In the the previous piece, I argued that we -- Liberal America, the American people generally, and the nation itself -- are losing. I argued that the course of the nation is increasingly being governed by such destructive power as greed, and the lie, and the lust to dominate, and rage, and the spirit of conflict.
I argued that our democracy is being steadily eroded by plutocratic forces. That we are losing ground on the ability to respond to our national challenges, including some whose neglect is potentially catastrophic.
And I closed by asking: given that the present dynamic is taking things in the wrong direction, what could turn this around?
The first question is, just how should we see this dynamic that is generating this adverse shift in our politics?
The beginnings of an answer arise from noting that all of those adverse shifts are gaining their main impetus from one political party: the once-respectable Republican Party. Today's GOP is a relatively pure case of serving greed, telling falsehoods, fomenting rage, sacrificing the common good for political power, advancing plutocracy and, whenever they are not in a position to dominate and take us in negative direction, throwing a monkey wrench to disable our government from functioning to take us in a positive direction.
(NOTE: All that is so blatantly obvious, that the fact that it needs to be said -- and that saying it is likely to evoke objections not only from Republican supporters but even from many in Liberal America -- is itself a revealing and alarming commentary on the state of our nation. But the past fifteen years have given us a mountain of evidence to support those assertions, and remarkably little that stand as exceptions. In American political history, our political forces have generally had mixtures of constructive and destructive elements. But today's Republican Party represents an exceptionally pure case of the one with remarkably little of the other.)
In view of all that terrible pattern of politically destructive conduct from one of our political parties, a student of American history since its founding might have supposed that from the other major party there would have been a vigorous and righteous response to protect the nation.
But that has not been the case. And the problem on the Democratic side has not been so much a matter of being willingly complicit in the destructiveness as of being terribly weak in opposing it.
Nor has the problem on the left side of our politically increasingly divided nation been confined to the elected leadership. For there has been no great groundswell from the grassroots to press the battle against the unprecedentedly ugly and destructive force that has taken over the right.
The dynamic that is damaging our America, therefore, seems to have two main parts:
- The Republican Party has become the instrument of a destructive force.
Together, those two points describe why America has been and continues to be seriously damaged by the political dynamic of our times.
Given that analysis, it follows that -- at least at one level -- that the answer to the question of what has to happen also consists of two parts:
- The power of this force that's taken over the right needs to be reduced. And
How to achieve those results would seem to pose us two challenges:
The challenge concerning the right is this: how can the power of that destructive force be drained away? We know what the ultimate source of that power is. In our still-democratic polity, that power depends on the support of millions of our fellow citizens, as expressed at the polls. As powerful as Big Money is, that power still has to translate into votes. (A generation from now, that might not still be the case.) The way to drain the power away, therefore, is to pry enough of the supporters of that force away from it.
That task might be hopeless if all those supporters fully understood the nature of what they are supporting. My observation and experience indicates to me that a substantial number of Republican voters are basically good, decent people who have no idea that the force they are supporting is neither good nor decent. Thus, in a nation like ours the only way a force like this can gain power is by deceiving large numbers of people into believing that it is something that it is not.
That lie is this force's point of vulnerability. The question of how can the force on the right be weakened can therefore be reframed as: how can those people be persuaded of the truth about what they are supporting?
Now, as for the challenge of strengthening the other, liberal force in our pathologically divided body politic, the first question that must be asked is: what is the source of the weakness shown in these times by Liberal America, and how can it be addressed?
Among the answers that might be given, the one I think lies at the core of that weakness is the inability of Liberal America to perceive, and thus to respond to, that dimension of human affairs that might be called "the realm of the spirit."
I would say that what is winning in America is not so much those specific destructive things like greed, rage, lies, the lust for power, and the spirit of conflict, but rather that force -- or, one might call it, "spirit" -- that fosters and works through all of those.
(NOTE: One might also cite, as an explanation of the weakness of Liberal America, the factor of intimidation. One can certainly see, in the relationship between the right and the left, the dynamic of a relationship between the bully and the bullied. But while that is certainly present, I would assert that the same disconnection from that dimension of "the spirit" underlies Liberal America's vulnerability to intimidation. Those who are "inspired" (Latin: inspirare "inspire, inflame, blow into") find a strength that makes them less subject to fear and intimidation.)
Many liberals might recoil from such language, assuming that talk of "the power of the spirit" takes us out of the naturalistic world that we come to understand through reason and evidence. But that is not the case here. What I mean by spirit is something that is in some essential ways akin to how the term has traditionally been used, but is also a phenomenon that can be understood in naturalistic terms.
So what do I mean by spirit? Let me make a couple of quick points.
1) There are forces at work that we cannot see directly, but that we infer from the way the things we do see move. It's like with the wind: we do not see the wind, but looking through our windows we know there's a wind from the swaying of the trees. Such has long been one of the properties of what we mean by spirit ("Team spirit," "The Spirit of "76"). Our world cannot be properly understood in rational and empirical terms without reference to such invisible forces. One cannot "see" love or rage or panic, but they move things in the world. One cannot see patriotism or "Christian ethics" or the spirit of hope in the crowd in Grant Park on Election Night, 2009. But we can see that things in the world move differently under their influence. Sometimes such forces show coherence over time in their web of causes and effects.
2) Some of the forces of this kind relate quite directly to those values that are built into the core of our being, in that they consistently either serve and enhance life or degrade and destroy it. When we behold such spirits "animating" the way things are moving in our world, our sense of the "spirit" of the thing moves us in profound ways. The perception evokes our own "spirit," calling forth deep energies that might be called "spiritual" passions.
(NOTE: Think of how we, as an audience, feel upon witnessing the contrast, in It's a Wonderful Life, between two scenarios for our characters' society: one called Pottersville, shaped by the spirit of selfish greed; and one, called Bedford Falls, shaped by an altruistic caring for others. Think of what the "Spirit of '76" long meant to Americans. Think of the words in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- "as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free" -- with which Union soldiers in the war that ended slavery went off to battle.)
If there were such forces -- that are not directly "visible" but that can be inferred from the way things move - operating in our world, a failure to see them would be important.
This failure to recognize the potential "power of the spirit" was at the heart of the the previous discussion of the belief by many dedicated liberal/Democratic activists that there was no way President Obama could have combatted effectively the disgraceful conduct of the Republican opposition he encountered when he became president.
The failure to see the power available to our luminous-seeming new president in 2009, I am arguing, is a manifestation of that same truncation of vision that has prevented Liberal America from seeing what we are up against, and debilitated Liberal America into responding to it so weakly.
The challenge to weaken the right and strengthen Liberal America would appear at first to be two separate challenges. But I believe that they can be addressed together in a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone fashion, simultaneously challenging each side on its "spiritual error."
That two-birds-with-one-stone strategy is coming up.