FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 11/19/2010

After The Midterm Elections: The Change We Hope For?

November 3, 2010                                        Volume 3 Issue 14  

FAITH + IDEAS=  . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Timothy Sherratt

"Yes, We Can, but it’s not going to happen overnight.” President Obama’s solemn performance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show last week reflected all that is necessary and all that is missing in American politics today: Presidents have to campaign constantly in every medium; and patience is in short supply.

When he took office, the President promised economic stimulus, health insurance reform, financial reform and climate change reform. Only the last has failed to materialize. But controversy over the other three has fueled an even more virulently ideological conflict, which leads me to ask why government seems to be all about politics, rather than politics being all about government.

Beyond the ideological conflict—but sure to provide more gasoline to pour on its fires this election season and many to follow—is the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v FEC. The decision extended free speech rights to corporations and further reinforced their liberty to speak, i.e., spend unlimited amounts of money, in election-related issue advocacy. Hence, the mayhem of attack ads. Apparently, the Court views elections as a marketplace shaped by freedom, not a public forum shaped by equality.

The new kids on the block this election season are the various Tea Party groups, libertarian in ideology, high-tech in networking skills, and only loosely Republican in party affiliation. The Tea Party cohabits with the G.O.P., eating its food, drinking its drink, and winning its primaries. The Republican Party seems powerless to prevent this, even allowing the new live-ins to evict some of its favorite sons, as happened in the Delaware Senate primary.

The previous generation did not carry on like this. In the Reagan era, the marriage of social conservatism with big business was rocky at times, and the newlyweds took some time to get used to each other, even whispering to neighbors and friends that the other’s habits were a bit strange.

But what smoothed things over was the size of the electoral dowry brought into the Party and the Party’s ability to reciprocate by offering Southern conservatives a total makeover. Saddled for so long with states’ rights and segregation, former Southern Democrats were re-born as traditional-values evangelical Christians in their marriage to the G.O.P. Returning the favor, they sent their energy coursing through the blue veins of the old bloodline, sustaining very high levels of support through the 2008 election, when the G.O.P. did not even nominate one of their own.

No such nuptials characterize the Tea Party’s relationship with the Republicans. I think a better metaphor would have the Tea Party as the disaffected teenager, who holds the parents’ values but wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with them. There are other differences, too. Those Reagan-era Christian conservatives were leery of government, but they wanted to govern. They wanted to end abortion. They wanted to restore traditional values. They wanted to trim Federal government spending. They came to see that government was necessary even if they could never quite believe in it.

In sharp contrast, Tea Party supporters appeal to a near-mythical view of the framers’ constitution as a new way to scratch the old, and deep-seated, anti-government itch. Their “change we hope for,” is “Take back America,” but the latter is no more edifying than the former.

And that’s why November 2nd is a cliffhanger for the Republicans. If they win control of Congress, the Tea Party will claim credit and the battle for the soul of the party will be joined. If Tea Party candidates win, they will demand the keys to the family car and veer sharp right out the driveway. 

On the Democratic side, the results pose more traditional dilemmas, like the mathematics of governing without majority support in Congress. Has President Obama underestimated the anti-government instinct? Last year, he was slow to champion healthcare reform, preferring to leave it to Congress. This fall he has let his policy achievements speak for themselves, instead of campaigning in their defense. His lackluster appearance on the Daily Show summed up his party’s prospects.

So Tuesday’s election results appear set to improve the Republicans’ standing but not to clarify what the party stands for. They also appear set to weaken the President’s ability to govern, and neither prospect beckons.

At a time like this, with the recovery unproven in this “hourglass” economy of low paying service jobs, high paying tech jobs and a shrunken middle class, the real debate is not between democracy and capitalism, punctuated by shop-worn jibes about the President as a socialist. That debate is about as dead as the displaced industrial economy. 

This is not a time for minimal government but for good government, that is, government characterized by wisdom, patience, and commonsense compromise. That is the change I am still hoping for.

Timothy Sherratt is professor of political studies at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his family live in Rowley, MA. (This column also appeared in The Salem News, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010. )  


Timothy Sherratt