Elections

COMMENTARY: Power Elites Are Waging War on the Foundations of Democracy

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

The two most critical requirements for democracy are freedom of the press and an educated citizenry.

The one informs the people and brings government and power into the open. The other enables people to comprehend information and to discuss opinions without resorting to panic and violence.

Power elites have declared war on both requirements.

These include “big money” oligarchs, such as the people who gather around the Koch brothers, politicians who cater to the wealthy in exchange for campaign contributions and government officials who have come to identify with the corporate and financial interests they regulate.

Through acquisitions of newspapers and television outlets and intimidation of reporters, these power elites seek to turn the press into propaganda vehicles and to distort information.

Moneyed Speech

IN ITS SEEMINGLY endless quest to attack the few remaining pillars of our campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court issued a brazen ruling in McCutcheon vs. FEC, striking down the aggregate contribution limits that capped the overall amount individuals could give to candidates and political parties each election cycle. As it was with Citizens United—the 2010 decision that said corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts—the court’s April ruling was striking not only in its naiveté about the effect of money in politics, but in its naiveté about the nature of the American experiment itself.

Whereas Citizens United focused on the nature of corporate spending in elections, this decision cuts straight to the chase. Should wealthy people have a greater ability to fund political parties and candidates—and benefit from the greater access and influence that awards them? The court sent a clear message about where it stands: Yes, they should. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, even cloaked the decision in pious language, stating, “if the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades ... it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Traditionally the court has asserted that the government has an interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption, the latter in order to sustain public faith in the democratic process. However, the McCutcheon decision defines “corruption” so narrowly that the original statute is essentially useless. The government can no longer prevent the appearance of corruption, and it would have a difficult time proving “quid-pro-quo corruption” occurred in the first place

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Crucible of Courage

IN THE PRESIDENTIAL election in Honduras last November, ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner despite serious irregularities documented by international observers. Violence and intimidation marked the campaign period, including the assassination of at least 18 candidates and activists from Libre, the new left-leaning party.

Hernández, past president of the Honduran National Congress, supported the June 2009 coup. His record of operating outside the rule of law includes bold measures to gain control over the congress, judiciary, military, and electoral authority. He helped establish a new military police force in August 2013, deploying thousands of troops to take over police functions. Hernández ran on a campaign promise to put “a soldier on every corner.”

Honduras has been named the “murder capital of the world,” with relentless violence coming from crime, drug cartels, and police corruption. Attacks on human rights defenders and opposition activists have been brutal and have allegedly involved death squads reminiscent of the 1980s. Those working to reverse poverty and injustice receive death threats, priests and lay leaders among them. They are bracing for even greater repression under Hernández’s administration.

The growing militarization of Honduran society, justified as a way of fighting crime, is fueled by U.S. support for the country’s security forces—forces reportedly involved in widespread human rights violations. By denying the repression against social movements, and congratulating the Honduran government for its supposed progress on human rights, the U.S. Embassy has made it possible for rampant impunity to continue.

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A Strong Third Political Party for the Disaffected Middle?

Sign at the Rally to Restore Sanity, Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Sign at the Rally to Restore Sanity, Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

I was talking to my wife, Amy, today about the news that Speaker John Boehner has requested movement from his party toward a temporary increase of the United States government debt ceiling.

The shutdown in itself is problematic enough. Our leaders have willfully put about a million people out of work while they haggle about policy that has already been put into law. The cost of their standoff to the United States economy is a loss of about $1.6 billion a week in economic output. And it’s more than a little bit ironic that this is being done on the watch of a Congress that supposedly has its first priority as jobs and economic growth.

However, all of this pales in comparison to the potential damage that would ripple throughout the global economy if we were to default on our debt. Because so many markets in the world peg their valuation system to the American dollar, and because so many exchanges use our currency as their monetary system, the prospect of the credibility of our money losing its footing in a potentially irreparable way could be nothing short of catastrophic worldwide.

“We should just fire them all," said Amy. “Just clean house and start fresh.”

The thing is, although this is a sentiment I hear on nearly a daily basis, and I've heard it over the course of many years, very little of substance seems to change when it comes to who represents us in Washington, D.C.

Bhutan Bans Religious Activities Ahead of Elections

RNS photo by Vishal Arora

Two Bhatanese students carry the national flag. RNS photo by Vishal Arora

NEW DELHI — Political leaders in the tiny Buddhist nation of Bhutan have announced a nearly six-month ban on all public religious activities ahead of the upcoming elections, citing the Himalayan nation's constitution that says “religion shall remain above politics.”

A notification by the Election Commission of Bhutan asks people's "prayers and blessings" for the second parliamentary election, expected in June 2013. But it also states that religious institutions and clergy "shall not hold, conduct, organize or host" any public activity from Jan. 1 until the election.

The ban comes a year after the country's religious affairs ministry identified Buddhist and Hindu clergy who should be barred from voting to keep a clear distinction between religion and politics.

How to Choose a President

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

[editor's note: This article was originally published in 2012. References to elections or politicians without specific dates attached are in the context of the 2012 election cycle.]

AS I CAREFULLY watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions this summer, I realized, once again, how challenging and complicated it is to bring faith to politics.

For example, the phrase “middle class” was likely the most repeated phrase at the conventions. And even though both parties are utterly dependent on their wealthy donors (a fact they don’t like to talk about), they know that middle-class voters will determine the outcome of the election. Now, I believe a strong middle class is good for the country, but Jesus didn’t say, “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.” Rather, Matthew 25 says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

When your first principle for politics is what happens to the poor and vulnerable—and I believe that is the first principle for Christians—you keep waiting at conventions for those words and commitments. There were a few moments when the poor were briefly mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a strong theme in Tampa or Charlotte. “Opportunity” for the middle class was an important word in both conventions this year, but Christians must be clear that creating new opportunities for poor children and low-income families is critical to us.

The conventions also talked a great deal about “success,” but how we define that is very important. Is success mostly about how much money we make, defining the “American Dream” as being able to pass on more riches to our children than what our parents passed on to us? Or is success measured by how we as a nation prioritize, in our spending and political choices, the sick, the vulnerable, the weak, and the elderly? Is it determined more by the values we pass on to our children—evaluating our lives, and theirs, by how much we are able to help others?

America is a nation of immigrants, and how we welcome “the stranger” in our midst is another Christian principle for politics. So is our racial diversity as a nation, where all our citizens must be treated as having equal value. The most inspiring stories at the conventions for me came when that diversity was evidenced on the stage—from a young undocumented “dreamer” and a black first lady on the platform at the Democratic convention to Condoleezza Rice telling her fellow Republicans how a little girl from a segregated Southern city became secretary of state. But little mention was made at either convention of the racial disparities in America’s burgeoning prison industry or voting suppression efforts that most affect minorities and people who are poor.

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The Looming Election and Religious Minorities

Souad Mekhennet writes for The New York Times on the growing hostility toward religious minorities as election season approaches in the United States: 

Muslims in Western countries say they have gotten used to the fact that as elections get closer, politicians pump up the volume of accusations against them, whether they are Sunni, Shiite or of another sect. In some European nations, it was the debate over women wearing the veil that set off the attacks. Now in the United States, where pivotal elections are looming, accusations against Muslims have reached a new level. It seems to some that the days of McCarthyism are back.

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