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What C.S. Lewis can teach us about US politics

In recent years, electoral politics has turned into an even more intense mud-pit of attacks and finger pointing about every conceivable issue. In "The Screwtape Letters," C.S. Lewis almost perfectly describes the state of US politics.

By Gary GallesGuest blogger / January 24, 2012

Republican presidential candidates, from left, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul take part in a Republican presidential debate Monday Jan. 23, 2012, at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla, as moderator Brian Williams of NBC News listens. According to Galles, C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" offers uncanny insight into the world of US electoral politics.

Paul Sancya/AP

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If there is one thing the 2012 presidential campaign has already taught us, it is that past complainers that politics was negative and underhanded didn’t know how good they had it. Abetted by technologies that increase the reach and power of smear campaigns and mechanisms to allow far more money to be spent on them, electoral politics has turned into an even more intense mud-pit of attacks and fingerpointing about every conceivable issue (including ones made up of whole cloth), along with “O yeah?” responses and counterattacks and bare-knuckle brawling among partisan spinners. And that is just the Republican primary. We haven’t even gotten near the general elections yet.

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Given the incredibly bitter invective and the amazingly negative campaigning we have observed, I have concluded that perhaps the most accurate, though accidental, commentator on the current state of politics was C.S. Lewis, just over half a century ago.

In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis used the device of letters of instruction from an experienced Devil on how to successfully tempt humans. In one of them, he turned to how to inflame domestic hatred between two people. But with only a few minor alterations[1] to accommodate the fact that “the names have been changed to protect the guilty,” he seems to equally well describe our current political competition:

When political candidates have campaigned against one another for many months, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unenduringly irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your partisan that particular lift of his opponent’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike … and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that his opponent knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy — if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy the other side.

In civilized politics hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far from a blow in the face. To keep this game up you … must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your partisans must demand that all their utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all their opponents’ utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. Their opponents’ partisans must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent … Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of both sides saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offense is taken.

Lewis seems to have hit the current state of politics on the head. Screwtape politics has intensified. Unfortunately, it may not reveal which initiatives truly advance the general welfare or who the most worthy candidates are. But at least it gives us insight into James Madison’s famous statement in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Note

[1] Alterations from the original are indicated in italics. The original version is given below:

When two humans have lived together for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unenduringly irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy — if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her.

In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far from a blow in the face. To keep this game up you … must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother=s utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: “I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.” Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.

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