Election season is here, and you’ve probably already heard loads of grumbling about candidates and our political process.
The primaries are only just starting. But like an echo following the American presidential candidates on the trail, our collective eye-rolling and ear-plugging has become as reliable as the campaign ads themselves.
The despair is not without merit.
Donald Trump leads national polls despite having made his fortune (though he hasn’t even done that) by profiteering off the vulnerable and elderly through his casinos and strip clubs. And, Hillary Clinton demands “religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” in order to accommodate her beliefs—all while potentially facing a criminal indictment. No wonder citizens are donning sackcloth and ashes.
Amid the lament, however, thoughtful citizens have opportunities to celebrate what is good about this presidential campaign. This can be taken too far, of course. But we can assume a healthy posture between venerating and vilifying this election season for three reasons.
Election Season Propels the Economy
We will spend more money on the 2016 presidential election than we spend on school construction for at-risk children.
I fabricated the statement, but it reflects the kind we constantly hear during election season. We think elections are too expensive, too highly influenced by a few mega-donors, and far less worthy than other places we could invest our money. But an underreported reality of election spending is the churn it has on our economy.
Dollars invested in elections don’t evaporate. They are investments in democracy. When we hear about candidates raising hundreds of millions of dollars, our shock comes largely from what we believe is “lost money.” What if we had spent that on education, green energy, or . . . [insert your favorite cause]?
Election coffers aren’t a black hole, though. Ask restaurateurs and hoteliers in Iowa and New Hampshire how they feel about election season. Or bumper sticker and button makers. Or junior staffers and canvassers working with campaigns. Or television stations selling airtime or newspapers selling subscriptions and clicks. Elections are big business. They employ thousands of people directly, fuel the businesses of thousands more indirectly, and create serious economic value, no matter our affection for politics.
Deploying the billions in funds raised for elections are people like my Iowan friends who own a promotional product company that makes many of the shirts, signs, stickers, and other swag adorning our bodies, lawns, and cars during election season. Elections matter to my friends and to their 47 employees.
Election Season Reminds Us of the Beauty of Democracy
In places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Russia, North Korea, Cuba, and Zimbabwe, voters have little to no voice in determining the future of their countries. In many instances, dissent is not only forbidden, but squelched. The global political landscape is often unrelentingly bleak.
For instance, a political catastrophe is currently taking shape in the small capital city of Bujumbura, Burundi. Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, obtained a great deal of power over his 10 years in office. Facing a term limit, Nkurunziza refused to give it up, running for a third term in defiance of Burundi’s constitution. Late last year, Burundians witnessed a failed coup, suffered under a surge in violence, and over 100,000 people fled from their country.
Burundi’s story is wrenching, but tragically common. My colleagues at HOPE International are praying for the best and preparing for the worst.
The freedom to vote should not be taken for granted. It is a gift enjoyed only by a small percentage of our planet’s residents—past and present. In a country like the United States, our founders quite literally entrusted the power to the people. We can complain about our system’s effectiveness—about powerful people wielding too much influence or about the unhealthy marriage between faith and politics. But despite its flaws, our system stands in contrast to countries where all the power is controlled by a handful of self-appointed tyrants.
And it’s not all bad news. Often because of the work of Christian missionaries, many developing countries feature thriving democracies. Nations like Botswana, Ghana, Chile, Uruguay, and the Philippines have proven the merits of democratic rule, even with its shortcomings.
Election Season Generates Meaningful Discussions
Many of us have been instructed to avoid discussing politics and religion in order to remain polite and amicable. Broadly speaking, this is terrible counsel. To be sure, we should avoid becoming petty, coercive, and disingenuous while talking about religion and politics. But to heal our deepest divides, we need more honest conversation, not less, about what matters most.
The issues unfolding on the political stage affect us all. The big ideas we’ll see in campaign ads and on debate stages have consequences. They will impact our wallets, communities, and families. The more that sane people discuss and disagree well, the better off we all will be.
Let’s not succumb to cynicism this election season. Lambasting the democratic process often does little more than make us grumpier. It makes our republic feel less human. So let’s not confine ourselves to the sidelines or the heckling section this political season. Rather, let us embrace the season with a more positive outlook. It won’t be easy. But that doesn’t mean our democracy is not worthy of our best efforts. In a way only she can, Marilynne Robinson wrote artfully about the heart of what election season is all about:
Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.
While many of us will disagree profoundly this election season, let’s do so in a loving, Christlike manner, resisting the urge to unleash our inner cynic whenever a friend or family member mentions the campaign strategy or policy proposal of a candidate we find unfavorable.