Does the election matter?

One of my favorite passages from the Baha’i Writings is the one below, from the compilation Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah. After reading Gleanings for the first time as a teenager, I encountered this passage once again about a year ago. It resonated with me particularly strongly, and I ended up sharing it here, in a post written on the 10th anniversary of September 11th, 2001.

The 2012 US Presidential election has me looking to this passage once again. Let me paste it below, this time in slightly less abridged form, and then I’ll explain why. The emphasis below is mine.

So blind hath become the human heart that neither the disruption of the city, nor the reduction of the mountain in dust, nor even the cleaving of the earth, can shake off its torpor. The allusions made in the Scriptures have been unfolded, and the signs recorded therein have been revealed, and the prophetic cry is continually being raised. And yet all, except such as God was pleased to guide, are bewildered in the drunkenness of their heedlessness!

Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day. Its tribulation is continually deepening. From the moment the Súriy-i-Ra’ís (Tablet to Ra’ís)* was revealed until the present day, neither hath the world been tranquillized, nor have the hearts of its peoples been at rest. At one time it hath been agitated by contentions and disputes, at another it hath been convulsed by wars, and fallen a victim to inveterate diseases. Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy, whilst unskilled practitioners are regarded with favor, and are accorded full freedom to act. …The dust of sedition hath clouded the hearts of men, and blinded their eyes. Erelong, they will perceive the consequences of what their hands have wrought in the Day of God. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Informed, as bidden by One Who is the Most Powerful, the Almighty. (Gleanings, v. XVI, pp. 39-40)

What does this passage have to do with today’s election? Let me explain.

For the past several months, I and every resident of this country have been bombarded by the Presidential campaign season. Turn on the news, and it seems like it’s the only story being covered. At work, it’s an inescapable water cooler conversation topic. And if you happen to live in a so-called “swing state” (the states that actually determine the election, thanks to the electoral college), you’ve probably felt smothered by non-stop political TV ads and automated campaign phone calls.

The media coverage in particular likes to promote the notion that the stakes have never been higher. In the process, the two candidates have been boiled down into caricatures of themselves; if you didn’t know better, you’d think the choice were between Gordon Gecko and Che Guevara.

God forgive me if any reader might get the impression that I’m disparaging voting or elections. Not at all. Like I’ve said before, the Baha’i Faith itself advocates representative democracy, encourages voting even as it discourages partisan politics, and even functions administratively through elected councils rather than clergy.

Rather, I think it’s time to take a step back and question how much this particular election actually means, especially if you accept the notion that the democratic foundations beneath it have been eroded. Asking this question was probably even more relevant four years ago. Back then, there were legitimate reasons to be excited about a then President-elect who was our first of African descent and of a mixed-race background, and who talked endlessly about unity and moving beyond partisanship. Some of us thought this time would be different, that we were on the cusp of a seismic shift in the American political landscape, and more generally, in our nation’s history. But then reality set in, and we realized that no one individual can turn such a giant ship around on his own.

The 2008 election certainly did not turn out to be meaningless. However you feel about the Affordable Care Act or Dodd-Frank, these were major pieces of legislation that will have an impact on people’s lives. But expanding healthcare or bolstering bank regulation are different from changing our system altogether.

For me, the most disparaging moment of this particular Presidential campaign cycle was the debates, and specifically how both candidates seemingly tried to one-up eachother in preaching their love for coal. This was an instructive moment, I believe, and not in a good way. It tells me that those endless commercials I see on CNN preaching the virtues of fossil fuels are in fact having an impact on voters’ preferences, and thus on the behavior of our politicians. It tells me that well-funded PR campaigns can in fact delay moving towards renewable energy and taking steps to avert climate change.

The current ailment afflicting American politics right now is what I’d call “median dollar theorem”. I actually googled this term in quotation marks and nothing came up, so, what the heck, I’m coining it here. This is a variation of the better-known “median voter theorem”, which asserts that the voter in the exact middle of the political spectrum is the one whose preferences will be adopted in a democracy. Since I’m so convinced that median voter theorem is pretty much dead when it comes to governance in America** (or, if you are less cynical, on life support), I had to come up with a new explanation of how things work. Enter median dollar theorem. It’s median voter theorem. But with money.

Will things in this country ever really change as long as median dollar theorem reigns? Probably not. In fact, I worry that our country is going down a path whereby inequality will become so extreme and power concentrated so acutely in the hands of a few, that America will become history’s biggest banana republic. Chrystia Freeland’s recent New York Times op-ed, in summarizing her book, put it best.

It is no accident that in America today the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the Gilded Age. Now, as then, the titans are seeking an even greater political voice to match their economic power. Now, as then, the inevitable danger is that they will confuse their own self-interest with the common good. The irony of the political rise of the plutocrats is that, like Venice’s oligarchs, they threaten the system that created them.

I sure hope this vision of America never materializes, because it truly is a great country. ‘Abdu’l-Baha seemed to agree, at least in some way, when, during his travels through America in the early 20th century, he prayed before God that “This American nation is worthy of Thy favors and is deserving of Thy mercy.”

But God’s favors and mercy are not free, and that applies both to us as individuals and us collectively as a nation. Baha’u’llah, in his infinite wisdom, understood this perfectly. He thus willfully spent the last four decades of his life imprisoned or walking a barren path of exile attempting to teach humanity that in order to save itself, it must truly turn lovingly towards God, and by definition, towards one another. Short of that, “the stage of utter hopelessness” may be closer than we’d like to think.

*This was a tablet written by Baha’u’llah in 1868 to the Ottoman Prime Minister. See here

** Yes, I realize that median voter theorem isn’t rejected just because money is spent to sway voters’ preferences. But you get the point.


4 thoughts on “Does the election matter?

  1. Of course it matters. You mention Obama care and Dodd-Frank. Well, those are on the chopping block if Romney wins today. But I get what you’re saying. This election has been pretty awful from the point of view of money infiltrating politics. Don’t recall it ever being this bad and this blatant. Not sure how “turning to God” has much to do with that… the problem is the ridiculous rules that we’ve set up for ourselves in terms of how we run elections, contributing money to political causes, etc.

    • Absolutely right about Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, and I sense that you get what I’m trying to say in terms of the deeper message. As for how “turning to God” solves some of these deeper underlying political problems (like money’s corrupting influence on the political process): the point is that a lot of these problems seem political in nature, but they’re really spiritual. By that I mean that ethics, morality, goodness, fairness — and more broadly, just believing in a higher purpose and expressing that belief in our daily lives — make it difficult to participate in corruption or take such a lukewarm stance toward it when we witness it going on. Same can be said for many social problems, I believe.

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