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Waging Battle, Building Peace: The Paradox Confronting the Democrats

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Confronting the Paradox

The goal is no less than to defeat the evil that, in recent years, has risen to ascendancy in America. Finding the optimal strategy for achieving this is no small challenge.

In part, it's a challenge because, in matters of the spirit, the reality is always so complex and many layered that it is beyond our capabilities to understand fully. In part, it's because when a cultural system has been so swept up into pathology as ours has lately in America, the disease is likely to have infiltrated even the thoughts and feelings of those who wish to cure the system. It behooves us, therefore, not to be driven by our impulses but to think and proceed with care.

One of the complexities of the present challenge is that we are now called upon to accomplish two things simultaneously which are in contradiction with each other. On the one hand, we must wage and win the battle against the Bushite forces, taking away their power, discrediting them in the eyes of the public, driving the evil spirit they represent back into the recesses of the American cultural system. On the other hand, we must erase the deep and destructive imprint these forces have left on America, and an important part of that imprint is the pervasiveness of conflict and division in our social and political processes.

We must, that is, both wage war and build peace.

On the one hand, there is good reason for the passion that many of us feel about going after these Bushites to bring them low. We are rightly enraged at their lies, their crimes, their arrogance, their wanton disregard of any value other than sating their lust for power and wealth without limits. It is doubtful that any holders of the highest offices of the land have ever, in the course of more than two centuries of American history, been more deserving of impeachment. And so lawless has this administration been that even impeachment may not satisfy all the rightful demands of justice.

At the same time, we need to understand that our rage and our urge to avenge the wrongs done to us and our country, however justified, is also a manifestation of a pernicious characteristic of evil: that its patterns are contagious.

Engaging in battle now, when power has been put into the hands of the opposition, may be necessary and right. But it is also a means of perpetuating the destructive pattern that the Bushites have imposed upon our society. To them, politics was never about bringing people together; for a generation, the Bushites' have pursued a deliberate strategy of polarizing groups of Americans against each other. Governing, for them, was never about serving the common good; it was about waging battle against enemies to vanquish and humiliate them.

It is the nature of the forces of destruction that they compel even those who hate them to conform to their pattern. (This, indeed, is the heart of that work of mine that I regard as the most important thing I've ever written, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, the first chapter of which has been posted at Part of evil's arsenal of tools is war, the fracturing of human systems into division and conflict and destruction. And part of the work of overcoming evil is to recognize those divisions, to enter into those conflicts, and to destroy the forces of destruction. A paradox, but an inescapable one. Sometimes it is indeed necessary to fight for peace.

Indeed, part of the failure of liberalism in America over the past generation has been a failure to recognize the nature of the enemy that was rising from our body politic to destroy all that has been best about this nation. It is good that so many of us have now come together, energized to fight and defeat those forces. But we need to build on this election to bring still more of our countrymen together with us.

It is in large measure thanks to our passionate determination that a substantial piece of power has now been wrested from those evil forces. And now the fight must go on. Yet it must be done with great care, lest the storming of the Bastille once again lead to the Reign of Terror.

We must envision the task of building the structures of goodness simultaneously with the task of destroying the existent structures of evil our enemies have embedded in our still-sick body politic. Otherwise, evil can work through us to extend its domain.

The "War to End All Wars," history sadly shows, just laid the foundation for the next, still-more-terrible war. The greater accomplishment was achieved by the victors after that next war: the way the allies -and in particular, America-both defeated the fascist enemies and helped those nations back onto their feet to grow into a healthier form.

The healthier form that America now needs for us to build is a body politic that is not riven with polarization, but has relearned the ability to come together around a shared sense of the common good. It is to the nature of that task that I will turn here next.

The Seventy Percent Solution: Rebuilding the Middle Around Shared Values

Part of defeating this Bushite evil, therefore, will involve undoing the polarization of the American citizenry that these forces have assiduously labored for a generation to develop.

When I had my own radio show, I said it was intended to be the opposite of the Rush Limbaugh show. By that, I did not mean that it was a dishonest and partisan rant but from the opposite side, but rather that it would be an honest inquiry to find out what parts of the truth each side of our polarized society might possess. Likewise, the opposite of Bushite rule is not conflict-fomenting rule from the opposite side, but rather rule that helps bring people together to advance the common good.

Part of the task, therefore, is to build good bridges that can bring Americans together for common purposes.

However, I do not believe that, at this point in the struggle against the Bushites, it is appropriate to aim to bring together all the American people. There seems to be about a third of the American public that is so deeply enthrall to this Bushite leadership that it is difficult to imagine what would awaken them from their trance and cause them to question their mistaken judgment about these evil forces to whom they continue to give support. This perhaps 30 percent of the public, therefore, may need to be simply written off.

It is the other 70 percent that it should be the goal of the newly-empowered Democrats to bring together.

On those matters on which there is urgency, the Democrats may skip such consensus-building. Repealing the Military Commissions Act may be one of those: its assault on our constitutional system is too dangerous to leave it in place. And climate change may be another: we've already wasted so much time, and the chances for catastrophe only grow.

But where there is no great urgency, the Democrats' agenda should be for legislation that can be recognized by the seventy percent of Americans not in a trance state as serving the common good.

Indeed, re-establishing the very notion of the common good is central to healing the country, and also to preparing the ground for more progressive measures in the future. From FDR's coming to power in 1932 until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the country was pre-disposed toward the idea that "we're all in this together" and toward using the government as an expression of our common purposes to make a better society. Now, after a quarter century of right-wing propaganda, abetted by the fatigue and lack of vision in American liberalism -a time in which "librel" was made into a dirty word in the minds of a preponderance of Americans-- we are in a position to begin to re-establish a re-envisioned liberalism. But the long-term success of that effort requires that we take now a long-term view of the task.

If we respond to the way the Bushites pushed their right-wing agenda down the throats of half of America with a reciprocal eagerness to ram a progressive agenda down the throat of an unprepared body politic, we will fail-in the long run if not also even in the short.

(Please note: I am not talking about the need to compromise with the Bushites; I am talking about the need to reach out to the center of the electorate. This election was a clear repudiation of the Bushites by the American people; it was not a clear endorsement of the Democrats, much less of a progressive agenda. And this election shows that power given, and not used to the liking of the majority, can be taken away.)

So what are the proper elements of an initial agenda for the Democrats to promote? Many of the ideas now talked about seem eminently appropriate. Here are some of them, gleaned from various progressive sources:

· Revising Bush's Prescription Drug benefit to allow the government to negotiate a collective, lower price for prescription drugs for Medicare patients (something the original law expressly forbade, to protect the profits of the pharmaceutical companies).
· Passing an ethics bill of the kind for which the Abramoff Scandal revealed the profound need (but that the Republican Congress could not bring itself, after a few feints in that direction, to pass).
· Raising the minimum wage.
· I also have a couple of measures I will be advocating in future writings that have to do with strengthening and safeguarding the election process of our democracy.

Here's an invitation to readers: What other measures -which would meet the criterion of being something around which the seventy percent could rally-should be on the agenda for these opening stages of the Democrats' exercise of their new power?

In any event, these next two years are a time for building a new majority. It is a time for bringing that majority to trust the more liberal of the two major parties to look after the common good as it is defined by our shared values. Realistically, the Democrats do not have the votes to overcome a presidential veto-and confrontation over issues will benefit politically which ever side the majority of citizens feels is representing their views and their interests. Hence, there is nothing to be gained by passing measures that command no majority support in the electorate.

Even for the long-term good of a progressive agenda, for the next two years the Democrats' agenda should be one that builds the center, not the one that progressive activists -but not the majority of citizens-- would consider most desirable and enlightened for the nation to enact.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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