In Barbara Kingsolver’s recent novel, The Lacuna, a character named Tommy gazes into the future and predicts a day when the people running for president will run advertising campaigns on television. Tommy’s friend stares back at him in disbelief, then lets out a little snort of laughter. “You’ve lost your marbles,” he declares. To him, it all seemed like a joke. He simply cannot imagine a world where presidential candidates would stoop to advertising.
Most of us cannot imagine a world where they would not. (But oh, how we long for November 7! The day our dreams will be realized!)
It has become nearly impossible to escape the barrage of political advertising—especially in swing states like Colorado. Denver is the third largest media market for political advertisements in the nation—just behind those unfortunate souls in Las Vegas and Cleveland. The ads pop up nearly everywhere we look—during the two minute break of the Broncos game, in our mailboxes, on our Facebook pages. Some savvy advertisers have even figured out way to slip campaign billboards into video games.
Recently, NPR examined some of these advertisements and observed that the two main political parties have adopted very different strategies. While the Romney campaign has fewer ads with a more general message, the Obama campaign has tailored its campaign, producing 20 different spots to appeal to different demographic groups. Spike TV viewers will get one ad, Lifetime viewers another, ESPN viewers still another. The volunteers who call potential voters on behalf of the campaign have been instructed to take the same approach. NPR reports:
At an Obama field office in Colorado Springs, college students and a few high schoolers have gathered to make calls. When high school senior Kate Henjum talks to voters, each person gets a different message.
“So when I have those conversations with a woman, it is about what Barack Obama is doing to help women,” she says. “What is it Barack Obama is doing to help youth? What is Barack Obama doing to help the Latino community?”
The two campaigns may have different advertising strategies. But it seems to me that they operating within a similar framework. Each campaign is working from the assumption that voters will do whatever is in their best interest. The Romney campaign has repeatedly asked voters the question: Are you better off than four years ago? Now the Obama campaign is doing all it can to help them answer that question with a resounding Yes! Because this is what the President did for me.
Politically, it’s a safe bet. After all, what is more American than pursuing our own (enlightened?) self-interest? For that matter, what is more human than looking out for old number one? Of course the politicians expect us to go into the poll booth asking What will be best for me?
But I suspect Jesus would want something different from those of us who pledge our allegiance to Him.
Theologian Miroslav Volf argues in his book A Public Faith that the greatest hope we carry with us to the polls should not be for a “satisfied-self.” Instead, it should be a vision universal flourishing, a profound hope that all people can experience the good life. After all, when Christians follow Jesus into the voting booth, we are following One who was radically other-directed; One who “who emptied himself” and went “all the way to death, even death on a cross” for our sakes. Therefore, Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, our attitude needs to be the same. We need to look first not to our own interests. But to the interests of others. The first question we need to ask is not “Which candidate will be best for me?” The first question we need to ask is “Which candidate will be best for others?”
Approaching politics this way will certainly not make things any less complicated. (For starters, which other do we focus on? The single mom on food stamps or Afghan villager or unborn child or small business owner or Guatemalan immigrant or Detroit auto worker or Wall Street banker or inner city GED student?) And as Christians, we may have legitimate disagreements about the right answer. But I wonder, can’t we all at least agree on the question?
How about you? Who will your vote benefit?