Election 2012: So, What's the Takeaway?

By  Derek Penwell

The election is over. But what election would be complete without the valedictory, the “take-away,” the things we learned (or should learn)? I have some thoughts about the election in no particular order:

  • Healthcare—The Presidential election made a statement about, among other things, what we think of people’s access to healthcare. Whatever else Obamacare does (or fails to do), it makes the case that people’s access to healthcare is a moral issue—and not simply an economic issue, or a personal freedom issue, or an assertion about the dangers of “creeping socialism.” Allowing corporations motivated by profit to deny coverage to people in their darkest hour, preventing coverage of people who need it most because they have pre-existing conditions, dropping people’s coverage when it becomes too costly—these are moral issues. I know people who believed that their lives (literally) depended on the election yesterday, because of the implications for the Affordable Care Act. The election results speak to our country’s belief that people should fear getting sick because of sickness, not because they lack the financial resources. Nobody should have to say, “I’m too poor to be sick.”

  • Class—Another thing this Presidential election brought into stark relief is the extent of our division over wealth. Comments like the ones Mitt Romney made concerning 47% of Americans, and Paul Ryan’s remarks about the country being made up of “makers and takers,” make our political discourse meaner. I realize both sides speak ill of one another. But that misses the point. In this case, the issue turns not on snarkiness, but on a partisan narrative that paints a significant portion of the population as unworthy of our concern. Why? Because they’re moochers, parasites, free-loaders who only suck the system dry without giving anything back to it. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out a way to get Jesus to occupy the assumptions that position entails—that is, that people are lazy, dishonest, and disposable. By repudiating that framing of our common life, this election allows us the room we need to find opportunities to address the real (often systemic) problems people face in ways that don’t continue to enable those problems. Whether we’ll always get it right is another question; but we certainly ought to be a people capable of resisting the sinful impulse to throw people away just because they can’t figure out anywhere else to find the help they need.

  • LGBTIQ Rights —Ballot initiatives in Maine, Maryland, and Washington give the citizens of those states the right to marry, regardless of sexual orientation, putting an end to 32 straight defeats of same-gender marriage at the ballot box. In Minnesota voters defeated a constitutional amendment banning same-gender marriage. In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin, became the first openly lesbian Senate candidate in the country. Yesterday’s election results indicate a sea change in our culture’s attitudes toward LGBTIQ people. The inexorability of this eventual shift seems stronger today than it did the day before yesterday.[1] I don’t want to over think it, but it seems to me that mainline denominations were put on notice yesterday that the world is going to continue to move forward—with or without progressive Protestant denominational approval.
  • Who owns the Government?Citizens United … the Supreme Court decision that extended the individual right of free speech to corporations, allowing them to give almost unlimited sums of money to influence elections … was tested on a national stage during this election. Since that decision was handed down in January of 2010, the fear of many has been that Citizens United would allow those with the most money to buy elections. Over 1.5 billion dollars was spent on this election by outside groups on campaign advertising—the bulk of which was negative. One of the conclusions we may draw from this election, it seems to me, is that the immunity of the body politic appears much more robust than many of us feared. I suspect that Karl Rove will have an uncomfortable meeting, trying to explain to his nameless investors why it is that, even with the enormous amounts of money he expended, he couldn’t deliver some key victories—not least the Presidency. Our democracy is healthier than we imagined, and certainly better off than those who grouse that the country needs “taking back.”

  • Truth Matters—One of the important principles revealed by this Presidential campaign season is that, contrary to the dire predictions of many, we are not yet a “post-truth” society. That is to say, given the stunningly bold nature of the dissembling Mitt Romney’s campaign embraced (almost always with impunity), conventional wisdom suggested that we had turned a corner on the nature of truth-telling in our culture. Romney’s chief pollster, Neil Newhouse, admitted as much when he said at the Republican National Convention, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” Romney lied about his own past positions on everything from abortion and gay marriage to immigration and the auto bailout. He misrepresented the positions of the President on a host of issues—from charges that the President removed the work requirement from welfare to the President’s “apology tour.” And before you get all defensive, I know that politicians have always tended to “mold and shape” the truth to fit the current narrative—President Obama included. However, there’s never been a candidacy predicated on such a brazen disregard, not only for the truth, but for the consequences of not telling the truth. This election rejected the idea that politicians can knowingly lie and not be held accountable for prevaricating.

  • Everybody Counts (The Triumph of Demographics)—One of the things that shines brightest from this election involves the emerging reality that previously ignorable demographic constituencies are ignorable no longer. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age—all these categories of people that have historically hovered at the edge of social relevance just crashed the cultural party in a politically significant way. No longer is it possible to win elections based on the calculation that “if we can just get enough white guys to back us, we can pull this out.” Moving forward, politics will increasingly be forced to reckon with groups of people who used to be political non-factors. As the percentage of white voters decreases, the concerns of previously marginal groups will become more and more central to the public debate. As somebody who claims to follow Jesus, I take this new concern for others to be a good thing. 
  1. See Jennifer Rubin’s advice to Republicans to just “move on”.  ↩