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Us vs. Them: Montgomery County & Lockheed Martin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 11, 2011

Most of us seldom see what goes on behind the scenes in Federal politics, but watching our more accessible local politics often gives us a clue. Last week in Montgomery County, Maryland, money talked and the County Council listened. In its broad outlines, this is as ugly an example of business pressure on political sentiment as you’re ever likely to find. And yet all the usual complexities are also at work.

What happened, according to Rachel Ray writing in the Washington Examiner on October 9th, is that the Montgomery County Council was all set to vote on a resolution to ask Congress to shift funding from the Pentagon budget to roads, education and health care across Maryland. But Lockheed Martin, the County’s largest defense contractor, expressed its displeasure with the resolution, and County officials feared that Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia would use the resolution to convince Lockheed Martin to move its headquarters to Virginia.

Among other things, the resolution stated that “a different military strategy and an end to the wars abroad would free up hundreds of billions of dollars.” But according to County Executive Ike Leggett, Lockheed Martin’s displeasure made this point of view “a dagger pointed directly at the heart of Montgomery County.” The resolution was hastily withdrawn.

A great many CatholicCulture.org supporters are fairly conservative and tend to look for viable political candidates within the Republican Party. Because liberals, who tend to populate the Democratic Party, seem hell-bent on undermining the natural law with respect to marriage, family and life issues, this is hardly surprising. But this conservatism also generally includes other sentiments, not at all directly tied to the Faith, which can sometimes lead to a sort of blindness. A reflexive pro-business sentiment is a case in point.

It makes no sense, of course, for anyone to be “anti-business” in the strict sense. What we’re really talking about here is a propensity to believe or disbelieve allegations about the motivations and hidden agendas of business leaders (or, when the shoe is on the other foot, of labor leaders, or any other identifiable group which has broad common interests). To take an example, we’re really talking about whether one finds it easier to believe that every demonstrator in the Occupy Wall Street movement is really a paid hireling or that every legislative decision is deliberately manipulated by business/financial interests.

We Catholics cannot afford to be naïve about human motivation; and since we have access to the truth about human nature, we shouldn’t be. Rather than a default posture of being for (or against) business (or any other non-ideological group), our default position ought to be that motivations are typically mixed, social problems are seldom simple, and the political process is laced with opportunism on all sides. This will lead us to be cautious about dismissing those who do not appeal to our own instincts—cautious about according praise and assigning blame.

As it turns out, the Montgomery County incident is a case in point for the thesis that, in politics, things are never quite what they seem. The peace resolution was floated only after months of lobbying by peace activists. There is nothing wrong with peace activism, of course, when it is prudent rather than reflexive, and based on sound analysis rather than prejudice (like anything else). But this is another political pressure point which may have nothing to do with cogent reasoning of any kind, whether moral or economic.

And whatever the reasoning of the lobbyists, the resolution itself suggests that the Council was moved not so much by moral as by economic arguments, especially the need for more local jobs—hardly the moral high ground. Moreover, Lockheed Martin’s rumblings were apparently effective for the same reason: Passing the resolution might now make the job situation worse. The news stories do not mention any specific threats by Lockheed Martin, just a fear that Virginia could use the resolution to induce the defense contractor to find greener pastures on the other side of the Potomac River.

Did the Council members act from craven subservience to “business interests” or from a genuine desire to avoid any unnecessary action which might put their constituents at an economic disadvantage? After all, county government has little or no role to play in questions of war and peace anyway. On the other hand, stated more generally, if we’re wondering about whether Americans tend to evaluate questions of war and peace in economic terms, we’ve got plenty of blame to spread around.

One also wonders how much of this tempest in a teapot originated in mere posturing. Some would dismiss Lockheed Martin’s position as a product of a particularly ignoble vested interest. Others would be just as quick to charge that the peace lobbyists all make their money from non-profit organizations with a vested interest in keeping their issue before the public, no matter what the facts, and no matter how meaningless the gesture. I can almost hear the conservatives and the liberals accusing each other of venality without giving any of this a second thought, can’t you?

My point is that we must be very careful of our own prejudices. We’re already bound in conscience to be firm and articulate whenever Catholic and natural law moral principles are threatened. So let us avoid weakening our credibility by falling into facile judgments about things that are far less certain. We have no warrant to assume that self-interest, hidden agendas, and abuses of power characterize only the side that fails to claim our own instinctive sympathies.

When we are close to a situation, especially when we have no horse in a particular race, we can get a glimpse of the varied groups and motivations at work. In such situations, we will often even be amused by all the influences, assumptions, worries, and hypocrisies in play. But when we cannot see behind the curtain, our prejudices too often lead us to accept black and white tales about what is going on there, about who is doing what to whom. This is a serious problem in politics. There is no us versus them in Christ.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Steve214 - Oct. 13, 2011 6:33 AM ET USA

    Excellent points. If we are to participate in a debate, we really do have to think first. And think accurately.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Oct. 12, 2011 9:54 PM ET USA

    A bumpersticker I've had quoted to me says, "Someday, schools will be fully funded and the Pentagon will have to hold bake sales." My reply was that when that happens, our military personnel will go into harm's way with broken down vehicles and inadequate weapons/ammunition. They should encourage eliminating fraud, waste and abuse--and better oversight of contractors. The military can't protect us if poorly equipped, and who would volunteer for it in that case? Naive county council.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Oct. 12, 2011 9:39 PM ET USA

    People without jobs find it difficult to meet their financial obligations to their government (taxes) to their families (mortgage payments, food, medical care, education, utilities etc.) and to their community (charitable donations, etc.) So when you consider that such a peace initiative at the county level has no tangible effect on global peace it does not make sense to endanger peoples' jobs.

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