citizens united

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”.  ↩

Jesus and the Plutocrats: Why Christians Should Have a Problem with Citizens United

plutocracy: a state or society governed by the wealthy

Like many people, I’ve been following the political donnybrook that masquerades as our national discourse on the disparity of wealth. (It’s as bad as it’s ever been.) There’s a lot of talk about “job creators” and “fiscal responsibility” by those on the right, along with healthy doses of whining when such lofty sounding phrases are questioned.

The argument by those who contend that the wealthy must be protected from the suggestion that they don’t already give enough, an especially nimble plutocratic dance move, goes something like this:

“The wealthy earned their wealth through hard work. Moreover, the wealthy create jobs with their wealth. Therefore, everyone who’s not wealthy has a vested interest in the wealthy accruing as much unfettered wealth as possible. So, let’s don’t make them feel bad for being so successful.”

Leaving aside the myth of the “job creators,” it’s important to articulate the assumptions that underly this sentiment. At its base, the “don’t tax the wealthy” approach to governance assumes that society will be better off in the long run if wealthy people not only get to keep all of their wealth, but are appreciated for the mere fact of being wealthy. On this account, not only is wealth a communal good in the abstract, those who possess wealth, unless proven otherwise, also find themselves on the noble end of the moral spectrum in virtue of their wealth.

Of course, this conflation of wealth and honor isn’t new. The whole idea of describing character and behavior as noble comes from its historic attachment to the nobility (L. nobilis)–that class of citizens who were “well-known or prominent”–which class, generally speaking, also implied an association with wealth.

However, the equating of virtue and wealth doesn’t just have implications for how we view wealth and wealthy people and their responsibilities to society; it also affects how we view poverty and poor people. If being wealthy is understood to be a communal good, then being poor cannot help but be understood as a communal vice–a status to be avoided. Poor people have not only themselves to blame as individuals, perhaps just as importantly, the implication is that they’re not pulling their communal weight. The idea that poor people, as Stephen Schwarzman says, don’t have “skin in the game” is worthy of comment.

Asking those who have very little if any skin left to put in the game strikes me as not only outrageous, but as something that people who claim to follow Jesus have a stake in denouncing–loudly. This cultural pressure applied to the poor, grousing that the poor need to do more, reminds me of the story that opens Luke 21.

Pretty famous story, actually. The widow’s mite. In the story Jesus has just finished a rather heated exchange with the scribes, a group of well-heeled professional theological pundits, whom Jesus has warned everyone to keep an eye on. Immediately preceding the story of the widow’s mite is an especially pointed exhortation to watch the scribes, because “they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And with that cautionary admonition about the way the scribes treat widows, Jesus looks up to see some rich people putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He notices a widow adding her two small copper coins, and remarks, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on (21:3–4).”

Traditionally, this passage has been used as a way to spur giving in church. The message is something like, “You can give more–even if you think you can’t. Sacrificial giving is a privilege you don’t want to deny yourself.” Or, in a more popular–though, I would argue also more facile–rendering: “Give until it feels good.”

And while I consider “sacrificial giving” an honorable act, I think that is only a secondary point here. Given the way Luke sets up this story, I think he has his sites set a bit higher up the socio-economic ladder.

What do I mean?

I would like to suggest that this story in Luke’s hands is a way of challenging a system that pressures a poor widow (arguably the most vulnerable class of people in the ancient Near East) to forfeit her last two bits so that she too can have some “skin in the game.” That is to say, the wealthy (identified as “rich people”) and the powerful (identified as “the scribes, who ‘devour widows’ houses’”) contribute to a set of power arrangements whereby they sacrifice a small percentage, while getting to feel superior to the poor and the powerless, whose contributions in real wealth are tiny by comparison.

In other words, Jesus’ scorn is aimed not just at the fact that the wealthy contribute relatively little as a percentage of what they own compared to the poor (who contribute at an extraordinarily higher percentage relative to what they actually own), but that the wealthy and the powerful help to perpetuate a religio-political structure that leaves the poor and the powerless feeling like they must surrender every last cent in order to be full participants. Making those at the bottom feel less than human so they’ll cough up more to keep those at the top from having to “sacrifice” more is an abomination according to Jesus.

In fact, read this way, the next two verses about the destruction of the temple suggest not just some prophecy about the devastation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., or a supercessionist end to traditional Judaism, or even an oblique reference to the resurrection, but a commentary on how the current system of power arrangements that revolves around a structure that pressures the poor to sacrifice even more to be considered participants will be overthrown in the coming reign of God.

Decisions like Citizens United, which gives an unfettered voice to corporations as notional human beings—those who already seem to hold all the political cards—is only emblematic of the way our own system in the United States is rigged to keep shoveling food down the gullets of those who are already politically and financially obese.

The assertion that we in America live in a plutocracy, where the wealthy and the powerful get to call all the shots, seems to me not even worth arguing. Anyone with even a little sense knows who’s in charge.

All I’m arguing is that people who follow Jesus–a man killed by plutocrats for challenging a similar system--don’t have any real stake in propping up a plutocracy.