Throughout months of watching the seemingly endless comedy of errors masquerading as the 2012 Republican presidential primary contest, I’ve made it a point to pay scant attention to the campaign of Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Not that it’s been especially hard. While the thought of an Obama-Bachmann contest no doubt populates the “pleasant dreams and slumbers light” of many a young DNC campaign staffer, Bachmann has never been a serious contender for her party’s nomination (notwithstanding her early victory in the unrepresentative Iowa Straw Poll). And, unlike Texas governor Rick Perry—toward whose primary defeat I devoted 1,500 words in these very pages—Bachmann’s fleeting ascendancy to the top of the GOP heap did nothing to change the overall direction of the campaign or the tone of rhetoric coming out of the candidates.
What she has been is a uniquely entertaining character in a field of entertaining characters. And she rarely disappoints.
But Bachmann is still a voting member of the United States Congress, which means her words demand scrutiny. So, while I have no interest in lending credence to the congresswoman’s presidential bid by discussing the flawed nuances of her policies, I will gladly take a moment to descend into her world and draw from there a lesson about her values and the kind of American I think Michele Bachmann represents.
Our story starts this past Monday—on an unseasonably pleasant autumn morning in Washington D.C.—as Bachmann delivered what had been billed as her “Values Speech” before a small crowd at the G Street headquarters of the Family Research Council, an evangelical Christian group.
Bachmann had spoken for about 15 minutes, touching on an array of subjects ranging from Obamacare and the constitutionality of U.S. participation in the United Nations, to incandescent lightbulbs and the socialistic leanings of her GOP rivals, when she turned her attention to one of her favorite topics: gutting federally funded social programs—in this case those tailored to help people who are out of work:
“Our nation needs to stop doing for people what they can and should do for themselves. That provides the principle of a national work ethic that we have sadly forgotten. That means an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Self reliance means, if anyone will not work, neither should he eat.” (emphasis mine)
Now that’s what I call tough love.
Some Bachmann apologists have pointed out that the statement refers only to people who are “unwilling” to work (as if it’s that easy to collect public assistance). However, I say that Bachmann’s use of the words can and should, not to mention her professed objection to social programs that offer any helping hand to those less fortunate, says something entirely different.
But semantics aside, to make such a statement in a country where nearly one in 10 people is officially out of work (and many more unofficially) is irresponsible, insensitive and unbecoming of an aspiring president. Not to mention, it’s wholly inconsistent with the message of Bachmann’s professed Savior, Jesus Christ, who said quite clearly:
“But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (John 3:17)
For historical reference, Bachmann borrowed her admonition on self reliance from the New Testament, specifically from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (although there is some question as to whether Paul actually penned it). It’s largely an apocalyptic passage written to an early Christian community near Macedonia that primarily deals with the second coming of Christ, or the Parousia. The third chapter, in which the famous adage appears, is thought to be a response to a segment of the community that had become so zealous in their belief that the messianic age had dawned they had stopped working altogether and gave themselves over to religious reflection. This caused much consternation among their more productive brethren, who beseeched Paul to write his letter.
But the person who made the phrase popular is someone I think Bachmann would very much like to distance herself from. In his 1917 book “The State and Revolution,” Vladimir Lenin adopted the adage “He who does not work shall not eat,” describing it as a key component of the path to pure communism. The statement was subsequently adopted by the Soviet Union in its 1936 Constitution, which is sometimes called the Stalin Constitution. Article 12 reads:
“In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”
I’m gonna give Bachmann the benefit of the doubt and say she didn’t know she was repeating one of the basic tenants of Soviet-style communism when she made the “work/eat” connection; however her choice of words is revealing in another way: It reflects the duality of values at play in America that masquerades as political persuasion.
The America that Bachmann represents is pathologically obsessed with the supremacy of the individual over the group (except when it comes to women’s bodies) and the fallacy of equal opportunity for all. It believes that man has been granted dominion over the Earth and all the creatures in it and subscribes to a kind of social Darwinism that holds every person will ascend (or descend) to the socioeconomic status they deserve based on the efforts they put out. It abhors taxes and the idea of sharing what one has with those who have not, believing instead in an “every man for himself” ethic that assumes a man who is jobless and in foreclosure simply didn’t try hard enough.
On the other end of the spectrum is a value system that believes our level of civilization demands that each human being is entitled to a certain level of existence that include the basics of shelter, food and healthcare. We believe that the earth gives life and needs to be saved from destruction at all costs (even if it means paying a little more for gas). And most importantly, we believe that it is the duty of a society—and those who have benefited from the security and prosperity it affords—to protect its most vulnerable members.
These are basic ideas rooted in personal morality, not politics. Politics can be compromised, values cannot.