Money vs. the Common Good: The Battle for American Democracy

Money vs. the Common Good: The Battle for American Democracy

May 12, 2014 · by Robert Christian · in Blog

The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life recently held an event titled Moral Dilemmas of Partisanship: Ethical Obligations and Limitations for Political Partisans. The event featured a number of political actors who have not always toed the party line in their respective parties. They discussed the challenges they have faced in a hyper-partisan and polarized DC climate.

One theme ran through the entire evening’s discussions: the role of money in fueling conformity to the interests and desires of the elites who have the capacity to shape electoral outcomes through campaign contributions. As Congressman Walter Jones put it, “The biggest problem in Washington is money!”

The current system fosters plutocracy—government of, by, and for the rich. It undermines democracy and authentic participation. It places men and women of integrity who are sincere about serving the public in difficult ethical binds, forced to choose between their personal interests and deeply held convictions. In each party, it fosters litmus tests (on abortion for Democrats and economics for Republicans) that seek to eliminate those who value the common good over these positions, which are rooted in libertarianism and radical individualism.

The only answer is campaign finance reform. But the Supreme Court has made this impossible at the present moment, most importantly by its ruling in Citizens United. Only a constitutional amendment or transformation of the Court can precede an end to the plutocratic stranglehold elites have over American politics.

At the event, former Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper discussed the challenges of being a pro-life Democrat in a party that is 30% pro-life but dominated by social and economic elites who favor nearly unlimited access to abortion. In the Democratic primary, the men running against her challenged her on being a “real Democrat,” because of her pro-life convictions. Not only did she face problems from pro-choice groups, pro-life groups that claim to be non-partisan showed their true colors. Those of us in the pro-life movement have seen how numerous pro-life groups have an incestuous relationship with Republicans and the Republican party, so it is not surprising to see groups like the Susan B. Anthony List put Republican interests above the pro-life cause. But this unfortunate situation makes it even more difficult for a pro-life Democrat who is running for Congress. And all of this is facilitated by the ability of money to shift electoral outcomes.

Congressman Walter Jones discussed the doubts he harbored about the intelligence surrounding possible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and his subsequent decision, inspired by political expediency, to vote to give President George W. Bush the authority to initiate the War in Iraq—something he would come to deeply regret. Since then, and despite pressure from his party and within his district, he has broken with his party on numerous military and foreign policy issues. One does not need to find anything particularly appealing about his nationalistic, anti-interventionist approach to foreign policy to still believe that a system that is more likely to reward the politicization of national security than someone following their conscience and acting with integrity may be flawed.

Michael Steele described how he was puzzled by those who were challenging his pro-life credentials. He seemed troubled by a culture where there never seems to be enough purity for the special interest groups that hold so much sway. Steele did describe how he was able to hold to his convictions against the death penalty and present his case to the governor in his capacity as lieutenant governor, even if he was not able to impact the outcome.

No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon described sitting out of the 2008 general election contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. He said he realized that “putting on the brass knuckles wasn’t going to be for the common good.” Looking back, he believes the ultimate direction of the McCain campaign vindicates this decision. Former White House press secretary Michael McCurry emphasized just how partisan and polarized the federal government is today, citing disturbing evidence. Marcy Kaptur meanwhile spoke passionately about her faith and convictions (notably on the need for all people to have access to quality healthcare). She also strongly denounced the distorting effects of money in the system.

John Carr, the head of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life, whose efforts to promote the common good faced many of these challenges when he was the director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the USCCB , brought together this diverse collection of speakers. Overall, they showed how challenging it can be in Washington to stand by one’s deepest convictions, particularly when one is not a doctrinaire conservative or liberal. Open primaries and independent redistricting may help candidates who support the Church’s communitarian approach to politics, but campaign finance reform is essential. It deserves to be one of the central issues in American politics.

The evening began with a challenging address by Bishop Robert McElroy. Among his valuable insights was the need to act as insurgents within our respective parties to bring “positions and influence into closer conjunction with the deeply moral vision of advancing the dignity of the human person.” Catholics and all others who are committed to the common good have the responsibility to push our parties away from positions that cannot be reconciled with a commitment to safeguarding human dignity. Bishop McElroy highlighted the particular importance of two principles: a commitment to the protection of human life and the preferential option for the poor, noting the way the Democratic and Republican parties increasingly impose litmus tests to reject these principles, respectively. Beyond this, there is a need to elevate critical issues such as the moral imperative to reduce global poverty, where, as Bishop McElroy noted, both parties are falling short.


With petty partisanship infecting our government and all over our television screens and social media, there is always a temptation to escape it—to become an independent. But this has actually increased the ideological purity of the parties and made polarization and partisanship worse. When the ideologically impure flee a party, it strengthens those who remain and makes litmus tests more powerful.

The proper response is to stay and fight. It won’t be easy. But those committed to the common good and human dignity must fight to transform their parties and fix an electoral system that is desperately in need of reform.


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