Today is Election Day in the United States, although millions have already cast ballots in early or absentee voting in many states (including me due to being off my feet with foot surgery). I suspect many of us are breathing a sigh of relief that this particularly mean-spirited and contentious campaign is over. But I also suspect there are many who are fearful of what is to come. The partisans of each major candidate are fearful of apocalyptic outcomes if the other is elected. And I suspect there are many of us who don’t see good ahead for the nation no matter who is our next President. That has been my own sense for some time and the revelations of the last month about each candidate only deepen my sense of concern. I fear no matter who is elected a dysfunctional federal government and the further exercise of executive orders rather than deliberated legislation could be the rule of the day. It would not surprise me to see impeachment proceedings in the next four years, no matter who is elected.
I’ve said before that I do not talk about my voting choices. And I won’t do that here. What I want to think about is how as a people we might live if we are facing such a time. A few thoughts:
- For those of us disturbed by the field of candidates we’ve had to choose from, we may want to ask what this says about us, and maybe allow this to drive us to our knees.
- I wonder if we need to begin by taking a hard look at ourselves and the tendency in the last century to look to the federal government as our savior. I personally think there is only one Savior, and He doesn’t reside in Washington, DC. We have kept looking for government to do more and more for us, which inevitably means giving a centralized federal government more and more power over our lives. I do not think Lord Acton has always been right but his observations about the corrupting influence of power are worth attending to. Sooner or later, if we do not deliberately turn from this tendency, I believe we will create either a fascist or socialist tyranny.
- We helped create the politics of this election when we accepted the inference that some people in this nation are more important than others and let politicians play the important (usually “us” in some form) off against “them” (the less important or problematic elements). Both candidates have done this and suggested a nation that would be better if some have less power, or are even deprived of power (or even presence in this country). In doing so we deny our highest ideals and the lessons learned from our history that each people who has come to our land has strengthened our union. We should communicate in the strongest terms that any candidate who uses such rhetoric is unfit for their office, whether on a local Board of Education or as President.
- Given the twin dangers of tyranny and dysfunctionality, this is a time where we need to watch and work. I believe this is a time where we need to be increasingly watchful that we will not be deprived of constitutional liberties by politicians promising us safety, prosperity, or a more harmonious society in exchange for the various rights in our Bill of Rights. Both the political left and right are capable of doing this, albeit in different ways, perhaps saying they will protect a particular right while compromising another. I also think in light of the possibility of a dysfunctional federal government with a Congress and President unable to address issues of national concern together, there is the opportunity for local and state and private initiatives to work to reassert their role in public life, and perhaps to define the functions and limits of a national government.
All this arises for me out of the conviction that we, through our political parties and media surrogates, have given federal government too much sway in our attention and our aspirations. I know of some communities who have waited decades for federal government to “fix” them while other similarly challenged communities have brought together neighborhood, civic, and business leaders and bent their backs to the hard work of renewing their communities. They have decided that they are the people they have been waiting for rather than holding out hope for some political messiah.
I can’t help but wonder what would happen if more of us dedicated ourselves to seeking the common good rather than our own individual good or a particular group’s good in our own communities. Would this lead us to demand higher standards of those we elect to serve us locally, at a state, and national level? Would it lead us to reject the politics of polarization? If we began to see how the lives of all the people in our own communities matter, not as a slogan or political abstraction, but as real people, might this lead us to different national conversations?
I hope this election represents a nadir of our national life, and that we won’t go lower. The sobering truth we learn from other countries in the world and in history is that it can. For believing people, I think it is a time for deep lament and prayer. For all of us, it is a time for engaged citizenship. Even if things turn out better than I expect, this will be a good thing.