The Series

To Light a Fire in Liberal America

Can America Be Saved? (a series in itself)

# 1 How Did ‘Yes, We Can!’ Become ‘No, We Couldn’t’?
[This is the first of a brief series.]

1868: The slaves have been freed, and the Constitution amended guaranteeing “equal protection under the laws.”

1918: The Armistice has been signed, ending “the war to end all wars.”

2008: Barack Obama is elected president of the United States, promising change under the slogan “Yes, we can!”

Moments marking major historical disappointments, and squandered opportunities.

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A few weeks ago, in response to Paul Krugman’s much-noted column declaring Barack Obama a most “consequential” and “successful” president, I wrote a piece with the title, “Sorry, Mr. Krugman: Obama Was Elected Holding a Royal Flush, and Then Declared His Hand ‘Ace High.'” My point was that defeating the ugly force that has taken over the Republican Party was Job One, that it was a task that could have been accomplished, that instead he “fed the beast that has consistently sought to thwart and destroy him,” and that consequently the destructive force has maintained the power to act like a wrecking ball against the American political system and against everything our politics touches.

Defeating that ugly force was Job One because, as we have seen, none of the other vital tasks that face America — whether it be stopping our descent into plutocracy, or meeting the challenge of climate change, or making our socio-economic system work for all Americans, or any of the other many challenges we face — can be accomplished until power gets drained away from that force.

(I have been painting an elaborate portrait of this “destructive force” throughout my “Press the Battle” series, for example in the piece “The Republican Party’s Extraordinary Pattern of Destructiveness”.)

On one of the sites on which my “Royal Flush” piece ran — a place where my ideas are generally well-received — I ran into considerable flak. On this site, which is a forum for Democrats, a variety of readers objected that it was not reasonable for me to claim that President Obama could have done much better to prevail over the destructive, obstructionist Republicans who made it their priority to make him fail.

What’s important in this — let me say here right off — is not about President Obama, but about something bigger and deeper. It’s about whether there’s any real hope for America, and whether specifically there’s hope that Liberal America can and will play the role that our nation needs for it to play.

President Obama will soon be part of our past. But the future of our nation depends on the ability of Liberal America to rouse itself to do battle effectively. With that in mind, I’ll continue the story.

In response to the flak I encountered, I posted a second entry, in which I asked:

So let me pose this question to those who think me wrong in my critique of the president: which of the following points would you disagree with?

1) The Republicans, as an opposition party during the Obama presidency, have behaved disgracefully, in unprecedented ways that profoundly violate American political norms.

2) This kind of behavior should be punished, not rewarded.

3) It has not been punished, and indeed in 2010, it was rewarded by voters, many of whom had been successfully conned by an avalanche of lies from the Republicans throughout the preceding two years.

4) That behavior could have been punished had the president properly used the “bully pulpit” that the president alone in our nation commands. He can get the public’s attention, and could have used that exceptional platform to called out the Republicans’ conduct for what it was. He could have shown the American people how fundamentally un-American (and unprecedented) was their behavior, how contrary to how our Founders intended our system to work, how injurious to the good of the nation. With the right kind of message, delivered with the rhetorical force of which he had shown himself capable, he could have made the Republicans pay a political price for their disgraceful political conduct, and compelled them to choose between either changing their ways or continuing to pay that price.

5) But President Obama did almost none of that, made almost no use of his bully pulpit to call out the scandalous Republican course in opposition, particularly in the first two years. (But even now has still hardly spoken up in any forceful way.) The Republicans got away with their scandalous campaign to delegitimize the president with the birther lie, got away with their abuse of the filibuster, got away with their utterly unpatriotic strategy of obstructionism, etc. etc.

My interlocutors — with some of whom, incidentally, I am acquainted, and whom I respect — were not persuaded. Among the responses I got were these:

• “What bully pulpit?” The “wildly dysfunctional media landscape” the president faces would inevitably have defeated his efforts to get a message to the American people.

• “Can’t see how Republicans’ behavior COULD have been punished if it had been called out.”

• The president could do nothing because the Republicans were irremediably determined to bring him down.

• When he took office, the economic crisis was so intense the American people were deeply frightened about their economic future. The people were not in a frame of mind to think logically, and the president had to attend to managing a crisis.

It may be that some of this defense of President Obama was an expression of partisan loyalty: good Democrats wanting to think well of the president in whose election and re-election they invested so much of themselves. I understand that feeling, as I found it an extremely painful process myself, during the first two years of his presidency, to recognize how badly Obama was blowing the historic opportunity and responsibility he’d been handed.

But I don’t think partisan rationalizing is the main basis for their arguments. I believe, rather, that their conclusion — that it was impossible for Barack Obama, as president, to have fought and defeated the destructive force relentlessly attacking him and thwarting his efforts — reflects their fundamental understanding of the how the world works.

And I find that truly scary.

It would surely be scary if my interlocutors were right in their judgment of what’s possible. Just think what would it mean if even the President of the United States — and in particular one who had the status and aura possessed by Barack Obama when he first took office — was powerless to get the American people to see and condemn the disgraceful behavior of the Republican opposition.

Scary because if even the president could not have effectively turned the public against the scandalous course the Republicans had chosen, then how could anyone else?

But that’s not what actually scares me because I believe their view of what’s possible is quite wrong, and in a most important and telling way.

What truly scares me is that these good, highly motivated Democratic activists cannot envision any way that President Obama could have fought, discredited, and turned back this destructive political force.

Again, the issue here is not President Obama, as big a disappointment as he has been. That’s water over the dam. What’s at issue is the capacity of Liberal America to do what the nation desperately needs for it to do.

In that exchange, we find yet another window into the worldview of Liberal America that has rendered it woefully weak in this time of national crisis.

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# 2 Not If We’re Blind to the One Force That Can Turn This Battle Around
can america be saved
The point needs to be stressed. The status quo is not leading us where we need to go. At the level that matters most, even our “victories” are not winning the battle. We are losing at the level where, fundamentally, this battle is being fought. That’s at the level of the spirit.

In the exchange I’ve reported between me and some dedicated Democratic activists over whether President Obama was helpless to best the GOP obstructionists (as they argued), I pointed out the hopelessness implied by their position. If the President of the United States, with all the powers at his disposal to impact the national conversation and public opinion, could not prevail in battle over that force, I said, then it would surely follow that no one else could do so either.

To that, one of the truly best among my interlocutors responded that he did have hope. His hope was that the year 2016 (a presidential year) would bring another Democratic victory like the victory in 2008–presidency and both houses of Congress.

I didn’t bother, in my response, to mention the very small likelihood of the Democrats gaining control of the House– thanks to the Republican victories in 2010 at the state level and the subsequent gerrymandering of Congressional Districts that would require the Democrats – who got more congressional votes in 2012 than the Republicans but are still very much in the minority – to get some 55% of the vote to become the majority party in the House.

Rather, I chose to make a more basic point: I argued that if my interlocutor were correct that Obama could not have prevailed over the Republicans, that “optimistic” scenario did not give much grounds for hope. If the Democrats have done the best they could with the opportunities of 2008, his “hopeful” scenario — a repeat of those victories in 2016 — would seem to imply a repeat of the dismal performance of our governmental system that we’ve had in recent years.

My interlocutor responded that he would be content if the Republicans “simply have little power to do damage.”

Would that it were so. It’s true, of course, that the transition from the years of the G.W. Bush presidency to the last six years of the Obama presidency (during Obama’s first two years the Democrats did have a few important accomplishments) changed some things for the better. It was an improvement to go from a situation where the Republican power enabled them to do a lot of bad things to America to one where their power enables them to prevent a lot of good things from being done.

But it is far from the case that a political force that disables our political system from functioning properly has “little power to do damage.”

Indeed, at the level of the battle that matters most, it seems clear to me that we are losing.

That battle is not best understood as the battle between liberal and conservative principles. Today’s Republican Party can hardly be understood in terms of “conservative principles.”

It is not best understood in terms of the balance of power between the Democratic and Republican Parties. That balance of power is has fluctuated within the normal range. And if today’s Republican Party were a normal American political party, the state of the nation would be acceptable.

But if we look deeper, we can see a shift in the balance of power that is profoundly adverse:

The power of greed to shape our national destiny has increased– including during these past six years.

The power of the lie has increased – including during these past six years.

The power of blind rage has increased.

The power of the spirit of conflict has increased.

The power of the lust to dominate has increased.

As these adverse shifts have occurred, the prospects have dimmed for our maintaining a democracy based on our basic American values. Plutocracy – the rule of the billionaires and of the mighty corporate system – has gained ground.

The prospects for our being able to navigate our way wisely and constructively through the challenges we face – including the challenge of climate disruption – have dimmed.

And there’s no sign that these adverse trends are about to stop, let alone be reversed.

In these very basic ways, it must be acknowledged: we are losing.

Does anyone here think things are going in a good direction? Anyone feel confident that the hands on the helm will steer us toward a future as good as what we have known, let alone a better future?

I see hope, but continuing the political dynamic of this era is not a sufficient basis for hopefulness. If we – and the nation — are losing even when we gain electoral “victories,” then surely there is a need for something more than what my interlocutor envisioned (victory in 2016) if America is to be saved.

What is that “more” that has to happen? What can turn this battle around? What can we do?

To answer those questions, we have to see the battle clearly, and locate the strategic points around which the political dynamic might be shifted. That will be the task of the next installment.

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# 3 Can America Be Saved? We Are Losing for Want of Seeing What’s Winning

can america be saved
The point needs to be stressed. The status quo is not leading us where we need to go. At the level that matters most, even our “victories” are not winning the battle. We are losing at the level where, fundamentally, this battle is being fought. That’s at the level of the spirit.

In the exchange I’ve presented between me and some dedicated Democratic activists over whether President Obama was helpless to best the GOP obstructionists (as they argued), I pointed out the hopelessness implied by their position. If the President of the United States, with all the powers at his disposal to impact the national conversation and public opinion, could not prevail in battle over that force, I said, then it would surely follow that no one else could do so either.

To that one of the truly best among my interlocutors responded that he did have hope. His hope was that 2016 (a presidential year) would bring another Democratic victory like the victory in 2008 — the presidency and both houses of Congress.

I didn’t bother, in my response, to mention the very small likelihood of the Democrats gaining control of the House — thanks to the Republican victories in 2010 at the state level and the subsequent gerrymandering of Congressional Districts that would require the Democrats — who got more congressional votes in 2012 than the Republicans but are still very much in the minority — to get some 55 percent of the vote to become the majority party in the House.

Rather, I chose to make a more basic point: I argued that if my interlocutor were correct that Obama could not have prevailed over the Republicans, that “optimistic” scenario did not give much grounds for hope. If the Democrats have done the best they could with the opportunities of 2008, his “hopeful” scenario — a repeat of those victories in 2016 — would seem to imply a repeat of the dismal performance of our governmental system that we’ve had in recent years.

My interlocutor responded that he would be content if the Republicans “simply have little power to do damage.”

Would that it were so. It’s true, of course, that the transition from the years of the G.W. Bush presidency to the last six years of the Obama presidency (during Obama’s first two years the Democrats did have a few important accomplishments) changed some things for the better. It was an improvement to go from a situation where the Republican power enabled them to do a lot of bad things to America to one where their power enables them to prevent a lot of good things from being done.

But it is far from the case that a political force that disables our political system from functioning properly has “little power to do damage.”

Indeed, at the level of the battle that matters most, it seems clear to me that we are losing.

That battle is not best understood as the battle between liberal and conservative principles. Today’s Republican Party can hardly be understood in terms of “conservative principles.”

It is not best understood in terms of the balance of power between the Democratic and Republican Parties. That balance of power has fluctuated within the normal range. And if today’s Republican Party were a normal American political party, the state of the nation would be acceptable.

But if we look deeper, we can see a shift in the balance of power that is far from normal, and is profoundly adverse:

The power of greed to shape our national destiny has increased — including during these past six years.

The power of the lie has increased — including during these past six years.

The power of blind rage has increased.

The power of the spirit of conflict has increased.

The power of the lust to dominate has increased.

As these adverse shifts have occurred, the prospects have dimmed for our maintaining a democracy based on our basic American values. Plutocracy — the rule of the billionaires and of the mighty corporate system — has gained ground.

The prospects for our being able to navigate our way wisely and constructively through the challenges we face — including the challenge of climate disruption — have dimmed.

And there’s no sign that these adverse trends are about to stop, let alone be reversed.

In these very basic ways, it must be acknowledged: we are losing.

Does anyone here think things are going in a good direction? Does anyone feel confident that we will have hands on the helm that will steer us toward a future as good as what we have known, let alone a better future?

I see hope, but continuing the political dynamic of this era is not a sufficient basis for hopefulness. If we — and the nation — are losing even when we gain electoral “victories,” then surely there is a need for something more than what my interlocutor envisioned (victory in 2016) if America is to be saved.

What is that “more” that has to happen? What can turn this battle around? What can we do?

To answer those questions, we have to see the battle clearly, and locate the strategic points around which the political dynamic might be shifted. That will be the task of the next installment.

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can america be saved
In the the previous piece, I argued that we — Liberal America, the American people generally, and the nation itself — are losing. I argued that the course of the nation is increasingly being governed by such destructive power as greed, and the like, and the lust to dominate, and rage, and the spirit of conflict.

I argued that our democracy is being steadily eroded by plutocratic forces. That we are losing ground on the ability to respond to our national challenges, including some whose neglect is potentially catastrophic.

And I closed by asking: given that the present dynamic is taking things in the wrong direction, what could turn this around?

The first question is, just how should we see this dynamic that is generating this adverse shift in our politics?

The beginnings of an answer arise from noting that all of those adverse shifts are gaining their main impetus from one political party: the once-respectable Republican Party. Today’s GOP is a relatively pure case of serving greed, telling falsehoods, fomenting rage, sacrificing the common good for political power, advancing plutocracy and, whenever they are not in a position to dominate and take us in negative direction, throwing a monkey wrench to disable our government from functioning to take us in a positive direction.

(NOTE: All that is so blatantly obvious, that the fact that it needs to be said — and that saying it is likely to evoke objections not only from Republican supporters but even from many in Liberal America — is itself a revealing and alarming commentary on the state of our nation. But the past fifteen years have given us a mountain of evidence to support those assertions, and remarkably little that stand as exceptions. In American political history, our political forces have generally had mixtures of constructive and destructive elements. But today’s Republican Party represents an exceptionally pure case of the one with remarkably little of the other.)

In view of all that terrible pattern of politically destructive conduct from one of our political parties, a student of American history since its founding might have supposed that from the other major party there would have been a vigorous and righteous response to protect the nation.

But that has not been the case. And the problem on the Democratic side has not been so much a matter of being willingly complicit in the destructiveness as of being terribly weak in opposing it.

Nor has the problem on the left side of our politically increasingly divided nation been confined to the elected leadership. For there has been no great groundswell from the grassroots to press the battle against the unprecedentedly ugly and destructive force that has taken over the right.

The dynamic that is damaging our America, therefore, seems to have two main parts:

  1. The Republican Party has become the instrument of a destructive force.
  2. The response from Liberal America to this threat has been woefully weak.

Together, those two points describe why America has been and continues to be seriously damaged by the political dynamic of our times.

Given that analysis, it follows that — at least at one level — that the answer to the question of what has to happen also consists of two parts:

  1. The power of this force that’s taken over the right needs to be reduced. And
  2. The intensity and strength of Liberal America in this battle need to increase.

How to achieve those results would seem to pose us two challenges:

The challenge concerning the right is this: how can the power of that destructive force be drained away? We know what the ultimate source of that power is. In our still-democratic polity, that power depends on the support of millions of our fellow citizens, as expressed at the polls. As powerful as Big Money is, that power still has to translate into votes. (A generation from now, that might not still be the case.) The way to drain the power away, therefore, is to pry enough of the supporters of that force away from it.

That task might be hopeless if all those supporters fully understood the nature of what they are supporting. My observation and experience indicates to me that a substantial number of Republican voters are basically good, decent people who have no idea that the force they are supporting is neither good nor decent. Thus, in a nation like ours the only way a force like this can gain power is by deceiving large numbers of people into believing that it is something that it is not.

That lie is this force’s point of vulnerability. The question of how can the force on the right be weakened can therefore be reframed as: how can those people be persuaded of the truth about what they are supporting?

Now, as for the challenge of strengthening the other, liberal force in our pathologically divided body politic, the first question that must be asked is: what is the source of the weakness shown in these times by Liberal America, and how can it be addressed?

Among the answers that might be given, the one I think lies at the core of that weakness is the inability of Liberal America to perceive, and thus to respond to, that dimension of human affairs that might be called “the realm of the spirit.”

I would say that what is winning in America is not so much those specific destructive things like greed, rage, lies, the lust for power, and the spirit of conflict, but rather that force — or, one might call it, “spirit” — that fosters and works through all of those.

(NOTE: One might also cite, as an explanation of the weakness of Liberal America, the factor of intimidation. One can certainly see, in the relationship between the right and the left, the dynamic of a relationship between the bully and the bullied. But while that is certainly present, I would assert that the same disconnection from that dimension of “the spirit” underlies Liberal America’s vulnerability to intimidation. Those who are “inspired” (Latin: inspirare “inspire, inflame, blow into”) find a strength that makes them less subject to fear and intimidation.)

Many liberals might recoil from such language, assuming that talk of “the power of the spirit” takes us out of the naturalistic world that we come to understand through reason and evidence. But that is not the case here. What I mean by spirit is something that is in some essential ways akin to how the term has traditionally been used, but is also a phenomenon that can be understood in naturalistic terms.

So what do I mean by spirit? Let me make a couple of quick points.

1) There are forces at work that we cannot see directly, but that we infer from the way the things we do see move. It’s like with the wind: we do not see the wind, but looking through our windows we know there’s a wind from the swaying of the trees. Such has long been one of the properties of what we mean by spirit (“Team spirit,” “The Spirit of “76”). Our world cannot be properly understood in rational and empirical terms without reference to such invisible forces. One cannot “see” love or rage or panic, but they move things in the world. One cannot see patriotism or “Christian ethics” or the spirit of hope in the crowd in Grant Park on Election Night, 2009. But we can see that things in the world move differently under their influence. Sometimes such forces show coherence over time in their web of causes and effects.

2) Some of the forces of this kind relate quite directly to those values that are built into the core of our being, in that they consistently either serve and enhance life or degrade and destroy it. When we behold such spirits “animating” the way things are moving in our world, our sense of the “spirit” of the thing moves us in profound ways. The perception evokes our own “spirit,” calling forth deep energies that might be called “spiritual” passions.

(NOTE: Think of how we, as an audience, feel upon witnessing the contrast, in It’s a Wonderful Life, between two scenarios for our characters’ society: one called Pottersville, shaped by the spirit of selfish greed; and one, called Bedford Falls, shaped by an altruistic caring for others. Think of what the “Spirit of ’76” long meant to Americans. Think of the words in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free” — with which Union soldiers in the war that ended slavery went off to battle.)

If there were such forces — that are not directly “visible” but that can be inferred from the way things move – operating in our world, a failure to see them would be important.

This failure to recognize the potential “power of the spirit” was at the heart of the the previous discussion of the belief by many dedicated liberal/Democratic activists that there was no way President Obama could have combatted effectively the disgraceful conduct of the Republican opposition he encountered when he became president.

The failure to see the power available to our luminous-seeming new president in 2009, I am arguing, is a manifestation of that same truncation of vision that has prevented Liberal America from seeing what we are up against, and debilitated Liberal America into responding to it so weakly.

The challenge to weaken the right and strengthen Liberal America would appear at first to be two separate challenges. But I believe that they can be addressed together in a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone fashion, simultaneously challenging each side on its “spiritual error.”

That two-birds-with-one-stone strategy is coming up.

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Can America Be Saved # 5: Neither Side in America is Seeing an “Evil Force” for What it Is

can america be saved
The people on each side of America’s political divide are making a fundamental error at what might be called the level of the spirit.

On the right, the error is mistaking one spiritual force for another. On the left, the error is failing to recognize the importance of such forces – not directly visible, but vast and powerful – in human affairs.

The two sides are making very different errors, but both their errors concern the recognition of a fundamentally destructive force. Both errors, I believe it is appropriate to say, concern what might be called the force of “evil.”

Evil is admittedly a fraught word, one with which many in Liberal America are uncomfortable. Many in Liberal America do not think anything in reality exists that could possibly warrant being called an “evil force.”

But I have now offered a definition of the term–a naturalistic description of a phenomenon that can be shown to operate in the world, and which resembles the traditional understanding of “evil” in enough ways to warrant its being so named. The heart of this definition might be stated: Evil is a force operating in the human world that shows coherence through time and that consistently works — in purely naturalistic ways, through cause and effect — to impart to whatever it touches a pattern of “brokenness”.

On the right, basically good people are mistaking the evil for the good. Thus their power is being used to achieve the opposite of their intent.

On the left, basically intelligent people are failing to understand a central dynamic of the world in which they live. That failure to understand is not always crucial. But in today’s America, that failure may prove fatal.

Together, these two errors are what support that two-fold dynamic of our national crisis: the increasing power of the destructive force that’s taken over the right, and the woeful weakness of Liberal America in protecting the nation from that power.

Not believing that there is something in the world that corresponds to the notion of an “evil force,” many in Liberal do not perceive it even when it is staring them in the face. The consequence is that Liberal America does not understand what we are up against. And, not seeing it for what it is, the liberal side of our divided polity fails to respond appropriately to this destructive force .

The fact that both sides are making an error that involves the failure to recognize the evil force that is right in front of our faces opens the way to a strategically useful approach to the whole dynamic. What if there were a single message that can challenge both sides of our sick political dynamic — albeit in different ways — at the point of their fundamental error?

Would that not provide an opportunity for a coherent – and therefore possibly potent – mode of attack?

The next installment will begin presenting that “two birds with one stone” message.

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