Lessons Learned
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
April 2014

This spring marks my twentieth year with the North Dakota Catholic Conference. People often ask what I have learned about politics and politicians during these twenty years. Three lessons stand out to me.

First, most people, including most lawmakers, are neither entirely “conservative” or “liberal.” The truth is that most of us live in a world of shades. Even the most tight-fisted fiscal conservative will loosen the purse strings for a cause close to her heart. A self-proclaimed “progressives” can shudder at breakdown of social norms.

Second, most legislators want to do what they think is right for their constituents and the broader population. Self-interest, power-grabbing, and revenge make for good political dramas on television — and they do exist — but most legislators are there because they care about making society better for others.

Third, the greatest barrier to progress for any area of legislation is partisanship and ideology. This might seem to contradict the first two observations. After all, if most legislators are not completely conservative or liberal and they want to do the right thing, why would partisanship and ideology get in the way?

There are a few possible explanations for this apparent paradox. First, like it or not, the two-party system is entrenched in the United States. It is the setting in which any elected official must work. With that comes party discipline which can curb and sometimes quash the will and ability to do what the legislator thinks is right. Sometimes this comes with the ultimate goal of doing good in mind. Frequently a legislator must decide to “go with the party on this one” so that he or she can influence the party on another issue.

Additionally, two-party politics has, in more recent decades, tended to greater differences rather than commonalities. This was not always the case. Political scientists use to teach that the United States had a history of having two only slightly different centrist parties, unlike Europe. Both parties moved toward the center to capture the majority vote. When the voters moved “left” or “right” the center moved with them.

Whether the parties are following the people or the people are following the parties, both parties have more recently moved away from the center. This puts more pressure on legislators to stay disciplined and to break party ranks less frequently.

Ideology contributes to the problem because, even if most people are not completely conservative or liberal, they often think they are entirely one or the other. No matter what their views, people identify themselves according to ideologies such as “conservative,” “libertarian,” progressive,” “anarchist.”

When it comes to political activities it becomes too common and convenient to think of ourselves not as Catholics, but as progressives, Republicans, conservatives, or whatever. As a result it becomes too easy to let ideology and parties get in the way of what we believe is right.

Pope Francis has recently reminded us that all ideologies fall short of expressing the whole truth of the human person. No ideology, whether it be socialism, libertarianism, liberalism, scientism, secularism, or any other “ism” can answer the essential questions about our existence, much less provide comprehensive guidance to questions about public policy. Turning to ideology or parties for political answers risks engaging in a form of idolatry. Rather than turning to the party or philosophies, the first question a legislator should ask when confronted with a proposal should be “Based on what I know about my faith and what my conscience tells me, is this the right answer?”

So let’s pray that our lawmakers have the wisdom to discern the difference between the Truth and ideologies, between following Him or following parties, and the strength to act according to an informed conscience. And while you are at it, pray for me and the work of the North Dakota Catholic Conference.