Thomas B. Edsall, professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of the forthcoming book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, wrote a Sunday opinion piece in the New York Times (01/08/12) that should give us considerable pause if we really think that the electorate, at least those of us who are ordinary citizens who might be called the grass roots, will be able to fundamentally change the way our government works.

In his next to last paragraph Edsall concluded:

There are idealists who believe that two recent developments raise the potential for reform. On the conservative side, the Tea Party movement is adamantly opposed to machinations inside the Beltway. On the liberal side, the Occupy Wall Street movement has similarly challenged the power of the ‘1 percent,’ a constituency heavily represented by the special-interest community, many of whom are themselves members of the 1 percent. In Washington, the consensus is that despite these movements, little will change (emphasis mine).

What is the problem here? Many believe that our government is broken and many also believe that no matter what happens in these elections our biggest problems will not be fixed by what they try do about it. Increasingly I share this perspective. This is not a conclusion based on pietism or upon a complete disdain for the dirty business of politics. And it is not a position of fatalism. I think, as best I understand what has happened in our society during my six-plus decades of life, we have passed through a fundamental change where both money and power have a much greater influence over the electoral process than ever before.

Make no mistake about this. Money and power have always corrupted societies and governments. This is why Lord Acton said in the 19th century, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What has changed in America is that money and power have become the real game-changer in our electoral politics and now on a massive scale. Unless, or more likely until, the people change we will not see government change. We as people will change when we value freedom and moral responsibility over influence and personal pleasure. If the roots are rotting then the tree will follow. It appears that we are in a long process of moral and social decline that might even speed up in ensuing years. Time will tell.

Edsall concluded his editorial by saying:

The weaponry of the special-interest community has become increasingly powerful. Lobbyists not only have ever greater resources at their disposal, they are also armed with the sophisticated technology of influence — polls, television, focus groups, computerized data banks, micro-targeting, each of them important in itself, and devastating when deployed in effective combinations. The net result is that the power of the electorate relative to the power of the Washington establishment has inexorably declined.

Can the power of the electorate be regained by the people? Yes, but the electorate has to change itself. If we are many and yet one nation, as e pluribus unum says we are, then something truly culture changing must take place. This requires more than grasping for power, from either the left or the right. It requires a new kind of civic commitment that requires a new kind of citizen/person. Where will these new citizens/persons come from? How will they be prepared for a future that looks very different from the past? Given the breakdown of family and communities what will bring us together?

My own dreams are not rooted in the past. What I long for is a greater display of the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those who love Christ and sacrifice their time and money for the good of community. This might influence the political process but this surely cannot be limited to what is happening in the elections of 2012. You will hear a lot about how this election is the most important in history. Don’t believe it. It is mostly rhetoric. Both sides will employ it to great effect. But in the end the outcomes of this election will not fundamentally alter our society.

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  1. Jack January 11, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    From Quintus Horatius Flaccus,
    “eheu fugaces labuntur anni”.

  2. Chris Criminger January 11, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Great post John,
    I spent some time talking to many college age kids at Passion conference in Atlanta Georgia. These young people give me hope!

  3. Greg Metzger January 19, 2012 at 8:15 am

    So true. Great perspective.

  4. sowarrior February 3, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    I for one would welcome a 3rd party candidate who said we have to both raise taxes and cut spending. One who would tell the voters that the country is heading for bankruptcy and that both spending has to be dramatically cut and everyone will have to pay more in taxes. But the problem such a candidate would have is that virtually everyone wants the proverbial free lunch. No one wants HIS/HER taxes raised or HIS/HER favorite program cut. Raise someone else’s taxes fine, cut someone else’s program fine as well, but leave mine alone, in fact lower my taxes and increase spending on my program. As long as that’s the attitude of the electorate, such a candidate is doomed to failure I’m afraid.

  5. John H. Armstrong February 3, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    I share your view and thus agreed with the Simpson-Bowles Committee Report. The problem is that both parties hated it and the President would not lead us based on the bipartisan counsel of his own committee. I became convinced then that we were in far worse trouble than we knew because we lacked leadership on all sides.

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