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Can politics be a force for good?

| Thursday, October 1, 2020

In 1842, Fr. Edward Sorin arrived in northern Indiana on the grounds of what would become Notre Dame, predicting that this University would be “one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country.” This mission of being a “force for good” is not only ingrained in the founding and history of the University but, to this day, remains fundamental to the culture and community of Notre Dame and the tri-campus. Everything that makes this community unique stems from the idea of being a force for good in the country and in the world. 

Because this mission is so emphasized, it’s something I think about often: How can I be a force for good among my friends and family? Among my community? What or who are some forces for good in society and in my life? Can government and politics be a force for good?

I’d like to dive deeper into the last question: Can politics still “do good” for society or do they only divide? 

Before exploring that question, it’s important to define what politics actually means. The dictionary definition states that politics is “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” That definition alone was pretty interesting to me; nowhere does it mention that politics are supposed to solve problems, make the world a better, more peaceful and just place or be a force for good. It is fundamentally about power — obtaining it, manipulating it and preserving it.

So, if politics are solely about power, then why do we often turn to political bodies, like the government, to solve society’s problems? That’s where I turn to the root of the word itself. “Politics” derives from the Greek politikos which translates to “of, or pertaining to, the polis” which is a city, state or community and its citizens. Putting it all together, politics is fundamentally about the distribution of power, but this power is used to impact the lives of real citizens of a society, like me and you. That’s why political issues are not just things which are debated on stages by people in fancy suits or represented by numbers in polls or stock markets but are actually tangible and moral concerns for the people whose lives are impacted by political decisions.

Based on this definition and the basic etymology of the word, politics are the obtainment and distribution of power to be used in ways that impact people’s lives — for better or for worse. But can politics be a force for good? Looking at the news each day and paying attention to what’s going on in our country makes me want to say no. Think about all of those family dinners that were ruined, conversations with peers that were suddenly made uncomfortable, maybe even friendships that were ended thanks to politics. Or think about how political partisanship got in the way of a more successful (or successful, period) response to COVID-19 which led to thousands of deaths, how politics gets in the way of people believing scientists’ warnings of climate change, how politics gets in the way of people being able to agree that all human lives are valuable and deserving of justice and peace. Politics and government seem to be straying further from being a force for good with each day; in fact, it often feels like the main hindrance or antithesis rather than the mechanism for good and progress. 

Why do politics and government fail to be a force or mechanism for societal good? I think a lot of it has to do with partisanship. And I don’t necessarily mean partisanship between the political parties or conservatives and liberals. I’m talking about partisanship between perceptions of human good and evil. I think politics are too often used as a tool for each of us to draw a metaphorical line dividing good from bad: If you agree with me, then you’re on the “good” side of this line, but if you don’t, then you’re on the “bad” side — you’re morally inferior or impaired.

Think about the topic of abortion. It’s a moral topic which has been made into a political one where you can only either be pro-life or pro-choice. In each of our minds, we form this moral line where one stance is on the “good” side and the other is on the “bad” side. If someone’s on the opposite side that we’re on, then they’re morally bad. Because this line is drawn, we no longer want to talk to the other side to understand them better or work together to come up with solutions. Rather, we simply remain on our side of the line and cast dirty looks at and question the morality of the other. See how nothing was made better? This line applies to a lot of other “political issues” too, and, in each one, nothing gets better because politics made us take actual issues and see them as opportunities to divide people into good and bad across this imaginary line which grows bolder with each day.

To be a force for good means to increase the amount of good in the world. This “good” might mean peace, equality, justice, progress. I don’t believe politics or governance is often a force for good in society, but perhaps it can be if we stop using them as tools to divide people on to either side of this line between good and bad and instead use them as tools for compromise and solutions to actual moral and human issues.   

Megumi Tamura is a freshman in the Gateway Program. She is originally from Ridgewood, New Jersey, and enjoys going to museums, watching political debates and eating Jersey bagels. She can be reached at [email protected] or @megtamura on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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