11/11/2012 09:00 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

In Praise of the American People

Every time right-wing forces in ascendency manage to grab hold of Congress or the presidency, liberal and progressive commentators, editorialists and blogs are filled with analyses blaming the outcome on the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or stupidity of "ordinary Americans." They are usually wrong, and these analyses usually provide grist for the right-wing media mill's insistence that the Left is irredeemably elitist. Indeed, in my own research on the psychodynamics of American politics, I found that it was these kinds of put-down statements, which are widely noticed across all segments of the society, play an important role in convincing many Americans that the liberal and progressive world may want their vote, but nevertheless have contempt for them. Those feelings are intensified when people encounter the strong left-wing religio-phobia that takes for granted that people who believe in God are intellectually stunted, morally distorted, or psychologically seeking a substitute father-figure or otherwise drowned in some form of pathology that hopefully will be cured when they spend more time hanging out with the supposedly more enlightened and intellectually sophisticated liberals and progressives.

It's amazing when a majority of Americans can overcome the resentements generated by this kind of elitism and unite with these same lefties to vote for policies and politicians who are implicitly challenging the current distribution of wealth and power.

So it would do well for the political Left to put a lot more energy into publicly celebrating the fundamental goodness and decency shown by the American public in the November 2012 elections. Though Republicans shamelessly sought to manipulate every form of existing prejudices against "the other" (and their list of "others" to demean grew so large that candidate Romney was caught telling his inner circle of supporters that these "others" now constituted 47 percent of the total population), and did succeed thereby in getting tens of millions of Americans to vote against their own economic interests for candidates and programs that would only strengthen the ability of the 1 percent to benefit at the expense of the 99 percent), an even larger number of Americans rejected that pandering to prejudices and saw through the smokescreen.

What is particularly striking is that the American people were able to rally to the values of what we in the Network of Spiritual Progressives call "The Caring Society -- Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth" despite the fact that neither Obama nor the Democratic Party articulated these values clearly. Indeed, for the past four years the Obama Administration had over and over again compromised these values for the sake of getting along with the Republicans and the corporate-dominated media. Not only had Obama failed to use the economic crisis he inherited in 2009 as a springboard for a progressive economic program (what was needed was, and still is, a new New Deal that would have saved home owners from becoming homeless, imposed a minimum wage that was a "living wage," Medicare for everyone, massive new building projects to provide mass transit and environmentally sustainable housing sufficient to eliminate homelessness, equip all homes and businesses with alternative energy sources, create a national bank that would fund socially and environmentally sane loans to individuals and small businesses, and hired hundreds of thousands of new child care and elder care helpers and schoolteachers), he had never even used the power of his bully pulpit to define a progressive agenda worth fighting for.

Indeed, both Obama and Congressional Dems consistently moved away from progressive ideas to embrace funding for wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan), narrowing of civil liberties, embracing "cap and trade" approaches to an environment that needs instead a strong carbon emissions tax to reduce the dangers from global warming), relying on test scores to guide the educational system toward the distorted goal of keeping America number one (rather than teaching that we are all interdependent, that we should be seeking the wellbeing of everyone on the planet and that education should aim not only at minimal skills but also at enhancing our love of knowledge, wisdom and awe and wonder at the grandeur and awesome nature of the universe and of each other).

Yet the inherent yearning of all people for a world based on love, kindness and generosity came to the fore and triumphed. Despite the misleadership of Obama and many of the Dems, Americans voted for them in record number, correctly understanding that as vacuous or misguided as much of the liberal campaign rhetoric had been, and as disappointing as Obama had proved to be -- not because he couldn't overcome Congressional conservatives, but because he almost never articulated a coherent vision of where we as a people need to move, much less policies that would embody that vision -- the majority of American voters chose to make the election about something substantive, their own commitment to a world of social justice, environmental sanity, peace, generosity, and kindness (in short, they voted for The Caring Society), and thus to vote for candidates who were closer to these goals than the Republicans.

Let a pollster ask Americans what they "really" want, and given the alternatives typically framed by the media and by the politicians, they'll probably say "jobs" or some other narrowly material or self-interested outcome. But sit down with those same people several times over the course of several weeks, establish trust and comraderie, and you'll hear a very different set of desires and needs, much more atuned to the ethical and spiritual aspirations that I once described as "a politics of meaning" or what I now call "spiritual politics." Turns out that Americans, like everyone else on the planet, are willing to sacrifice material well-being to serve higher ethical goals, if they think that others are willing to do the same. They are just as hungry for a life, a social order, a family, and a community that have some higher meaning beyond narrow self-interest as they are for material economic security. And they suspect that they could have both if others would join them. Indeed, they'd even be happy to have other countries around the world similarly enjoy both material and spiritual well-being. That remains the hidden secret of American politics, and the underlying driving force that led so many to vote for Democrats, despite the fact that the Democrats themselves rarely realize this about their own constituencies.

So how about if this coming July 4th we dedicate some time to singing the praises of these Americans. We are part of a people that has a deep yearning for many of the same ethical and spiritual goals as you have -- and it's time to rejoice in that and celebrate the core goodness and decency of Americans.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, chair of the interfaith (and atheist-welcoming) Network of Spiritual Progressives , and author of 11 books (most recently: Embracing Israel/Palestine -- a Strategy for Middle East Peace). He welcomes those who wish to build on this perspective to contact him directly at