Educating for Democracy: Faith-Based Politics

The series of debates among presidential candidates that are being displayed with the eloquence and logic of a Battle Royal sponsored by the Worldwide Wrestling Federation reminds me of the contrast between the debates today and those of forty years ago. That's when Watergate was freshly in the minds of voters and Jimmy Carter was running against Gerald Ford in 1976. During a heated exchange, Ford made a major factual error in insisting that "Poland is not controlled by the Soviet Union," his knee-jerk response of the anti-communist rhetoric of the time.

The gaffe was well-noted in the press and by viewers of the debates and appeared to substantiate the critics' view of Ford as "unable to walk and chew gum at the same time." How significant this error became in determining the outcome of the election is difficult to establish but it certainly did not help him in presenting himself to the public as a well-informed leader. The American people did not want to support someone who couldn't get his facts straight to continue to be trusted to lead the nation.

Forty years later--if one can go by audience reaction, especially to Donald Trump--if a candidate does get his facts straight, he might not be considered worthy of the office. So long as he is amusing and says insulting things about the Democrats, Obama, and Hilary Clinton, misstates facts, distorts opponents' positions and lies, led by the successful example of Trump in his role as the Class Clown, he has a chance of running a competitive campaign with the kind of performance that would have sunk most office-holders in the post-Watergate era.

One aspect of "The Campaign for the Insane" that I find particularly disturbing is the enthusiasm that greets the Trumpster based on a fifth-grade level of thinking that responds to Trump when he says something "naughty. "

I used to think that the problem with politicians, including those in both parties, was "denihilism," a resistance to significant changes in our future daily lives in response to such urgent matters as climate change and other issues that are massively proven to be a danger to the planet. As was recently demonstrated in Flint, Michigan with the poisoning of their water supply, "magical thinking" which convinces far too many people that if you don't pay attention to a serious problem it will magically disappear is really an unacceptable way of governing.

Now I am beginning to realize that whether it is the fault of our grade schools or colleges, and probably both, instruction in logic, if taught at all, is not effectively presented so that someone like Trump would be booed off the stage for his juvenile ideas: in fact, it seems the more juvenile he is, the better is his reception.

But even more troubling to me is what I would now call "faith-based thinking": if you put your faith in the candidate who creates the most "heroic" personality for popular consumption, it little matters if what he or she says is true or logical or even remotely connected to the many substantial problems that this country, and the globe, faces. Just have "faith" and everything is possible. In a recent interview with Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman and thoughtful politician, when asked about his party's solution to income inequality, his response was not much different than those of his predecessors: the market will solve all the problems if you just let it alone and lower taxes, cut government spending and things will take care of themselves to everyone's benefit. That this has not proven true over the last twenty years of flat wage growth seems to make little difference to the candidates. Despite the stagnant wages, a deteriorating infra structure, countless financial and environmental scandals that might have been even worse without government intervention, the solution proposed by the Republicans is to leave the free market as is with some very minor changes. This I would call "politics by faith."

Several years ago during a drought in Texas, then-governor Rick Perry was asked what he would do about dealing with the drought: his answer was direct and unequivocal: 'PRAY FOR RAIN.' More recently at a Trump rally, a supporter was asked her reaction to a report of some outrageous and inaccurate statement made by Trump; her reply was as unequivocal as Perry's: "I don't believe it!"

This is the response of many supporters of those candidates who practice the doctrine of wishful thinking, or "faith-based governance": Don't pay attention to facts when there's a "higher power" that will solve your problems, if not in this world then the next. At least Gerald Ford realized his mistake about Poland. What will the next president do to respond to poverty, financial scandals and environmental change? "I don't believe it!"