To everyone except political junkies, presidential election years have all the charm of an extended toothache. Ask why, and the average voter will tell you it’s because the campaigns are so negative. If you live in a state with a presidential primary, chances are good that you’re already heartily sick of attack ads. In the two years since the Citizens United decision allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds to support or (more likely) attack candidates, the number, ferocity, and bad taste of these advertisements has increased considerably. The candidates have certainly grown no less fond of pummeling their opponents with whatever cudgel they can pull out of their bag at a given moment. Such assaults are blood in the water for the media, who know that every fact-bending, name-calling, hair-pulling political pronouncement puts more eyes on the page or screen, and hence more advertising dollars in their corporate owners’ pockets (the real “media bias”). Thus is the sausage of democracy made.
But then, you’ve heard all this before. Dissatisfaction with the caliber and tone of the electoral process is as old as America itself. In the early years of the republic, whisper campaigns about the sexual morality (or lack thereof) of the candidates’ wives were a frequent part of presidential elections. A hundred years later Mark Twain wrote a hilarious account of his short-lived candidacy as an independent for the governorship of New York. In the brief time he was a candidate, the Democratic and Republican newspapers tried to outdo one another in accusing him of every capital crime and mortal sin they could dream up. Knowing about the political history of the period makes it easy to forget that the story is fictional, because it sounds so plausible. In comparison to what our forebears put up with, we’ve got it easy.
Nonetheless, political campaigns today are dreary, unedifying affairs, tempting good people to avoid the political process altogether. As I noted in my previous post, such is not an option for Christians. We’re trying to point the world in the direction of the Kingdom; the quality of our political leaders will improve as we do so. But because we live in a democracy, we will only get leaders as good as the process by which they’re elected. If that’s the case then we’re in trouble, because the process is just so bad.
Can Christians make a difference in this situation? Absolutely. In what follows, I want to suggest some attitudes and behaviors to which Christians should be particularly suited, and which, if followed, might make this election business a bit more bearable.
1. We have to talk about ideas and issues, not bash people
Why do we love to complain about politicians so much? Yeah, I know; they make themselves such easy targets. They stand up, denounce their opponent as an agent of the devil, promise to cure all the nation’s ills while requiring no sacrifice of us in return, get elected, and proceed to accomplish . . . not much. To the voters they make promises they can’t keep; to the donors they keep promises they’re not supposed to make. They are, in short, easy to dislike.
But that’s not the reason we dislike them. We gripe about, make fun of, and generally berate politicians because it’s easier to bash them as people than to learn about their positions on the issues. We substitute ad hominem attacks on them for substantive engagement with what they say because, well, it’s easier, and we’re lazy. If I seem preachy here, it’s because I’m preaching to myself. Since she was elected to Congress a few years ago, I have never once spoken my representative’s name without appending the phrase “the Princess of Darkness” to it (having admitted that in public now, I’ll have to quit).
I don’t pretend to know all of what “speaking the truth in love” entails, but I’m pretty certain that a), informing your elected officials that their policy positions will hurt poor people or stifle small business is in bounds; while b), calling them a bunch of chuckleheads is not. Assaults on politicians’ character, intelligence, personal grooming, and the like are not only self-indulgent and unproductive; they are toxic to the body politic. They add to everyone’s cynicism, most especially our own.
2. We have to stop watching, reading, or listening to political advertising.
Nobody likes political ads; everybody complains when they start up again; so why do they keep coming back? Why do political campaigns spend obscene amounts of money on advertising, so much of it negative? Obviously, because it works. But let’s be clear on the way it works. Political advertising achieves its goal with all the precision and finesse of a wrecking ball. All advertising exists to motivate us to action; how it does so is immaterial. Political advertising follows this rule. Whether it’s manufacturing fear, pandering to prejudice, or stoking resentment, whatever gets the job done is good enough.
But where does that fear, prejudice, and resentment go when the election’s over; does someone stuff it back in the box? Of course not; it infects the hearts of the electorate. Campaign ads are deals made with the devil, deals that cannot be reneged upon when it comes time to govern a citizenry whose attitudes toward government have now been poisoned by negative advertising.
Are you and I smarter than to buy into the lies of political ads? Yes, we are (well, you are at least). Does that make us immune to their influence? No. Why do you think they run those blasted ads over and over again? So they can seep into our consciousness, affecting our perceptions of the candidates even when we think we aren’t paying attention.
“Worldliness” is a quaint notion, but it still makes sense. Christians have always held that prolonged exposure to demeaning, harmful, or destructive images and ideas (“the world”) are corrosive of the soul. The standard answer has been to stay away from such things (the biblical term is to “shun” them). If you ever wondered why God gave us DVRs with fast forward capabilities, TVs with mute buttons, or radios with on/off switches, now you know: so we can shun political ads. Use those God-given gifts, brothers and sisters! Shun those ads!
3. We have to treat politics as news—not entertainment or blood sport
If we want to find out what’s going on with the election at any given moment, thousands of web sites, t.v. programs, and publications are waiting to fulfill our wish. Too many of them, however, try to do so simply by confirming our predispositions and inflaming our prejudices. The Mark Twain story above confirms that this situation has been around for a long time. Personal experience indicates that it’s not getting any better.
As Christians, we believe that we are flawed and fallen creatures. Among other things, this means that our political opinions and perspectives are likely to be as messed up as everything else about us. Thus, it helps to listen to people whose job is to be objective, to present and analyze the news from as broad a perspective as possible. Too often, however, voices like that are drowned out by those with differing—and narrower—agendas.
That's right; I’m lookin’ at you MSNBC and Fox News. The problem with these networks is not that their reporting bears a particular ideological flavor; a lot of perfectly respectable news organizations tilt left or right. The problem is that they construct their reporting to grind a particular partisan ax, in the process ignoring or downplaying legitimate and important news items because they don’t match that agenda.
Let’s name some more names, shall we? Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly; these are but a few of the hundreds of commentators and pundits who discuss politics solely for the purpose of inflaming or confirming settled political opinions. Remember what we just said about shunning? All these folks who treat politics like it’s a circus or a fight between pit bulls provide excellent opportunities to hone your shunning skills.
So where should Christians get their information about politics? I'm glad you asked. Do your political opinions lean right? Then I suggest The Wall Street Journal and The Economist as publications with strong reporting and perceptive analysis from your side of the spectrum. If you lean left, then I’d say the same thing about the New York Times and NPR. But if you’re serious about making a positive contribution to the political life of your country, then I suggest you pick one from the other side of the aisle, to challenge and sharpen your thinking. I highly recommend Real Clear Politics as a web site that aggregates excellent political news and commentary from all over the political dial.
All of what I’ve discussed above are small steps, and they won’t, by themselves, revolutionize American politics. Because they require a reliance on God’s grace, as well as personal discipline, they just might change us. They just might make us a bit more worthy of this gift God has given us called democracy. And that just might be all the reason we need to try them.