In the previous piece in this series, I gave an account of the dispute between me and some dedicated Democratic activists over the question: Could President Obama have been far more effective against the Republicans, making them pay a political price for their disgraceful -- indeed, unprecedented -- behavior as an opposition party from the outset of his presidency?
At the close of that piece, I asserted my interlocutors' insistence that there was nothing Obama could have done provides "yet another window into what there is in the worldview of Liberal America that has rendered it woefully weak in this time of national crisis."
Think of it. The President of the United States supposedly helpless in the battle for public opinion against a political force that was dealing in blatant lies, trampling on our national traditions and ideals, thwarting the expressed will of the people, and showing utter disregard for the public good!
To believe that is to have a terribly constricted vision of the potential forces that can work in the world. In particular, it shows an inability to perceive the potential power of the spirit.
That's why this issue is important. It's not about this president, who will soon be part of our historical past, but about Liberal America, and whether it has the vision and thus can muster the power to safeguard America's future.
Let's look, then, at the failure of vision that's manifested in this notion that Barack Obama was doomed from the outset to be bested by the destructive force that was dedicated to making him fail.
If Martin Luther King could accomplish what he accomplished from the very modest position from which he began, how much more should we envision a President of the United States -- with his unique power and prominence -- being able to achieve?
And in this case, we're not talking about just any president. Remember the Colossus that Barack Obama was at the time he took office. Never in our lifetimes had a president been swept into office on a wave of such spirit.
Remember the illuminated faces -- alight with the passion of hope for the light-bearer coming to power after a time of profound darkness in America -- in Grant Park in Chicago on the night Obama won the election.
Remember, too, the worldwide enthusiasm for this new president -- the huge and enthusiastic throng in Berlin not long before Obama was elected, and the Nobel Peace Prize awarded him not long after.
A deep well of spiritual force was there to be tapped into.That was the deep force, welling up from the American people, that had brought Obama to the presidency and, deservedly or not, had imbued him with a profound aura of moral authority throughout the world.
Tragically -- and it is indeed one of the great tragedies of American history -- as soon as he became president, Obama left behind that powerful force of the spirit into which he'd tapped as a candidate. As the Republicans tried out their "make him fail" strategy in opposition, he did nothing to rally America to its better angels. He did not unleash a message of moral and spiritual truth to move Americans to repudiate the practitioners of the ugly politics of the right, with its obstruction and lying and fear-mongering and putting the lust for power ahead of the needs of the nation.
Perhaps Mr. Obama himself had no idea of the power that he'd tapped into. And perhaps a similar lack of vision of the deep forces that can be brought into the battle is shown by those defenders of his who protested that there was nothing Obama could have done to fight and defeat the destructive force that the Republicans had become.
Had there been no Gandhi, and India had not found the path it took to independence, those with no vision of the potential power of the spirit would have claimed what Gandhi did accomplish would have been impossible..
Had there been no Mandela -- and this I know from my own experience in American foreign policy circles -- the "realists" would declare that the South African bloodbath that likely would have accompanied the end of apartheid (or, alternatively, the indefinite continuation of that apartheid regime) was inevitable, and that things could not have been otherwise.
Had there been no Churchill, some would doubtless look upon the peace that Britain would likely have made with the Nazi power (already looking to strike across the English Channel), with the craven terms Britain had been compelled to accept, represented as good an outcome as was possible.
But each of those leaders tapped into a great force of the spirit turned the tide of history in unexpected ways. In some circumstances that spirit expressed itself non-violently, in others as a determination to resist evil by all means available in others. Sometimes as a call to reconciliation, sometimes as a call to battle.* But always stretching the range of the "possible."
Now, we have some of the best people I've encountered in Liberal America arguing that failure to turn back this evil force on the right has been inevitable these past six years.
If these people were right that failure was inevitable, just think about the implications: If the luminous new president in 2009 was truly impotent before this destructive force, then the rest of us must surely be powerless to turn it back.
If those people -- who cannot envision how a nation, like ours, can be awakened to the power that spirit called forth by the human yearning for what is true and what is good -- were right, then what hope could there be for America to be saved? From where else will come the necessary power to turn this national darkening around?
We will not be able to outspend the Koch Brothers and their ilk in their quest to buy our government. We will not out-organize the machinery that the right has assembled these past forty years. We will not be more eager to do battle than the wounded minions of the right for whom conflict is the only social condition in which they feel at home. We will not be able to out-propagandize Rupert Murdock and the other denizens of the right-wing media. We will not be able to match the unity the right enforces with its coercive orthodoxy.
All we have that can turn this around is a moral and spiritual truth - a truth aligned with the deepest values and interests of America and one that can tap into the power of the spirit.
If those good liberal interlocutors who disputed my critique of Obama were right, our goose would be cooked. But I emphatically believe they are mistaken.
There is always a possibility, I say, that the power of the spirit will turn the course of history into a new channel. That possibility is not always realized. There's not always a Mandela or a Churchill around. But the potential is there.
In America, in these times, we have had a tragedy rather than a triumph of leadership. And so the question arises: in the absence of the kind of leadership from the top to ignite that potential power, is there some way that, even without the bully pulpit, we who are further down in the body politic can ignite that fire?
(To be continued with "To Stop Losing, We Must See the Level at Which the Battle is Being Fought."
NOTE: We don't think of Churchill as having been a "spiritual" leader in the same way as Gandhi or Mandela, but nonetheless his leadership was profoundly connected with the level of the "spirit." The writings of the time often mention how Churchill roused the "spirit" of the nation. Consider for example this quote from Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men, concerning a speech made by Churchill (delivered even before he became Prime Minister, but after Chamberlain's effort to avoid the confrontation with Nazi Germany had collapsed, and Churchill had been brought out of the wilderness into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty):
As Churchill spoke, Nicolson "could feel the spirits of the House rising with every word. "What roused the first lord's audience was not so much what he said but how he said it. His combative, determined manner, combining candor, wit, and confidence, "carried the exhilaration of a spring morning walk along the cliffs," in the words of one observer. Full of gusto, he conveyed a sense of Elizabethan high adventure in relating the navy's exploits, so different from the torpid style of Chamberlain and the other ministers. When he finished, members on both sides of the chamber jumped to their feet with shouts and cheers. Among them was Cartland, whose spirits had suddenly improved.