02/02/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

The Joke That Isn't Funny: Campaign 2012

Today's version of a primary election campaign would be a joke if it were not such a nightmare.

We have the two leading candidates running against the government. Their marketing strategists have decided that their best chance of winning is to ride a real or imagined wave of contempt that people have for the competence of their own government.

Here is the joke:

  • Each of these candidates has held an important leadership role in the same government they are running against. Romney was governor of Massachusetts. He now repudiates what he did as governor, things that actually worked. His success in providing universal health care is the most glaring example. Gingrich was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, third in line for the presidency. Wasn't he the government that he is running against?
  • Both candidates are big believers that the private sector, especially the corporate world, is best equipped to operate in service of the common good. Gingrich declared that he would rather have privately owned financial institutions (in this case, Visa and American Express) manage functions such as immigration than our own government. He sustains his confidence in the integrity and care for the commons on the part of a financial community that three years ago about went under. Many hallowed firms did go under. For the rest, didn't the government have to come to their rescue?
  • Romney is a poster child for the business competence Gingrich so admires. His fortune was made through high-leverage practices that restructured businesses out of existence. These projects, he says, are common practices in the business sector that he so glorifies. In fact he thinks business should be further deregulated to remove the shackles of safety, environmental and monopoly constraints. No wonder he was hurt and surprised that he would take heat for his business acumen.
  • Finally, Gingrich claims Romney's wealth makes him untrustworthy, where Gingrich's mere $1 million plus a year makes him a man of the people.

Those points are the joke, even though they are not funny.

Here is the nightmare:

Forty percent of voting Americans are going to vote for one of these men. Maybe more. Plus, the front pages of every mainstream newspaper and TV news show report on these campaigns with a straight face. They treat all this as news, instead of theatre.

A billion dollars will be spent advocating this kind of thinking and assault on the government. This money will come from very rich individual business people. On top of that, many poorer people will support the idea that the government is the cause of whatever they think is wrong.

What is so disturbing is that a more positive future will likely require more actions on the part of the government to support our common interests. More control of predatory financial practices, more limits on industry-backed military spending, a single-payer health care system, a greater investment in public schools, larger investments to lift up the poor in our cities, campaign finance reform, support for public broadcasting. These are not matters of ideology; they are simple realities of sustaining a democracy and a viable economy.

This will not happen if most citizens accept the anti-government narrative. When I hear from both bankers and taxi drivers that the problem with our country is the government support of welfare and immigrants, then I realize how widely the storyline has been swallowed.

What has triggered these comments is reading the book The Web of Debt, by Helen Hodgson Brown. She details how the national debt accrues to the benefit of the private banking system and that this is leading to real trouble. She describes how the practices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have undermined the economies of Asian, Latin American and African countries. Now they are at work on European countries. She makes the case for serious reform of our banking structures.

This may sound complicated, remote or dull, but not in her hands. Her website is It is worth looking at. Her book is even better. In addition to teaching me something about the world of finance, it also explains the underlying symbolism of the Wizard of Oz. Had we forgotten that "oz" is the abbreviation for ounce, like in gold? Or that the Wizard was the illusion that leadership (read candidates) was in touch with what was needed?

If we put Brown's convincing thesis next to the raging assault on the government and the glorification of the private sector, it gets alarming. It means we will lack the political will and collective intelligence to provide for the common good. At this point, I don't know if my unease is insight or creeping paranoia. What I do know is that it is up to each of us to keep the joke turned nightmare from becoming policy. This is not about conservative or liberal, left or right, Democrat or Republican. It is about being willing to look outside the mainstream to form our own thoughts. Web of Debt is a start.

Peter Block is an author and citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a partner in Designed Learning, a training company that offers workshops designed to build the skills outlined in his books. He is the author of "Flawless Consulting," "Stewardship," "The Answer to How Is Yes," "Community: The Structure of Belonging," and most recently, with John McKnight, "The Abundant Community." Peter serves on the boards of Elementz, a hip hop center for urban youth, Cincinnati Public Radio, and LivePerson, a provider of online engagement solutions. His work is in the restoration of communities and creating systems that restore our humanity.