Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A “Common Good” Prescription for our Political Malaise

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley


January 11, 2013

By Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest among evangelicals around the concept of the “common good.”  A reaction against the extreme individualism we have inherited from American history and culture, the emphasis on the common good reminds Christians that we are part of a community of image-bearing creatures who are dependent on and responsible for one another in ways that include but transcend individual salvation.  Woven into a vision of the common good is an understanding that God’s kingdom is both now and not yet—and that in the “now” we have the great privilege of participating in his cosmic plans for redemption and renewal not only of individual souls, but of communities, cultures—indeed the entire earth, and yes, even politics.

The Center for Public Justice has long been interested in a particular aspect of the common good (public justice) that is concerned with the political realm.  But in these days of bitter election campaigns and partisan brinksmanship, can this revival of interest in the common good crack the political ice that seems to have frozen Washington into inaction?

There are many causes of our current political paralysis: gerrymandered Congressional districts, campaign finance laws, the lack of proportional representation and politicized cable news and talk radio are just a few. This paralysis causes real harm which extends beyond our ballooning national debt.  Because of the frequent show-downs over taxes and spending, very little governing is being done by Congress.  A bill reauthorizing our nation’s agricultural policies has languished, and Congress has been silent on immigration reform, environmental policy and a host of other issues. In fact, the last Congress passed fewer bills than any since 1947, when such records began to be tabulated.

Although it is human nature to look elsewhere for blame, a “common good” prescription for our political malaise must begin with deep introspection about the ways in which radical individualism has infected our own approach to public life.

Consider for a moment why so many House Republicans voted against the final negotiated fiscal cliff deal.  As Politico correspondent Alex Isenstadt pointed out, the majority of Republicans who voted against the deal were legitimately concerned that a vote in favor of a tax increase of any kind would cause them to lose their seat to another, more conservative, Republican. “Being primaried from the right” is not an imaginary fear.  Former Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) and former Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) were mainstream conservatives replaced in the last election—not by Democrats, but by Republicans who accused them of being too moderate.  Just this week, a conservative advocacy group began running ads against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for negotiating the fiscal cliff deal.  Why are such attacks successful? (Leaving aside for the moment the very real effects of gerrymandering and our winner-takes-all political system.)  At some point it comes back to the voters themselves. In other words, it comes back to us.  

The same is true for Democrats, many of whom warned the President that Social Security should be off-limits in debt-reduction negotiations. They have seen the political damage that comes when politicians tamper with the benefits of our nation’s most active voting bloc.

In a Quinnipiac poll released in December, over 65 percent of respondents were in favor of raising taxes on people making more than $250,000, but 70 percent opposed any change to Medicare, in spite of the fact that it will be extremely difficult to deal with our national debt and sustain Medicare and other social benefits by raising revenue alone. And of course, since 98 percent of Americans make less than $250,000 per year, but all plan to take advantage of Medicare, this poll simply reflects the desire of most Americans to protect their own interests. Similarly, despite our need for additional revenue, the poll showed that 67 percent—almost the same number who favor raising taxes on the other people—are opposed to eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, a common-sense tax reform that is years overdue. In other words, it comes back to us.

The problem is not simply that special interest groups give unseemly amounts of money to politicians in Washington.  Even if they were prohibited from giving a single dime to any political campaign, these groups can—and do—spend their own money to run advertisements against candidates who vote to raise taxes or “end Medicare.”  Such negative advertising is often successful.  Why?  It comes back to us.

What if, instead of voting for our own personal gain, Christians cultivated a “common good” perspective towards politics?  What might happen, if in our personal conversations with friends and colleagues, we challenged those around us (even those who don’t share our beliefs but share our interest in the common good) to consider how policies affect our society as whole?  The fiscal problems facing our nation cannot be solved unless the middle class—which is most of us—agrees to share some of the pain and expresses that agreement by rewarding politicians brave enough to make the tough choices.  Christians have a deep history of advocating a vision of shared sacrifice, and momentum is building again towards a common good approach to Christian life.  May we also apply this vision to the public sphere and be a part of the solution to the fiscal crisis that threatens to diminish our future.

—Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Editor of Capital Commentary and a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”