The Election in Perspective

Professor Michael Hayes

The current presidential election poses a choice between two diametrically op-posed platforms. In the jargon of political science, we now have responsible parties. In theory, this is a good thing. Where parties present voters with clear alternatives, the public can control the direction of public policy in advance through elections by choosing one vision over the other.

If responsible parties really are desirable, they couldn’t have come at a better time. We face serious problems as a nation. The economy has just come through a Great Recession and remains weak. The federal budget deficit is extremely large and our major entitlement programs-Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – are growing at unsustainable rates. It’s a wonder that anyone actually wants to be president under these circumstances.

To proceed intelligently, we need something Colgate Emeritus Professor of Political Science Robert Rothstein called “consensual knowledge.” Where policy-makers all see a problem in the same way, agreeing on what variables are most important and how they are causally related, rational analysis becomes possible.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on how we got into our current situation or how we can get out of it. Seen in this light, the sharply contrasting views of our two major parties are not a good thing. On the contrary, they merely reflect our underlying problem: the complete absence of consensual knowledge.

Our thinking is seriously deficient in a more profound way: we lack the sense of community – of being in this together – that we must have if we are to address our problems successfully.

Our “responsible parties” are irresponsibly polarized, en-couraging us to view ourselves in almost tribal terms. Noth-ing the other party says can ever be right, and compromise is an indefensible violation of principle. A clear vision of the kind of community that we need can be found in 1 Corinthians 12, where the apostle Paul characterized the church as one body with many parts (hands, feet, eyes, ears and so on).

In advancing this metaphor, Paul was making two criti-cally important points that we all need to hear, whether we are religious or not: each member of the body is indispens-able to the functioning of the whole, and when one part of the body hurts, the entire body suffers.

Because of health problems I have experienced in recent years, I understand this second point in a very literal way. I have Crohn’s disease, a disorder in which my immune system attacks healthy tissue. While the disease pri-marily affects my digestive system, it also caused a secondary problem – anemia – that kept me weak and sapped my energy.

When medication finally brought my Crohn’s under control, the anemia went away. While one part of my body hurt, the whole body suffered. I witnessed our broken national sense of community first hand by directing the Washington D.C. Study Group for the past two years. Washington is a very beautiful city, and the parts of it we see – and indeed the surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia – are extremely prosperous.

But there is another Washington the study group does not see that is neither beau-tiful nor prosperous. It is run down, depressing and in many places, dangerous. I have found myself there more than once, usually because I have gotten lost and am trying to get back where I belong.

As I drive through with my windows up and my doors locked, hoping that my car won’t break down, I realize that no one should have to live in places like this. Cer-tainly no child should have to grow up there. While I am sure there is much about these places that is vital, alive, and even inspiring, there is no question that any sane person would rather live in some other part of town. There are places like this in every American city – places that will remain depressed long after the rest of the economy finally recovers.

Parts of our national body are hurting, and the rest of us should be more both-ered by this than we are. There is a marvelous scene early in the movie “Head of State” in which alderman Chris Rock walks through his predominantly black neighborhood on his way to solve some problem.

A panoramic view reveals behind him giant billboards with oversized images of presidential candidates mouthing slogans that seem utterly irrelevant to the realities of his neighborhood.

The upcoming presidential election will not cure what really ails us. While we now have a real black president – not just a fictional one – the platitudes mouthed by the two parties seem equally irrelevant to the realities on the ground. Certainly neither candidate is talking about the problems of our cities. The underlying problem is our broken sense of community: we are addressing the anemia while ignoring the Crohn’s.

Contact Professor Michael Hayes at [email protected]