Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #135. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Oct. 5, 2018; in print Oct. 7

I’m old enough to be suspicious of any claim that “this election” is the most important ever, or at least in our lifetime.

I’m also concerned enough about the current precarious condition of our democracy to say that “this election” is the most important in at least a very long time.

At every level — federal, state, local — the issues are acute, the battle lines etched deep. We have some stark choices to make.

Tribalism and demonizing those who disagree with us have become commonplace. The common good is in danger of being ripped apart.

Voting has started. If you’ve already cast your ballot, thank you for voting. As Larry J. Sabato, the respected political scientist from the University of Virginia, has said, “Every election is determined by the people who show up.”

If you haven’t already voted, ponder the following topics and ask candidates about them. The disagreements are sharp. But does the candidate demonize anyone who disagrees? Is this what we want in a democracy?

Truth. One prominent public figure recently said that “Truth isn’t truth.”

  1. Ask candidates: Do you believe that your truth is the only truth?

Freedom of the press.Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our first object should therefore be, to leave open … all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

  1. Ask candidates: Do you believe the press is an “enemy of the people”? If so, why?

Climate change. There is virtually unanimous consensus of reputable scientists that human-created climate change is real, its effects are already evident in extreme weather events around the world, and we are very close to the point beyond which we can’t even slow it down, much less stop it.

  1. Ask candidates: Do you consider human-created climate change a problem that requires serious public action now? What is your plan to deal with the impact of “new normal” weather on us? And what do you think is the proper role of science in determining public policy?

Demographics. They are changing, notably here in our area.

  1. Ask candidates: Do you consider refugees and immigrants to be an asset or a threat to America’s future?

Gerrymandering. This happens when the majority party at the time of redistricting (following each census) unfairly determines district lines to benefit their party.

  1. Ask candidates: Do you believe that gerrymandering is a problem that erodes democracy? If so, do you support establishment of a non-partisan commission for Minnesota to take redistricting out of party politics?

Omnibus bills.The Minnesota Constitution (Article 4, Section 17) states clearly: “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.” Yet every session, scores or hundreds of laws are cobbled into omnibus bills. This means proposed laws can be sneaked in at the last minute under the radar and without proper vetting, and good laws may be subject to veto because they are patched together with bad ones.

  1. Ask candidates: Do you favor elimination of omnibus bills in the Minnesota Legislature?

Debates about health care are front and center at both federal and state levels. Underlying all these debates is the question what sort of thing health care is.

  1. Ask candidates: Is health care a right? If not, what do you call it? And who should get it?

Income inequality is mimicking the age when robber barons created their empires.

  1. Ask candidates: Is income inequality simply the inevitable consequence of market forces, government should stay out of it, and people have to learn to live with it?

Common good and private good are often calculated as zero-sum (“cut taxes so we can lower services”).

  1. Ask candidates: What is your opinion of this statement of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization”?

Hate-filled voices we thought had been relegated to the dustbin of history are resurfacing.

  1. Ask candidates: Are neo-Nazis and those who protest them morally equivalent?

It matters what a public official thinks about the proper role of government.

  1. Ask candidates: Was Ronald Reagan right when he said that “...the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government, and I'm here to help’”?

It matters very much how public officials think about the people they serve.

  1. Ask candidates: When you think of your constituents, which comes first to mind — “taxpayer” or “citizen”?

This month’s The Atlantic is devoted to a question: “Is Democracy Dying?” The answer is neither a clear yes nor a clear no. But prior to the past two years, I’d never have imagined how fragile our American experiment is.

The people we elect this year will face the challenge of protecting our democracy. We must choose wisely.