By Todd Thomason
I was out running errands on Saturday when news of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, first began to drift onto the airwaves. Four days later we are still trying to come to grips with the aftermath: six people (including a nine-year-old-girl) dead, thirteen others wounded, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords lying in critical condition after being shot in the head at pointblank range by a would-be assassin.
In Washington, the finger pointing began immediately after the official expressions of sympathy were issued, albeit with more subdued gestures than before the tragedy. Many, including many liberals, are blaming hardball politics propagated (if not instigated) by a sensationalist media—especially the violent rhetoric employed by some Tea Party politicians and conservative talk radio hosts. Others, including many conservatives, are denouncing the influence of secular society fostered by the “liberal agenda”, while denying any direct link between political metaphors and this all-too-real discharge of a handgun at twenty all-too-real Americans, including a member of the Democratic opposition. A crazy man committed a crazy act, they say, period. Problems with the current state of national and local politics constitute a separate issue.
Personally, I do not think we will ever be able to draw a straight line between the shooter’s actions and a particular political ad, speech, or sound bite. There is no evidence he had political motives. A crazy man did do a crazy thing and he will be held accountable for it. However, I also find it difficult to assert that the ideological, disdainful, and at times extremist tone of our contemporary political discourse—amplified by a 24-hour news cycle and the Internet—did not contribute to this tragedy. It seems more than coincidental that this shooting occurred in Arizona, the same state in which Gabrielle Giffords’ Tea Party opponent in the 2010 congressional campaign invited voters to come fire an M-16 rifle with him, and in August 2009—in the thick of the healthcare reform controversy—a Tempe-based, right-wing Baptist minister told his church that he was praying for Barak Obama to die and burn in hell because he and the Democratic party were leading the country to ruin. A man who attends that church later turned up at a Presidential rally in Phoenix carrying an AK-47. Climate shapes what grows in us as well as around us.
Regardless of how much political rhetoric did or did not influence the Arizona shooting, I would hope we can all agree that politics hasn’t always been this way, it doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way. There are ways to have honest, robust political debate without demonizing those who disagree with us. That should be the way a democracy functions—especially one in which so many of the participants claim to be Christians.
So, the question then becomes: how do we change the tone? Taking personal responsibility for our political speech—and holding our elected officials accountable for theirs—is certainly an essential part of the solution. That said, politics is a game and politicians often say things they don’t necessarily believe in order to play that game. Responsibility in and of itself won’t be enough. We have to insist that they change the way the game is played.
In the wake of the horrific events in Tucson, I want to suggest (as odd as it may seem) that we, the American people, need to challenge a slate of issues all related to campaign finance reform if we want to affect truly positive political change. The Apostle Paul said that love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6.10) and I can see more than one tendril from that root climbing the backdrop of this tragedy.
The increased venom and vitriol that we’ve experienced in the last fifteen to twenty years coincides with three major changes in the way we Americans allow our politics to be conducted. The first change is the shameless partisan redistricting of voting precincts—what used to be called gerrymandering. Democrats and Republicans have both used their legislative majorities to create voting districts in which the electorate heavily favors one party or the other, virtually ensuring that party will control that precinct. In any typical election year, more than 90% of the seats in the House of Representatives are “safe,” meaning that the political party that currently holds that seat will almost certainly retain it.
The second change is a direct result of the first: elections have become more about ideology than issues. Because so many congressional voting districts are practically guaranteed to go either blue or red, the election itself is a mere formality. The real contests now take place in the primaries where Republicans and Democrats determine who will be their party’s candidate in the general election. Those primaries almost always devolve into ideological duels about who is the “true” Democrat/Republican or the “real” conservative/progressive. If you’re wondering why moderates continue to disappear from Congress, this is why.
The third change, which has correlations to both gerrymandering and the pursuit of ideological purity, is that running for office has become exponentially more expensive than it was a generation ago. Each successive political campaign costs more than the last so that running for office now requires an investment of hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. To lose is not just to lose an election, it is to lose a fortune. The stakes for the candidates have never been higher. Thus, I cannot help but wonder if the diatribes that now pass for stump speeches aren’t motivated by the need to convince one’s ideological base and one’s special interest underwriters to give generously of their money more than anything else. Personalities and ideas garner votes; but nothing generates cash quite like scapegoating, fear mongering, and brown-nosing.
These three changes, catalyzed by domestic and international crises as well as opportunistic leaders within both parties, have combined to form the political mess in which we now find ourselves. On good days business is conducted on strictly partisan lines; on most days the shouting, spinning, and name-calling drown out any substantive dialogue on even the most basic issues; and on bad days scandals are exposed, congressional offices are vandalized, and shots are fired.
Special interest politics has always existed in some form. It may well be the only political reality that has ever really existed. Nevertheless, special interest politics has never before existed on as large a scale; and with corporations now permitted to give unlimited amounts of money in undisclosed fashion, the scope of it is only going to get wider and the muck is only going to get deeper.
Unless, of course, we challenge it and change it. And we can—but only if we become as vocal, passionate, and serious about the polluting effects of money, ideology, and gerrymandering in our national political systems as we are about the polluting effects of other corporate residue in our backyard ecosystems. Politicians do still have to answer to us every two, four, or six years.
Let us honor the memory of those whose lives were ended or forever altered by the horrific events in Tucson by getting serious about the serious issues that lie at the roots of our political dysfunctions. We cannot have a civil society without a civil government. And we cannot have a civil government unless we, the people, insist that our leaders treat each other—and us—with respect and dignity. But they won’t do that as long as they are kowtowing to their donors rather than serving their constituents. I only hope and pray that the cold shower we need to finally sober up and get a move on won’t come in the form of another bloodbath.
Todd Thomason is pastor of First Baptist Church of Hyattsville, Maryland. This article was originally published on his blog at Via Ex Machina.