by Jerilyn Bowen
The whirlwind has descended. We knew it was coming, now it’s upon us and picking up momentum by the hour. It may be a long time before we get back to Kansas, if ever we do.
Up to now, Trump and his band of transactional spintalkers have been emboldened by getting away with egregious violations of both law and decency ever since the Russia-rigged election of 2016 that made this exceedingly poor excuse for a human being ‘the leader of the free world.’ Three years later, the very fabric of our country is being shredded by tiny rapacious hands that take pride in grabbing women by the genitals, aided and abetted behind the scenes by large fleshy hands that take pride in grabbing as much of our national wealth as they can stuff into the yawning maws of their tax-free offshore bank accounts.
What stands in their way? What is going to keep these invisible hands from continuing to exploit and disempower the vast majority of their fellow beings with few consequences to themselves? What is going to prevent the agents of corporate power from transforming our country into an authoritarian state? Beyond that, what is going to stop them from stealing the future of all coming generations by continuing to poison Mother Earth for profit?
With Trump operatives acting as U.S. Attorney General, Secretary of State, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Commerce, and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, where can we turn? The Supreme Court itself is now in the hands of a rightwing majority dedicated to protecting the interests of a de facto oligarchy that has already made deep inroads into corrupting the body politic.
Given this state of affairs, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives appears to be our only firewall. With our hearts in our throats, we look on as these hard pressed public servants saddle up and ride to the rescue of what’s left of our democracy, at long last galvanized to claim Congress’s constitutional power to oversee the run-away executive branch of government under whose abuses we suffer daily. Praise be and pass the hat. We must do everything we can to provide these come lately stalwarts our support. At the same time, we must remain vigilant. If they start second guessing themselves and/or succumbing to pressure to trade principle for expedience, we must remind them of what is at stake and urge them on to do what history has called them to do.
That said, truth be told, it feels as if the country has come down with a disease for which there is no surefire cure. We can take heart that–in publicly seeking to get Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf–Trump has been caught with his pants down. We can be glad that, this time, with evidence so unequivocal and credible whistleblowers so numerous, Mr. T isn’t likely to be able to cover his sizeable ass. Or to distract the furies bearing down on him by fomenting other outrages and cooking up false equivalency accusations. We can be thankful, too, that House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff and his colleagues on other key committees appear to have a clear vision of our peril and a smoldering fire in their bellies as they move to bring the Trump grifter mob to justice.
We can also be grateful for small if mixed blessings. In abandoning the Kurds and giving Turkey a green light to carry out ethnic cleansing while also risking an ISIS resurgence and paving the way for Assad, Russia, and Iran to claim dominion in Syria–in making a reckless move with such dire destabilizing consequences–Trump has finally crossed a bridge too far for even the craven time-serving members of the Republican Party–or at least of few of them. Up to now, almost all these elected and unelected officials have been willing not only to go along with Trump’s abuses of power but also to sing his praises while utilizing every disinformation tactic in the book to discredit those who question what he’s up to. To their lasting shame, even as their Bonespur-Bully-in-Chief violates every legal and moral obligation of his high office, they abjectly contrive to stay on his good side at any cost. Now at last some of them are crying an alarm, albeit without actually admitting that the emperor has no clothes and needs to be retired as soon as possible to a secure safe house where he can consume buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken to his empty heart’s content and do no further harm.
However. As the House continues down the impeachment path, we do well to ask ourselves how it came to this. And how we can make this a turning point not just for Trump but also for the country. If we don’t understand what has made his ascendency possible, we could rid ourselves of this affliction only to find that the underlying cause of our malaise remains with us.
Rooting It Out
We’ve been taught that the United States was the first country founded on an idea rather than on tribal identity and ancient ethnic roots. First or not, we are indubitably children of Enlightenment visionaries who put their faith in reason and its avowed self-evident truth that all [white and propertied] men are created equal. The colonists who fought the American Revolution put their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on the line to establish a government of, by, and for the people. Individual freedom within the limits set by just law was held to be the highest good. Out of that has grown perhaps the most individualistic society on earth, a society premised on freedom yet also dependent on its members working together for the common good through democratic processes. E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.
What our founding fathers didn’t reckon on was heavy industrialization, Social Darwinism, and, above all, the rise of international corporate capitalism. To make a long story short, the upshot has been the evolution of a society in which the ties that bind us to one another are increasingly undermined by the forces that pit us against one another as competitors for wealth and status in a system that has no moral compass. In a Sun Magazine interview entitled “An Imperfect Union,” millennial author and activist Astra Taylor speaks about the inherent conflict between capitalism and democracy that has become morbidly acute in our day. She points out that there’s always a tension and need for balance between equality and freedom. During the Cold War ‘equality’ came to be associated with communist systems where personal rights are subordinated to the welfare of the group as contrasted to the ‘freedom’ of capitalist systems where citizens can forge their own unique fates, a dichotomy between individual rights and the common good that Taylor holds to be false and misleading. Drawing on French Revolution philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she observes how important it is for people in a democratic society to come together to chart a common course rather than acting only as free agents without a shared context of values and practices.
Republicans are forever pushing the highly individualistic American Dream narrative that you can be anything you’re willing to work hard enough to become. By these lights, it’s every man [sic] for himself in a competition for a place of affluence and honor in a hierarchy that by its very nature contradicts the principle of equality on which the country was said to be founded. In assuming such a hierarchy as inescapable and determinative of personal worth, the meritocracy story leaves out the role of citizens as participants in determining a way of life that benefits all members of the community through democratic institutions designed to create and protect the structures within which we are free to live in relative peace as we forge our individual fates, institutions that also enforce the rules by which the competitive game is to be played. The champions of what is called ‘conservatism’ appear willing to concede most of that to the forces of corporate capitalism, which thereby remain unchallenged regardless of what havoc they wreak. In keeping with this default, the Supreme Court has held that corporations have the same rights as people and concomitantly that money is speech. Other factors notwithstanding, those rulings alone provided the seedbed of the current national crisis.
The point here is that we Americans tread an ever more fine line between the values of human community and the transactional nonvalues of beating out our fellow beings in a great race for pride of place in terms defined sheerly by material resources and social power. As capitalism consolidates its grip on the global economy, its profit-driven forces serve to weaken and destroy the ties that bind us together as families, local communities, and people of one nation. The ethics by which all societies operate are grounded in recognition of the interdependence of its members; the moral guidelines that undergird our collectivity have to do with how our actions affect other people.
Corporations are exempt from this social contract; the bottom line is their unholy grail, to be worshipped without regard for how their profiteering affects the lives of people and the health of the planet. Trump is the very embodiment of this creedless creed. In his narcissistic universe of high rolling con schemes, winning is the only virtue and losing the only vice. When it comes to wheeling and dealing, he observes no ethical constraints. Under the transactional might-makes-right dispensation that he and his cohorts ascribe to, everything’s just a cynical game with rules that can be breached at will in the cause of winning, provided you’re clever enough to get by with it and aggressive enough to intimidate or destroy those who dare to stand in your way.
Democratic Party Devolution
Dating back to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Franklin Roosevelt presidency, in our winner-take-all two party system the Democratic Party became the major voice of the people in this country. It stood for the interests of the masses as vs. those of the privileged overlords. But ever since the Reagan years, Democratic Party ‘pragmatists’ have been selling out the common folks to make deals with corporate interests as they edged inch by inch to the right, adopting an ever-more transactional approach to politics that left the vast majority of us to choose the lesser of two evils come election day. The Clinton presidency is Exhibit Number One in this cynical saga that has, among other things, landed the U.S. in economic injustice so extreme, we’re beginning to look suspiciously like a ‘third world’ country.
Abandoned by the party they once looked to as their champion and fed up with the mendacity of politics-as-usual, in 2016 millions of working and middle class Americans raised a collective middle finger to the whole system by voting for a Reality TV star posing as a billionaire and letting themselves be hypnotized by his unhinged rants as they shapeshifted into a cult of blindly loyal adherents to a cause largely defined by inchoate rage, deep fear, distrust of government, and vengeance against scapegoats. Make America Great Again is code for more than Make America White Again; it is that but, if you listen more acutely, you might discern a strangled cry for Make America Trustworthy Again.
The question then becomes, does this latter day Democratic Party of Pelosi, Schumer, Perez, Bustos, and Biden understand what’s going on that doesn’t meet the beady eyes of their transactional political consultants? Going by their attempts to play it down the middle without standing for anything in particular and the utterly inept messaging with which they try to sell their stale goods, it would seem not.
As Democratic progressives we’ve been answering the call to do something about this sorry state of affairs. And our efforts have not been in vain. There is reason to hope. We’ve made progress on many fronts, both within the party and outside it in the public square.
Messaging the Truth
While we keep that work going in high gear, though, we also need to think about how most effectively to convey our truth-bearing message of liberation to a better way of life. Speaking to this in his seminal book Moral Politics, linguist George Lakoff holds that politics is fundamentally about morality. In a recent YouTube video conversation with Robert Reich he says, “People vote their values. . . . Everyone wants to feel they’re doing right, or at least trying to do right. . . . their identity is bound up with their morality.” Given the obvious racism, sexism, homophobia, and general hatefulness of the far right, this may be hard for us to grok. But Lakoff contends that this is because we don’t understand the convictions that underlie those repellant attitudes. As he sees it, there are two versions of morality afoot in America; moreover, most of us unconsciously ascribe to elements of both.
One is based on what he calls the Strict Father model, which dovetails with the meritocracy narrative: by its lights we live in a mean spirited dog-eat-dog world in which it’s incumbent on each individual to guard their turf and promote their own interests in an all-pervasive competition for power and prestige as they fight for a place of eminence in the established hierarchy. The supreme virtues to be cultivated are self-discipline, hard work, loyalty, strategic skill, and bold action when push comes to shove. In these families, the patriarch calls the shots. He disciplines his children to accede to his authority so that they’ll learn to be responsible and self reliant and able to fend for themselves in a society replete with challenges and lurking dangers.
According to this perspective, it’s only just that the rich should dominate the poor; they’ve earned their privilege and shouldn’t be expected to forego what is rightfully theirs simply because there are people who don’t have what it takes to be winners in the survival-of-the-fittest-struggle that nature has decreed. For those of other persuasions the moral reasoning of this model turns very cheesy when it comes to men over women, adults over children, whites over people of color, and other forms of authoritarian injustice, but Lakoff does have a point. People who are working from the Strict Father model feel they’re operating on a realistic reading of reality and doing the right thing by being personally responsible for their own fates and willing to fight for their bloodlines.
Contrasting with that, the Nurturant Parent model is one in which the role of the parents is to support and encourage their children to fulfill their personal potentials in whatever way is right for them. The emphasis is on caring about one another, putting faith in the goodness of human nature, communicating honestly, and working together as a family in a collaborative way. What is right is what is most beneficial to the health and well being not only of the children but also of the family as a whole, and, beyond that, of the wider community.
The conservative model is righteous in its commitment to the individualistic values of self sufficiency, self discipline, and earning one’s place in the world. The liberal/progressive model is righteous in its commitment to communal values based on the worth and dignity of every person within a context of human connectedness. We may note that the first assumes that human relations are defined hierarchically as power over while the second operates on a partnership model of power with. Lakoff’s point is essentially that progressives need to understand the moral logic of both and take both into account in how we go about making the case for our proposals.
At the same time, we need to recognize that rational argument alone is not sufficient to carry the day. Lakoff points out that the workings of our minds are 98% unconscious; due to the innate structures of human neurology, real on-the-hoof reasoning takes place sub rosa, primarily via the way a narrative is framed, and in basically metaphorical and emotional terms. He observes that Republicans have long been better than Democrats at messaging precisely because, as business people trained in marketing, they are better attuned to the non-rational workings of the human psyche and have learned how to use that to their advantage through skillful manipulations of language and visuals (aka ‘optics’).
Do we progressives want to emulate such dark arts? No, we do not. But we do want to speak to people where they live on the urgent subjects that determine our collective fate, and we can do better at that if we stop focusing on issues in isolation from their place in an underlying/overarching morally-framed narrative and talking about them as if rationality were the only mode of appeal. We could for instance invoke our commitment to the freedom and well being of all and concretely envision a world where power is exercised on behalf of the citizenry in service to creating a life worth living, not just for the privileged few, but for every member of our national family. We could tell a story rich in images and characters who represent us to ourselves in a heroic light that validates the best in our natures and inspires faith in the possibilities we want to make real. Following the model of Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech, we could speak with passion of what leads us on and fortifies our hearts in this struggle for justice.
Since most of us have been raised to hold a mixture of the two moral modes, Lakoff advises that, as a practical matter, the best way to reach others in the progressive cause is not to challenge Strict Father arguments head-on by countering them in their own terms, but, rather, to frame issues in the Nurturant Parent mode. In doing so, we activate the national neural circuitry that holds a benign communitarian belief in what it is to be human, whereas speaking in Strict Father terms activates the fear-based Social Darwinism convictions that are also hanging out in there.
By way of illustration, Lakoff advises that in speaking of public policy reforms, it’s important to talk about how government in our democracy is supposed to be of, by, and for the people. It’s there to take care of us, to represent our interests, and, insofar as possible, to ensure that our lives are ones of meaning and dignity. In doing this, we can note that, from the very beginning of our republic, government has provided essential services such as public education, roads and bridges, the post office, regulating food and water for safety, and so on down the long list of what government does for us, a list that reveals why government exists and needs to be used for our benefit rather than feared and vilified and left to the predations of those who seek to bend it to their ends at the expense of the common good.
There’s also this: without government services funded by public revenues, private enterprise could not function, much less earn profits and build robust companies. In truth there is no such thing as a strictly private enterprise. That needn’t be said out loud but it can be demonstrated simply by reminding voters of the key role that government plays in making our country a place where its citizens can thrive, body and soul. As things now stand, this comes down to making it work for us as vs. letting it be co-opted by the 1%.
Politics can be a dirty game. It can also be a high calling. At this critical juncture we have a chance to choose the latter. As the impeachment process unfolds, let us hope those who carry our flag in D.C. will make that choice with us. Let us hope they will meet the challenge history has laid on their shoulders with courage, clarity, and profound commitment to what matters most.
This could become their finest hour. And, as a people, ours.
~ ~ ~
Sources referenced in article
–Astra Taylor interview: https://thesunmagazine.org/issues/527/an-imperfect-union.
–George Lakoff: Moral Politics, How Liberals and Conservatives Think (University of Chicago Press: 1996, 2002).
–George Lakoff with Robert Reich: YouTube video What Democrats Who Want to be Elected Should Be Saying (+ other YouTube videos on this and related topics and article from LA Times at https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-ol-patt-morrison-george-lakoff-20181128-htmlstory.html).
–George Lakoff consultant service: FrameLab, https://framelab.us/ ~ We specialize in framing – the most powerful form of communication. When you change the conversation, you change the world. See also Citizen’s Communication Network.