10/18/2012 07:33 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

The Shoot-Out Election: How to Vote?

Having watched and endured the presidential and vice-presidential debates, I couldn't help but think of Margaret Thatcher's neat explanation of American politics for those across the pond who were bemused by our two political parties. "In America, there are two political parties: the Republican Party, which is roughly the equivalent of our Conservative Party, and the Democratic Party, which is roughly the equivalent of our Conservative Party."

This rings true to this immigrant, in spite of the exaggerated ideological differences paraded in the current so-called debates. America is a capitalist, free-enterprise, entrepreneurial country energized by a wonderful mongrel population, each determined to get as large a slice of the pie as possible. It's an amazing place -- truly "exceptional" in that there is no such thing as an ethnically pure American. After all, we're judged by the content of our character not the color of our skin? As John Steinbeck was supposed to have said, "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." But the widening gap between rich and poor not only raises issues of justice and the very nature of the "freedom" we all invoke, but also raises the specter of destabilization in an already shaky world.

How should I vote? I don't want to live in a culture, which, in effect, invokes the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest -- all in the name of freedom. This crude view is often varnished over with a sickly self-serving moralism. Nor do I want to live in a culture that fails to invoke the responsibilities of citizenship and "helps" those in need without giving them the means to get out of the cycle of poverty.

Daniel Bell in "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism," nearly 40 years ago, pointed out that there are three realms -- the economy, the polity and the culture. And they are ruled by contrary axial principles: for the economy, efficiency; for the polity, equality; and for the culture, self-realization (or self-gratification). When we make economic activity the central feature of society, we need also to think about culture and character -- things like hard work, self-control and delayed gratification. I used to worry about the growing number of entitlements but I think my concern goes deeper. The word is too weak. It's more a matter of uncontrolled desire, a spiritual greed for gratification. In the language of religion, it's a matter of the loss of the sacred and the denial of limits -- a world with no boundaries.

I find myself challenged by Bell's still relevant (perhaps even more relevant than 40 years ago) complex vision of being a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture. With regard to economics, Bell writes of our establishing a social minimum "which would allow individuals to lead a life of self-respect, to be members of the community. This means a set of priorities that ensures work for those who seek it, a degree of adequate security against the hazards of the market, and adequate access to medical care and protection against the ravages of disease and illness." With regard to politics, the polity "has to maintain the distinction between the public and the private, so that not all behavior is politicized, as in communist states, or left without restraint, as in the justification of laissez-faire in traditional capitalist societies." It treats peoples equally but does not attempt to make them so. With regard to culture he is a conservative, he writes, "because I respect tradition; I believe in reasoned judgments of good and bad about the qualities of a work of art; and I regard as necessary the principle of authority in the judging of the value of experience and art and education. ... Tradition is essential to the vitality of a culture, for it provides the continuity of memory that teaches how one's forebears met the same existential predicaments."

So, given the extremes of our political discourse, where does a "progressive traditionalist" like me find solace and encouragement? There's something rotten at the heart of the culture but the "solutions" of the religious right are more odious than the cultural rot they claim to cure. Bell's comment on the '60s rings true of our own time: "The so-called counter-culture was a children's crusade that sought to eliminate the line between fantasy and reality and act out in life its impulses under the banner of liberation. It claimed to mock bourgeois prudishness, when it was only flaunting the closet behavior of its liberal parents ... It was less a counter-culture than a counterfeit culture."

So, what are both sides promising in the upcoming election? Jobs and prosperity, without the challenge of "blood, toil, tears and sweat." We're all entitled to a hassle-free life with no sacrifice. That last entitlement is breaking down. It's no wonder that the undertow of anger, resentment and depression -- the denial of limits or boundaries -- leads to disappointment, frustration and violence. How, then, should we vote? How many of us see the present moment as a spiritual crisis? Religion tends to be either betrayed by its adherents or demonized and caricatured by its detractors. Yet, at the heart of our current political impasse are spiritual questions: What kind of people are we becoming? Should not a society be judged, in the end, by how it treats its most weak and vulnerable? These two questions might inform our voting in November.