When Politics Becomes a Religion

David Brooks has an instructive piece up on how American politics has given way too much meaning to certain issues so as to rob them of any practicality. He uses a lesson which is taking shape as we speak: the building of One World Trade Center in shadow of its predecessors:

Ground zero in Lower Manhattan is a mass grave. So when it came time to rebuild the World Trade Center, the whole enterprise was enshrouded with passion and symbolism. The developers wanted a project that would proudly assert the American spirit. They wanted to send a message that the terrorist damage would not last. They wanted it to commemorate the tragedy and celebrate the revival. Everything, therefore, had to be big: the country’s tallest building, the most expensive commuter rail station, the costliest memorial.

Born in grief and passion, the whole enterprise was soon plagued by furious discord. Personalities clashed. Practicalities were ignored. Building budgets didn’t mesh with the deadlines. There were arguments about the memorial and the proper definition of the word “patriot.” There was a lot of planning but not much execution. Symbolism eclipsed reality.

During his brief tenure, Gov. David Paterson hired Chris Ward, formerly Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s environmental protection commissioner, to take over the Port Authority and rescue the shambolic ground zero project. Ward quickly understood his mission: to take a sacred cause and turn it into a building project. That is to say, to demystify it, to see it as it really is and not through the gauze of everybody’s emotions surrounding 9/11.

Ward was able to make the impossible happen by making the process “less holy.” He was able to see this as a construction project, no more and no less. The result is that things are getting done. Office buildings are getting built and the memorial to the 9/11 victims is mostly done. Because Ward as able to get the emotions out of the process, things could move forward.

Brooks then notes that what kept the rebuilding process from initially moving forward is what is keeping Washington stuck and unable to solve problems. I think what Brooks is getting at is that our emotions are getting in the way of policy. Put it another way, folks inside and outside of Washington see politics as a religion. Speaking from some experience, I can tell you that religion is at its heart an emotional concern. It’s why we can believe something like say, that a Jewish carpenter was actually the Son of God even when their isn’t a lot of physical evidence to prove it.

Believing in the unbelievable is what makes religion a religion. But that kind of emotion makes for terrible politics. Brooks shares how politics as a religion has corrupted American political culture:

Many issues that were once concrete and practical are distorted because they have become symbolic and spiritual. Tax policy isn’t just about how to raise revenue anymore. Liberals see it as a way to punish the greedy and redress the iniquities of capitalism. Conservatives see tax increases as an assault on the enterprising class perpetrated by arrogant central planners. A tax rate could be seen as just a number signifying an expense, but now it’s a marker in a culture war.

Gun policy isn’t about what specific weaponry should be in private hands. It’s seen as an assault on or defense of the whole rural lifestyle, so to compromise on any front is to court dishonor.

President Obama’s Green Tech initiative has become a policy disaster — not only at Solyndra but at one program after another — because its champions ignored basic practical considerations. They were befogged by their own visions of purity and virtue.

If liberals and conservatives could set our emotions to the side, then maybe our politicians could actually govern without worrying that they just might commit some cardinal sin. Brooks is right to focus on tax policy. In order to right our fiscal ship, we are going to have to raise some taxes and cut some spending. But both parties have made their view of taxes their version of the Ten Commandments- something that is never to be broken.

The question is, can we “let go” of the need to be right? I think the answer lies in finding politicians who are able to act dispassionately. There was some hope that President Obama was going to be such a politician, but for whatever reason, that didn’t pan out.

I have hope we will find a group of Chris Wards out there. If we can rebuild from the ashes of 9/11, I think we can rebuild our political culture as well.


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