In Tuesday's elections, most voters didn't see their candidates as leaders. Americans are cynical about politics, exhibited by the broad-based discontent with both parties, the president, and Congress. Nearly two thirds of the electorate didn't even vote -- turnout this year was likely lower as a percentage of the electorate than any time since 1942. Negative campaign ads reached depressing lows, directly appealing to Americans' fears and anxieties, and most people don't think the results of the election will change political gridlock in Washington. This election campaign was a loss for the common good.
We seem to have become cynically resigned to politicians always blaming the other party for every problem instead of solving them and alleged political leaders pursuing a 24/7, 52-week strategy of winning instead of governing. There are no more off election years to make society better; every day and every decision is just a part of the next campaign.
The campaigns and the media coverage were all about polls, attacks, and sound bites. The Republican campaign message was simply: vote against President Obama. And the Democrats deserted him, wouldn't discuss either his accomplishments or his failures, and had no message of their own that got through. The campaign wasn't about the most important issues facing the country. Here's what we should be talking about:
While we are making progress in reducing international poverty, poverty in America is still 2 percentage points higher than it was in 2007, the year before the most recent recession. The inequality gap is growing while social mobility is declining -- a very bad combination. People who live paycheck to paycheck (nearly half of Americans) have stagnating wages and declining quality of life, while the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans captured 95 percent of the income gains in the first three years of the economic recovery. Unfortunately, these big problems were barely discussed as election issues this fall. Both Republicans and Democrats need to articulate how we could create an opportunity society, which both parties say they support.
Our immigration system is still completely broken, and the Republicans were not held responsible for obstructing reform and blocking a bipartisan Senate bill from going to a clearly passable vote in the House. Republicans and Democrats don't talk about when and how they will work together to fix the system. Instead, some candidates used immigration as an appeal to fear, condemning "amnesty" and raising the specter of terrorist threats from across our borders. We should hold our political leaders accountable for their fearful distortions, confront them with the facts, and insist that they explain how they plan to fix this broken system.
ISIS presents a very real danger to millions of people, but our political leaders need to do a much better job articulating how best to confront the crisis instead of just blaming the president or other party. We should ask our elected officials if it really makes sense to keep doing what we have been doing in Iraq, Syria, and the entire region. If alienated and angry young people, even in our own country, are being attracted to such a perverted cause because of perceived grievances, wouldn't it make sense to discuss those grievances instead of burying our collective head in the sand? Instead of circulating the endless rhetoric of defending our values, we need to ask the hard questions about how we have violated those values for so many years in the Middle East -- and about the consequences of our past foreign policy mistakes so we don't repeat history.
The Ebola crisis became the most pathetic use of human tragedy for political self-aggrandizement that we saw this fall. Instead of propagating a narrative of fear and paranoia, elected officials should be focused on how best to save lives -- starting in West Africa -- and not allow American isolationism and its underlying racial prioritizing to create bad health practices.
Money in politics:
In one of the only stories I've seen on this issue, Luke Russert reported on Meet the Press: "Remarkably, you could pay for 80 British general election campaigns with what's being spent on this year's midterms alone." The media reported on how much was being spent but not what that means for the future of our politics. The reality that the richest people in America have increasing influence over all our elections has disturbing implications for our democracy, and we need to insist that our politicians talk about how they will confront the problem -- or at least demand disclosure so we know who is spending the enormous outside money to win elections.
The endless media talk about how President Obama's unpopularity was bringing down Democrats almost completely ignored how race played into that. Disagreement with Obama's policies is, of course, legitimate, but so much of the animosity, even hatred for Obama as a person, has roots in our country's complicated history with race. Not talking about it is to be oblivious to its continued influence on our lives and our politics. Older white voters dominated this electoral campaign, but if the demographic and voting trends of the past couple of decades continue, it is likely that the 2016 elections will see another decrease in the share of white voters and an increase in the share of minority voters, especially Latinos. So despite the results of this election, the future belongs to candidates who can appeal to the changing demographics of America.
The new title of my current book, The (Un)Common Good, painfully resonates in this election, as concern for the common good was all too uncommon. Unless we return to the ancient idea and vision of the common good, the health of our public life will continue to deteriorate. The greatest social leaders are always the ones who demonstrate hope despite the challenges and show us that there can be a positive future if we make good decisions and build it together. That is the kind of hopeful leadership our nation so desperately needs, from the bottom to the top of American society -- and it may be the only way our political leaders can find their way again. Our best leaders today are not coming from politics but from civil society, courageous non-profits, and social entrepreneurship from both the private and public sectors -- they just want to solve problems. What politics needs will most likely come from outside of politics. Cynicism is easy, but hope takes more of a commitment. Fear can't lead us in a better direction, but the decisions to act on hope always can and always will.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.