The Common Good
January 2011

Lessons from the Midterm Elections

by Jim Wallis | January 2011

In politics there is always a spiritual choice to be made -- a choice between hope and fear.

In politics there is always a spiritual choice to be made -- a choice between hope and fear. Leaders can build movements by appealing to a vision of what our country can be or by painting a picture of what to fear. Barack Obama won in November 2008, in the midst of a recession, bank failures, and two wars, by speaking to our values as a country and by riding a movement that had reason to hope and was ready to work for change.

But the new president soon lost the narrative, and the "movement" is now on the other side of the political aisle. Sadly, this fall the vast majority of the country voted against rather than for particular candidates or policies.

Scriptures say, "Without a vision the people perish." Soon after he was elected, the president let the vision perish, and the people soon followed. A campaign of "hope and change" and "yes we can" was replaced by the politics of diminished expectations and "they won’t let us." Without a deeper vision, a vacuum formed, and into it grew a different sort of movement. The "new populism" in America is now decidedly on the Tea Party Right.

Washington politics has been frozen solid, with little movement or motivation to solve the nation’s problems. We have seen the opposition party adopt a politics of sabotage more intense than any in years. On cable TV and talk radio, honest and robust political discourse has been replaced by an ideological food fight.

It feels as if civility has died in America, and urgent pleas for a more truthful and respectful public discourse from religious leaders and former lawmakers from both parties have been ignored by a media that loves a perpetual conflict narrative. But many in the country still long for a more civil tone in our political discussion.

The problem is not merely a failure of communication, or -- as conservatives contend --how bad and unpopular Obama's policies are. The problem is that Washington, D.C., is wired to block social change. Those who want change have naively overestimated how much a new, young, progressive president could do. And the new president was overconfident about how much he could accomplish with his powers of persuasion and desire to transcend partisan divisions. What has still not been really understood by Obama's White House, by most of his supporters, or by the media is this: It takes a movement.

Social change does not ultimately rest on who is in the White House, but on a movement outside of Washington that makes fundamental reforms possible. What we need to relearn now is the choreography of the outside/inside dance that real social change always requires.

Real social movements reject the rigid partisanship that has come to dominate official Washington. The kind of social movement we need will not focus on Democratic or Republican victories in the next election cycle, but on finding allies wherever they are.

Just as Lincoln needed Frederick Douglass, Roosevelt needed the labor movement, and Kennedy and Johnson needed King and the black-church-led civil rights movement, Obama needs the kind of social movement that is always necessary to make real change in Washington. Learning the lessons of the midterm elections will mean no longer just wondering what Obama will do next, but also asking what we will do.

We have learned in the last two years that changes in Washington, Wall Street, and the country are much harder to accomplish than most expected. The combination of entrenched politics (on both sides), hugely influential special interests, the growing power of money in politics, the 24/7 assault of ideologically driven media machines, and a passive electorate that believes voting is the only requirement of citizenship -- all contributed to where we now find ourselves.

The relational and convening power of the faith community has the potential to chart a more prophetic course on behalf of the issues that are central to us. Religious advisers might not be as needed now as prophets. The faith community will always lift up the biblical priority of the poor, the weak, the sick, the left out and left behind, and the children -- and we will look for allies on both sides of the political aisle wherever we can find them.

Neither the Left nor the Right has the answers, so we have to focus on the spiritual and moral values that bring us together, that choose the common good over private gain, inclusiveness over intolerance, civility over shouting, morality over expediency, stewardship over consumption, truth over spin, and right over wrong.

These are the values that work for our personal lives, for teaching our children, for leading our congregations, for changing our communities, for holding politics accountable, and for creating the social movements that make a difference. We've learned that making change is harder than we think; now it's time to go deeper.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. This column is adapted from a series on the God’s Politics blog (blog.sojo.net).

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