This is a profoundly confusing (and almost irresistibly depressing) moment in our political culture. Reactivity is at such an all-time high, a visitor from outer space could be forgiven for concluding that in the U.S., anyway, we humans lack any access to the neocortex, while our reptilian brains and limbic systems are shooting as many sparks as a wayward match in a fireworks factory. Danger! Panic! Despair!
Under such circumstances, confusion is an intelligent response. What is going on!?!?
Well, a lot, obviously. Start from your own center and work out. We all know the personal version of the reactivity now sweeping our political culture: something pushes a button, unleashing a swirl of memories, images, emotions. Flooded with brain chemicals, our thinking minds come unglued. A small setback turns into a hopeless failure; a major challenge triggers the kind of fight-or-flight response our brains were built for back on the savannah, being chased by sabertooth tigers. It happens to every being with a body. I’m guessing that even the Dalai Lama goes reactive now and then, and obviously, most of us warrant no comparison with the Dalai Lama’s mastery of automatic emotional responses.
But what’s front and center for me today is this: the reactivity swamping our culture of politics, and how little we have done to stanch it. Our poor political culture has been neglected for so long, it is like field depleted by the perpetual cultivation of a single crop. We have sown fear, and now harvest the panic and the paralysis they generate. We need to feed democracy, nourishing the culture of politics with social imagination, inspiriting people to think before they act, and to act for the greatest good.
We know by now that stories shape political understanding. Compelling stories of democratic resilience and common purpose can still help to neutralize the ubiquitous message that “every man for himself” is the only political truth. But they have to be told, and told with imagination, vigor, vibrancy. My concern is that so many of the people who could help to nurture to a political culture of democratic possibility are themselves in the grip of the addiction to fear, able only to rouse themselves to administer another fix. I want to understand the funnel-cloud of resentment, scapegoating and vitriol rising on the right. But most of all, I want the rest of us to understand and manage our own reactivity, to keep things from spiraling into a full-scale war between the states of mind. It may be too much of a stretch to empathize with the people who are stirring up hate, but perhaps compassion for ourselves and empathy with our confused friends and allies will help calm us down.
Let’s start with a brief tour of the situation.
From the left, two types of material keep circulating, proliferating, and recirculating. First, there’s a tremendous amount of inside baseball-type political commentary, offering unlimited free strategic advice to the President, who seems to be responding by attempting to reanimate his campaign apparatus, spectacularly missing the point. I don’t entirely know what to make of this pervasive tendency of pundits and activists to address their concerns to top-level strategists. I’ve done it myself, and I’m guessing the impulses that seized me also have a grip on others: the desire to believe that in high places, there is a listening ear for sweet reason, that if our leaders only understood, they would see the error of their ways. There is an exhausted quality to much of this advice that makes me want to lie down for a nice long nap when I’ve plowed through the morning papers and email.
What does it mean that thus far, remarkably little of this energy is directed toward the electorate, toward the rest of us who have no role in crafting strategy, but whose opinions and feelings ultimately determine whether any inside-baseball strategy will succeed? The ship of state lurches on violent seas, and instead of hauling out the lifeboats, liberals and progressives respond by convening in the captain’s cabin.
Second, the left is also circulating voluminous accounts of official malfeasance and self-dealing, analyses of historic errors, official lies and policies driven by entrenched interests. It’s not that any of it is untrue: from the colonial legacy in Haiti to the imperial precedency in Washington, I stipulate to the myriad emails choking my in-box. Callous, self-enriching policies and their venal operators have indeed set the stage for our current crises. But as the indictments pile up, the reactions they generate tend to 37 varieties of impotence: despairing rage, overwhelming depression, retreat from the public arena to the little world where we feel less powerless, and so on. They tend to generate a deep hopelessness, the feeling that history’s weight stands like a boot on the future’s neck, and resistance is futile. Surely that feeling does more to reinforce the power of the perpetrators than empower others to act for change.
From the right, no one can say with anything like certainty how big the “Tea Party” movement is, only that it has canny media advisors, extreme visibility, and a pissed-off simplicity that is the favorite drug of TV news producers. Saturday’s New York Times included a helpful little chart of the Tea Partyers’ unifying principles, all of which are points of opposition (i.e., if all the things they’re against were abolished, what would they be for?):
- Climate change Skeptical about human role
- Health care Deeply suspicious of government involvement
- Taxes Opposed to income taxes, favor I.R.S. abolition
- Illegal immigration A hard line against illegal immigration
- 10th Amendment Federal government takes too much power
- 2nd Amendment Opposed to gun control
The latest New Yorker has a piece by Ben McGrath that doesn’t add a huge amount to what’s already been written, but is a little less condescending than much of the other coverage in liberal journals. What interested me most was a description of a Tea Party politics-style video game, in which the President, Democrats having been defeated in midterm elections, takes action to
dissolve the Constitution and implement an emergency North American People’s Union, with help from Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, Canada’s Stephen Harper, and various civilian defense troops with names like the Black Tigers, the International Service Union Empire, and CORNY, or the Congress of Rejected and Neglected Youth. Lou Dobbs has gone missing, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh turn up dead at a FEMA concentration camp, and you, a lone militiaman in a police state where private gun ownership has been outlawed, are charged with defeating the enemies of patriotism, one county at a time.
Of course, this vision is the exact mirror-image of scenarios widely circulated on the left in the latter part of the Bush administration, with elections canceled, mass arrests, detention camps, the whole nine yards.
McGrath’s piece ends with the following anthem, which seems key, because it asserts a sense of ownership and entitlement that I don’t think is shared by many on the other end of the political spectrum. Mostly, progressive history and mission reflect a common aim, not to consolidate advantage, but to finally achieve an egalitarian body politic, with a fair distribution of social goods and social opportunity. Consider this:
Take it back, Take our country back. Our way of life is now under attack. Draw a line in the sand, so they all understand And our values stay intact. Take it back.
The anthem hints at what is really stewing around in the primitive parts of our brains, thanks to a combination of unlimited, well-funded media manipulation and official secrecy. On one side, we see the swirling fears of an overwhelmingly white, middle- and working-class cohort who feel their ownership of this country is under threat from people of color, immigrants, “others” whose needs they will be compelled to serve. On the other side, we see the disappointment and fear of those still struggling for equality, for access and opportunity, that the firestorm of backlash to even the smallest gains will now overwhelm all possibility. Though the realities differ greatly, both camps feel a powerlessness that makes people frightened, immobile, and easily manipulated. Both camps have trouble defusing reactivity and connecting with the quality of thought that might open options other than the frantic refusal surfacing through both the Tea Party movement and the left’s escalating alarm.
The designated territory for the current contest is the role of government, although I think it stands in for something much larger. Populists on both the right and left feel that public resources that should go to more important things have been wasted bailing out fat cats and failed industries. But then they diverge.
The Tea Partyers are pushing an idea some progressives have labeled “producerist.” (There’s a compendium of these analyses at the Web site of Political Research Associates, which has been tracking the right for a long time.) It means they believe that the hard-working, productive middle class is being forced to subsidize freeloaders, and their definition of “freeloader” runs more to the people who need help coping with the housing bubble-burst than the bankers who pushed untenable home mortgages. I am angry at many things about our actually existing government too, but they’re not the same things. I’m appalled at the role of profit in the public sector, in what should be a quest for the common good rather than private enrichment; the fact that we continue to support militarization at home and abroad in a distorted pursuit of national interest with little regard for the human life it wastes; our rush to become Incarceration Nation, with the planet’s largest prison population, heedless of the personal and social cost; our official neglect of the things that make life worth living at ground-level: culture, connection, equity, opportunity. And so on.
But that doesn’t make me see government as the enemy, any more than abuse and neglect in actually existing families makes me think the remedy is to abolish families. Human beings form families, communities, and governments, and our challenge—especially as our numbers and impact grow—is to bring our big brains (not just our primitive brain chemicals) to these necessary elements of the human project.
It is interesting to pull back from the daily tumult to consider that “government,” after all, is just a name for the arrangements human beings make to safeguard their commonwealth, provide essential infrastructure and generally make it possible for groups of people too large to sit down together and work things out to arrive at a modus vivendi, a way of living together.
I haven’t been able to find any definitive figures on the public sector’s role in the economy. But of a workforce of 135 million, about 10 million are outright government employees. That doesn’t include a couple of million social service providers, eight or so million educators (many of whom work in publicly funded schools and universities), some substantial proportion of the 10 or so million employed in healthcare (who serve in publicly subsidized facilities, or take care of people receiving Medicare and other public health aid), nor the three million police, wardens and other protective service workers, nor the 1.5 million members of the U.S. armed services—etcetera. It’s a safe bet that, as in most industrialized nations, at least one of every five workers owes that job, either directly or through subventions, to government. (I just learned from my friends who spent some time in Bhutan that about half that happy nation’s jobs are in the public sector.)
Government may be the battlefield, but the conflict goes far beyond it, subsuming the entire culture and the ideas and values that form our collective identity. I’m not a believer in anything like Rapture, but in one way, it seems likely that we are in the end-times, not of the world, but of a way of understanding and valuing it that has led us badly wrong. Either the valorization of accumulation, profit, and the subjection of human beings to mechanistic systems will wind down into the sort of dystopia so widely and lavishly depicted to scare us witless; or we will awaken from our trance, take a deep breath to dispel the catecholamines, use our big neocortices to recognize that we still possess the resources, intelligence and skill to enact a redemptive vision—and then do it. Our capacity to think rather than react will determine whether we can put our shoulders on the side of awakening, turning the tide.
Here are some things that may help:
Paying attention to our feelings. Notice the effect something has on your own physical and mental sensations, then extend your empathy to others. Computers come with a “delete” button. If reading something has upset your stomach, set off a tingling in your extremities, triggered a sensation of panic and desperation, consider not forwarding it to all your friends, and not opening the next email from the same source. Spend that energy instead on something that feels constructive, even in a very small way. I am not arguing against the need to know relevant history, to surface hidden realities. I am saying that if the main impact of a particular piece is to stimulate impotent rage, terror, or despair, circulating it is not a way of changing things.
Abandoning belief in the mobilizing power of fear. We have absolutely no evidence that fear mobilizes; to the contrary, all the research that has been done on what motivates social action suggests that having something concrete to do, something that feels like your own efforts can make a difference, is what works best. The Tea Partyers got around this by channeling energy into the purchase of millions of tea bags and the creation of public events that seized airtime; now they’re holding a convention at Opryland in Nashville, with Sarah Palin as the keynote speaker, and it’s predicted that candidates and platform will follow. It’s very hard for progressives to find a positive basis for mobilization at the moment: disappointment with the administration makes it hard to say yes to what is being proposed; and there’s the truth that as an organizing agenda, saying no is always much easier than proposing. But that doesn’t justify continuing to lean on the fear factor, which just can’t work for us.
Actually tackling the challenge of reframing government. One of the traps of polarized politics has been that progressives get stuck defending things that aren’t worth defending: the bailout, the war in Afghanistan, etc. The defense is half-hearted, it fails to convince, while the other side consolidates its media advantage by steadfastly repeating the talking points its members do believe, whether you and I buy them or not. What would it be like to hold an honest critique of the errors of the Obama and previous administrations, while pulling back from the details for a long-shot of public interest, responsibility and accountability as they could and should be? If we can’t even conjure a compelling vision of equity, pluralism and democracy in action, how can we expect them to materialize?
I understand how hard this is. Believe me, I really do. But the most important thing we can do right now is calm down enough to observe, analyze and choose instead of react. I’m going to start with a nice, hot cup of tea.