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An Incomplete Politics

by Robin Lovin

At the time this was written, Robin W. Lovin was dean of the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 4, 1992, pps. 990-991. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Along with campaign rallies and whistle-stop tours, each U.S. presidential race elicits ritual laments over the decline of politics and the failure of the electoral process. The formulas are by now well known: In an age of sound bites and spin doctors, we are unable to make real choices between policy alternatives. Real issues are obscured by images and manufactured events. Party platforms are irrelevant. What counts is the "October surprise."

So the complaint runs, and much of it is warranted. What we need to ask, however, is whether the weaknesses of the electoral process are in fact signs of a more general political failure that has left us unable to support better elections. Somber commentators take turns assigning blame for the sorry state of affairs to the candidates and to the media, but it is unlikely that a failure so massive and persistent can be charged to one of the usual suspects. What is wrong with our elections reflects the failure of all our institutions, including our religious institutions, to sustain a discussion of societal goals and values. When that infrastructure is missing, national elections inevitably become a referendum on short-term interests.

Presidential elections, after all, have worked fairly well in the U.S. Through war and economic crisis, they have been held at four-year intervals. None has ever been suspended in anticipation of unfavorable results for the party in power, or nullified after the fact by disgruntled losers. Presidential elections successfully elect presidents. It’s hard to object to the process at that basic level, and a glance at events in Georgia or Angola reminds us that that is not an insignificant achievement.

Our complaint seems to be that besides providing us with a steady supply of presidents, our elections do not do anything else. They do not frame the great issues of the day. They do not provide opportunities to educate the electorate about important policy choices. They build commitment not to parties and programs but to the individual leader’s personality, and they fail to identify the basic values and commitments around which the whole process holds together. While all of those are important societal needs, it is odd to think of an election as an instrument for meeting them.

A democratic election is an intense run-up to the selection of a leader. In a genuine democracy, the voters’ prior commitments are likely to be fairly evenly divided between the plausible candidates, so that the campaign itself is largely a matter of persuading the uncommitted and the apathetic. The strategies required to do this are not always edifying. Nevertheless, a campaign in which one candidate was so certain of victory as to devote the weeks between Labor Day and November to a program of public education would be an indication that the democratic process had failed to provide real alternatives. Meaningful elections are real contests. The stresses they impose on candidates and their managers lead, no doubt, to excesses and underhandedness, but that is a small price to pay for the opportunity to have a real choice between the candidates.

 

A society that expects its elections to provide choices between policies and directions, as well as between candidates, must generate those options in other places. Americans of both parties, to judge by their behavior, appear to believe that policies are created by placing a suitably charismatic politician in front of a sufficient number of television cameras. The magic rarely works. Ours is a society sharply divided by lines of race and class, profoundly anxious about its future, and more fearful now of the threats posed by our neighbors at home than by any foreign enemy. No single leader is likely to change that. Indeed, the evidence of history suggests that strong leaders are more likely to exploit those differences than to resolve them.

Successful electoral politics is built on coalitions. But the new possibilities we need will go beyond a recombination of existing interest groups. "Jobs and the environment" is a good slogan, but in fact we cannot have both economic opportunity and a sustainable environmental policy without a fundamental transformation in some of our ideas about how we are related to one another and what makes life worth living.

Such transformations are possible. In the not-too-distant past our own civil rights revolution proved that, as did the more recent "velvet revolutions" in Eastern Europe and some of the former Soviet republics. Something similar might again be possible in the U.S. if those who are divided by race and class begin to talk about their problems in concrete terms at the local level. The institutional barriers to these kinds of conversations are formidable, but so were those that faced the people of Eastern Europe.

What characterizes revolutions of this sort is that they enter rather late into the arena of mass movements, and they enter electoral politics last of all. They begin in a process of empowerment that is more local, and largely hidden. They become noticeable only after enough people are sufficiently changed that they begin to see the public realm as an arena in which to take risks rather than one in which to seek protection.

Politics begins where people are prepared to take those risks, which is why people’s politics cannot really be separated from their religion. That is also why religious leaders must accept some responsibility for the sorry state of contemporary politics. We have too often talked about the need for transformation in personal and family life and ignored its social implications. We have managed our churches to avoid real encounters between people across the barriers of race and class, confusing the absence of conflict with the achievement of peace and pleading that insularity is the way to church growth. Where we have ventured into politics, we have too often treated religious commitments as one more special interest to be protected, and we have measured our success by how well we have mobilized our constituency for that purpose.

 

For a couple of decades now, our churches have done tolerably well at putting people in touch with their own needs and aspirations. What a free society requires, however, are places where those values can be tested and transformed in interaction with the full range of other human possibilities. Politics is essential because it includes all of the conscious, deliberative processes by which people adapt to one another and to the changing conditions of their environment. Because people cannot relate to God without understanding their own humanity, part of the task of religious leaders must be to increase participation in politics in the broadest sense.

Until we recognize these needs, religious leaders will probably continue to join the lament over the sorry state of "politics," by which we will mean only the limited task of choosing elected leaders. The more difficult but necessary move is to leave the complaints to others and turn our attention to the unique opportunities that churches, synagogues, meetings and mosques have to stimulate the encounters and transformations that could eventually give the candidates something to talk about.

 

 


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