The case for a four-party system

Not conservative enough, evidently.

Not conservative enough, apparently.

This week, two events got me thinking about America’s two-party system. One was Eric Cantor, one of the most prominent—and most conservative—members of the House, losing his primary to candidate and a movement who felt he wasn’t conservative enough. The other was a report from the Pew Research Center, showing just how polarized we’ve become in the last 20 years.

I know, this isn’t the usual sort of thing I write about here. I’m intrigued and repulsed by politics at the same time. It’s like a car crash…you can’t look away. The older I get, the more ambivalent I become about participating in our political machine. So if politics isn’t your thing, you may just want to skip this post. I’m mostly writing to get it out of my system anyway.

People have been talking about third party for, well… probably as long as there have been two parties in this country. But creating a viable third party is notoriously difficult. Just ask Ross Perot. Our political system is designed to favor two parties, roughly evenly matched.

I’ve started to think that what we need is not a third party but a third and fourth party. Counterintuitively, having four major parties might help ratchet down the increasing polarization of late.

The third party in this scenario is fairly obvious. The Tea Party should break off from Republicans and form their own party. Evidently, this has occurred to lots of other people. Type the words “should the Tea Party” into Google and see what comes up. Tea Partiers are notoriously ambivalent about their own party, with 43% having a negative view of the GOP.

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So why not split? Why persist with an internal slugfest that most analysts predict will hurt both Tea Partiers and mainstream Republicans in the long run? Why wage a battle for the so-called purity of the Republican party, calling the other side RINOs (Republican In Name Only) without ever seeing the irony? Why not give conservative-leaning voters a choice between a center-right party and a far-right party?

Of course the reason, known to Tea Partiers and conventional Republicans alike, is that splitting the party would send both groups into the political wilderness. Neither faction by itself can cobble together a large enough base to govern. Today, 47% of the US electorate leans Democratic; 40% leans Republican. If you split that 40% two ways, well…you do the math.

But what if something similar happened on the leftward end of the political spectrum? Democrats also tend to fall into one of two camps—moderate or “blue dog” Democrats on the one hand and progressives on the other. The divide is nowhere near as fractious as the one between Tea Partiers and Republicans—yet. But it’s real nonetheless.

So what if progressives bolted? It’s no secret most are almost as disillusioned with Barack Obama as conservatives are. (OK, for very different reasons.) And the thought of Hillary Clinton as his heir apparent has caused some to not-so-secretly wish that Elizabeth Warren would mount a challenge…sort of doing to Clinton in 2016 what Obama did to Clinton in 2008.

Why not let voters choose from four parties instead of two? The right and left wings of the electorate are pulling away from each other, as the Pew Research Center showed this week. Meanwhile, the two major parties are failing to get much of anything done as they struggle to contain their increasingly discontented bases.

I think a four-party system would be good for two reasons:

1. Four parties would cover the political spectrum better than two.

Most of American politics over the last several decades has consisted of people somewhere in the middle duking it out. This might have worked well enough when the number of people identified as “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative” was fairly small, as was the case in 1994. But more people have gravitated to the left and the right since then, and they’re realizing they don’t have a home in our current two-party system.

Another way to get at this is to think of political ideologies in terms of four quadrants: the authoritarian right, authoritarian left, libertarian right, and libertarian left. Only the first two quadrants are represented by our two-party system. (Some would argue that both parties operate entirely within one quadrant, that Democrats and Republicans are varying shades of authoritarian right.)

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Libertarians on the left and right tend to be overlooked…until they make some noise, that is—as right-wing libertarians have done in the form of the Tea Party. (Heck, many Americans don’t even realize there is such a thing as left-wing libertarianism.)

2. No party would be able to claim a majority on its own, forcing parties to work together in order to govern.

Granted, moving toward a European parliamentary model might not be most Americans’ cup of tea. But creating a system where no single party commands a majority by itself does have one key advantage: it forces people of differing ideologies to work together if they want to accomplish something.

In some cases, depending on the political cycle, that could mean a legislative coalition between Republicans and Tea Partiers. Or between Democrats and progressives. It could mean a coalition in the middle, between Republicans and Democrats.

On certain issues of importance to libertarians both left and right, Tea Partiers and progressives might even come together—for example, to roll back government infringement of privacy (Cough! NSA. Cough!).

Having four parties would not lesson our ideological differences. But it might force us to be more honest about them. It would give like-minded people a chance to organize around a platform they believe in, instead of waging a civil war for control of a political party that never really belonged to them in the first place. And because no single party could govern unilaterally, it would force people from different camps to stop demonizing each other long enough to (hopefully) achieve something meaningful.

It’s probably pie in the sky, I know. But can it be any worse than what we have now?

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

How this is about context (and not botching the Bible)

Rep Conaway debates SNAP reduction

So…the debate on Capitol Hill turned biblical the other day.

Democrats and Republicans took turns quoting Scripture during a debate over a proposed $4 billion cut to the welfare program formerly known as food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

Kicking things off, Representative Juan Vargas (D-California):

There are starving children in the United States… but for me, it’s more basic. Many of us who follow Jesus — who say that openly, and I certainly do — often times read the Bible, and Jesus kind of fools around and gives you parables. He doesn’t often times say exactly what he means. But in Matthew 25, he’s very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says that how you treat the least among us — the least of our brothers — that’s how you treat him. And interestingly, the very first thing he says is, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me [something] to eat.’

If Republicans were caught off guard by Democrats unabashedly using the J-word, they hid it well. But they had their work cut out if they were going to regain the upper hand in the Capitol Hill Bible Challenge.

Not missing a beat, Mike Conaway (R-Texas) took to the pulpit to respond:

I read Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual; I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. So I will take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things, but not our government.

And then came Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) with a prooftext of his own, quoting the apostle Paul as an early supporter of cutting government food assistance:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Rep. Fincher’s mishandling of Paul’s statement has to be one of the more egregious abuses of Scripture I’ve seen. Others have already pointed out how the context of 2 Thessalonians undermines Fincher’s interpretation. Paul was addressing a community of early Christians who thought the end of days was upon them, that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. Therefore, they decided there was no point in working any longer. They were content to just sit back and wait for Jesus to reappear.

Paul wanted Christians to be active and engaged in the world around them — earning a living, contributing to society — not pressing the “check out” button early. That’s why he said, “Hey, if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to eat, either.” It had nothing to do with poverty, government assistance for the hungry, or anything like that.

Nor is it remotely fair to equate food stamp beneficiaries with the supposedly lazy recipients of Paul’s letter. The reality is that most people living in poverty work harder, longer, and earn much less than I make while I sit in a comfortable office each day.

All of which is to say: context matters.

By quoting an isolated verse with complete disregard for its context, Rep. Fincher shamefully misused the Bible to advance his own political agenda.

I would really like it if the story ended there. I’d also really like it if Matthew 25 meant what Rep. Vargas said it means.

But it doesn’t.

Social justice organizations — many of which I support — have gotten a lot of mileage out of Jesus’ “least of these” statement in Matthew 25. It’s quoted repeatedly as a general call to help the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable. Heck, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used it that way.

But what Jesus actually said was, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine…”

“Brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) is a term Jesus used of his disciples. The word “least” is actually a form of the Greek word for “little ones” — which he also used in reference to his disciples.

If you back up a few pages, you’ll find that Matthew 25 is part of an extended discourse which began after Jesus and his 12 disciples left the temple. As they sat on the Mount of Olives, Jesus started preparing them for a coming period of upheaval — one so intense that not even the temple would survive.

Jesus told his disciples to anticipate hardship in the years to come. The blessings (and curses) in Matthew 25 were for those who showed (or withheld) some form of mercy to Jesus’ suffering followers. It was not a blanket statement about poverty and injustice.

Now, as it happens, there ARE plenty of broad statements about poverty and injustice to be found in the Bible.

Isaiah 58, for example.

Or Isaiah 61 which, though originally addressed to Jewish exiles in Babylon, was picked up by Jesus and was expanded to include Gentiles (much to the chagrin of his synagogue audience in Nazareth).

The fact that Matthew 25 may not be a blanket statement about poverty does nothing diminish to Scripture’s unrelenting focus on the poor and the vulnerable.

So why do we keep using Matthew 25 out of context?

The thing is, if we insist on using our favorite verses like this, then we have no right to challenge others when they misuse the Bible. I happen to think Rep. Vargas is more in tune with the overall trajectory of Scripture than either Rep. Conaway or Fincher. But all three were examples of Christians quoting the Bible badly the other day.

Not that such examples are hard to come by. The truth is, we’ve all given in to the habit of quoting Scripture selectively.

We might not have this problem if we didn’t insist on dicing Scripture into artificial nuggets and calling them verses. Or if we would get into the habit of reading what comes immediately before and after a given passage of Scripture. Discerning the context of Matthew 25 or 2 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t take a theological degree.

All it takes is a willingness to read attentively. To read the Bible on its terms, not ours.

And to maybe read more than a verse at a time.

If we read the Scriptures more holistically, we might not make Mike Conaway’s mistake either — claiming the Bible addresses individuals only and not societies whenever it says something that doesn’t line up well with our political leanings.

“Clearly you and I are charged to do those kinds of things [e.g. feeding the hungry],” Rep. Conaway reasoned, “but not our government.”

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has read the prophet Amos, who yearned for justice — by which he meant economic justice — to “roll on like a river.”

And just who, according to Amos, was partly responsible for maintaining economic justice?

Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has ever read Psalm 72, where the writer prays that the king (Solomon in this case, according to tradition) will maintain justice and righteousness:

May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway is aware that his brand of individualism — the lens through which he reads and then discards those parts of the Bible that make him squirm — would have been an utterly foreign concept to the original writers and recipients of Scripture? Theirs was a world shaped by community, one in which an “I built that” mentality was simply incongruous.

The idea that some portions of Scripture could be read individually and not corporately?

It would have been unthinkable to those first recipients of the Bible.

Context matters when reading the Bible.

Which means that, no, Matthew 25 isn’t a blanket statement on helping the poor — though there are plenty other such statements in the Bible.

And no, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 isn’t a biblical endorsement of libertarian economic policy. (It’s a denunciation of end-times escapism.)

And no, Rep. Conaway, you can’t read the Bible’s injunctions on poverty and injustice as if they were statements to you as an individual and not to the society you’re a part of. The biblical writers simply didn’t make that kind of distinction. And as for the prophets, well, they spent a good chunk of their time addressing people like you — that is, rulers and authorities with the power to do something about injustice.

So may we all learn to do better by the Bible so that, together, we can embody the kind of justice it expects of us and our society.

On the vanity of partisan politics

Today a friend shared this video on Facebook, in which a reporter from ReasonTV, a libertarian video channel, interviews delegates at the Democratic National Convention to find out just how pro-choice they really are.
 

For many, the video highlights a glaring inconsistency in the Democratic platform. Apparently, “it’s my body, my choice” applies when you’re terminating a pregnancy, but not when it comes to drinking excessive quantities of soda.

My guess is the libertarian producers of this video were more concerned with the regulation of sugary drinks and light bulbs than abortion. Though in fairness, many libertarians are pro-life, because in their view, one individual’s liberty ends where someone else’s personhood begins. Either way, the inconsistency highlighted by this video is real. And troubling.

But imagine if someone had turned the cameras on the other party during their convention and asked, “Just how pro-life are Republicans?” On the one hand, the Republican platform calls for a constitutional amendment to protect unborn children.

But how pro-life is it to oppose the EPA’s efforts to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants — a rule designed to protect children born and unborn from the well-documented health effects of such pollutants?

How pro-life is it to lead the country into not one but two wars of questionable necessity (assuming you believe there’s ever such a thing as “justifiable necessity” when it comes to war)?

How pro-life is it to play politics with climate change when the risks of inaction far outweigh the risks of overreaction in the unlikely event the scientists are wrong? Many experts in the humanitarian sector (in which I used to work) will tell you that climate change is the single greatest threat to all the progress that’s been made combating poverty, hunger, and disease over the last few decades.

Now it’s not as if one party is more virtuous than the other. The truth is, hypocrisy runs deep on both sides of the political divide. Those of us who are Christians would do well to remember this as we engage in (or disengage from) the political process this year.

Politics is not just the art of governing; it’s also the pursuit of power. And in our increasingly polarized society, it seems to be more about the latter than the former. Hence our never-ending election cycle.

That’s why Christians should be wary of getting too cozy with either party. Because we are called to serve, not to become someone else’s pawn in their accumulation of power. We are called to speak truth to power but never to seek it for ourselves. Ever notice how the Old Testament prophets routinely confronted the kings of Israel without seeking their favor or patronage?

It’s not that there’s no place for Christian political engagement. I believe there is. But I also believe our role is to be a prophetic voice, and you can’t do that when you’re a mouthpiece for one party or the other.

So when Democrats talk about protecting the vulnerable in our midst, we can applaud while also pointing out the blind spot in their thinking when it comes to abortion. And when Republicans talk about the sanctity of life, we can say amen while also reminding them that life is just as sacred outside the womb as in it.

This may not be a strategy for electoral success, but as Christians, aren’t we called to believe in something bigger?

Fast food continent

Recently, I saw this ad—one of several from the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates, among other things, the use of free market economics to help fight poverty:

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I respect the Acton Institute. I think they have several good ideas about fighting poverty. Some of their other ads advocate things like microloans for the poor and access to global markets for developing countries so they can trade their goods freely.

But in the case of this particular ad, there’s another perspective worth considering. What if 30 grams of fat is not, in fact, good for the world’s poor? What if the Big Mac represents the kind of consumerism that can hurt the poor by damaging their environment?

Consider this example from Matthew Sleeth’s book Serve God, Save the Planet (which I blogged about last month):

To obtain billions of hamburger patties for a few cents each, America’s fast-food restaurants buy much of their meat from Central and South American farmers. These farmers clear-cut forests, often starting a cattle-raising process that can be sustained for only a few short years. The loss of rain forests in South America means that the clouds they once made no longer blow across the Atlantic to drop their water on Africa. As a result, the Sahara grows by thousands of acres a year. What is the bottom line for Africans? More starvation. And the bottom line for Americans? Cheap burgers and growing waistlines.

South American rain forests generate the clouds that deposit rain on African farmlands. As these life-giving forests disappear, children starve.

Incidentally, those working in places like East Africa confirm that the frequency and severity of droughts has increased significantly. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media is too obsessed with the latest drunken celebrity incarceration story to cover the plight of the rural African farmer.

Meanwhile, these farmers report more and more difficulty as their climate changes for the worse. The Sahara is pushing southward, and the rains that once fell with some measure of predictability are becoming scarce.

In a world where children starve so I can scarf down a $4.00 value meal (one that will probably shorten my life span as well), can we really argue that unbridled consumerism is good in all its forms? Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, envisioned an invisible hand—the idea that a person who is free to pursue their own economic well-being will unwittingly contribute to the common good.

But what happens when consumerism reaches epic proportions? What happens when our appetite for more stuff—including things which, like the Big Mac, have no redeeming value—grows out of control? What happens when we embrace capitalism without restraint, without accountability, and without responsibility for those who are impacted by the choices we make?

Is it possible that we’ve bound the invisible hand? That the connection between self-interest and the common good has been broken by our unrestrained (and unrecognized) greed?

Is it possible that our choice of what and where to eat is really a choice of whether or not we will love our neighbors (including those who live on the other side of the planet)?

It may be that fast food is not only hazardous to our health. It may be that our addiction to fast food is hazardous to Africa’s health.