Sunday, March 10, 2013

Political Frustration and the Elder Brother

I noticed on Facebook a piece, supposedly written by Bill Cosby, called “I’m 83 and I’m tired.” Very quickly the piece began to stereotype the poor as lazy, lacking the ethic of people who work hard and have character, and take money from workers via taxes and programs in order to have nice things they (the poor) never worked for. I loathe that stereotype, but I read on, and the author expressed anger about Muslims (that it’s not really a religion of peace, etc.), liberals, the media, multiculturalism, left-wing millionaires, and other things.

I soon discovered that the piece was not by Cosby and, in fact, he had repudiated it on his own website. This website links to the whole piece: I believe that we should listen to one another and try to understand one another, so I read the whole piece. I wanted to understand the author’s viewpoint and take seriously the ideas and feelings he expressed as a veteran and public servant.

What puts you on a "soap box," if you listed political and social things that discourage and annoy you? For instance, I feel terrible bitterness about the fact that the common spirit we shared after 9/11 was so quickly squandered. I don’t know where to go with that anger, though---that lost moment was over eleven years ago, and we're more pissed off as a people than ever. (In his comment about the piece, Cosby called attention for our continuing need to "come together" post-9/11.) I also get angry at my friends who are Christians who love the Lord and his teachings but also engage in name-calling generalizations and stereotypes resulting from their political and social ideas. It's a kind of retrofitting that I deeply dislike. I've five or six other topics about which I could fuss.

But then I made an important connection during this morning's reading of the scripture lesson, the story of the Prodigal Son. Our anger at “them” and “those people”---in this case, those who aren’t as hard working as I am, who don't love our country as much as I do, whose religion isn't Christian, who are poor and therefore (we assume) are lazy---is a similar kind of anger as the Elder Brother's.

I AM NOT IMPLYING thereby that the poor, Muslims, multiculturalists, and others are dissipated and foolish like the Prodigal Son. My analogy is ONLY between the Elder Brother and those of us who feel angry at certain groups in our society because we feel like we’ve had better lives than they have, etc.----people with whom we dissociate ourselves and our common humanity via names and stereotypes. (The Elder Brother did this, too. When referring to him to his Father, he didn't say, "my brother," but rather "this son of yours.")  

All of us, liberals and conservatives, are the Elder Brother at one time or another. (Call the person Elder Sister if you want to be more inclusive.) We work our butts off and live good lives and are faithful in many ways, and care deeply about our country; and then, for whatever reason, we fear that our values are becoming threatened.

Obviously the U.S. Government and its policies are not analogous to the Father in the story: God and God’s wonderful, generous grace! But I’m thinking of ways we look at the frustration in our hearts and have a humane rather than resentful vision of people in our society, and of the common good.

The opinion piece falsely attributed to Cosby reminded me of some struggling words I wrote in a couple of November 2010 posts. (One nice thing about blogging is that you can plagiarize yourself, LOL.) The ethicist Eric Mount cites Robert Reich who in turn identifies four "stories" woven into American political discourse: the "mob at the gates" which is often about foreigners or any "dark force" portrayed as a real or perceived threat to American well being, "the triumphant individual" about workers and entrepreneurs which often pits economic discourage in terms of winners and losers, the "benevolent community" which lauds efforts to help the poor but which still portrays the poor as "them" who are helped by "us," and "the rot at the top" about big government and big business.(1)

To me, the theme of "better stories" is very rich, and the more you think about our social and political life as embodying "stories," the more you start to see that theme in other sources. The four stories that Reich frames can be seen in contemporary fears (as reflected in that original piece) about Muslims, anxieties about multiculturalism, fears that American has lost its way and needs to be "taken back" or "placed in a new direction," and the anxieties of groups that feel disempowered (for instance, the white working-class that has alternately voted Republican and Democrat during recent years).

A Mother Jones magazine article a while back (November-December 2010) traced the decline of the American middle class decline back to New York City's financial crisis in the 1970s, as well as California's Proposition 13 and the resulting decline in public services. Then came a recession and anti-union politics which hurt automobile workers. Manufacturing jobs have been declining, pensions have been declining, and more recently the housing market has hurt the middle class. Unfortunately some long-standing safety nets, notably Social Security and Medicare, have been under attack, for instance by GOP senator Alan Simpson and others who characterize Social Security as a form of welfare, rather than a fund to which we've paid for many years.(2)

This article dovetails well with The Great Risk Shift by Jacob Hacker, who argues, “Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.” That is, while the upper levels of society have become more secure, the lower and middle classes have had to shoulder more burden and more economic insecurity. This has come about in part because of free-market philosophies that are still popular among voters.(3)

Where does "story" come in? Another Mother Jones article argues that President Obama needed and still needs to tell a story that helped people understand and connect economic problems in a way that made his policies seem an alternative in the wake of "the failure of free-market conservatism" and which gives confidence to working voters. This is what President Reagan did. The article quotes Democratic consultant Paul Begala: Reagan "didn't blame President Carter or the Democrats. He indicted liberalism: too much government, too much taxation. To fix this mess, he said, we have to stay the course. That was his narrative. it was ideology; it was philosophical. It had sides. He had a story." (4)

Some of the frustration I feel about the president is exactly this: I wish he was telling a better story that would indeed help us liberals and conservatives find areas of common group----a feeling of “We’re all in this together.”  I want him to tell a better story more forcefully, but in that vacuum a much more inferior story (in my opinion) got told instead, that of the Tea Party.

Another good "story teller" was Reagan's antipode, Franklin Roosevelt. Robert Reich notes that FDR was overwhelmingly reelected in 1936 even though the economy had been in depression for the four years of his term, and eight years altogether. According to Reich: "FDR shifted the debate from what he failed to accomplish to the irresponsibility of his opponents. Again and again he let the public know whose side he was on, and whose side they were on. Republicans stood for 'business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking." FDR framed the "story" in a way that let voters know he was on their side. (5)

I do have to immediately say that, although us vs. them storytelling may be politically effective, I agree with Mount (taking the cue from Reich's own writing) that "us vs. them" is an inferior story to one which sees us working within the same crisis together to address the common good. In our discussions of politics and public policy we will likely never reach unanimity concerning the common good. But "covenant, community, and the common good" is a better source of a national story than the Tea Party's angry individualism, not to mention the political voices that speak language of innuendo and mockery. This is where the grace-ful language of religious faith can provide an alternative witness.

Another "story" which, in our current time, would also be challenging to articulate, is the story that government is not the problem, though certain government policies may be. A recent article in Christian Century notes that "No one should have to die of hunger--not in the 21st century." Churches and charities can do well, but so can government. For instance, the article notes that President Bush and Congress approved a $15 billion initiative for providing AIDS drugs to disease-ravaged Africa. (6) Yet another article, in a different issue of that magazine, noted that "our government could do much more to fight hunger if more citizens took part in the political process." Maybe the problem is not only misdirected government policies but also the fact that some of us do not practice our citizenship more vigorously, e.g., by writing our political leaders. (7)

Although I'm being idealistic, I think there is room for productive discussion on whether the federal, state, or local governments should shoulder the most responsibility. A friend and I chatted on Facebook about this topic recently. Speaking personally I trust and distrust different levels of government about equally. An interesting book that I used for one of my recent writing projects argued that, for instance, effective local application for and use of state and/or federal funds to provide low-income housing should not be neglected by people who appreciate volunteer and charitable efforts like Habitat.(8)

Another issue is what Evan Thomas called our "society of safety nets, a lawyer-constructed web where no one really has to take responsibility, where there's always someone else to blame..." We may have a society of safety nets, but as safety nets are taken away, people who have, indeed, taken responsibility in their lives but for the time being need extra help, are made to suffer while those less at economic risk avoid responsibility, as Hackler's book argues. One of Obama's challenges is to tell a story--Thomas even calls it "an ancient and honorable morality tale"---about the necessity for all Americans to sacrifice together for the long-term well-being of the country. As Thomas also says, "broadly speaking, American popular culture is not very amendable to sacrifice, to choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, as our sterner parents and grandparents might have said." (9) Somehow this must be done in a way that we don't continue to sacrifice (in the sense of discarding) the people about whom Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book Nickel and Dimed. (10)

But those people are, unfortunately, too rarely the top priority, but what if we began to hear and read more public leaders speaking, Facebooking, or tweeting on the side of the working poor, the underfed school children, or the seniors who have paid into Social Security and pensions for many years? What if any of the leaders of either party began to say things like: "We need to focus partisan debates upon the the working poor and the struggling middle class. We may disagree on the role of the federal government, but nevertheless, we need to debate and act. My opponents, X Y and Z, are not taking seriously the struggles of the needy: why not? What are our priorities?" If that happens, our American stories would become all the more commensurate with an overwhelming Bible story: God's tender concern for the poor and needy, God's love for the struggling (including whose who "don't deserve" love and respect, of whom the deeply loved Prodigal Son is a type).

Approaching public issues from a faith perspective can be very challenging. On one hand, many religious people tend to keep their religious faith and their politics in two mental "zones," so they feel warm in the love of God while other times spouting angry, uncaring political convictions that they picked up from the media. There is also the challenge of ongoing public discussion about what is the common good, and what is the proper role of government in enhancing the common good.

Eric Mount says it well: “Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of ‘us’ against ‘them’ will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater.” (11)

The Prodigal Son might be an excellent story to remember in this context. Not that the government is the loving God, and not other people are the Prodigal, but that we ourselves are the Elder Brother, feeling punished for being good people, unsure how to extend grace to others with whom we feel frustration.


1.  Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 47-48. See also his book Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 11.

2. James K. Galbraith, "Attack on the Middle class," Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 27-29.

3. Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5-6.

4. David Corn, "Will Obama Put Up a Fight?" Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 30.

5. Robert Reich's blog, "Why Obama Should Learn the Lesson of 1936, Not 1996,", Nov. 1, 2010.

6. Roger Thurow, "Criminal Negligence: the Scourge of World Hunger," Christian Century, Aug. 24, 2010, 22-23, 26.

7. David Beckmann, "Hunger is Political: Food Banks Can't Do It All," Christian Century, Sept. 21, 2010, 11-13.

8. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124. My writing project was as the principal writer of a curriculum produced by the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, “Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society,”

9. Evan Thomas, "Truth or Consequences," Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2010, 35-37 (quotes on p. 37).

10. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001), 25-27.

11. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

Quite a bit of this piece was written before the 2012 election, but it's interesting to me that "story telling" is, if not with that particular term, a contemporary challenge for both parties. It is still a pressing need for the president to shoulder, evidenced in some of the news magazine articles of the past few months. A piece in the 2/25/13 "Time" magazine by Mike Murphy explains why Obama "needs to stop campaigning and get serious about governing" (p. 16), and also the adjoining piece by Joe Klein who argues that "a lack of visionary ideas marks the start of Barack Obama's second term" (p. 17). But the Republicans, too, have perhaps an even greater need for new ideas and fresh leadership, as Pete Wehner comments in Time's March 11th issue: "There is an alternative conservative tradition [story] to draw on that seeks to accommodate timeless principles to shifting circumstances that rejects unyielding orthodoxy and believes limited government [but] is not carelessly antigovernment" (p. 16). An earlier piece, in the Feb. 11th issue by Michael Grunwald, complains that Republican leaders are "selling hypocrisy"in their inconsistency about spending cuts and thus are on a "road to nowhere" (p. 24). A long piece in the March 4 "New Yorker" similarly discusses Republican leaders' need to either revamp the party's message and approach or to communicate policy in a better way.

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