Friday, April 22, 2016

The Quest for the Conscious Candidate

The Rev. Frederich Schmidt, a fellow Episcopal priest and blogger whose work I often read on the Patheos site, has prompted his readers to think about the insights which inform their voting in political elections in his most recent blog post. From his own insights, he has distilled five priorities which are listed below:

One: Take the long view.
Two: Don’t panic.
Three: Focus on character and experience.
Four: Vote for bridge builders, not bridge burners.
Five: Support people who tell the truth.

I think these are valuable priorities indeed.

Guide for the Politically Perplexed

One: Take the long view. - The first is important to consider. Rome was not built in a day and neither were the problems our candidates face in any given election. Though we Americans are well-trained consumers who expect instant gratification, the problems of climate change, gun violence, racism, economic inequality, educational direction and security in a fragile technologically sophisticated society did not arise overnight and will take many years of concerted effort to resolve. Delayed gratification is the mark of an adult human being. America is still maturing as a culture in many ways.

Two: Don’t panic. - The second is a version of my own maxim: Fear makes a particularly poor basis for policy making. While prudence requires critically examining possibilities that our interests in being secure could be jeopardized, the ongoing awfulizing of bogey men, both real and imaginary, that has dominated our entertainment driven media, our foreign policy and increasingly the behavior of our local police departments, has long since lapsed from prudence into paranoia. As such it poisons our visions of the other, both those in foreign lands who follow different creeds, but in the festering hearts of our cities at home as well. Don’t panic is not simply an insight. It is an imperative for a healthy society.


Three: Focus on character and experience. - The third is perhaps the most critical in my view. What is the life experience of the candidate? What do they know about poverty? About war? About making a living on minimum wage or less? What do they know about being disempowered, about being in positions where the privilege they take for granted is denied them, situations where they are not in control of their most basic life concerns? These are learning experiences that build character in my view. Without them, candidates tend to operate largely out of tribal perspectives, presuming that their own limited experience and the understandings of the world that flow from them are somehow normative for everyone.


Four: Vote for bridge builders, not bridge burners. – The explanation the author gives for this priority is the ability and willingness to compromise. This concern arises in a context of the least productive Congress in American history due to the large influx of Teapot congressman unwilling to compromise on anything. Yet, the ability to compromise is an important trait for a candidate who would seek to serve an entire country or state or locality and not just the infamous “base.”

Clearly elections give voters an opportunity to serve only their own particular or tribal interests, an option sometimes encouraged by candidates willing to appeal to the lowest, most self-focused levels of moral reasoning (“Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?” – Ronald Reagan 1980 campaign). Yet, the holder of collective power must be willing to transcend those interests if s/he is to be an effective public servant. ALL of the public deserves to be served fairly and equally in a true democratic republic. While that may well involve compromise, it decidedly means meeting the need to transcend one’s own interests (e.g., reelection) and the narrow interests of one’s political base.

Five: Support people who tell the truth. – This is perhaps the most primordial of Schmidt’s priorities in that truth telling and candor are required for any kind of relationship with those governed which is based in trust. 

Without trust, government has no legitimacy. Without legitimacy, governments have very short shelf lives. 


Sadly, I have come to wonder if the American public truly desires truthfulness in its elections. We have acquiesced to an electoral process dominated by marketing which can spin a sow’s ear into a silk purse and find willing buyers. Indeed, to the degree Americans have traded in their duties as citizens to become educated, informed and involved in the democratic process for the largely passive roles of consumers demanding comfort, convenience and instant gratification, we have signaled to candidates that not only do we not want candid truth telling from our candidates, we want them to tell us what we want to hear.

At the bottom line, it appears we have chosen to be entertained rather than informed. There is a reason this election has been dominated by a “reality” television actor and frat boys trading in penis jokes.


In Search of Conscious Candidates

I think Father Schmidt has done a good job of laying out priorities that thoughtful voters should consider. The fact his column has gained few respondents on the Anglican Communion list on LinkedIn or the Patheos list online is disappointing but not terribly surprising. He is calling all of us to do something we are loathe to do: to become critically conscious of our own values, why we hold them and how they affect the lives we lead. If I had to summarize his priorities in one concept, it would be Consciousness.

Over my lifetime as a voter (I registered to vote on my 18th birthday and have only missed one election on a local referendum since) I have voted for candidates in both major political parties as well as those from the Green, Peace and Justice, Libertarian and New Alliance parties. In addition, I have voted for numerous candidates with no party affiliation. I spend a day prior to each election reading up on the candidates both from their online sites and the avalanche of bulk mailers they send me as well the newspaper endorsements and voter guides online.

What I look for in candidates are the indications of their levels of Consciousness. Here are some of the elements that I consider:

1.    Tribality - Do they appeal primarily to tribal interests? How big is their tribe? Do they demonstrate any awareness that others exist outside the circled wagons?  Do they evidence the capacity and the willingness to transcend the interests of their tribe to serve the interests of “we, the people” generally?

2.    Groupspeak- Do they speak in code about “school choice,” “tax incentives” or “law and order” to avoid the implications of their thinly disguised racial and class appeals? How frequently do they lapse into ideological constructions such as nebulous references to “the market” or undefined but clearly pejorative references to “socialism?” Does their speech demonize others such as references to “illegal aliens?” Do they deliberately confuse disparate ideas such as Islam, the world’s second largest faith tradition, with terrorism?  

3.    Life Cocoon - What is their background, educationally and experientially? Have their developmental lives sheltered them from those who were different from themselves or allowed if not required them to engage the wider world around them? Do they have the experiential bases to draw sound decisions? How big is the life cocoon in which they have developed? How likely is their life experience to have taken them outside their comfort zones? Did they stay at Hyatts in overseas locations or live with the common people of their destination, learning of their food, their customs, their concerns?

4.    Rational Capacity - Do they demonstrate the capacity to think critically? Do they offer evidence of the ability to engage in creative problem solving or do they simply defer to one more arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic deck of the status quo? Do they have a vision (recognizing that without a vision the people perish)? Is their rationality critical, informed by heart and spirit and concern for how their decision making might impact people very different from themselves? Or does their rationality tend to be instrumental, serving foregone conclusions without consideration for how they might impact others?

5.    Groundedness – Do they demonstrate any kind of spiritual grounding? Do they manifest compassion for those who suffer for whatever reason? Do they demonstrate an awareness of and appreciation for the other life forms with whom we share this planet?  Do they respect the many disparate ways human beings have tried to make meaning of our brief lives in this place? What level of consciousness do their own systems of meaning demonstrate? What ultimate values do they evidence?

Clearly, these are deeper considerations of candidates than most voters are willing to make. I recognize that the chances that a Platonic philosopher king will be on the ballot this fall are slim and his/her chances of succeeding once there would be even slimmer.

Yet, I continue to hold to hope that Churchill was correct in his other observation that “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” Indeed, I see my concern for consciousness in those who would lead us as the natural culmination of the democratic impulse. We deserve the best and the brightest leading us but we must also do our own part to insure that happens.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Like Christ, be an optimist, not a pessimist. Agape, Mike