Unfortunately, Presidential, Senate and Congressional elections represent more of a beauty contest than a forum for discussing substantive issues. Single-issue voters can add to the polarization of the political process with their self-righteousness, while PACs can float half-truths and lies about a candidate with their big money.
Often I find that many people have one pronounced reason for voting, or not voting, for a particular candidate, and they are satisfied with that–the candidate is pro-choice, or anti-deficit, or pro-NRA, or anti-growth. Thus, one phrase summarizes the candidacy. It strikes me that there is much more behind any candidate.
As a person of faith, I recognize my responsibility to participate in the political process by voting, but my decision requires some research and, I believe, weighing a number of frequently overlooked considerations.
1) In terms of the presidential race, the president appoints about 100 significant people who run departments that touch our lives on a daily basis. Under the George W. Bush Administration, former coal lobbyist, Stephen Griles, became the Secretary of the Interior and rewrote a key provision of the Clean Water Act that allowed “fill material” from strip mining to be deposited into American waterways. Appalachia has suffered the continued scourge of mountaintop removal because of this one decision.
Before pulling the lever, who will comprise our candidate’s defense advisors, economic advisors, domestic policy advisors? These are people we are voting into office with our presidential candidate.
2) Legislators have a moral obligation to legislate. The press reported that on the night of the Obama inauguration, opposition leaders met and resolved to oppose every proposal of Mr. Obama, and hence, make him a one-term president. Tea Party candidates vowed to shrink the federal government at any cost, and many Republicans pledged never to raise taxes.
People of faith recognize the difference between principles that are inviolable and promises that must change for the sake of the common good. The lubrication that keeps the wheels of democracy turning is compromise, so we would be irresponsible voting for any candidate that did not understand the distinction between an important principle and a political pledge, i.e. who refused to compromise when necessary.
3) Catholic social teachings do not promote big or small government, but rather appropriate government. Conservatives emphasize cutting the deficit by reducing federal social programs. Frequently they appeal to the debt we will leave our children. Keynesian economists encourage government spending during recessions to raise consumer demand and create more jobs.
The federal government, under the social principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, may be the only entity in society with enough power to push the economy forward. Appropriate government stimulus is needed. Keynes would argue that once the economy got moving, the government could retire its debt by the various taxes on the increased economic activity. Besides, if folks really wanted a future for their kids, they could worry abut leaving them an unpolluted and healthy environment, not a debt that can be managed.
4) Running a business is not the same as running the country. Donald Rumsfeld once said that running a company allowed him to make a decision he could effect immediately. As Secretary of Defense, he had to consult a network of people.
The goal of business is to make a profit. Decisions are evaluated by the bottom line, not who was hurt in the process. The goal of good government is security and domestic tranquility, which means listening to many needs, compromising and struggling to find the common good. Business skills are important, but limited. A good leader needs sensitivity and compassion so everyone can participate in society.
5) Candidates need to grow with the job. Years ago, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois was elected believing in capital punishment. After examining the facts in his state, he suspended all executions because he felt the criminal justice system was flawed and innocent people might be executed.
Candidates will have a basic philosophy about government, but someone who is an ideologue cannot be honest with new situations, new times, new facts.
In my work in Appalachia, I see the destructive effects of welfare on the human spirit, but I also recognize the powerlessness of people to change the social and economic climate around them. When large corporations controlled by stockholders living outside the region do not pay their fair share of taxes, local schools cannot attract talented teachers and the infrastructure of roads and services lack proper attention. We have poverty in Appalachia principally because we had an unfettered market in Appalachia.
On Election Day, I want to vote for appropriate government that will regulate against the abuses by the wealthy and powerful, insure all people have opportunities for a decent education, job and health care, and will promote a desire for community and a sense of responsibility for one another.
Rev. John Rausch is an activist in the Appalachian region, working against mountaintop removal. He was the recipient of Pax Christi USA’s Teacher of Peace Award in 2007.