The Common Good

Reframing Failure

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about failure.

Not my failures, though I suspect we could come up with a few.

No, I’ve thinking about Scott Walker’s failed governorship in Wisconsin.

And Barack Obama’s failed presidency in the nation.

And our failed foreign policy.

And the failed Affordable Care Act.

And Walker’s failed jobs policy for the Badger State. And so on.

Then I started thinking about the failure of our political dialogue these days.

Some campaign consultant somewhere apparently decided that if you call your opponent a failure often enough, it will stick in voters' minds and they’ll vote for you. That’s particularly effective — perhaps only effective — if you are running against an incumbent.

Since there are both Democrats and Republicans (and an occasional independent) who currently hold office, pretty soon it’s not too hard for the average citizen to conclude that government as a whole is a failure, so why even bother?

That’s part of the poison of this particular bit of political rhetoric. That, and the fact that it is not true.

I’m not fan of Walker, but in the three years he has been the governor of Wisconsin, state government still functions. I don’t like many of his policies. I think some of them have particularly bad consequences for the most vulnerable among us. But as a governor, he is not a failure.

Likewise with Obama. I like him and his policies far more than I do Walker and his approach to governing. And yes, Obama has not been able to do all he promised. Guantanamo is still open, his embrace of same sex marriage came too slowly, he was not able to get sensible gun control through Congress. But this is hardly a failed presidency, especially considering that he has helped guide the nation back from the financial brink.

Lehman Brothers failed. Not the Obama presidency.

Likewise with our foreign policy. It’s hardly perfect. And the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in 2012 surely represented failures in funding security and implementing it. But it’s more than a little broad to describe the entire U.S. foreign policy as a failure.

So, too, with the Affordable Care Act. There are lots of fixes that still need to be made. But there are also all sorts of health care benefits people are now getting because Obama pushed the ACA through Congress.

And yes, Walker has not yet brought 250,000 new jobs to Wisconsin as he promised during his campaign for election in 2010. It was a goofy promise — governors only have a small impact on job creation. But Wisconsin has added jobs while he's been governor — not as many as he promised, not as many as neighboring states. But to say we could do better is not to write off everything else as a failure.

Here’s a simple suggestion. Politicians and their minions should put the word “failed” in the deep freeze for a while. It’s a knee-jerk word that, when you think about it, makes it seem as though the people using it have a failure of imagination.

If our political dialogue could focus on what needs changing in policies, if it could invite people into those debates instead of shutting them down with catch words, we might get closer to what democracy is supposed to be all about.

A vibrant democracy is so much more hopeful than a failed one.

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis.

Image: City Profile With Dramatic Sky. Via Jan Carbol/Shutterstock.

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