Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Democracy: Political Parties and the Media

IN HIS FAREWELL ADDRESS, President Washington famously warned against the "danger of parties," "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," and "the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party."

[The party spirit] serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

Originally, of course, there were no political parties in the United States. Washington's concerns, unfortunately, were not theoretical, and they were aimed at the incipient incarnations of the "spirit of party" as Hamilton was busy forming the Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were busy forming the Democratic-Republican Party.

Washington's warnings went unheeded, and our country has either suffered or enjoyed a party system ever since. It is simply part of the political landscape.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has a few words to say about political parties. It reminds us, not of the evils, but of the good of political parties, yet warns that they--like all things political--must be ordered to the common good and not to private interests, to what James Madison would call the "mischiefs of faction."

For the Compendium, political parties ought to be a door into democratic government. "Political parties have the tasks of fostering widespread participation and making public responsibilities accessible to all." (Compendium, No. 413) How this participatory function works in a Two-party System such as we effectively have in the United States, will be different than how that function works in Multi-party systems such as is more typically the case in democratic governments worldwide. In either event:
Political parties are called to interpret the aspirations of civil society, orienting them towards the common good, offering citizens the effective possibility of contributing to the formulation of political choices.
(Compendium, No. 413)

Political parties should be organized with a view to their participatory function. Therefore, they "must be democratic in their internal structure." Moreover, they must have internal systems of government so that they are "capable of political synthesis and planning." (Compendium, No. 413)

Political participation should not be limited to participation through the party system. The Compendium also advocates participation through referendum, "whereby a form of direct access to political decisions is practiced." The Compendium notes that the institution of representative government "does not exclude the possibility of asking citizens directly about the decisions of great importance for social life." (Compendium, No. 413)

In order to participate effectively in political life--whether through political parties, through referenda, or otherwise, the citizen must have access to information. "Information," the Compendium reminds us, "is among the principal instruments of democratic participation." (Compendium, No. 414)

The Compendium sees the media as the principal organ which allows participation in government by the people. The media's role is to provide information to the public. Such information is essential for political participation because "without an understanding of the situation of the political community, the facts and the proposed solutions to problems is unthinkable." (Compendium, No. 414)

"An informed citizenry is the bulwark of democracy," is a quote frequently attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But whether Jefferson said it or not, it is undeniably true that it represents the sentiments of both Jefferson and every other Founding Father.*

Because of the media's important role in the political process, in assuring an informed electorate, and in preserving freedom, the Compendium expresses concern about the control of that media. It advocates a sort of subsidiarity in the media, and is highly suspicious of concentrations of power in the media:

Among the obstacles that hinder the full exercise of the right to objectivity in information, special attention must be given to the phenomenon of the news media being controlled by just a few people or groups. This has a dangerous effect for the entire democratic system when this phenomenon is accompanied by ever closer ties between governmental activity and the financial and information establishments.

(Compendium, No. 414) The Compendium therefore advocates a diversely owned and highly variegated media, and encourages that all be done to achieve this.
It is necessary to guarantee a real pluralism in this delicate area of social life, ensuring that there are many forms and instruments of information and communications. It is likewise necessary to facilitate conditions of equality in the possession and use of these instruments by means of appropriate laws.
(Compendium, No. 414)

The Compendium sees the media as essentially ordered to the common good. "Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice, and solidarity," the Compendium states quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2494). The media's purpose is not only to inform the public so that they may participate actively and intelligently in public life, the media also serve to "build up and sustain the human community in its different sectors: economic, political, cultural, educational, and religious." (Compendium, No. 414)

Though it unquestionably ought to be free, the media have responsibility. With the media's freedom comes responsibility: the freedom of the different forms of media is given them to do what they want, but do do what they ought. "Moral values and principles apply also to the media" (Compendium, No. 416) And this moral or ethical dimension means an effort to be objective, to respect legitimate cultural differences, but most importantly to communicate truth. In this regard, the Church is personalist and holistic:

The essential question is whether the current information system is contributing to the betterment of the human person; that is, does it make people more spiritually mature, more aware of the dignity of their humanity, more responsible or more open to others, in particular to the neediest and the weakest.

(Compendium, No. 415)

In fact, this is how the media is judged:
In all three areas — the message, the process and structural issues — one fundamental moral principle always applies: the human person and the human community are the end and measure of the use of the media. A second principle is complementary to the first: the good of human beings cannot be attained independently of the common good of the community to which they belong.
(Compendium, No. 416)

Factors which plague the media in its role to inform the public, and which must be fought against are "ideology, the desire for profit and political control, rivalry and conflicts between groups, and other social evils." These, unfortunately, the media often exploit or often exploit the media.

The Compendium seems most concerned about private, special interest, and governmental control over the media, since these seem to present the greatest threat that the media will forget their essential role to the common good and lapse into a propaganda machine in favor of faction or special interest.

It is the public's role (and not government's role) to assure that the media is fair and objective and ordered to the common good. "It is necessary that citizens participate in the decision-making process concerning media policies. This participation, which is to be public, has to be genuinely representative and not skewed in favor of special interest groups when the media are a money-making venture." (Compendium, No. 416)

*See Richard D. Brown, The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), xiii ("At the birth of the republic, the necessity of an informed citizenry was proclaimed loudly and often by such notables as Samuel Adams, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Madison . . . .")

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