The National Catholic Review
Image

It is a strange paradox of our electorate that we are willing to endure the endless pain of politicking but will do anything to avoid the pain that can result from the actual choices made by politicians.

By many accounts, election day will bring a rejection of a reputedly “do-nothing” Congress that is now accused of doing too much. The in-crowd supposedly will be replaced by a group devoted to undoing the last two years’ meager doings: a feeble health plan derided as socialism, an economic stimulus program that has not stimulated much more than the banking industry, and a supposed attack on our wealthiest citizens who have all the while been amassing even greater wealth.

The next campaign does not promise much more than the one just completed: two years of opportunities lost, spent avoiding the essential and pursuing the trivial.

It has somehow become politically unwise to seriously question the two wars that are depleting our resources, costing the lives and well-being of our armed forces and offering no prospect of prevailing over terrorism. When proposals are offered to help the uninsured, to extend unemployment assistance and to protect families on the brink of falling into homelessness, the mantra is: “We cannot afford it.” When the cause is war, however, over a trillion dollars are magically found.

Our continuing health care crisis is treated with timorous neglect. The modest reform bill that was passed, having prompted cries of “death panels,” rationing, socialism and unsustainable costs, awaits a new Congress that will possibly rescind it or refuse to finance it. One might have hoped that a real reform package—single-payer based basic health care with optional tiers of buy-in coverage—had been on the table. At least we would have had a debate. As it stands, unwilling to face the sacrifices required of us, we are still left with a breaking system.

Our economic system may also break. That could come at the hands of China, a Communist country that has out-maneuvered us in bare-knuckle capitalism. Some Americans call for China to restrain its predatory practices, but if the same call is made to American capitalists, the cry is: “socialism!” A president who is surrounded by bankers and staunch capitalists to guide our economy is called anti-capitalist and anti-business. He can’t please anyone.

Rather than address challenges, our politicians and the enabling media have entertained us with evasions and trivial pursuits. I have not heard one candidate suggest that there might be sacrifices that every American will have to make. I have not seen one Democrat explain how we are to pay for our two wars. Nor have I seen any Republican enumerate the specific cuts in expenditures that will have to be made if the Bush tax cuts are extended. Like automatons, our politicians are stuck repeating catch phrases while specific questions are ignored.

In the absence of actual debate, the media have made the campaign seem like another reality show, filled with bizarre stories and fake urgency. Perhaps they like it that way. The latest reports are that in September and October alone $46 million have been spent by Republicans on advertising, with another $7 million spent by Democrats. In my own state, most commercials comprise a parade of accusations that the opponent—choose your party’s candidate—is a liar. That’s better, I guess, than the race in Delaware between “the witch and the Communist,” as one pundit laughingly put it. (This case is particularly disgusting because of the ridicule poured on a woman for statements made in her early 20s.) A race in California will be decided by whether Jerry Brown allowed a naughty and sexist word to be uttered about his opponent. And the voters of Connecticut are weighing the moral significance of professional wrestling versus distorting a military record.

Needless to say, I may be feeling some of the anger and frustration shared by many in our present electorate. Readers of this column may experience something similar, although for quite different reasons. Maybe this column itself is an irritant.

So it goes. Elections happen. Disasters may come, and more pain will follow. Nonetheless, I do not believe the prophets of apocalypse. People are resilient, especially Americans. And if bad things happen, maybe those bad things will draw us together, newly focused on more important national challenges—like war, poverty and justice.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Linda Pfeifer | 10/31/2010 - 10:00pm
Maybe if the Church would speak out about the issues of war, health care, education and other concerns, instead of telling us that abortion is the only issue that matters, we would not be electing politicians who continue to fund wars, while cutting funding for social programs. Electing pro-life conservatives has not stopped abortion, but it has stopped progress on health care, education, protecting the environment and helping the poor, all things which we, as Catholics, should be concerned about.
C Walter Mattingly | 10/24/2010 - 8:58am
One reason I look forward to Fr Kavanaugh's essays is the insightful, clear, and balanced argument he presents as well as the implicit call to the reader for reasoned, informed, and honest response. What lessons can we take from the recent past that might produce better results?
1/ Determine which candidate more closely supports your point of view and who if elected to office is likely to live up to his word. What happens if this trust is violated?
Candidate Obama provides a good example. His Change We Can Believe In message early on included the promise not to let Big Money determine the outcome. He demonstrated his comittment to this principle by pledging to accept only public campaign financing and reject the big corporate donations. Later, however, when to his surprise he discovered that he could obtain the Big Bucks and "buy" the elections, his tune changed. So when he took the Supreme Court to task for making these Big Bucks available, most Americans, suspecting he was responding to a shift in the political money winds, perceived another example of opportunism rather than principle in his words.
With this precedent in mind, it should have surprised noone that his excellent suggestion on health care, to open the debate to both parties and the public by putting it on Cspan, fell to a perceived and unexpected advantage. Having won the office and huge majorities in both house and senate  and apparently believing he could get what he desired without compromise, he did exactly what he said he wouldn't do, locking Pelosi and Reid behind closed doors to draw up and force through under reconciliation what Fr Kavanaugh and most Americans describe as a bad bill. It also lends credibility rather than cynicism to the thought that the reason so many of the benefits of the bill are delayed until 2012 is that the president does not care to face the public's reaction to the bill until the next election is safely past. Such oppornism reduces the unattractivess of the Party of No, which consequently can be credibly portrayed as "No more of this hypocrisy."
Fr Kavanaugh laments the lost opportunity of one of the two credible strategies that might have controlled insurance costs, a single payer system. The other is Health Savings Accounts. Those who prefer the control centered in the bureaucracy prefer the former; those including myself who prefer the control centered in the citizen the latter. Singapore seems to have fashioned a successful blend of the two. Such possibilities seem beyond the horizon. What to do now? No good options, perhaps, but starting over is one of them.
2/ Recognize that when you vote to go to war, your budget and other issues are considerably out of your control.
Roosevelt did not go to war saying we were willing to spend 2 billion dollars and lose up to 50,000 American lives before leaving. He likely had little idea that Stalin would use the military equipment we provided him to kill 30 million of his own citizens and imprison 100 million behind the iron curtain. Likewise in Afghanistan. But when you have all but one vote in the house and senate combined in favor, you accept the venture. (Iraq is quite another issue).
3/ Recognize what is and isn't the problem.
Fr Kavanaugh asked what attempts to cut spending have been made by republicans. One is John Boehner, who has stated what we all suspect, that the retirement age will have to be moved back. Not a very popular statement, but at least an attempt at facing unpopular reality. More to the point, Robert Gates has made bold but heavily resisted attempts to cut the bureaucratic bloat and high-powered lobbying in the Department of Defense. And a powerful and mixed group it is: not only General Dynamics but the unions that work in their boatyards; not only Senator Shelby but Senators Dodd and the late John Murtha promoting earmarks and nobid contracts to their nephews' company. But the largest expense in defense is payroll, and both Presidents Bush and Obama had their modest proposals for increases in soldiers' pay vastly increased by house and senate, with both parties contributing but especially democrats. Likewise the increases in the GI bill championed by Senator Webb, and as Secretary Gates recently lamented, there has been no increase in military copay for insurance the last 15 years even as costs escalate and threaten the preparedness of the nation.
Like Cameron and the English, Sarkozy and the French, Merkel and the Germans, and Kavanaugh here, we must recognize the realities, sacrifices, and compromises we must make of ourselves and the wisdom and forthrightness we must demand from our representatives.
Chris Cunningham | 10/24/2010 - 12:03am
Good article.
Edward Visel | 10/23/2010 - 4:21pm
What irks me is that no one seems to realize that the real political issue of the moment is campaign finance reform. Citizens United demolished what limits there were, resulting in the absurdity of this election, which will doubtlessly be surpassed by the next one. When 20% is a good approval rating for Congress, we as a people need to act to restore confidence in the system. At the moment, a constitutional amendment seems the only way forward, and until people realize that this is a problem, if will not get sufficient backing.

The problem isn't the wars, which are being fought to a prudent exit. The problem isn't the new health insurance law (please people, it's no longer a bill), which is both insufficient and impossible to fully repeal. The problem is that we have no confidence in Congress to represent our interests. Rather, we undestand that the Dems take money from unions, the Republicans take money from business, and the Tea Party is founded by rich Republican political operatives who are seeking lower taxes for their super-rich contributors. We understand, and so we hate the system. Some of this hatred is turned for political purposes, but the blame is not for the hateful people, or the bad politicians, but for the failure of a system which makes politicians responsive to donors, not constituents. This election will not fix that. We the People need to do so.
Margaret Stith | 10/23/2010 - 1:19am
Thank you again Father, by saying what everyone is missing.  These wars are so expensive, not only a hugh deficit, but loss of life.  We don't have funds for quality education for all and health care for all (not just those over 65), and people are starving, unemployed and losing their homes.  I pray that we can start putting value on human beings and not judging a person on their productivity (net worth, money making ability).  Living in a society has a price and that price is that everyone is part of the whole and everyone is necessary.  All in the society contribute all in their one way.  Some have to be taken care of but they also have gifts that are not always recognized.
Thank you again
NICHOLAS CLIFFORD | 10/22/2010 - 3:52pm
This article is right on point. Just as too many "leaders" in the financial and business world appear never to look beyond the next quarter's results, so too many of our political "leaders" in both parties, are unwilling to focus on anything but the results of the next election. Though I'm a Democrat, I fault Clinton for not using the decade between the fall of the USSR in '91 and his leaving office in '01 to build a new and more fruitful foreign policy than the one he bequeathed to Bush (and Bush made infinitely worse). I fault Nancy Pelosi and other House and Senate Dems for not using the time after the Democratic victories of '06 to try harder for bipartisanship, and to articulate a vision (not just cobbled together from the common generalities) of how to fix the country's problems. Granted the Dems have had to deal with the appalling behavior of the party of No (which would try the patience of an angel) but still. . .

And how on earth can the GOP see the Obama health plan, which in large part is a huge gift to the private insurance companies, and does zero to cut the costs of medical care, as "socialist?"
James Collins | 10/22/2010 - 2:09pm
The American people have put with a lot, with corruption, an extremely inefficent government, cronyism, lying, leaders concerned with only their welfare, and on and on. Happily once in a while they do that to an extent, such as the past two years, that the public revolts and throws the bums out. You cannot govern against the will of the people at least not for long. You cannot cram legislation down their throats that the legistlators have not even read. So a revolt is not all bad. This country was founded on a revolution against a tyrannical government that governed against the will of the people.
Mike Evans | 10/22/2010 - 1:44pm
Trivial pursuits is a good description of the activities of the congress and the party of 'no.' Then the media hype and adulation for every whackadoo nut case who manages to get their 15 minutes of facetime. The worst curse is a slow news day - then the media (print and electronic) go in search of some titilating tabloid type story that will entertain and dismay. Let's leave that to the comics section. It is no wonder that people drink the kool-aid and suffer indigestion - the media continue to spike their drinks with poison and bad ice cubes.

Recently in Columns