Some Observations after this Election Season: Democracy, Corporate Media, Social Issues and the “Entitlement Culture”

Somewhat to my surprise, the concerns I had about the Citizens United ruling thankfully may not have been so detrimental this time around — though doubts about the reality and efficacy of democracy definitely remain.  I initially wanted to talk about the electoral process itself, the degree to which big money continues to corrupt both parties, and especially the exclusion of third party voices in the presidential debates.  There’s little question in my mind that without campaign finance reform, term limits for congress, and greater transparency and accountability with respect to the lobbying power of corporate and special interest groups, the supposed differences between republican and democratic candidates will remain relatively inconsequential for the achievement of much needed structural, if incremental, political change.

Instead though, something more immediately interesting and perplexing has grabbed my attention; namely, the pervasiveness of two basic blind spots at the popular level of dialogue about contemporary American politics:

  1. Most people, when they think about politics — even though they’ve heard about this and live it every day — still do not appreciate just how much globalization and trade liberalization have changed the rules of international economics and therefore necessarily the role of government dealings with domestic fiscal and private-sector regulation issues (see endnote below for further explanation).[i] In general, the mainstream media doesn’t talk about or seem to understand this.  Instead, the U.S. is still regarded as a more or less autonomous nation-state, albeit the most powerful one (a thoroughly modern and enlightenment-based idea that has lingered on much too long, kind of like many Reformational theological assumptions do in the church).
  2. With regard to why Obama got elected instead of Romney, there are no doubt already many reasons being cited.  And it’s important not to forget how close the election was despite the big electoral college victory.  But here’s another key oversight: to the extent that the election was a reflection of America’s changing social landscape, the culture wars were more determinative of the outcome than the fiscal ones.

There’s a popular narrative amongst some conservatives used to explain how and why the United States is changing, and it goes something like this: whereas previous generations believed in JFK’s quip about asking “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” the emerging entitlement generation and the growing welfare state populous just wants handouts.  Romney lost, in other words, because nearly the majority of the people in this country can now safely be called at best naive or irresponsible, and at worst lazy freeloaders who aren’t self-sufficient and morally upstanding.  Admittedly, this is a terse account, but I’m amazed out how many people seem to buy into it.

Now, there’s often a real grain of truth to conventional myths, and this is no exception.  Of course this “entitlement” attitude exists, and maybe it’s even growing — but it’s a gross caricature and still not even close to the dominant issue or “threat.”  To believe otherwise is to miss the fundamentally more significant, glaring trend.

The culturally progressive ideals of tolerance and value-pluralism, the decline of traditional role of religious institutions in society, pro-immigration policies, and individual liberties with respect to reproductive rights and sexuality — like’em or not — are here to stay.  This is not new.  Christendom died a long time ago; it’s just becoming all the more noticeable (marijuana legalization, gay marriage passing in other states, the first openly gay woman in the Senate, etc.).  Standing against gay marriage used to make you trustworthy.  Now it’s just as likely to identify you as a bigot.

The question of fiscal and economic austerity vs. the welfare state, however, may very well still be up for grabs.  For example, there are many young people who would prefer to have Ron Paul and Gary Johnson as president, and identify as libertarians.  While I don’t share this outlook myself and would refer my libertarian friends to #1 above, the argument for small government and lower taxes has not been defeated; rather, what we’ve seen is the beginning of the end of the religious right’s grasp for power.  (This does not mean religion is going anywhere; it is definitely not.  And indeed it’s being increasingly argued that we’re living in a post-secular society.  But the “none’s” and the “spiritual but not religious” folks are becoming the new normal.)

Romney had to run through an extended and overly negative primary race against a group of other candidates that, with maybe one or two exceptions, were associated by way too many people with conservative extremism (most notably Santorum, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain).  No matter how much Romney tried to shake this and appear more moderate by the time of the first debate, his image had already been tainted.  And it didn’t exactly help, in light of the financial crisis and the OWS movement, that Romney himself could be labeled as a member of the 1%.  Romney’s opponents in the primaries did such a good job pointing this out that Obama basically just had to carry on the same message.  Obama did run misleading negative ads; so did Romney.

So anyway, on the day after the election I did something I hadn’t done in many years: watch Fox News (and I only survived because I turned on the Daily Show afterwards).  I watched a full episode of The O’Reilly Factor and some of Hannity.  And within just this hour and a half, I was reminded of some basic truths that go something like this (though of course I’m not saying Fox News is a reliable test case for mass media in general):

  •  Besides the fact that it serves profit-motive and ratings rather than truth, for the mainstream media, all that exists and that is credible is what exists and is covered by the mainstream.  Everything else gets completely dismissed and delegitimized by oversimplified mischaracterization.  In other words, the underlying narrative and ethic has to justify the approximate status quo (even if it’s being criticized/reformed).
  • It’s essential for the mainstream to give the appearance of an accurate and fair representation of reality, however, so great effort is made to achieve this.  The manipulation to do so is powerful, subtle, and shockingly persuasive.  I would even call it intoxicating.  It’s a very smart machine (e.g., sometimes you have to bring on your token spokesperson of a non-mainstream view as a straw man and knock him or her down!).
  • Neither being wrong nor seeking reconciliation is an option.  There is only “us vs. them,” and our side is obviously right about all the big issues.
  • Don’t mess with our security and prosperity.  Anyone who suggests military spending is out of control or that decades of belligerent and rapacious U.S. foreign policy provoked 9-11 is clearly out of her mind.  And if you’re not talking about economic growth, don’t you dare bring up global poverty and its relationship to neoliberalism, environmental degradation, depleting natural resources or climate change (it’s either “not a real problem,” “not my problem,” “God will take care of it,” or worse, “the market will…”).

It is through tactics such as these that people become convinced by scapegoat narratives like the “entitlement culture.”  I’m all for fiscal responsibility and decreasing spending where appropriate, but what I also wonder about actually, is whether we’ve got this “entitlement culture” argument backwards; that is, is it not possible sometimes that those who feel most entitled in this country are in fact the people who think they’ve “built it” and feel entitled to their high living standard as a consequence?  Maybe we need to rethink our theology of work and money.

And maybe it’s possible that some people like myself actually believe government isn’t completely incompetent all the time (kind of strange how we have so much trust in military to always do the right thing though… speaking of the military and fiscal responsibility, if we cut our defense budget by 43%, it would only take us back to 2003 — here’s a chart).  Consider the following from Paul Rosenberg:

Right-sizing, rather than perpetually shrinking government [unless you’re a fan of financial crises and super-PACs]: As the response to Hurricane Sandy vividly reminded us, government workers aren’t worthless greedy parasites, as the Tea Party would have us believe. They’re everyday heroes who regularly do the largely invisible work that keeps our modern society going – and do it twice as long and hard in times of dire emergency.

What’s more, the most vital tasks governments take on are precisely those that businesses don’t want – that are too uncertain, too costly, take too long to pay off, or that produce too many benefits for others versus those who undertake them. In short, governments need to be judged by different criteria than businesses do. We need to sharpen those criteria and then meet them, rather than impose inappropriate business criteria on them.

But above all, we need to determine the size and scope of our government by the size and the scope of the threats, challenges and opportunities we face that government is most appropriate to deal with in order to “promote the general welfare”, as stated in the Constitution.

The “threats, challenges and opportunities” that Rosenberg is referring to are exactly what I’m talking about in point #1 above: the obstacles of globalization, unfair “free” trade, and unsustainable consumption empowered by militarism.  As I’ve argued in many previous posts, that Christians have a mandate for dealing with these problem through political and economic means is clear, even though our first allegiance is to the church and kingdom of God.  Democrats and Republicans alike are idolators with lots of blood on their hands.  On Tuesday I counted myself among them — even if I voted for a few Green Party folks! (cause that’s as close as you can get to voting for Jesus:))


[i] As the new centers of economic power, multinational corporations have become arguably the major driving force behind globalization.  Of the world’s one hundred largest economic entities, 51 are corporations and 49 are countries (the Institute for Policy Studies at ips-dc.org).  The sales of each of the world’s top five corporations at the dawn of the new millennium were bigger than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 182 countries.  Wal-Mart and Exxon-Mobil, for example, each had annual sales that are grater than the individual GDPs of Saudi Arabia, Poland, and Greece.  Even though corporations provide invaluable assets to the process of globalization, this seismic economic shift away from nation-states to multinational businesses has significantly influenced political decisions . . . Because much of the global village (especially the American sector) is increasingly influenced by the political agendas of business leaders, some wonder if some democratic countries should be called “corporatocracies” [or “dollarocracies”] (Daniel G. Groody, Globalization, Spirituality and Justice. Orbis Books, New York 2007, 14).  Moreover, globalization changes how much control nations and corporations have over employment and economic growth.  The inevitable result according to many theorists is that country’s will simply have to start providing more social safety nets in this environment — not as much because culture has changed and people now want more welfare, but because the international division of labor and the political economy of globalization has brought this new situation about.

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