THE BLOG
11/19/2014 08:45 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Reclaiming America (After the Right's Takeover of the Next Congress)

On Sunday afternoon, December 12, 2014, an important national gathering will convene at the University of San Francisco sponsored by the (interfaith and atheist; secular humanist &/or religious welcoming) Network of Spiritual Progressives to consider how to reclaim our country after the takeover by both houses of the U.S. Congress by the political right. We are going to grieve, express our anger, explore our own possible responsibility as liberals and progressives for what has gone wrong, and then move to develop strategy.

You should be there, or help convene a similar gathering wherever you live in the next few months.

And please read this long analysis of what we need to do -- I know it's a pain in the neck to read long statements, particularly in a society of instant gratification where every thing is supposed to be sayable on short little tweets or sound bytes. Still, I promise you that if you take the time to read this from top to bottom you'll have a better idea of how to change America than you've ever gotten from hundreds of shorter articles you've read and speeches you've heard. After you've read it, if you want to be involved with us in building a movement that embodies these ideas and strategy, please join the Network of Spiritual Progressives as a dues paying member at www.spiritualprogressives.org and then lets talk about how to implement these ideas in your context (by emailing the executive director, Cat Zavis).

So lets get into understanding what has just happened in American politics, stop denying the huge defeat and horrific problems we will be facing in the next few years, and really confront our situation by rethinking how the liberal and progressive forces have been doing politics (even while continuing to honor them for all the very good work and the small victories that they've won).

The right keeps winning more and more power in the U.S. -- and that despite the fact that its analysis and programs are not supported by the majority of Americans and concretely destructive to the economic interests of many who vote for them. Indeed, while the Democrats keep telling themselves that "it's the economy, stupid" to understand who wins elections, the reality is that if the Republicans were not able to attract a large group of voters who are voting against their economic interests when they vote with Republicans, the Grand Old Party GOP would be a permanently irrelevant minority party.

Yes, I know that the median household income has continued to drop, that while jobs are increasing the pay for middle income and working people has been dropping, and that two thirds of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, with great economic insecurity. But these are all reasons why they would reasonably be motivated to go to vote to ensure that the right, with its program of further cutting the social support network and making it harder for people to get basic governmental services and its threat to close the government down (and hence no social security), gets defeated electorally. Plausibly it would lead people to be mobilizing to get their fellow citizens to political action to reclaim our country. No Democrats to vote for ever since the Clintons, and then the Obama Administration, capitulated to the corporate interests at the expense of middle income and poor people? So then why didn't people create their own political party instead of either not voting or trudging back to vote for parties they don't believe in? If the right wingers, with help from the rich among them, could create the Tea Party to pull the Republican Party to the right, why haven't working and middle class people done the same to the Democrats?

So the gathering in San Francisco will start to address this question: why do people vote to empower those who will then pass policies that will hurt most Americans?

While the Democrats have their share of billionaires too, there is no question that money plays a major role distorting politics, though it does so not only by financial donations, but even more powerfully by being able to control corporations which employ so many many people in this country. Those corporations can threaten local city, state or even national governments with the prospect that if those governments get too vigorous in championing the rights of employees, demanding a living wage and decent work conditions, or demanding that the corporations pay far greater attention to how they are contributing to the environmental devastation of the planet, the corporations can simply pull its investments and/or move its plants of operation to a different state or country with "a move favorable business climate."

That's why the Network of Spiritual Progressives has proposed the ESRA -- Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution which would ban all monies from any source in elections except public funding equal amounts to the candidates and would require major corporations to prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens once every five years in order to retain their corporate license to operate). So any response to the growing political and economic domination of the country by forces loyal to the top 1% of income earners and to the corporations which they largely control must include the ESRA (check it out at www.tikkun.org/esra).

The overall direction of the country for the past forty years has given increasing strength to right-wing politicians in the Republican Party and opportunists in the Democratic Party who effectively do much of the same work that these right-wingers would do when they win political power. So why has this been happening?

I asked this question first to thousands of people whom my research team and I encountered when I was Principal Investigator for an NIMH-sponsored study about how to deal with stress at work and stress in family life.

What my research team discovered was the following:

1. Most Americans work in an economy that teaches them the alleged "common sense" of global capitalism: "Everyone is out for themselves and will seek to advance their own interests without regard to your well-being, so the only rational path is for you to seek to advance your own interests in the same way. Those who have more money and power than you have are just better at seeking their own self-interest, because this is a meritocratic society in which you end up where you deserve to end up, so stop whining about the differences in wealth and power, because if you deserved more you would have more."

People internalize this message as self-blame, feel terrible about themselves for not having been more successful, and believe that this is "reality" as opposed to just a particular way that a society with vast inequalities allows the rich to justify their wealth and their ability to buy support for continuing inequality from both major political parties. This self-blame makes it hard for people to feel that they have a right to the power they'd need to have to change anything fundamental. Moreover, struggle for change seems ridiculous if you already believe that in a more democratic society most people would continue to act selfishly, and we'd just end up with a different set of bureaucrats running thins -- so why bother? And why try to work with people in social movements who will end up trying to compete with you for power and wealth, fame and sexual conquests, for themselves? And why expose yourself emotionally to others who might end up looking down at you because you aren't such a success and really have aspects of your own life which are not very together? This set of feelings of self-blame and certainty that the dynamics of the workplace really reflect who most people "really are deep down" contribute not only to a despair about getting involved in politics, but also lead to people accommodating to the selfishness and materialism as the only "realistic" way to protect oneself.

And yet...2. Most people hate the selfishness and materialism that this worldview tells them is inevitable. They can see all around them how hard it is to be hopeful in this kind of reality. They believe that it is in stark contrast to the values they would like to live by.

But...3. simultaneously they also believe that the logic of capitalist society is the only possible reality, given the huge power of the wealthy, and that they would be fools not to try to accept that these are the rules of the game and that they would only be hurting themselves if they didn't protect themselves from what they've come to accept as the inevitable betrayals and pervasive selfishness that this kind of society guarantees will meet them at almost every turn in their lives. This message is reinforced in our workplaces and also by almost every sitcom and television news story available. But most people hate that this is the case. They often will tell you, "Everyone is selfish and materialistic, so I'd be a fool to be the one person who is caring for others in a world where everyone is just out for themselves."

Yet this accommodation to reality is precisely what increases their suffering. Unconsciously, many people adopt the values of the marketplace, and these values have a corrosive impact on their own friendships, relationships, and family life. People increasingly see each other through the framework of capitalist rationality -- always seeking to maximize their own advantage (power wise, sexually, materially, or ... you can fill in many other ways). Even in their most precious and intimate relationships with friends, lovers, spouse, parents, children this kind of (often unconscious, but nevertheless pervasive) behavior shows up. "What's in this for me?" and "How can this best serve my personal interests?" shape almost every interaction in growing numbers of relationships. Even in marriages people often choose a partner based on the supposition that this person will fill more of your needs that anyone else around. The problem? Families based on this kind of relationship feel very insecure, because those within them know that it is always possible that at some point their partner will find someone whom they believe would satisfy more of their needs that their current partner, and as a rational maximizer of self-interest their partner will then choose to leave for this new potential fulfiller of their needs. And this insecurity applies not only to the 50% of relationships that end in divorce, but also to those that don't end in divorce, since most people don't know which of those two categories they are in.

It is this pain which makes people feel all the worse about themselves, and makes the self-blaming they felt in the economic marketplace seem dramatically reinforced by self-blaming about not having greater family stability and security. It's a double whammy.

4. So when many Americans encounter a different reality in right-wing churches that have specialized in creating supportive communities, they feel much more addressed there than they've ever felt in progressive movements that focus on economic entitlements or political rights and sometimes disintegrate due to internal tensions over dynamics of relative privilege ("hey, my group is more oppressed than yours, so I deserve more attention for my pain than you do for yours") and unproductive feelings of guilt ("who are we to challenge this society when we've failed to make our own lives as fulfilling as they ought to be").

Only rarely do these liberal or progressive movements actually manifest a loving community that seems to care specifically about the people who come to their public talks or gatherings -- the experience is more about hearing a good speech than about encountering people who want to know who you are and what you need -- precisely what happens in most right-wing churches.

Is it really a surprise that people who so rarely encounter this kind of caring among the people with whom they work or the people whom they see angling for power or sexual conquest in the movies and TV would feel more seen and recognized for having some value in the right than in much of the left?

So here is what people report (based on comments which I'm putting together into one unified quote: "When I used to go to my liberal church or synagogue, I'd hear great liberal sermons about love and generosity. After the service, nobody would talk to me unless I went with friends. Same thing happened to me when I went to the Occupy demonstration or even the Great Climate March in New York in September 2014 -- we were all together, hundreds of thousands of us, but except for some people trying to pick each other up for sexual reasons, nobody really showed anyone else a lot of personal attention and caring. And all the less so when I went to hear Cornel West debate Bob Avakian in NYC or went to a meeting of a branch of the Democratic Party or of a social justice or environmental organization. They cared for the earth, but they didn't care for me. But when I attended a right wing church, I hated the sermons, but after the service people came up to ask me about myself, wanted to know if there was anyone in my family who was sick and needed a visit, even asked me if I wanted to meet a potential partner if I was single (and of course straight). That kind of caring I never experienced in a progressive social change organization, so I went back to them even while disagreeing with some of their ideas."

Sadly, the cost of belonging to those right-wing churches is this: that they demean or put-down those deemed to be "Other" -- those who are not part of their community. These "others" (including feminists, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and increasingly all liberals or progressives) are wrongfully blamed for the ethos of selfishness and breakdown of loving relationships and families. This is ironic because in fact the breakdown of loving relationships is largely a product of the increasing internalization of the utilitarian or instrumental way people have come to view each other, a product of bringing home into personal life, friendships, and marriages the very values that the right esteems and champions in the competitive economy.

It is the ethos of capitalism that is destructive to loving relationships, families, and caring communities. Yet this is rarely discussed by liberal or progressive organizations, though doing so would start to suggest to people that we actually cared about these issues which are normally described as "personal" but are in fact a perfect example of how the personal is political -- because they are so massively impacted by the values that are being instilled in all of us by the workplace, the marketplace of consumption and the media.

5. The Democrats, and most of the left, have little understanding of this dynamic and rarely position themselves as the voice challenging the values of the marketplace or the instrumental way of thinking that is the produce of the materialism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace. For those running for office, the fear of alienating potential large donors is sufficient to get them to ignore this issue. So even when facing huge political setbacks, as in the 2014 midterm elections, you will hear the smartest of liberals and progressives acknowledging that what is needed is some kind of unifying worldview that the Democrats have failed to articulate in the six years that they have occupied the White House and had the majority in the House of Representatives.

Leftists imagine that if they can put forward a populaist pro-working class economic program that alone is sufficient to change the dynamics of American politics. That populist agenda is all about externals -- not about what is making people feel bad about themselves and how that must be challenged by challenging the fundamental ethos of the capitalist marketplace.

They are right that they need a coherent vision, but it can't solely be an economic populism. What people need to hear is an account of the way the suffering they experience in their personal lives, the breakdown of families, the loneliness and inability to trust other people, the sense of being surrounded by selfish and materialistic people, and the self-blaming they experience when their own relationships feel less fulfilling than they had hoped for are all a product of the triumph of the way people have internalized the values of the capitalist marketplace.

6. This suffering can only be overcome when the capitalist system itself is replaced by one based on love, caring, kindness, generosity and a New Bottom Line that no longer judges corporations, government policies, or social institutions as "efficient," "productive" or "rational" solely by the extent to which they maximize money or power. Instead, liberals and progressives need to be advocating a New Bottom Line that focuses on how much any given institution or economic or social policy or practice tends to maximize our capacities to be loving and caring, kind and generous, environmentally responsible, and capable of transcending a narrow utilitarian attitude toward other human beings and capable of responding to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and beauty of all that is.

Progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party need to develop a program that can apply this New Bottom Line to every aspect of our society -- our economy, our corporations, our educational system, our legal system. In short, a progressive worldview that deeply rejects the way most of our institutions today teach people the values of "looking out for number one" and maximizing one's own material well being without regard to the consequences for others or for the environment. Armed with an alternative worldview, progressives would have a chance of helping working people stop blaming themselves for their situation, stop blaming some other, and see that it is the whole system that needs a fundamental makeover. The Network of Spiritual Progressives has this -- we call it "A Spiritual Covenant with America" and you can read it on our site under the title "Yearning for a World of Love and How to Get There."

But many liberals and progressives are religiophobic and worry that talk of love and caring is mere psycho-babble. As a result they cede to the right the values issues rather than providing an alternative set of values in which love and generosity and caring for the Earth would take center place.

7. The Spiritual Covenant presents a model of what it would look like to put values such as love and caring into political practice. Doing so would include implementing a Global Marshall Plan and passing an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We in the Network of Spiritual Progressives have also begun professional task forces to envision what each profession would look like if they were in fact governed by The New Bottom Line.

The environmental movement had the possibility of helping people make this transition in consciousness had it focused more on helping people see that the planet is not just an economic "resource," but a living being that nurtures and sustains life and which appropriately would engender awe, wonder, and radical amazement, and hence celebration of the universe of which it is a part. But in order to be "realistic," most major environmental organizations, and even most of the local anti-fracking and local-oriented environmental initiatives have avoided this spiritual dimension, instead framing their issues in narrow self-interest terms that are then countered by the supporters of fracking, pipelines, and other environmentally destructive approaches by pointing out that these approaches can generate jobs and revenues. Stick to framing things on narrow and short-term material self-interest terms, and the corporate apologists have a plausible if misleading argument. It's only when you address the environment in terms of the New Bottom Line that you can provide a way to reach people who otherwise get attracted to the arguments of the right.

8. What the left keeps on missing is that people have a set of ethical, psychological and spiritual needs -- for a life of meaning and purpose that transcends the logic of the competitive marketplace and its ethos of materialism and selfishness, for communities that address those needs, and for loving friends and families that are best sustained when they share some higher vision than self-interest.

The reason that the gay and lesbian struggle for marriage equality went from seeming impossibly utopian to winning in a majority of states in a very short while was that the proponents of that struggle switched their rhetoric from "we demand our equal rights" to "we are loving people who want our love to flourish and be supported in this society." That same kind of switch toward higher values and purpose, and touching into our shared desire for loving and caring world, could make the left a winner again, instead of a consistent loser.

9. Nothing alienates middle-income working people more than the usual reason progressives and liberals give for why they are losing elections or failing to gain more support for their programs: namely, that Americans are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or just plain dumb. Most Americans may not know the details of the programs put forward by political movements or parties, by they know when they are being demeaned, and that is precisely what gives the right the ability to describe the left as "elitist," thereby obscuring the way right-wing politics serves the real elites of wealth and power.

And then radio and TV right-wingers effectively mobilize the anger and frustration people feel at living in a society where love and caring are so hard to come by -- against the left! This is the ultimate irony: the capitalist marketplace generates a huge amount of anger, but with its meritocratic fantasy it convinces people that it is their own failings that are to blame for why their lives don't feel more fulfilling. So that anger is internalized and manifests in alcoholism, drug abuse, violence in families, high rates of divorce, road rage, and support for militaristic ventures around the world.

The right mobilizes this anger -- and directs it against liberals and progressives. And that actually feels great for many people, because it relieves their self-blaming and allows them to express their frustrations (though sadly at the wrong targets). Only a movement that understands all these dynamics, and can help people understand that their anger is appropriate but that it is wrongly directed can progressives hope to win against the right.

But instead of addressing that anger against the political and economic system, the Democrats are often seen as champions of the exiting system (and not mistakenly when President Obama has often seemed more interested in serving the interests of the 1 percent than in challenging the distortions of the banks and the investment companies and the powerful corporations. All the worse that after the 2014 election, Obama is once again talking about finding common ground with the Republicans -- that has guided his policies for the past six years. Democrats keep on thinking that if they look more like the right, they'll win more credibility. All they win is the disdain of the majority. It's only on identity politics that the Dems seem willing to stand up for some ideals (though his new promises on immigration reform have to be matched against six years in which his administration has deported more "undocumented" immigrants than all the previous presidents combined). But when it comes to economic issues and class politics, the Democrats historic association with the interests of working people was undermined by the policies of the Clintons, and Obama has followed suit (even now engaged in secret trade negotiations that will further undermine working people both here and around the world).

10, As if all this weren't bad enough, the Obama presidency has put the final blow to liberals and progressives by eliciting hope in a different kind of world, then capitulating to the special interests. People who allowed themselves to hope in 2008 may need decades of recovery time till they can again believe in any political path -- or we need psycho-spiritual progressive therapists who can help us build an alternative both insides and outside the Democratic Party. We need to speak honestly about this disillusionment and help people feel less humiliated that they believed in Obama's rhetoric of hope. And we need to show that many people who at first seem impossibly right-wing actually want a world of love and caring too, and have never heard liberals and progressives speak that kind of language.

11.. The first step in recovery is to create large public gatherings at which liberals and progressives can mourn our losses, acknowledge the many mistakes we've made in the past decades, and then develop a strategy for how most effectively to challenge the assumptions of the capitalist marketplace that are shared by too many who otherwise think of themselves as progressives. Hopefully, this paper has raised issues that would guide the kind of discussion needed in these gatherings, not a repetiion of our list of grievances about what is wrong in America today, but a serious confrontation with where the liberal and progressives forces have gone astray and must change. Not a list of what minority groups or special interests haven't been adequately addressed (the left has been doing that for the past forty years, and while important, it has done it in such a vulgar way that it has driven away many people whose support is absolutely indispensible if we are ever actually to overcome racist and sexist institutions in this society. The last thing white people, heterosexual people, men, or any other group needs from the left is to feel that they are somehow wrong or bad or "not enough" because they aren't part of some other "more oppressed" group).

Without this kind of a recovery process, we are likely to end up with more and deeper despair in 2016 and beyond.

Our Network of Spiritual Progressives is taking leadership in this direction by trying to reach out to people in every ethnicity, race, and faith or atheist community, and inviting you to the University of San Francisco in San Francisco, California, on December 14 for a one-day gathering (to discuss these issues and to start developing a winning strategy for healing and transforming our world.

If you are interested in more information, send us an email: cat@spiritualprogressives.org. Whether you are a secular humanist who thinks spirituality is only flaky and religion automatically suspect, or whether you are a spiritual or religious person who feels resentful at the way that the left culture makes you feel inferior because you still take spiritual or religious life seriously, please allow yourself to transcend these feelings and help us build a movement that can incorporate people on all sides of that question in a welcoming and generous spirit appropriate to a movement seriously interested in tikkun olam (the healing and transformation of our world). It's time to unite around a worldview that emphasizes our shared values (which we call the New Bottom Line). And if you can't come, please at least make a tax-deductible contribution to our secular humanist welcoming and interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives at www.spiritualprogressives.org.

And we'd be happy to be of assistance to others who want to bring our message to your community wherever you live. If you live in another state and want to attend something like this, then work to assemble a large group of people. If you do so, we will come to your part of the country to shape a discussion of this sort for the people you know. We need hundreds of such meetings to help reorient the liberal and progressive forces, not discounting all that they are doing, but only seeking to help them integrate into that work a shared worldview (the New Bottom Line) and a psycho-spiritual sensitivity that will make them far more effective. And to help make all this happen, please join the Network of Spiritual Progressives!