Reminders of what matters: Instead of focusing on what's important, political campaigns too often distract us from it
September 28, 2010
This piece originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune.
As the general election season begins to swing into full gear, what passes these days for political debate and analysis is hardly inspiring. We can expect to spend the early fall constantly bombarded with platitudinous sound bites and spin intended to invoke some visceral reaction in a target group. It is mostly attention-grabbing drivel that does very little to promote a meaningful discussion about policies and governance.
Much of it is now carried on in self-published blogs and social networking sites, where it has both unlimited access to the public forum and freedom from the scrutiny that used to be the function of a truly independent press. Long on pious preaching and short on substance, these diatribes most frequently champion an us-versus-them mentality that is often nothing more than demagogy aimed to stir up fear and prejudice — and, in doing so, to create a sycophantic following. Indeed, the political process has become almost entirely about what divides us rather than what we have in common.
In fact, it is the common interests that should be at the forefront of our political conversation. It is, after all, our common interests that are the basis of why, as Jefferson put it, governments are instituted among men. It is the vehicle through which we secure our common interests in the unalienable rights of man that belong to us all. But the things that bind us together as a people get short shrift in the hysteria that is modern campaigning.
Politics is, and always has been, about obtaining and retaining power. As a result, it naturally tends to promote the things that maintain power, the most predominant of which is money. Our Supreme Court held earlier this year that, on free speech grounds, no limit may be placed on corporate campaign expenditures. In other words, corporate money talks — and it may do so wholly without restriction. The influence of money in both our national discourse and our policy has been evident for some time. The costs associated with running for office have reached staggering levels. The major party nominees in the last presidential election collected more than $900 million. But one need not look at national politics for evidence of the exorbitant amounts that are required for political campaigns.
Consider the enormous funds now being raised in local races. Not too many years ago, campaigns for the state legislature or county council were modest enterprises run out of someone's kitchen. Today, they are financial behemoths in which fundraising is the main endeavor. And it is a fact of political life that much political money is used not in conveying a candidate's message but in promoting or countering so-called advocacy ads that are the product of ever-increasing organizational spending. This process is geared to diminish the prospects for honestly addressing the interests that we share in favor of an endless stream of media-driven partisan rancor.
Nevertheless, it is relatively simple to identify our common humanity and the role it should play in considering how we govern ourselves. This came home to me during the last few months as I attended three events that are seminal in the lives of those most directly affected: a baptism, a graduation and a funeral.
The importance of our attending such ceremonies is as fundamental as it is obvious. We go to congratulate, acknowledge, support and comfort our family and friends in moments of commitment, accomplishment and grief. But there is another reason that these ceremonies are important to us as a society. Such events provide us with an opportunity for reflection. We consider what these events have meant to us as they have occurred in our own lives, as well as what they mean to us as a community.
The significance of bringing a child into the world and choosing his or her spiritual path speaks to generations of a family's history. A graduation is both the commencement of a new life and the recognition of the lives that have gone before and made this milestone possible. And the loss of a loved one is occasion for shared memories as much as sadness, and for reaffirmation of the meaning of family and faith.
For me, the most arresting of these events was my son's graduation from Hereford High School. The list of accomplishments — the number of students on honor roll and in advanced placement courses, and those with notable athletic achievements — was a testament to a dedicated faculty and staff, and an engaged and supportive group of parents that we wish could exist in schools everywhere. But what stood out most was the fact that, no matter how different the families might be — in background, occupation, politics — they all had the very same desire. They all wanted to see their children grow up safe, healthy, and with the opportunity to live a fulfilling life. It is a simple sentiment, yet it is deeply rooted in all that we are as a nation and a people.
Surely there can be differing views about what policies are best suited to obtain those possibilities for ourselves and our posterity. In fact, political debate is meant to help us sort through the options. But as much as the current political climate might pay lip service to such fundamental goals of government, the system is set up in a way to ultimately be destructive of those ends. As long as it is beholden to the special interests that are its financial lifeline, it is those interests that will remain paramount.
If you should attend a baptism, graduation or funeral, you are likely to be reminded of what is really important in life, the things we have in common as a people, and of the kind of communities we want for our loved ones. These are things to keep in mind as you endure the cacophony of the political season.