Moral politics is no oxymoron

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do…

We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad!…

I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell — ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ — Howard Beale, from the movie Network, 1976

123howardbealeWe’ll find out tonight if hockey-mom Sarah Palin is as good on the ice as she claims. Joe Biden may spend most of the debate skating backwards, but he isn’t likely to fall. Joe Biden has been around long enough to know that he has to look presidential and self-assured in tonight’s debate — and he’ll pray like mad that Palin comes off looking like a rookie.

Even if Gov. Palin ends up pumping the air like a modern-day Rocky Balboa, the lede in tomorrow’s newspapers will not change. It has already been printed in indelible ink by the media mouthpieces on both coasts: Palin is just another hick from the sticks, clinging in embarrassing ignorance to her guns and religion. End of story.

When did we stop believing that our nation should be governed by ordinary citizens guided by the inner lights of their decency and common sense? When did we cede the levers of government to an out-of-touch political class, this grasping cabal of Ivy League lawyers and policy wonks?

When did politics become the continuation of class warfare by other means, to turn Karl von Clausewitz on his head?

It appears to me that our politics has become unmoored from any moral anchorage.

Moral politics is not an oxymoron, but it does seem to be a rarity. Moral politics is a competition among ideas aimed at promoting a just and compassionate society that plays fair with the smallest and the greatest alike. Moral politics has as its primary end a peaceful and prosperous society in which “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” can flourish, and justice is the common currency of every transaction.

Immoral politics is a competition among personalities and ideologies designed to fragment society into warring camps. Immoral politics has as its chief aim the consolidation of power and the amassing of wealth.

American politics has rapidly deteriorated since the polarizing 1960’s, a decade that thrived on talk of revolution, a decade that stirred up distrust of authority, from God on down to dogcatcher. Richard Nixon managed to pour gasoline on our national paranoia, and things have gone downhill ever since. It’s no small thing that every new scandal, whether real or imagined, is tagged with the ending “-gate” as a constant reminder that we have not yet managed to free our national psyche from the damage done by Nixon’s powermongering.

Ever since, the quality of our debates — about such vital matters as our national vision and the moral principles we should apply to our most pressing problems — have eroded alarmingly. Vicious sound bites have replaced reasoned discussion. The restraints of civility that once held our worst instincts in check have been cast aside. National disunity has been stirred up by muck-raking journalists who are more interested in king-making than truth.

Is it any wonder that the approval ratings of Congress and President Bush are at historic lows?

These childish games of political one-upmanship, such as the embarrassing displays of partisan bickering over the credit market rescue plan, have led many to wonder if our system is hopelessly broken.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain promise sweeping change. But I have to think neither man is being particularly honest about the (lack of) power a mere president has to affect much-needed change in such a hostile environment.

Jesus claimed that the second most important duty after loving God is to love our neighbors as ourselves. He illustrated that with a parable about political enemies, one of whom was beaten and left to die. After being ignored by a string of passersby, he was finally helped by someone from across the political aisle who set aside his politics for the sake of decency. He helped the man in his time of need, just as neighbors help neighbors. (Luke 10:25-37)

Unity based on neighborliness is a very fragile thing, easily shattered by lies, half-truths and innuendo. Among men and women blinded by the pursuit of power and wealth, neighborliness must seem an archaic and naïve approach to solving our national problems.

Howard Beale’s solution was to rage into the night.

A more effective way would be to elect men and women to public office who are committed to a moral and neighborly style of governance, and who are willing to say no to those interest groups that continue beating the drums of class warfare.

The ballot box still holds the key. But we can’t depend on a mere president to undo decades of ill will and immoral dealing. Each of us must decide first to lay down our own weapons. In a gracious act of unilateral disarmament, we must ourselves choose to exercise our individual political power with decency, restraint and neighborly respectfulness.

Then we must insist that our elected officials do likewise, or else elect men and women who are ready to represent us humbly, decently, honestly, not looking for power but looking to serve.

With every election cycle, we can choose to make this broken system a little bit better, or a little worse. We can rage in the night, or we can demand real change, starting with ourselves.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t with Washington, it’s with us. We move the levers of power. We are the ones who will choose to return our nation to a framework of moral politics, or else, to escalate the current war.

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  1. So right, and well said. Ever wonder why political campaigning so often seems to occur at a level appropriate to a grade school playground? Likely because anything more elevated would probably not secure as many votes. Or, as I’ve read that Winston Churchill once said, the strongest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter. Why should an irresponsible electorate expect anything better than an irresponsible government? Why should an uncritical readership expect anything other than a cynical, manipulative press? They are us.