This morning, a message posted to a list I’m on cited a teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav: all of life is just a narrow bridge; we must remember the most important thing is not to fear. There’s a beautiful tune that goes with those words, and I’ve been letting it circulate behind my thoughts while I listen to a parade of analysts and pundits on NPR.
Most of the people I’ve heard from this morning are feeling deeply dispirited, disappointed. Me too, but there’s a little voice in my head that keeps questioning what is served by that feeling. Who wants me to feel that way?
In 2000, despite losing the popular vote, Bush blazed into office as if he had an overwhelming mandate. Today’s margin of a few percentage points will certainly be spun into a coronation. But the reality is that the race was very close, that progressives succeeded in mobilizing an impressively large percentage of voters, and that infrastructure—mostly independent of either party—built for that purpose could help to sustain a strong and vigilant opposition throughout the next four years and beyond. Some people report this morning that they’re feeling alone, or, as one friend wrote, “I feel heartbroken and I feel like I don’t belong here anymore.” I think Bush’s strategists want us to feel that way, even though in effect, one out of every two people is on our side. Our succumbing to the grief of internal exile would open the way for their program to proceed unimpeded.
National electoral politics are so debased now, close elections turn on things that many of us are appalled even to consider as grounds for voting: scurrilous lies and dirty tricks, smoke-and-mirrors projections of personality, physical appearance, convictions about a candidate’s values that persist despite irrefutable evidence of hypocrisy. With the narrow margin—the narrow bridge—determining Bush’s victory, I’m certain that if the Democrats had a candidate who was warmer, funnier, cuddlier and/or folksier, that candidate would have won. It appears the turnout among younger voters and voters of color did not rise nearly as much as anticipated, which must bespeak a failure to excite them. I think it’s possible that if Kerry had talked more and more passionately about prospects for youth, about the environment, about cultural values, about things like the growth of the prison industry as our schools decline—things that I see people get exercised about every day—he might have mobilized the small additional percentage of voters needed to put him over the top.
Philosopher Ken Wilber articulates a characteristic of cultural change: “More depth, less span.” He means that as the paradigm shifts from one era to another, the people who understand the new reality in depth will be fewer than those still attached to the old reality; they will be the leading wedge of the shift. When I look at the red and blue map, I see this in action. Two things tend to be true about the blue coastal states. First, they are permeable borderlands, where people have more contact with diversity and more sense of connection with the wide world, more awareness of cultural differences and the way the wide world matters, even to politics within nation-states. Second, they are meccas for internal exiles: so many artists, intellectuals, gays and lesbians—people who have concluded they “don’t belong” in South Dakota or Mississippi or Utah—sought out fellow aliens, finding homes in places like California or New York. There are people with these characteristics and awarenesses in every state, in big cities and small towns alike, but we have congregated at the margins.
I don’t minimize the damage Bush can do in four years, nor take lightly the danger of the Democratic Party foolishly succumbing to pressure to move further right. But neither prospect alters the reality that we internal exiles are the canaries in the national coal mine, the harbingers. We have crossed the narrow bridge from home to the wide world, and we understand that new conditions call for new responses. We are the leading wedge of a shift I am absolutely certain will come. Our challenge is not to be afraid, not to allow fear to undermine the depth of what we know. If we honor the depth of our understanding, our span will grow.