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10/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Isn't Obama Ahead by a Landslide as the Economy Collapses? The Psychodynamics of the 2008 Election Come Into Fierce Relief

Once again I've started hearing Blue Staters responding with horror and shock that Obama has not shot McCain out of the water. "How can it be," they ask, "that after 7 years of war, the dramatic and scary economic collapse, growing ecological crisis, and undermining of human
rights and civil liberties that Americans are not overwhelmingly rejecting McCain who supported most of the destructive policies of the past and shows no signs of changing them should he be elected? Americans," they go on to say, "must either be stupid, extremely
militaristic or racist."

If Obama understood how to answer these blue-staters and their all-too-ready-contempt for the Americans who don't agree with them, he'd have a far greater chance of winning this election. I hope the readers of this note with try to reach him with an analysis I present below of what is going wrong. Unfortunately, many of Obama's own supporters have bought into the "It's the economy, stupid"reductionist view of human needs that gives them no alternative way of understanding. Because if all that people care about is their own material well-being, then they must be irrational to even consider supporting McCain. But that's not the whole story of who we are as Americans.

I remember having these kinds of elitist thoughts myself when Reagan was first elected, but in the twenty-eight years since then I've engaged in a systematic study of the psychodynamics of American politics, and come to realize how very misguided that put-downish analysis of middle income Americans.

What I and my colleagues working on what was originally anNIMH-funded research project on stresses at work and stress in family life -- we ran groups and did interviews with over ten thousand Americans -- discovered is that for a large sector of Americans, the issues are not the issue in a presidential campaign. So they can easily agree with the liberal or progressive candidates on the issues, and hence in any polling appear to be closer to the Democrats than the Republicans, yet in the polling booth it is not those issues that determine their vote.

Instead, what shapes the consciousness of Americans are two psychodynamic issues: the level of their fear vs. the level of their hope, and the degree to which they feel recognized and respected by those who are seeking their vote. One of the terrible problems with the people who have pushed Obama to present himself as more "centrist" is that they don't understand how their role in pushing the candidate away from his own deepest truths has undermined his campaign and made him appear less authentic and hence less trust-worthy. So lets explore
these issues.

The level of fear is never static. Though most of us have been subjected to an intense barrage of messages that tell us that we are surrounded by people who only care about themselves, and a world filled with terrorists who seek to destroy us, and that the only path to safety for ourselves or our country is to dominate and control others before they dominate and control us, we've also been exposed to a different set of experiences in which we've learned to recognize that many people who seem hurtful or scary can sometimes be moved by our acting in a sensitive and caring way toward them, and that love and generosity generate more security than attack and attempts to manipulate others.

Truth is that both of those voices are always in most of our heads, and that while our individual psychological history may determine that one or the other holds greater weight, at any given period a set of circumstances (e.g. 9/11 for fear or the collapse of the Soviet Union for hope) may shift social energy more in one direction than another. For that reason, static analyzes that focus on whether a given person grew up with a more patriarchal/domination
oriented family or a more nurturing and cooperation oriented family are inadequate, because they fail to notice the way people can transcend their previous conditioning and move in a new direction if the fear or the hope, the domination or the love/generosity aspects of their consciousness are most effectively touched. Reinforcing the voices of hope inside us is the most important task of progressive politics, and that doesn't happen simply by saying "lets be hopeful."

Watch the Republicans and they know how to touch the voice of fear, and reinforce patriarchal/domination views while ridiculing anyone who might be "soft" or "naïve" (e.g. in believing that negotiations would be helpful with Iran or Russia or Venezuela). That
same wisdom is not there with the Democrats--they seem unable to affirm that voice of hope, love and generosity in people that must be massively reinforced, particularly in the face of it being put-down and systematically ridiculed. Obama mentioned the right issues (care
about others, peace, social justice, ecological sanity) but his talk, and most importantly his campaign and his ads stay away from that, imagining that they can mobilize people around some modified version of the "it's the economy, stupid" consciousness, as though Americans
only care about or get scared about the economy.

Of course, they do care about the economy, and there probably will be a bump toward Obama in next week's polling. But they also care about the lack of loving connections in their lives, the
level of futility and meaningless in their work, the well-being of their children, and the possibility of peace in the world.

Obama needs to help people see that these very important elements in their lives have been undermined by a society that fosters selfishness, materialism, and a "looking out for number one"consciousness that is endemic to the competitive capitalist marketplace, cheered on by the media, and brought home into personal lives in ways that undermine our capacities to sustain long-term loving relationships undermine our ability to make sacrifices for our
communities, and encourages disrespectful or even self-destructive behavior in some of our children. But until Obama and other Dems present a tough and hard-nosed defense of values like generosity, caring for others, and an insistence that our well-being cannot be
achieved apart from the well-being of everyone else on the planet, they will continue to be perceived as out of touch with the real worries of many Americans, and weak and afraid of their own values and unable to embody the hope that they need to stimulate in others.

Obama and many other liberals/progressives appear to not really believe in the possibility of a world of love and generosity, and that reinforces the voice of fear in many people who could be won to a politics of hope if anyone appeared to be hard and powerfully into taking those values and showing how they applied concretely in domestic and foreign policy.

An Obama campaign weakens hope (no matter how many times it uses that word) if it can't say clearly the following:

1. The economic crisis is not going to be solved solely by new economic policy wonks -- because the basic cause of our economic meltdown is the selfishness and materialism that has been fostered by a politics that says our highest obligation is to "look for number one." We need a new ethos in our economy, and institutions that will enforce that ethos, based on the notion that we have a responsibility to care for others, and that anyone running corporations, banks, insurance companies, health care institutions, food, or energy related institutions has an
obligation to put the common good at the top of their agenda when making decisions, and should be held legally responsible when they instead make decisions based solely on advancing their own profits and not on the welfare of the public which they serve. We need to develop mechanisms to reward those people and those institutions that do make caring for others and social responsibility a high priority when making decisions in the board room or in the way that they conduct their economic life. And we need A New Bottom Line, so that
institutions and social practices are judged rational, efficient, and productive not only when they maximize money or power, but also when they foster love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological responsibility, and enhance our capacities to respond to
the universe with awe and wonder. And if we need to bail out corporations, then we the people whose taxes are going to do this ought to have the right to own those corporations which, if the claims we are being given are true, would have collapsed without out money
and gone bankrupt. Regulation, fine -- but those corporations should, if they need our money, but under our democratic control.

2. War is the wrong path to achieve security while generosity and caring for others is the right way, so while we intend to keep a strong military on our shores, we should give equal weight to an equally important strategy: showing that we genuinely care about others, repenting and paying for the damage we did to Iraq, and exploring the possibility of a new Global Marshall Plan that would dedicate 1-2% of the Gross Domestic Produce of the advanced industrial countries each year for twenty years (with the financial help of other G-8 countries) to once and for all end both domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care, and repair the global environment. This is House Resolution 1078 introduced by the first Muslim in the Congress, Keith Ellison, and the
details of the plan can be read here. Can we afford it? If we could afford an $85 billion to bail out AIG corporation for the sake of its

3. Saving the environment is not an optional choice but a pressing need, both because our biblical mandate to care for the planet is being undermined by Republican policies that give priority to the rich and the corporations, but also because our future and the future of our
children is being undermined at this very moment by polluting our waters, our air, and the products we consume.

4. We not only need to give better pay and attention to teachers, smaller
classrooms, and better facilities, but we need to give equal attention to building a new curriculum in our schools that teach how to care for others and the environment, how to communicate in a non-violent way, and teach basic values like generosity, gratitude,
responsibility, respect for others, forgiveness when we've been hurt, and how to respond with awe and wonder to the grandeur and mystery of the universe are miseducating our youth.

5. We need to reject the voices in the Democratic party and in the liberal and progressive world who do not adequately understand the legitimate hunger of people for meaning and purpose in their lives that can transcend the materialism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace. There is a religio-phobia in some sectors of the Left in this country that we must challenge, even though we understand that some of it comes from a righteous indignation at the way that some elements of the religious community have forgotten the message of love
and caring of the Bible or the Koran and have instead used religion asa justification for sexism, racism or homophobia. We reject that kind of interpretation of misuse of religion, but we must no longer allow ourselves to be portrayed as anti-religion or insensitive to the hunger that Americans have for a return to the traditional values of love, kindness, generosity, individual as well as social responsibility, gratitude, and forgiveness of each other's transgressions. We must affirm unequivocally that we want to strengthen families and create a world that sustains and supports loving commitments rather than only prizes the lone individual out for him or her self. And we intend to challenge overtly the elitism that leads some people in our society to dismiss others who disagree with them as on some kind of lower intellectual or spiritual level. We are populist not only economically, but also in spiritual terms, validating the spiritual hunger of the American people, and on their side in the struggle against the forces that destroy community, family and love.

The point here is that not only must Obama return to his visionary self in order to re-activate the many young people who for a while thought his campaign was about something new (but who have lost some of their excitement as Obama has made compromise after compromise with the ideology of militarism and taking care of the powerful at the expense of the powerless), but that he must do so in a way that appears to be solidly behind a progressive worldview, not apologetically trying to sneak it in bit by tiny bit while allowing the Republican worldview to dominate the ideological debate. When he gets into the television debates, for example, he should actively question the assumptions in questions raised by the television-stars who "moderate" them.

The realists will say, "first get him elected, then we'll raise these more visionary issues." But what I've learned is that it is precisely the willingness of the Republicans to tie their programs to their own value system that makes sense to ordinary people, and that if the Democrats were to start doing that also, and appearing to be hard and tough behind an alternative worldview to the militarism, selfishness and materialism that has been presented as the "common sense" of contemporary political discourse, they would be more effective and more likely to win votes in this election. Doing so would strengthen the hope part of the consciousness of everyone, whereas appearing inconsistent or weak in advocating for what I've described above (and
what I call a "spiritual progressive" agenda which we've defined more fully in the Network of Spiritual Progressives' "Spiritual Covenant with America" at strengthens fear.

On the other hand, the video released by Obama on the economic crisison Sept. 17 doesn't really do much to strengthen our more hopeful side. His remedies are superficial and traditional and don't really focus much on what can be done to challenge the ethos that led us to this mess. He talks about greater levels of regulation (and so does McCain -- wow, what an interesting snoozer as they debate exactly which regulations or regulatory bodies will do the best job). He says that we shouldn't be spending money in Iraq on the war, but then he doesn't
take the war is the wrong approach, but instead says "we shouldn't be spending our money there -- it should be brought home and spent here" (as though we already were spending too much abroad and needed to concentrate on taking care of ourselves more). Far from sounding
visionary and hopeful, Obama sounds like an upbeat technocrat. So soon the argument will be "how much regulation is too much" and "how much spending abroad is too much" instead of about what values guide our economic and foreign policy thinking. No wonder if those are the
discussions we will hear, more people will find excitement in talking about Sarah Palin! And more people will think that the message of ending wars and militarism is just utopian nonsense, and that will make them more inclined to listen to McCain who will make his case as
someone more experienced in handling things from within the militarist paradigm.

In short, moving to the Center politically is counter-productive not only because it is morally incoherent but because it strengthens the very fears in people about the possibility of a world based on peace and generosity and caring, and hence strengthens the appeal of the McCain/Palin rhetoric of being tougher than anyone else on the planet. For Obama to try to compete on that terrain has proven to be a big mistake. In each area of his political agenda he needs to articulate how his specifics flow from a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the selfishness, materialism, "looking out for number one" and militarism that has dominated national debate and which always tips in favor of Republicans or conservative Dems. If he keeps hammering at the differences in worldview, and does so in ways that employ the language of the spiritual progressives and the religious traditions of the American people, we will see the expected surge in his support because of the economic meltdown turn into a permanent and landslide-ish level victory.

The answer of liberals has typically been: "the American people are too selfish, stupid or reactionary, so Obama has to be careful and just hint at what we fully believe. They would never buy these lovely ideas that we believe in."

Here we get to the second major mistake of the Democrats, liberals and progressives. Their contempt for the American people, manifested in their unwillingness to say clearly what they really believe (e.g. that the war in Iraq is not just a tactical but a moral error, or that
a budget that under funds the needy is an ethical distortion, or that allowing the marketplace to destroy the global environment is a sin not just a question of differences in economic theory) is immediately understood by the rest of the population as elitism and disrespect.

What I learned in my research was that a large group of Americans feel disrespected at work and disrespected in many of the encounters they have with others. They can feel that the Republicans are telling them their own truth--that militarism and self-interest are the key to a
good world, but that Democrats are not telling their truth--that love and generosity are the key to a good world--because the Democrats disrespect them so much that they feel that "ordinary Americans" couldn't possibly respond to their message if they told it straight. It is this disrespect that gets triggered by Democrats' caution (they even pick a vice-presidential candidate like Joe Biden who has been hawkish rather than peace- and generosity-oriented whereas the Republicans pick a woman who actually embodies their values). It's not which of these sets of values are better that matters to many people as much as which choice reflects respect for the American people. To the extent that the Dems hide who they are, it's easy to tag them as elitist scum.

Look at the coming debates through this framework: how much has Obama challenged the fundamental worldview of the Right versus how much is he trying to show that he can manage the existing military and economic system within its current set of assumptions. And how much does he speak to the heart of people, not just to their heads, appealing to their better instincts while clearly defining what is wrong with the market materialist and militarist worldview.

So it comes down to this: recognizing that our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet, affirming that love and caring are not "soft" but powerful ways of living as individuals and as a nation, rejecting fear-based ideologies (that people will always only care about themselves), and developing respect rather than dismissive elitist attitudes towards those with whom we disagree politically. Until the Democrats get this and convince everyone else that they do, the once again put themselves in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of , Chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives
and author of The Left Hand of
God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right, Healing
Israel/Palestine, and The Politics of Meaning
(and eight other books).
He is rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue which conducts High Holiday and
Friday night services in San Francisco, and Torah study Saturday
mornings in Berkeley. He welcomes your feedback after you've read
through those two websites.