All ideals are dangerous since they denigrate and stigmatize what is actual. They are poisons, which, however, as occasional medicaments, are indispensable. – Friedrich Nietzsche
In Buddhist philosophy, two debilitating human emotions are fear and desire. Fear paralyzes while desire leads to attachment. In turn, it results in frustration and resentment when unfulfilled and if fulfilled, to fear of losing the gain. It becomes a vicious, endless cycle.
That dynamic gets to the negative aspects of our political divide. On the right, fear of the unknown, of change, or that someone or some group is coming to take my possessions and perhaps my life. On the left, desire, from a livable wage to decent housing and health care. All understandable. All arising from materialism. The prices of living in an ownership society.
Capitalism and socialism are the two sides of the same coin. Both can exist without democracy, but democracy is contingent on some type of free market economic system. Capitalism is in crisis and in need of saving. Socialism has been living an anemic existence in various forms in Europe since World War II.
From the right comes the Ayn Rand mantra about government being injurious to personal freedom. In reality, those free-market neo-liberals are focusing upon is wealth accumulation and often not concerned about individual social and human rights: e.g., reproductive control, marriage equality, or health care. Nor, operating from the Judaic-Christian-Islamic perspective that nature is evil and needs to be subdued, are they much concerned about the environment.
From the left comes the mantra “liberty, equality, and brotherhood,” the national motto of France, Haiti, and disparate groups including the Social Democratic Party of Denmark. While sounding an ideal to achieve, it is contradictory. Liberty and equality are inherently opposites. If one is completely free, he/she invariably distinguishes him/herself from his/her fellows. If all are equal, then liberty must be inhibited in order to maintain that equality.
In “Democracies end when they become too democratic,” Andrew Sullivan references Eric Hoffer, the mid-twentieth century longshoreman and social philosopher, who in his 1951 piece, The True Believer, reflects on the rise of mass movements.
“Hoffer’s core insight,” Sullivan writes, “was to locate the source of all truly mass movements in a collective sense of acute frustration. Not despair, or revolt, or resignation — but frustration simmering with rage.” They tend to appear when the worst is past, but relief seems out of reach.
Sullivan talks about how that simmering rage crosses the wide expanse of American society.
“For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome.
“These working-class communities, already alienated, hear the glib and easy dismissals of ‘white straight men’ as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, ‘disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.’”
In his commencement address to the 2016 Howard University graduates, President Obama spoke to that similar frustration in the minority community. But rather than to give in to rage, he challenges them.
“To deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers.”
Obama went on to challenge them to look beyond their own narrow community and to empathize with those they might disagree, echoing Sullivan’s point.
“But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.”
Change, he said, requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, organizing, which is the only way to bring about lasting structural change in law and in custom.
Both the left and the right have come out swinging, the result of simmering rage. Can the pragmatic center hold or will our democracy find itself too in the dustbin of history?
Time will tell. Until cooler heads prevail though, we’re ripe for the picking.