Thursday, November 8, 2012

Was the U.S. Election Legitimate?

The 2012 U.S. presidential election was the most expensive ever, coming in at over a billion dollars for Obama and Romney each. The cost for the whole election, including seats in the Senate and Congress, was six billion. Much of this money was spent on T.V. ads (a full million of them), blitzing Americans with a daily dose of manufactured opinion from both sides, most of it finger-pointing and destructive.

It was also by far the longest election, fought right from the get-go--the moment of Obama's 2009 inauguration--when Rush Limbaugh said he wanted the president to fail. From that point it was the declared purpose of the political right to de-elect Obama, and reciprocally by his supporters to forestall that outcome. The claim of the "Birthers" that Obama was not born in the U.S., and had not provided a valid birth certificate, further intensified the sense of an ever-open election season.

The endless election was indeed a denial of legitimacy for Obama, and the last four years have opened up the question of legitimacy in a general way. What in fact makes for a legitimate president? The notorious "Citizens United" decision by the Supreme Court, allowing "dark money" to pour into the election campaigns, has undermined the traditional piety of "government by the people for the people." Individuals or corporations are allowed to throw unlimited cash into the candidate's war chests and often without duty to disclose who they are. Such unaccountable money cannot possibly be democratic. Hundreds of millions of dollars are not spent to facilitate free exercise of judgment on the part of each citizen. They are intended to influence and buy the crowd.

An excoriating piece by Chris Hedges, the S&M Election, denounced the presidential election as an exercise in cruelty, abuse and violence. Hedges quotes Gustave Le Bon, writing on the phenomenon of the crowd: “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

The sociologist Le Bon is recognized to be a forerunner of Rene' Girard. According to Girard's thought crowds can never have legitimacy, because they mobilize as crowd against the single victim, blaming that figure for their own mimetic violence which they then unleash. The mob that turned against Jesus is the textbook example. Thus when a politician mobilizes the violence of the crowd against an individual or group, by a biblical definition he loses legitimacy.

The amazing thing is that the huge glut of private money funneled into the election did not seem entirely to work. Americans, to some degree, seem to have made their decisions despite, not because of the adverts. The biggest single donor in history, the casino billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, plunked down millions of dollars supporting eight candidates in Tuesday's election: none were victorious.

Which suggests there might be another source to democracy apart from the dynamics of the crowd, and there might also, therefore, be another, genuine source of legitimacy. Might it be possible there was actually a sense of common interest and even the common good which helped mobilize the electorate last Tuesday?

Before we get carried away, we must also remember that it was one of the constant boasts of the Obama side that he killed Osama Bin Laden. A couple of days before the election the organization "Obama For America" sent me an email listing the top twenty five reasons to re-elect their man. Number Four was: "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive." As Adam Ericksen so well points out Obama has "fostered a culture of violence," continually using drones in Pakistan, terrorizing a whole population and the generation of its children. There is inescapably violence at the source of the favor in which the crowd holds him.

In this respect the Christian finds all presidential legitimacy a very ambiguous thing indeed. It was something foreseen by Augustine of Hippo. In The City of God Augustine describes how the Christian people are invested in the peace of the human community, including its political realization, sharing that goal with the political state. But Christians are not invested in the means by which the state achieves its ends. Augustine describes nations as consumed by "libido dominandi," a violent lust for power. In contrast the Christian community seeks to promote the political ends of peace by its own proper means, which are the non-violent means of Christ, the love of God and neighbor.

So what does this election teach us? Once again the surprise is really that so much of the negative mobilization against Obama did not work. So, despite the fact that Obama himself engages in the standard mobilization of the crowd against the enemy, is it also possible that the long soaking of West in the gospel of Jesus has resulted, at least to some degree, in another kind of legitimacy, one that comes from Christ. The willingness to care for each other, via some form of universal Health Care, the acceptance of difference, including in sexual orientation, as the necessary path to love, the rejection of money as the sole standard of human meaning, via progressive taxation, all this can justly claim to be an effect of the gospel. (And, yes, I know I have not mentioned abortion, the anti-Obama rallying cry of the Catholic bishops, but as Nicolas Cafardi argued Obama was more pro-life than Romney. The Affordable Health Care act will provide economic support to vulnerable pregnant women and so make abortion less likely.)

In sum this Christ-inspired legitimacy does not belong to Obama, or to any one party. Its fault lines go across the parties, right through communities, and down the middle of U.S, self-consciousness itself. It does not in fact identify itself with any one party or candidate. Its existence is a question much more of the Christian movement continuing to provide a new basis of legitimacy, within a secular world increasingly nervous of the dystopian power of violence. Its function is to be salt to the earth, telling the story over and over again, insisting in season and out on the apocalyptic (i.e. humanity transforming) principles of contemporary Christianity. It seeks to arrive at the point where Obama and presidents after him will regard killing people not as a claim of legitimacy but, according to the revelation of the Christian Messiah, a source of de-legitimation.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

1 comment:

  1. The mimetic violence during the campaign had to be painful, a participation in the Paschal Mystery, for anybody sensitized by the Gospel. As noted in this blog post, Obama has his drawbacks, but he has done some positive things for the public good & hopefully will accomplish more in a second term. It was another political party that overtly built hatred of specific groups into its platform. What I found most painful about the campaigns was the incredible amount of money spent -- so many widow's mites -- it breaks my heart to think of the millions of people in need who could have been helped by the money given to pay for mostly destructive TV ads. Fortunately, I hardly ever watch television & I didn't have to watch the ads myself.