The Right can say that it stands for the American dream of economic freedom, and American values of morality. The Left has to redefine the American dream as "economic opportunity" and preach the virtues of civil liberties. The Right's moral values are traditional, familiar, and do not limit our growth. The Left's deeper moral values are unusual, new, scary. Reaganite Republicans preach a message of patriotism and optimism, while crafting economic and social policies based on fear. Democrats often preach a message of gloom (the deficit! the prescription drugs!), while crafting economic and social policies based on the aspiration for hope and sharing.
Thus Freedom means freedom to consume, not civil liberty; a freedom from responsibility, not from governmental supervision. Patriotism means supporting America's policies, not its ideals. And Success is about fulfilling one's cultural role, not about self-actualization, not about flowering into a new manifestation of Being at this time and place. To paraphrase Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, the language we are using is the market's before it is ours.
The Left has utterly failed to alter this terrain. It has failed to convince most Americans that economic actions are moral ones, i.e., that overconsumption or under-distribution are ethically problematic. It's a difficult argument, to be sure. Even Jesus couldn't make it stick: despite unambiguous statements that excess wealth entails moral evil, Christ's economic message has been lost on most Christians politically active in America today. (The most recent political effort to revive that message – on the part of the governor of Mississippi, who promoted a tax hike referendum on the basis of Scripture – ended in abysmal failure, as the tax package in question was voted down by a margin of four to one.) Indeed, the same religious right which sees homosexuality and abortion as morally depraved sees the rapacious greed of hypercapitalism as seemingly unimportant.
The Left must get over its own collective revulsion to SUV's and McDonald's and begin to understand them as moral issues. Injustice – not Caulfield-esque hypocrisy – is the sin here. And consumption cannot be made the enemy.
Unfortunately, we live in a system where hundreds of millions of people have grown up with the American dream defined in terms of economic success, where no one wants to be scolded into being low-self-esteem non-consumers whose veganism is but an expression of their low self-worth, where consumption is big and grand and egoistic, and conservation is small, self-abnegation, sacrifice. We are a terrified population, whose spiritual center is being co-opted by extremely powerful forces of desire. Can we really be told to make do with less? Can we be told to do without the SUV, to shrink the ego so that the True Self expands? Can we tell it like it is: that Bush's America is a Satanic playground, where flashing lights distract us from Reality and ringing bells obliterate the Silence?
The Democrats will lose and lose again if their message is about less-ness. Less-ness equals death. More-ness equals life. Those values may be diametrically opposed to what many on the Left see as the meaning of life. They should be fought, by non-politicians. But to try to fight them and win an election is folly. So what can we do?
• Meet fear with evil
The Democrats must speak to deep questions of fear and safety, evil and good, just as the Republicans do. This can be done without preaching; the best politicians weave their values in subconsciously and skillfully, embedding their values into the ways in which questions are phrased. Again, the most important parts remain unspoken, yet undergird everything that is said.
The Left must now take its cue from the Right, and depict – in veiled, skillfully-chosen terms – its political enemy as evil, threatening, and corrosive. The enemy is not John Ashcroft, with his strong sense of good and evil, but Lord Voldermort, who says "There is no good and evil at all, only power and those too weak to use it." J.K. Rowling has evil exactly right.
In our current government, Voldemort holds sway. There can be no doubt, examining the last three years, that the Bush administration and Republican Congress will do whatever they can to enrich the rich and empower the powerful. (I will give examples soon.) Bush may believe his Ashcroft-lite religiosity, but the evil lies in how he being used by the Voldemorts of corporatism, wealth, Big Media, and Big Oil.
Just as the Republicans linked Clinton's misdeeds with deep moral questions of character, so too the Democrats should now link Bush's policies with deep moral questions of fear and security. They should do this not by inflammatory rhetoric (such as the word "evil") but by recognizing that, and acting as if, this is a fundamental moral battle.
The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism
Sex and the Golem
How Jewish is Modigliani?
Steel and Glass
No Matter What, I Wish You Luck
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From previous issues:
God Likes New Things
Wrestling with Steve Greenberg