GOP's secret weapon: How right-wing churches turn the 99 percent into the Tea Party

There's a way to counter their success, but it means liberals must get comfortable talking about the spiritual

Published November 10, 2014 4:59PM (EST)

  (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Joe Skipper/Salon)
(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Joe Skipper/Salon)

Why does the right keep winning in American politics, sometimes through electoral victories, sometimes by having the Democrats and others on the left adopt what were traditionally right-wing policies and perspectives?

I asked this question first to thousands of people whom I and my research team encountered when I was principal investigator for a National Institute of Mental Health-sponsored study about how to deal with stress at work and stress in family life. At the time Ronald Reagan was president and he had won in part by winning many votes of middle-income working people.

The answer given by the media then, and often proffered today as well by the Democrats, is “It’s the economy, stupid.” They didn’t give that explanation up when Reaganomics produced heavy economic losses for working people who continued to vote Republican, and they didn’t give that explanation up when the Clinton/Gore years produced a booming economy and yet Gore lost. (OK, he won but for the Supreme Court, but that was only made possible because of how close the vote was— and why would it have been so close if “the economy” is the determining issue?) Nor am I convinced when recent statisticians show that those with the least income give 10 votes to Democrats to every eight they give to Republicans. The issue remains: those whose economic interests are not served by a politics that caters to the wealthy (those eight who vote Republican when the Republicans over and over again try to dismantle economic programs that might help them) continue to support those politicians and that gives the right the electoral edge it would never have on the grounds of its policies (most people who vote for them, according to recent polls, don’t agree with their specific policy positions).

What my research team discovered was the following:

Most Americans work in an economy that teaches them the 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.”

Now here is the central contradiction: Most people hate this kind of reality, believe that it is in stark contrast to the values they would like to live by, but simultaneously they also believe, based on their daily life experience in the economy reinforced by almost every sitcom and television news story they ever hear, that the logic of capitalist society is the only possible reality, and that they would be fools not to try to live by it in every part of their lives. But they hate that this is the case. They often will tell you that “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.” Unconsciously, many people adopt the values of the marketplace, and these values have a corrosive impact on their own friendship, relationships and family life.

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, combine this with making people feel guilty about being privileged in relationship to some other group that has even less than they (though in their day to day economic struggles most Americans don’t really feel themselves privileged but actually worried about their economic survival).

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?

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) are blamed for the ethos of selfishness and breakdown of loving relationships and families.  (Ironically, because in fact that breakdown, we learned, 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).

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.  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 years that they have occupied the White House and had the majority in the Senate, they imagine that if they can put forward a pro-working class economic program that will be sufficient to change the dynamics of American politics.

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, is a product of the triumph of the way people have internalized the values of the capitalist marketplace, and can only be overcome when that 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 which 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 Spiritual Covenant 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 No. 1” 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.

But liberals and progressives are religio-phobic, believe that talk of love and caring is mere psycho-babble, and hence 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.

We in the Network of Spiritual Progressives have developed a model of what a progressive Spiritual Covenant would look like. It would include a Global Marshall Plan as well as Network of Spiritual Progressives’ proposed ESRA—Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which would require that all state and federal elections be financed solely through public funding and all other monies totally banned and would require any corporation operating within or selling their services or products within the U.S.  with incomes above $50 million a year to get a new corporate charter once every five years which would only be granted to those that could prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a panel of ordinary citizens who would also hear the testimony of people around the world who have been impacted by the policies, behavior, and advertising of those corporations).

Nothing alienates middle-income working people than the usual reason progressives and liberals give to 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 seems 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.

As if all this wasn’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.  Speaking honestly about this disillusionment, and helping people feel less humiliated that they got tricked by Obama’s rhetoric, and then re-crediting for people the recognition that many other people who 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.

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

Some of us Jewish progressives are taking a step in this direction by trying to reach out to people in every ethnicity, race, religion or atheism, and inviting you to San Francisco Dec. 14 for a one-day gathering to discuss these issues and to start developing a winning strategy for healing and transforming our world. Info at starting next week (Nov. 20). 

By Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and author of "Embracing Israel/Palestine" and the forthcoming "Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World." (University of California Press, October 2019).

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