At his 50th Oberlin reunion, Robert Kuttner, editor of the American Prospect, reminisced about his own commencement ceremony at which Martin Luther King was the keynote speaker. Three months after the Selma march, King inspired Kuttner and his fellow graduates with a speech titled "Staying Awake Through a Revolution." Alluding to King's characteristic ability to call people to their higher selves, Kuttner rightfully bemoans the fact today that, "People who can address great public questions in convincingly moral terms, with an authentic prophetic voice, who can challenge people and nations to become their best selves, do not come around often enough." He convincingly notes the absence of "prophetic voices" in today's political climate, people on the order of King, Mandela, Ghandi and Havel.
Unfortunately, sometimes high-minded rhetoric is empty. Other times, it dissolves into the cynical compromises of realpolitik. In these cases, cynicism increases; performance trumps substance, and most of us become ever more skeptical about the possibility of real social change. Cynicism is but another way of being asleep. It is based on the fundamentally irrational but powerful belief that the way things are is the way they're supposed to be -- so why bother? Obama broke through this belief and woke many of us up in 2008 with his emphasis on redemption and hope, but sedation soon crept back in when he set about seeking compromises with bomb throwing right-wing ideologues in the Tea Party-run Republican political establishment. Disappointment and cynicism returned, some of which was later evidenced in the terrible Democratic losses incurred in the 2010 and 2014 general elections.
But where Kuttner is spot-on is in his emphasis on our unrequited longing for meaning and purpose, for a sense of connection to something bigger than our narrow selves, a longing that has always animated millions of people to get politically engaged in social change movements. He has put his finger on one of the most powerful motivations in the human psyche, but one that is tragically ignored today by a progressive movement that privileges economic needs above all else and that mistakenly proceeds as if calls for economic justice are enough to motivate people to vote and to otherwise oppose corporate power.
As I argue extensively in my book, More Than Bread and Butter, this misunderstanding of what makes people tick has hoisted our movement -- if you can even call it that -- on its own petard, locking us in to various iterations of the traditional liberal emphasis on redressing economic inequality and expanding the government-sponsored safety net. It is wrong because its understanding of what people really need is wrong. People need economic security, to be sure, and the current era of corporate greed is surely a ghoulish outrage, but the evidence is overwhelming that people also have equally powerful unmet needs for recognition, meaning, connection and agency (encompassing both creativity or learning and self-determination). When organizers tell me that "if we get enough people 'on the doors' and explain to people how the economic power structure is screwing them, they'll want to join our movement," they are deluding themselves. They are proceeding as if a lack of rationality or information is what plagues our organizing efforts and causes, for example, low voter turnout, rather than the fact that we're not connecting with what matters most to people beyond material security.
Consider health care reform. We have been fighting for universal health care coverage for decades. We care deeply, and infer that others do, too, about the fact that there have been tens of millions of people without any coverage at all, one illness away from homelessness and destitution. The Affordable Care Act will, along with Medicare, go down in history as a major accomplishment in our fight. But the fact is that most people do have health insurance; they do have primary care providers and specialists, but they are still often decidedly dissatisfied with their medical care. Why? Because it is alienated, impersonal, uncoordinated, and missing the central ingredient that a mountain of research has shown is the key to good health care outcomes -- namely, a trusting personal connection between patient and doctor. The jury is in when it comes to the importance of this connection and the harmful effects of its absence today within the byzantine economics and logistics that infect contemporary medical care.
Progressives might readily agree with these conclusions, but nowhere do we see a serious and sustained effort to make caring relationships a central demand in our campaigns for better health care. And yet, people need care and they need relationships every bit as much as penicillin or insulin. Too often, they are deprived of both. If progressives continue to speak to people as if they are only consumers and wage-earners and not animated by complicated emotional needs -- needs to which Kuttner's prophetic voices speak and address -- then our appeal will be forever weak and our programs uninspiring. In order to produce more prophetic voices, we need to believe that people are hungering to hear them.