2017-05-03

Painful Divide

The Corruption of Our Democracy, part 2

Fastforward 25 or so years and it’s the year 2010. I’ve become a minister, and I’m serving a congregation in Gainesville, Florida. I’m also the president of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Florida, representing Florida’s 44 congregations in lobbying for Unitarian Universalist values in the Florida legislature in Tallahassee. One of the members of the board of this legislative ministry is a woman from the Venice, Florida congregation named Kindra Muntz. Kindra is interested and engaged in all our legislative ministry issue – housing, reproductive rights – but she is most passionate about democratic process: voting rights, gerrymandering, campaign finance.

2010 you’ll recall is the year that the Citizens United decision was handed down – and that was a clear step backward. After I left Florida, I’d still see Kindra every June at General Assembly. If it was an even-numbered year, when we were selecting a new Congregational Study Action Issue, Kindra was at work lobbying the delegates to select repairing our democratic process. And then, in 2016, Kindra’s issue won. Also on the ballot were, “Ending gun violence,” “a national conversation on race,” and “climate change and environmental justice.” Edging these out was Kindra’s proposal, “the corruption of our democracy.”

The argument that, in the end I think proved decisive for the delegates was that we’ll never be able to make progress on any of the other issues if we don’t first have a fair and functioning democracy. Kindra kinda had a point. But we have a deep problem of which money in politics is only the symptom of our divisions and of the pain and despair we feel from those divisions.

Here’s another symptom. Americans have been surveyed about whether they would be displeased or upset if their child married someone outside their political party. In 1960, five percent of Americans said they’d mind if their child married someone of the other party. By 2010, 40 percent say they’d be upset. 50 percent of Republicans say they wouldn’t want their daughter or son to marry a Democrat, and 30 percent Democrats say that about marrying a Republican.

And I get that. In fact, I admit that I’m a part of that. I am not immune to the divides that split our nation, and those divides have pushed me to a wider opposition to one entire political party than my parents or their parents felt necessary most of their lives. If my daughter had come home her senior year in college and announced she was engaged to a guy who, she went on to tell us, was the president of her campus’ chapter of the College Republicans, yeah, I’d feel that. I'm sure I'd have learned to like the fellow, but at first there'd have been a twinge of feeling I'd failed as a parent. I’m sorry, but I think I would have had that twinge. And please know, those of you who are Republicans, that I love and respect you, and am committed to offering you every service I can as your minister. I am thankful every day that you let me have that role in your life, and right now what I have to offer is my confession. I’m confessing the limits and the blinders of my biases -- and that I’m hurting. This level of political divisiveness hurts. I weep for my country.

I also weep from knowing our history -- the chicanery and genocide with which Europeans stole this continent, the terrible abuse and tragedy of slavery, and Jim Crow, and red-lining. Yet through those tears, it was possible to believe that we as a country were learning, were bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. With this additional wound of such deep division, every hopeful possibility is dimmed. There’s no possibility of real democracy – “a way of life of free and enriching communion” -- when we are this divided, when our alienation from one another has reached the level it has

Much of the UUA material on the corruption of our democracy focuses on the role of money in politics, and corporate personhood, and the idea that money is speech. The Citizens United decision lifted limits on how much corporations can give to campaigns.

The role of money in politics is, indeed, a problem. It’s true that money doesn’t directly buy elections. The losing candidate often outspends the winning candidate. Last November’s presidential election is a particularly vivid case in point: The winning candidate, our current president, spent about half of what losing candidate spent. The biggest spender doesn’t always win, but if you don’t spend at least a certain minimum, you’re never taken seriously and don’t stand a chance. And that minimum keeps rising and rising. The enormous cost of election has driven our lawmakers into continual fundraisers.
“Countless hours spent grubbing for money from affluent contributors changes candidates' priorities and sense of constituent needs. As they speak with potential donors, candidates hear repeatedly about resentment of progressive taxes and "wasteful" social spending. Special tax breaks for corporations and hedge fund managers start to sound reasonable.” (Benjamin Page, "How Money Corrupts American Politics)
The need for money tends to filter out centrist candidates, and candidates on the economic left. Candidates whose views are not broadly acceptable to the affluent can’t raise what is now the minimum to be taken seriously as a candidate.

Yes, that’s a corruption of democracy. Public funding of elections might help.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Corruption of Our Democracy"
See also
Part 1: I Love Democracy!
Part 3: Left Snark, Right Snark

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