defense” as its assignment – don’t bend and don’t break. Even the current Supreme Court is hard pressed to make majority decisions, and it is unlikely to issue any lasting decisions.

Much direct blame is be laid at the feet of the conservative movement in the way it moved the Republican Party from a traditional conservative philosophy with such goals as small government, strong defense, free trade, and social conservatism to getting bogged down in the radical tea party agenda, to a handful of overwhelmingly wealthy families that are off the chart right-wingers not below clandestine manipulation, to administrations that actually created the biggest of governments and are, by far, the ones most guilty of driving up the national debt, and finally to the nomination of a nationalist strong-man who talks like he has no confidence in American institutions and is bent on benign rule. But the most devastating cause of the lack of agency is how American citizens are giving up on politics and government. It is common for people to brag about being apolitical! Plato had something direct to say about that: “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

The assumption that human beings are to participate in society through the polis, the political community, was so crucial in the ancient Greek democratic culture that the term “idiot” (idios) was invented to refer to those who had the right to participate in the political system but did not. This was made explicit in both Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Plato said that such a person was less than human because the human being is, anthropologically, a political animal. To distance oneself from politics is to act like an idiot, and to allow oneself and ones fellow citizens to be ruled by evil men.

Given the choice, At the Threshold will stand with Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Plato: Government is not the problem, it is the means for us to serve one another and to act for the common good in a way completely unavailable by any other means.

Yes, and thank you Mr. Wehner. Now help us get past this election and finally restore the effective two party system required by the American Presidential scheme of democratic politics.

Why Can’t the Majority Get What They Want?
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Almost every American feels that he or she lacks agency; we all seem to share a feeling that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine that frustration. We began by recognizing how globalization is remaking the way the world works, especially the way worldwide interconnections are so new and operate so very differently. We will come back to that, but the recent events demand that we divert from that path to examine another crucially important reality that causes us to feel scared, sad, and out of control. We can’t get what we want; it is the wealthy and the powerful who get what they want instead.

A majority of Americans want gun control. The extent of gun control that is desired varies, but overall the public wants to institute enough control to make it harder for someone to get a gun for the wrong reason. Even people who use guns for sport are, as a majority, in favor of some forms of control. Yet, we cannot so much as obtain a meaningful vote on the subject in Congress.

Those in society who are on the front lines in the fight against violence, crime, terrorism, and the actions of the mentally imbalanced are the police, law enforcement officials and institutions, and the military. These are the “experts” on guns, who have first order responsibility to counter the danger of guns and whose fundamental purpose is to protect the public from the danger of guns. These are the people who are most in danger when guns and weapons are in the wrong hands. Among the officials and the institutions with responsibility as public servants, these are the least subject to direct political pressures, and who don’t need to kowtow to the phony slogans of the IRA and arms manufacturers, or pretend to ignore the fact that gun control has worked everywhere else around the world. Yet, these people and these institutions distance themselves from gun control as a political “issue.”

Our hearts go out to police officers who are killed, and it is painful to see the sincere grief they express for their fallen comrades. But should this not mean that the police understand more than others the need for preventive protection rather than limiting themselves to after-the-fact responses and willingness to take the bullets in street firefights. Is it possible that the police do not see the need to protect themselves by controlling the proliferation of guns and weapons of war? Can they really think it is someone else’s job to rid us of the danger of guns? Where is Wyatt Earp when we need him?

The same holds true for officers of the court, who are willing to send people to jail but unwilling to prevent the need to arrest and imprison them for the use of guns. The military is the biggest purchaser or arms and munitions. Where are they when we need their expertise and their power regarding the manufacture, sale, and trading of armaments that appear on the streets even though they are, supposedly, only designed only for troops in armed combat?
Gun control is the immediate issue to which we must point, but there are many other issues about which the will of the people is frustrated. Why do the wealthy pay a far lower tax rate than middle-class workers? Why, in the face of the gradual awakening of the vast majority of citizens to the dangers of climate change, have even modest environmental reforms been defeated time after time, and why is there so little attention being given to development of alternative forms of energy? Why have protections for employees been devastated? Why are so many people so obviously choosing to vote against their own and their family’s economic interests?

The ugly reality is that in the America of today a small minority of very wealthy people, and certain massively powerful industries, have enough money to get what they want instead of what the people want. In fact, their wealth is such – and thus they enjoy so much more “free speech” which others cannot afford – that most of the time there are plenty of voters who can be convinced that what they should want, is what they are told to want. A network of excessively wealthy people with extreme and inevitably self-serving views are bankrolling support of personally held beliefs, such as the notion that taxes, government regulation of business, and any control of gun sales are violations of freedom. These wealthy and politically motived movers and shakers are shockingly successful, and they are likely to continue to be successful until our political and judicial system finds some way to remove the controlling power of money in politics.

This insight deserved far more attention than can be granted in this space. For a revealing, almost sure to be a shocking, revelation of the problem we suggest the best selling book Dark Money, by Jane Mayer (an investigative reporter on the staff of “The New Yorker”).