The Common Good

Political Games in Dead-Serious Times

Some brief observations on the 2010 election season which, thankfully, has come to an end:

Because Americans allow bickering politicians and ratings-driven news executives to tell us what constitutes "politics," we have a tragically short-sighted view of what it means to be citizens with a shared destiny who seek the common good and the flourishing of all. (In other words, we're all in the same boat, but we stand around on deck mocking and belittling each other while the vessel slowly sinks. But, boy, does our smugness-while-drowning make us feel good.)

Actually, we're not all drowning -- yet. Those of us not in dire straits seem to make the most noise about the silliest things. Our public schools are failing, but .. Obama is a Muslim! A socialist! a Kenyan! CEOs of major corporations make 400 times -- 400 hundred times -- what the people who clean up after them earn, but ... gay marriage will destroy America!

The desperate poor do not make the nightly coverage on O'Reilly or Olbermann; they've learned that politics is not a game they're allowed to play. In this country you have to have enough money and leisure time to have a legitimate complaint -- and the tacky sign to prove it.

If we don't know what the word "politics" means, neither do we know what an "economy" is. Politicians and presidents tell us that it's about free markets and consumer buying power. Some say we need to spend more to "stimulate" the economy and others say we don't. (Actually they don't really say this; they bellow and howl in red-faced mock-fury, invoking a coming doomsday in order to agitate a gullible electorate.)

But both sides, in fact, presuppose and endorse an anti-economy -- a system of amassing abstract wealth and circulating it, for the benefit of a few, "globally." A real economy is one in which there is a meaningful connection between the material provisions of a society and the people who produce and consume such goods. This kind of economy (oikonomia) presumes neighborliness -- a concept often exploited for political gain in sentimental campaign ads, but which is deemed to have no significance for the "real business" of politics in a free-market economy.

Which brings a final observation full circle: Without a sense of our shared lot as persons who inhabit a finite plot of earth and whose well-being depends ultimately on that of our neighbors, we will continue to drink the bitter cup of divisiveness and mutual suspicion and think it tastes good. The TV talking heads will stoke our fears and we will let them. We will gloat after election night when our candidate wins, or we'll fear imminent apocalypse if she doesn't.

Or not. We could practice the politics of partnership and collaboration. We could turn off the TV and get to know our neighbors. We could participate in local economies that free us from dependence on self-interested corporations. And we could pursue the interests of our hurting neighbors above our own, confounding the candidates who expect our one and only question always to be, "What will you do for me?"

This would be, as they say, a game changer, and might make a lot more people willing and able to play.

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.

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