With the 2012 U.S. presidential election mere days away, many Americans are being bombarded by campaign mailings, attack ads, social me- dia updates and news coverage surrounding the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But what’s unique about this year’s election, as compared with past elections? And more broadly: How has the political landscape in America changed, and where are we headed?

Biola Magazine sat down with Scott Waller — assistant professor of political science at Biola — to talk about the current election, the American political landscape and how evangelicals are changing in the way they engage politics. [Editor’s note: As always, the views expressed in this interview are those of the interview subject and do not necessarily represent those of Biola University.]

When you look at the 2012 presidential election, what stands out to you as new or different as compared with past elections?

This election is unique in that some things are coming to a head here as a country, which have been talked about theoretically for years but haven’t been addressed in a practical fashion. For roughly the last 70 years in this country, we’ve had a debate about the nature of government and its relationship to the American people. For the most part, given a general sense of financial prosperity, we’ve been able to keep those discussions at the abstract level. Given the debt crisis we find ourselves in — nearly $16 trillion in debt — it is forcing the American people to consider the practical implications of two competing visions for America: one, largely espoused by President Obama, is a more progressive, bigger-government society in which government has a more active role. Mitt Romney’s vision is to return America to a day where rugged individualism, private industry and self- sufficiency will be the norms. I think political scientists and historians will look back at the 2012 election as a watershed election. I think we’re facing two candidates who would take the country in radically different directions.

Has anything surprised you about the way the 2012 presidential election has unfolded?

After the midterm elections in 2010, in which the Tea Party became a major political movement in the United States, there was a groundswell of impassioned rejection of the direction Obama had taken the country in the previous two years. What has surprised me about this election is that the Republicans did not nominate someone who was from that movement of 2010. I expected a candidate to be nominated who was not an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney.

illustration of a blue and red elephant

If Americans from 100 years ago could see the political landscape of America in 2012, what do you think would shock them the most?

I think what would shock people from 100 years ago would be the mindset of a growing majority of Americans who are willing to accept so much from the government in terms of entitlements. We are seeing a dying off of a generation who would have died before they took one dollar from the government. It was seen as a thing of shame. Now, the younger generations of Americans — one of Obama’s biggest electoral constituencies — have a willingness and expectation that the government is something radically different than what their grandparents would have anticipated or expected. The government was to the older generations merely there to provide what are called negative rights: individual rights that the government clears the road for, so I can exercise them. A positive right is that the government in some positive sense accords or provides us things more than just clearing the way for us to achieve them.

How do you think media and technology have changed the way national elections are run?

I think it’s changed things significantly. For example, Obama was very successful in using new media in his 2008 campaign, building a grassroots organization. It was the first of his keys to success in beating Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Hillary went the traditional route: Get big donors with big injections of cash. Obama built his campaign on small-dollar contributions, utilizing social media to do it. Obama also utilized new media to generate excitement among younger voters, which was a good fit for him. The Republicans are trying to catch up in this area, but it’s not as natural a fit for them, demographically.

What has been the impact of an increasingly politicized news media?

I think this actually threatens the maintenance of our democratic order. The press was designed to be an institution that mediated between politicians and the people, a group who kept politicians accountable. But gone are the days when you could watch the evening news and expect to get a relatively neutral stance on the news. It’s predominantly a left-of-center perspective. Now, Fox News is certainly biased in the other direction. But media is a business. The reason Fox News is burying everyone else in the ratings is because they’re one of the only major news outlets presenting a substantive alternative/conservative view on these issues.

I recommend to people: Don’t just watch Fox News and don’t just watch CNN. Watch them both. Bring some critical analysis to the table. Ask yourself which view of reality being presented matches up with the reality you are experiencing, and go from there. One of the key things for us as a believing community to do is to be able to find resources that will fairly present arguments from both the left and the right, so that we can truly wrestle with the issues.

illustration of a blue and red donkey

Is the increasingly partisan nature of American politics something we should worry about or lament?

I do think it’s something to lament. There’s an entrenchment mentality in Washington. Both sides are playing to their base in order to maintain their seats, and nothing gets done. The only thing that will produce change in America is if a majority of the American people come to see that one side is just wrong. That’s what political scientists call a critical election, where the American people definitively say we need a course redirection. The last major election of that sort was 1932, when FDR was elected during the Great Depression.

What is most broken in our political system?

There’s a growing concern that American democracy is just not working anymore. A democratic regime implicitly relies on a certain level of understanding and engagement with the political issues among the electorate. If I come before a body that might elect me and promise these “elect me and I’ll keep the goodies coming!” promises, we need to ask if there are enough people in the U.S. who will step back and say, “Well, this might be good for me, but it’s not good for the country.” We’ve reached a point of crisis fiscally where it’s going to be crucial for the American people to have that capability. The question is, has the media/entertainment/leisure lifestyle so enervated the American mind that we’re no longer capable of critically engaging and evaluating political issues?

Is there anything that is encouraging to you about our current political zeitgeist?

I think the advent of new media has actually been a good thing. It presents a more diverse media landscape with more choices and different perspectives on political issues. I think access to more information at least opens the possibility of hearing some things that might be better descriptions of reality, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago where there was an incredible lack of alternative views.

How do you assess the evangelical approach to politics?

Evangelicals over the last quarter century have been chained to electoral cycles. If our guy wins, we think politics is great; if our guy loses, we say politics is awful. I think the evangelical community needs to develop a public philosophy — a groundwork of thinking about why and how we should be involved in politics. What is it that carries us through electoral cycles, that no matter how they come out, we don’t change because there is a something more foundational than that year’s candidates. The Catholics are way ahead of us in having a robust, thoughtful approach to politics.

Have you witnessed any changes in the last 25 years in the way evangelicals have engaged politically?

Well, the last few elections have been largely about the economy. It’s driving everything, so the social issues, and thus the evangelical voting block, are being pushed to the back burner somewhat.

Evangelicals were essentially uninvolved in politics for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the late ’70s that evangelicals got on the political bandwagon, largely in response to what happened in the 1960s. Jimmy Carter was their man, but he let them down and then from that point forward evangelicals were in the Republican bandwagon, largely from Ronald Reagan forward. Reagan spoke evangelicals’ language and Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority glommed on to him. George H.W. Bush reaped the benefits from that, as did Bob Dole, who won 70 percent or more of the evangelical vote.

In 2008, a few things changed. About 4 million fewer evangelicals showed up to the polls than in 2004, perhaps because John McCain was less attractive to evangelicals than George W. Bush. In 2008, Obama made some inroads among younger evangelicals as well.

How do you think Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith will play with evangelicals?

The giant question will be whether conservative evangelicals will be energized by Mitt Romney and whether their dislike of Obama and the direction he’s taken the country is greater than their misgivings about Mormonism. It could also be that the country increasingly sees religion less and less as a public thing and more as a private thing. That could work to Romney’s benefit. Romney might be able to say, “Well, this is just my personal private faith,” and people might be willing to accept that. This kind of thinking has also, sadly I think, infiltrated the evangelical community in that they don’t see religion as one of the more salient issues to consider in addressing political issues.

Scott A. Waller is an assistant professor of political science at Biola. He holds a Ph.D in political science from Claremont Graduate University.