Why the Right Keeps Winning and the Left Keeps Losing

In the wake of the 2014 elections, I see many people retreating into despair or denying that there really was a decisive loss in the midterms, but I have not seen many progressives offering new strategies to alter the political landscape.

In the wake of the 2014 elections, I see many people retreating into despair or denying that there really was a decisive loss in the midterms, but I have not seen many progressives offering new strategies to alter the political landscape. The strategy I outline below has not been tried during the last forty years of our country moving more to the right than to the left.

If you agree with what I’m proposing below, help me create this discussion in your hometown as a first step toward reversing the increasing dominance of the Right.

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.” And yes, I know that the Right has support from billionaires and many major corporations (please check out the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ proposed ESRA—Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution which would ban all monies from any source in elections except public funding equal amounts to the candidates and would require major corporations to prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens once every five years in order to retain their corporate license to operate). And yes, I know that the median household income has continued to drop, that while jobs are increasing the pay for middle income and working people has been dropping, and that two thirds of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, with great economic insecurity. But these are all reasons why they would reasonably be motivated to go to vote to ensure that the Right, with its program of further cutting the social support network and making it harder for people to get basic governmental services and its threat to close the government down (and hence no social security), doesn’t win. You’d think the Left would be mobilizing to get their fellow citizens out to vote. Yet the opposite keeps happening. Why?

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?)

Yes, I know that while a majority of the poorer sections of the working class vote for liberal or progressive candidates, there is a larger enough percentage of those being hurt economically by the policies of the Right who nevertheless vote for them to make the “it’s the economy, stupid” slogan rather unpersuasive.

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.” People internalize this message as self-blame, feel terrible about themselves for not having been more successful, and believe that this is “reality” as opposed to just a particular way that a society with vast inequalities allows the rich to justify their wealth and their ability to buy support for continuing inequality from both major political parties.
  2. Now here is the central contradiction: most people hate the selfishness and materialism that this worldview tells them is inevitable. They can see all around them how hard it is to be hopeful in 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, given the huge power of the wealthy, and that they would be fools not to try to accept that these are the rules of the game and that they would only be hurting themselves if they didn’t protect themselves from what they’ve come to accept as the inevitable betrayals and pervasive selfishness that this kind of society guarantees will meet them at almost every turn in 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 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 (“hey, my group is more oppressed than yours, so I deserve more attention for my pain than you do for yours”) and unproductive feelings of guilt (“who are we to challenge this society when we’ve failed to make our own lives as fulfilling as they ought to be”).

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? Sadly, the cost of belonging to those right-wing churches is this: 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 or progressives) are wrongfully 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 into personal life, friendships, and marriages the very values that the Right esteems and champions in the competitive economy.

It is the ethos of capitalism that is destructive to loving relationships, families, and caring communities. Yet this is rarely discussed by liberal or progressive organizations, though doing so would start to suggest to people that we actually cared about these issues which are normally described as “personal” but are in fact a perfect example of how the personal is political—because they are so massively impacted by the values that are being instilled in all of us by the workplace, the marketplace of consumption and the media.

  1. 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 product 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 of responding to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement.

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. 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.

What the Left keeps on missing is that people have a set of spiritual needs—for a life of meaning and purpose that transcends the logic of the competitive marketplace and its ethos of materialism and selfishness, for communities that address those needs, and for loving friends and families that are best sustained when they share some higher vision than self-interest. The reason that the gay and lesbian struggle for marriage equality went from a seemingly impossible utopian to winning in a majority of states in a very short while was that the proponents of that struggle switched their rhetoric from “we demand our equal rights” to “we are loving people who want our love to flourish and be supported in this society.” That same kind of switch toward higher values and purpose, and touching into our shared desire for loving and caring world, could make the Left a winner again, instead of a consistent loser.

  1. Nothing alienates middle-income working people more than the usual reason progressives and liberals give for 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 has often seemed 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. It’s only on identity politics that the Dems seem willing to stand up for some ideals (though his new promises on immigration reform have to be matched against six years in which his administration has deported more “undocumented” immigrants than all the previous presidents combined). But when it comes to economic issues and class politics, the Democrats historic association with the interests of working people was undermined by the policies of the Clintons, and Obama has followed suit (even now engaged in secret trade negotiations that will further undermine working people both here and around the world).

  1. As if all this weren’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. We need to speak honestly about this disillusionment and help people feel less humiliated that they believed in Obama’s rhetoric of hope. And we need to show that many people who at first 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.
  2. 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.

Written by Rabbi Michael Lerner