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? Sure, I know that progressives won some important local battles in 2014: A few towns in California, Texas, and Ohio banned fracking. A few towns in Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, and Illinois supported ballot measures to overturn Citizens United. Richmond, California, stood up to Chevron, and Berkeley stood up to "Big Soda."
But 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? And why do so many people end up voting to elect politicians who are committed to enacting policies that hurt the economic well-being of a significant section (not the majority, but many) of the people who voted for them?
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. 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 ten votes to Democrats to every eight they give to Republicans, thus supposedly showing that people always vote their economic interests. 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:
1. 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."
2. Now here is the central contradiction: most people hate this kind of reality. They believe that it is in stark contrast to the values they would like to live by but simultaneously they also believe 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. 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." Unconsciously, many people adopt the values of the marketplace, and these values have a corrosive impact on their own friendships, relationships, and family life.
3. 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 and unproductive feelings of guilt. 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. 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.
4. 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 six years that they have occupied the White House and had the majority in the House of Representatives. 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 are all a product of the triumph of the way people have internalized the values of the capitalist marketplace. 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 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 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.
But many liberals and progressives are religiophobic and thus believe 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. We in the Network of Spiritual Progressives have developed 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. The latter amendment would require that all state and federal elections be financed solely through public funding--all other monies would be totally banned. The amendment would also require any corporation with an income above $50 million/year that is operating or selling its services or products within the U.S. to get a new corporate charter once every five years. Such charters 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. 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. Read more at spiritualprogressives.org.
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.