Current Conversation:  Reforming Political Discourse

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Response to 'Money, Special Interests, and Political Equality'

There is much to agree with Kim Conger from her first post on ‘Money, Special Interests and Political Equality’.

As long as it comes from a voluntary attitude within a Christian mindset, that is, as opposed to using the coercive power and nature of our civil representative democratic form of government to force change or impinge on other people’s freedoms of expression, speech, political alignment with others and freedom of the press to express those views, we might have lots of common ground to share.

She is right to be concerned about all of our citizens being able to participate equally in our democratic republic. It is always surprising to folks outside of the government or political realm when they find out that perhaps 35% of all adults eligible to vote in any election are not registered to vote for whatever reason.

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Response to "Money in Politics"

As I read Frank Hill‘s essay, I actually think our view on some of the realities of the current system are fairly similar; I can agree with many of his assessments of the role of money in politics.  I suspect it is at a more fundamental level that we’ll disagree, though.

Where we agree…

First, money does not change a politician’s mind.  I wholeheartedly agree.  There’s very little evidence that any type of campaign contribution or favor impacts decision-makers votes.  But that’s true of a wide range of things we tend to assume have an impact on elected officials’ decision-making.  Decisions tend to be black boxes and very hard to find explicit evidence for influence of any kind.  And we also know that lobbyists actually do not spend a lot of time trying to convince opponents; they spend most of their time with supporters.  I think this points to a subtler problem, but on the surface, these things are absolutely true.  And campaigns do need money.  It’s expensive to try to communicate your idea to voters in ways that make impact.  Many other things are competing for citizens’ attention and it’s just modern reality that it takes money to get and hold the attention of the people one wants to represent.

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Money, Special Interests, and Political Equality

Political equality is threatened when citizens who desire to make their voice heard in government cannot because they have been crowded out by organizations and businesses whose resources so dwarf the average voter as to make them invisible. Having resources that allow you to catch decision-makers attention is not necessarily bad; using those resources to make sure that no one else gets heard is.

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Money in Politics

There is a narrative that has long existed in the media and the world outside of the halls of government that goes like this:

‘Money pollutes politics. It makes elected officials do thing they otherwise would not ever do. Therefore, we should legislate all money out of our campaigns nationwide’.

The only problem with this narrative is that is just isn’t true.

Money does not change any elected officials mind or political philosophy. Money follows political philosophy. Not the other way around.

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Subtopic 6: The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics (February 2018)

Leading Questions: How have money and special interests influenced politics, for good or for ill? What is your position on the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court? Should the role of lobbyists for special interests be restricted? Should there be stricter conflict of interest rules? What are the implications of your position for President Trump’s “negotiating a deal” approach to politics?

Conversation Partners: 

  • Kimberly Conger, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Public Administration, University of Cincinnati 
  • Frank Hill, Director, The Institute for the Public Trust, Raleigh, NC 

Closing Comments: Party Politics and Beyond

If you would like to comment on the January topic as a whole, please do so below. 

Are Political Parties Still Important? And Issues for the Future

Are political parties still important?

Political parties are still important because they remain – transactionally, but not relationally - the central vehicle through which ideological and political intent is exercised and measured. They exist to find, develop, fund and get elected winnable incumbents and challengers. They raise money and organize conventions, rallies, and various media platforms. The elected leaders who represent the two major political parties in government are the instruments through which legislatively relevant political will is advanced and/or repressed.

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Liberty and Justice for All

Party Pessimism

It was with great appreciation that I found myself reading and re-reading Angela Cowser's first two essays. Her pessimism about political parties in the U.S. comes through loud and clear.

  • "Because of the way campaigns and parties are funded, I've little hope for voluntary structural change."
  • "Transcending Ideologies - Should they - yes, especially as it relates to poverty and poor people. Will they? No."
  • "As they are currently structured, political parties are not the answer to teaching good citizenship practices and deepening grassroots democracy."
  • "After election day, partisans have little use for voters."

It is refreshing to see in print what I often hear in the community!

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Expecting Too Much and Too Little of the Parties

In her latest post, Angela Cowser describes some familiar ways that churches and other faith-based networks (hereafter I’ll often refer to those groups collectively as “the church”) have organized and mobilized people to do justice in their communities. She also highlights the reverse: serving a community can be a profound blessing to the church. Community engagement – participating together “at the grassroots” – forms Christians for faithful discipleship, including their motives and dispositions as good democratic citizens. Hence the relationship of the church and the broader community is richly reciprocal. It combines attention to felt needs with a formative spirituality and a public witness to shalom.

In comparison to the church, Cowser invites us to consider political parties as another site for organization, mobilization, and formation. Here the portrait is less flattering. Parties, in Cowser’s view, “do not build democratic practices and good citizens; they develop ideologues, partisans and party operatives and apparatchiks.” She goes on to decry the electoral competition in “gerrymandered districts where outcomes are predetermined,” which “diminishes healthy conversation” and “increase[s] tribalism that stifles democratic practices of deep listening” across lines of difference.  

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In Defense of Parties, and In Choosing the More Limited One

“So, Doug, who are you really rooting for in the game tonight?”  It seems as though I am asked this particularly annoying question often, as there is always another Hope College-Calvin College athletic contest on the horizon.  Given that I am both an unashamed alumnus of Hope and a voluntary employee of Calvin, my condition apparently presents to some an unresolvable moral dilemma.

My latest answers to such inquiries are a mix of “if that is a serious question, your God is too small,” or “I have friends at both places, and I always support my friends.” Although often asked in jest, questions about my Hope-Calvin loyalty irritate me, and I think for fundamentally the same reason as excessive partisanship between Republicans and Democrats irritates me: there is far more to life than this. I watch college sporting events to remember how difficult it is to achieve excellence in team sports in a heated competition before a boisterous crowd, and to appreciate when it is successfully accomplished. Often, Hope-Calvin contests illustrate that; I leave satisfied when the best team on that day won a well-played contest “fair and square.” And then I try to move on to something important.

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