01-10-2012 - Traces, n. 9


After the election of the 44th President of the Unites States, a former chair of her state’s advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Professor Kimberly Shankman, Dean of Benedictine College, discusses the political lay of the land in which there “needs to be a proposal that helps movement toward an attractive future for our country.”


Dr. Kimberly Shankman, Dean of Benedictine College,  takes a hard look at the recent presidential election in search of a forward-looking understanding, with incisive insight into the reshaping of today's political realities. “Politics becomes a reflection of our life in belonging, but it is never understood as the ultimate answer to these human needs.” A true educator at heart, her expertise in American political thought and Constitutional law, as well as human rights, informs her exploration of the inner working of a process calling for the maturation of a people who need to begin to give voice to their real desires.

One historically significant outcome of the 2008 election was Obama’s ability to galvanize new voters, in particular by mobilizing young Americans and minority groups to support him. It appears that he was able to replicate this achievement in 2012. A phrase that was often repeated on election night was: “Democrats are the big tent party”–they are more inclusive and can use this new voting coalition to secure a win. What does this mean for the future of political parties?
Party identification is very fluid. Ultimately, minority groups will identify with the party that most identifies with their desires. There are many examples of this in our history. For instance, before Franklin D. Roosevelt, most African Americans were Republicans. The New Deal changed this; African Americans began to prefer the Democrats because of their social programs, thus shifting their party identification as a minority group. This shift was reinforced by Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson due to their work on the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. From the point of view of strategy, the GOP needs to think about what they have to offer the American public and how to appeal to different groups. Take, for example the Hispanic vote. Over 70% of Hispanics voted for Obama in this election. Post-election, many Republicans are immediately calling for a change in immigration policy in order to make their party more appealing to Hispanic voters, but changing immigration policy is not a reasonable way to draw in voters. Many Hispanics, including those who came to this country as immigrants, love their families and have strong family values that remain important to them as voters. Republicans needs to think of ways to appeal to those values.

So the strategies of political parties should be to attract voters on the merit of their policy proposals and not simply try to accommodate new voters?
Let’s keep looking at the example of Hispanic voters and the question of immigration. It is a far better long-term strategy to focus on a comprehensive vision for society. The questions should be: What do Hispanic voters want society to be? What kind of policy will help create the society they want? There needs to be a proposal that helps movement toward an attractive future for our country. Immigrants come to the United States because they want a better life for themselves and their children. Instead of trying to win over Hispanic voters by having the candidates try to speak Spanish or going on Univision, both parties would benefit from focusing on the content of the vision of freedom and society they are offering. Trying to attract voters by appealing to them through other means is reductionist. A person is not just his/her ethnic background. A vote represents the hope and aspirations of a person; it is not determined by their DNA. Pope Benedict has offered us some insight that is helpful here. He tells us that our reason can’t be reduced to the tangibles. Practically speaking, modern politics is driven by positivism, but if you reduce humanity to observable phenomena then we are left with a kind of politics that is reduced to what you can observe about people. We need to move beyond that position.

This is a novel way to look at the meaning of a vote, as representing a person, not just a choice.
As an electorate, we need to pay attention to what our vote really says. Many people think that if they don’t vote for the winner, then their vote is “wasted.” This way of looking at the meaning of a vote is far too narrow. The margin between Obama and Romney was about three million votes; it is impossible that one vote is ever going to determine the winner. A much better way to look at a vote is as a signal of your policy preferences. Always vote for the issues that are important to you. A great example of this that I often share with my students is the 1992 presidential election of Bill Clinton. A third party candidate, Ross Perot of the Reform Party, was running alongside Clinton and the Republican candidate, George H.W. Bush. Perot was never going to win the election, but he got enough votes to put his pet issue, the deficit, on the policy agenda. Even though Perot lost, the issue of the deficit continued to be taken seriously by Washington. By voting according to your policy preferences, you will always say what is important to you.

If this is true, in order to really engage in our political reality we need to be able to give voice to our policy preferences. What advice can you give to help us shape our ideas about public policy that reflect an attractive vision of society?
Living in our political reality in a true way requires understanding that politics is not the most important party of our lives. Civil society drives politics more than politics drives civil society. Building up your parish, your neighborhood organizations, and your community will, in and of itself, help give flesh to the way we think and talk about politics and public policy. It is far more reasonable to address concerns and ideas with your neighbors first, to understand all the factors together, and then vote. Without a dialogue within relationships that are important to our lives, we defer to political campaigns to make a judgment on public policy. A campaign is little more than an image that is imposed on us every four years. The result is that we perceive politics as being something disconnected from our lives. The most recent campaign shows that the candidates can only present themselves as “not the other guy.” This is an empty way to look at politics. This disconnect is also evidenced by the fact that people see themselves as individuals making political decisions and judgments on policy issues. There is no network where these things are decided. People need to have the experience of working through how to make decisions as part of a community.

What else is needed in order to live our political reality as part of a community and not just as individuals?

What is needed is a renewed understanding of the human person. When we reduce politics to the individual and the state, then politics is immediately reduced to elections; elections are reduced to campaigns; and campaigns are reduced to our impressions of who can “give us” more. If your view of politics is based on a sense of belonging to life in a community, then the scope of politics expands beyond who can give you more and instead is related to a shared vision for a community that is based on the real desires and needs of a human person, primarily the need to search for truth in dialogue with others. This is the essential crisis that faces both parties. Building a coalition of voters doesn’t matter if neither party can address these needs. You feel empty after an election if you feel like there is no response to your life. Pope Benedict can also help us to understand this point–he is constantly provoking us to take ourselves seriously as human persons. We are not Democrats and Republicans, we are human persons created by Someone who made us and loves us, and we live in a universe that He created alongside other human persons that share our same needs and desires. Together, we are being called to see more, to understand our own needs and the needs of those around us. This will help us to approach politics from the realization of our own self as more than a material being. If you can understand that a human community is more than a sum of inputs and outputs then politics has to be more than promises and policies. Politics become more and less important within a context of the human person, meaning politics becomes a reflection of our life in belonging, but it is never understood as the ultimate answer to these human needs.