Nearly three years ago when Barack Obama took the oath of office and became the US President, his election and inauguration inspired both great hope and great fear. Obama came to office at a time when the nation was already embroiled in two wars and the economy was in crisis. This week on ecclesio, three authors offer perspective as we head toward the next election. My task, as I introduce this week, is to explore some of the issues impacting US society and the way the US operates in the world now that will, I believe, prove important in the run-up to the 2012 election.
Race: Race was a clear issue in the year before the last presidential election and race and racial relationships continue to play in important (and often perverse) ways as we look toward 2012. Recently, Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science at Tulane University, and Joan Walsh of Salon.com, engaged in a journalistic debate after Harris-Perry published Black President, Double Standard in The Nation. Harris-Perry’s argument that white liberals were or had abandoned the president, and that this was indicative of racism, inspired a firestorm of criticism from many readers, and lit up the blogosphere. Walsh wrote a response which called Harris-Perry’s contentions “unnecessarily divisive” and noted many reasons for white liberal disappointment in Obama’s performance as president. This too provoked response, both positive and negative.
The fact that Harris-Perry is African-American and Walsh is white may lead to simple and simplistic conclusions; but the complexity of the issues force us to reflect more deeply. Helene Slessarev-Jamir, urban studies professor at Claremont School of Theology, calls for Americans to recognize and acknowledge the “continued salience of race in shaping American politics” and notes that whites are still uncomfortable, decades after the Civil Rights Movement, when conversations turn to race. The surging popularity of businessman and nominee for the Republican nomination Herman Cain bears exploration here. A rich Black man who blames the poor and unemployed for their situation – and gets cheered for doing so – messes with whatever stereotypical images may exist for African-Americans in politics. Race has always been important and it will continue so, all the more so because of the primary actors and the more-deeply-economically-impacted situation in which many African-Americans and Latinos in the US find themselves as the economic crisis continues.
Women: Heading to 2012, women presidential hopefuls have failed to make a showing like in the 2008 campaign, when Hilary Rodham Clinton garnered more support than any other woman candidate for president in US history. While Michele Bachmann’s candidacy has inspired some interest, her campaign cannot seem to gather steam at present. But that does not mean that gender issues are off the table.
A significant gender gap showed up in the 2008 election, with 56% of women voting for Obama. 49% of male voters supported Obama and 48%, McCain. The women’s vote was an important factor in Obama’s 2008 victory.
Recent legislative initiatives to reduce access to reproductive health services force reflection on the continuing role of gender in politics, and the question of whether and how the status of women has improved. The Supreme Court decision against a class action suit for women claiming wage injustice, and ongoing wage disparities across fields, are just two examples of deep gender issues that continue to inform the political scene. Yet focus on the needs of women has not yet surfaced significantly in this seasons’ campaign rhetoric, apart from the requisite stance of all GOP hopefuls so far against reproductive choice.
Immigration: At recent debates of Republicans vying for their party’s nomination, discussions of immigration policy and practice have become contentious, demonstrating the perception of campaigns about public interest in the topic. Yet very few new ideas have been shared; the main approach seems to focus on showing one’s strict credentials about “illegals” and “aliens”. The debates at this level do not address the economic reality of dependence of US business and industry on undocumented persons, nor the impossibility of “sending all of them home”, a task no level of government has the funds to enforce.
This issue may well produce difficulty for the President. The Latino vote, which experiences substantial growth every year, is impacted by immigration policy, and perceptions about Obama’s failure to live up to campaign promises regarding immigration reform. This may result in many fewer Latinos going to the polls and participating in the election next year. The failure of the Dream Act, which would have allowed high school graduates whose parents brought them here without documents a path to citizenship through college studies and graduation or military service, is felt in many immigrant communities as a significant blow. Additionally, Obama administration Homeland Security policy and practice is viewed by many as discriminatory and counterproductive. In particular, the Secure Communities program has become a focus of public critique. The quotas of the program call for the deportation of 400,000 people a year, which has been shown to encourage abuses and even criminal behavior by Homeland Security personnel and contractors for the Department. in their documentary Lost In Detention, PBS’ Frontline program featured Secure Communities and the growth of immigrant detention centers. The failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform will play a factor in discourse and decision-making in 2012.
Faith: From Mormon belief and understandings about Mormons, to Muslim fundamentalism and whether one should employ Muslims in a Presidential cabinet, to evangelical Christian understanding and approach to life, including the question of whether a woman president should and would submit to her husband in her governing, religious belief continues to play large in Presidential politics. Rick Perry’s prayer rally before he announced his candidacy produced significant buzz at the time, as did Michele Bachmann’s resigning from membership in a particularly conservative denomination before her announcement of candidacy. So far, however, there are no “Jeremiah Wright” moments, with interest in faith practice being mainly about the other – particularly Mormon beliefs (on the cover of major news journals) and Muslim belief and practice, particularly about women, terrorism and violence.
Economy and Employment: And of course, I have left the 800 pound gorilla to the last. Clinton’s campaign staff, in the early ‘90s, played and planned by the motif “It’s the Economy, Stupid”. Undoubtedly we are even more at the place of that pithy phrase today than we were then. The economic crisis continues and unemployment continues high in most states. Local, state and the federal government agencies are starved for money, and cuts of services and teachers continue. This has had a hand in producing populist movements on the right (Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street). The divide between rich and poor is outlined and explored in articles in many media venues, including a recent piece on NPR. Economists, administration officials, and politicians at every level of the government have opinions about how to make the situation better – and some tactics have made a difference, at least in some areas. Economists and officials now believe we are in for a long period of economic difficulty, which will have substantial social cost. This will tax all candidates (pun intended) as they seek ways to convince voters that their proposed solutions, their background and education, their record will produce a better life for all.
FOR WE WHO FOLLOW JESUS, these realities call for prayerful reflection. Pastors and leaders must engage believers in serious, substantial conversations of the meaning herein and why and how these things matter from the perspective of our faith. Many people (and some pastors) are confused as to how, or whether, following Jesus relates to issues of the economy, employment, immigration, gender and race. Our God is not non-partisan, nor fair and balanced; our God has a preferential option for people on the margins, and as there are more of them there than at any time in recent memory, disciples need to take heed, think, pray, act – and vote, informed by our faith.