11/03/2010 12:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Voting Against

This election, some good people were elected and other good people lost. Some of these officials, newly elected and reelected, will try to find solutions to some of the great challenges facing our country today. Others will deepen the poisonous partisanship that has defined much of the past two years in politics. The polling showed, chillingly, that most voters came out to cast their ballots against candidates and policies rather than for anybody or anything. And it was a national election with deep emotions and many local races had little to do with who was running in that particular contest. I spoke to two friends tonight who lost their Congressional bids to (in my view) inferior opponents. The races weren't about the issues or even the candidates who were running but about national political leaders who had become negative symbols. Many people voted against whatever they could and not for anything they had hope in. Two years ago, people voted for change; and they still are.

A few weeks ago I spoke to another friend, a Republican Congressman who had lost his primary earlier this year. His voting record proved his conservative credentials and he disagreed with the President on almost every issue he could think of. But, he explained, he made a few mistakes that didn't allow him to stay in Congress.

He told me a story that sums up for me what happened in this election. During the health care debate his office sent out a press release entitled "Top Reasons to Oppose Obamacare." He took those reasons and blew them up onto a banner to hang behind him during town hall meetings on health care. He started every town hall meeting taking 5 minutes to go through his list of reasons to oppose Obama's health care plan. He then spent the next 85 minutes of those town halls talking about his vision for a conservative approach to health care reform that would cover people who didn't have health insurance. That, he explained, was the beginning of the end of his reelection campaign.

If he wanted to maintain his seat, he explained, he should have reversed his ratio and spent 85 minutes criticizing the President and only 5 minutes talking about his vision for a way forward. Unfortunately, it was "scapegoats" not "solutions" that many in his district were looking for. He explained to me that one of the key moments when he realized his campaign was in peril was when a supporter stood up and condemned the President for being a "socialist, communist, and Marxist; who wanted to be a dictator, open up the Mexican border and turn America into an Islamic state." And that Obama "hates America so much that he doesn't put his hand over his heart when the National Anthem is played." This brave Republican said that wasn't fair or true, that the President was a patriot, even if he disagreed with most of his policies. He explained that he thought there were lots of reasons to oppose the President but an internet rumor about whether the President puts his hand over his heart was not one of them. Talking like that cost him the election.

This November 2nd, most voters cast their ballot against something. Some people voted against Pelosi, Reid and Obama. Others voted against the Tea Party. My primary concern is not the electoral math but how our country approaches politics. When all our leaders are able to do is express opposition to the "other" side, we are in a crisis of leadership. We heard a lot of anger in this campaign, but not a lot of vision. And we didn't see a new paradigm for what it looks like to work with those with whom you might disagree. The new Congress will need to learn to paint a vision for moving forward that isn't based on what plays to a partisan base. The issues we face are too great and too important; the people effected too many, the responsibility to large for vision to be so absent and cooperation for the common good to be so politically impossible.

There was very little values narrative in this election. And there was almost no attention to the faith community and its concerns. But the issues we face now are profoundly moral questions. We have work to do.

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners.

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