Five years ago, I liked to call politics ‘the dirtiest intellectual endeavour.’ I used to wonder how my friends could discuss Donald Trump and Joe Biden with the same enthusiasm they brought to metaphysics. To me, the hierarchy of disciplines seemed obvious. Theology came first, then philosophy, and then (way down at the bottom, way below science and economics and all that stuff) there was politics, the intellectual equivalent of potato chips or cotton candy—or maybe just the kitchen trashcan.
Lots of people call politics ‘dirty.’ And it isn’t just about the obvious dirt—the corruption and cronyism, the gerrymandering and mud-slinging, the Watergates and Beergates and Partygates. It’s the breakneck pace of it all, the way nations careen through headlines and policy issues and crises, flinging the national consciousness into new shapes every hour. And it’s the passion, too. Anyone who wants to get good and mad should just watch the latest clip from Fox News or CNN. Modern politics is hot, angry, and loud. Surely there are better things to do with one’s brain.
To a certain extent, of course, all this is true. In practice, politics can look like a sweaty wrangle over scandals no one will remember fifteen seconds from now. It can look like people shouting at each other on television, shouting even more loudly on TikTok, and mobbing a Twitter-opponent while shoving their way up the greasy pole. It can look like nothing more than winning and losing.
But in reality, politics isn’t just a dirty, rugged game, and it isn’t about winning and losing. It’s about winning and losing for some further end: to preserve a way of life. C. S. Lewis put it well in Mere Christianity: ‘The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging his own garden—that is what the State is there for.’
At bottom, politics isn’t dirty. It’s beautiful. It lets us fight for the things we love best—for our children, our homes and churches, our freedom to write poetry or host a bonfire or lounge in the grass on a midsummer evening. It’s the tool we use to found free societies, and the sword we use to defend them. This became obvious over the past five years, as the English-speaking world blew up over Trump and Brexit and COVID-19, over racial issues and conversion therapy and abortion. The philosophical questions behind politics touch the bone and blood of Western life. That’s why people care about politics, and that’s why politics becomes so hot and angry and ugly.
I still think theology and philosophy are more important than politics. But without politics, we wouldn’t have the freedom to worship God or think about ideas. And politics is good for another reason, too. It puts our theological and philosophical views to work in the real world, bending and moulding them into real policies. After all, ideas only matter when they enter real life. And often this entry-point is precisely the scramble of bills, votes, and vetoes I once shrugged off as messy and profane. Ultimately, politics is about establishing free societies where the best human life is possible—and, this side of 2016, few intellectual endeavours seem more worthwhile.
Image Source: Creative Commons, Lorie Shaull