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The American Bipolar Disorder

During the insufferably long campaign circus leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election I offered a perspective on what I believed was the real choice then coming into focus. It wasn’t between Clinton’s domestic and Trump’s international priorities. Nor was it over someone who exposed security secrets of our country, or someone else who denigrates women and minorities. Our decision in November was going to be, really for the first time with such clarity in the history of American politics, whether democracy or capitalism would carry us into the future as a nation.

Everyone knows that our political system was originally set up according to the foundational principles of democracy – empowering citizens to elect their own representatives, assemble around causes that matter to them, protest bad decisions and abuses of leadership, and even to remove incompetent leaders from office as necessary. Democracy’s antitype is monarchy, where one individual rules over all.

As the values of autonomy, reason, and creative authority broke through the thawing ground of the Middle Ages, the imperial arrangement of top-down control became increasingly intolerable. The republican form of democracy instituted among the early colonies and states of America still acknowledged a need for high-level vision and leadership, but it would be ‘the people’ who put them in office, not bloodline, usurpation, or a deep purse – well, okay, that last one has always been more about maintaining an illusion of our equal access as citizens to high political office.

In actual practice, however, political influence most often goes to where the money is – and this makes a good segue to that other force shaping American society. Technically not a political ideology, capitalism is rather a way of organizing (and justifying) an economic system centered in the values of liberty and privacy, where a free (i.e., only minimally regulated) market allows for the production, distribution, and exchange of wealth by individuals and corporations. This was originally a very logical correlate to democracy, sharing its concern that wealth (rather than power) should be liberated from the hands of one or a few and made available to the many.

The framers of our US Constitution were strong proponents of capitalism, and the so-called American Dream has always been more about economic than political aspirations. People do come to America to escape political oppression and persecution in their home countries, but ultimately what they hope for is the opportunity to build their wealth and become financially independent. Early on the role of government was to be minimal, and its interference in our individual pursuit of happiness – long mistaken as the natural consequence of economic success – was carefully sanctioned. America is still for many the Land of Opportunity.

Even in my brief characterization of democracy and capitalism it should be obvious that these two ideologies, one political and the other economic, are driving in opposite directions. As I pointed out in Change Your Lens, Change Your World, their opposition originates in the fundamentally different ways they prioritize the individual and the community. Democracy puts priority on community and regards the individual as a responsible agent in its formation and health, whereas capitalism puts the individual before community, which quickly becomes a mere aggregate of self-interested actors.

In the 2016 Presidential election we had a choice between an advocate of democracy on one hand and an advocate for capitalism on the other. The winner was capitalism.

In this post I’d like to expand our frame to the bigger picture, where the genetic codes of democracy and capitalism are placed on a continuum. Along that continuum are key terms that name distinct modes of human relations. Staying in the middle of this continuum where the tension is more easily managed, but where things can quickly snap and fly apart in opposite directions, are the modes associated with democracy (cooperation) and capitalism (competition).

Of course, the modes of cooperation and competition go beyond politics and economics (think of sports and games, for instance), but I’m trying to diagnose the peculiar form of bipolar disorder that our nation struggles with, so our focus will stay here.

Democracy is basically a political philosophy affirming the primary value and critical role of individuals as co-operators. They work together in a spirit of mutuality – certainly not without some lively competition among their different views and interests – for the purpose of managing a government that upholds their freedoms and clarifies their responsibilities to the community. Together they seek equity, agreement, and alliance around the concerns impacting their shared quality of life.

While equality is the unworkable goal of everyone having an equal share of wealth, access, and influence, equity is closer to Marx’s principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” (It’s important to remember that Marx’s call to revolution was against capitalism and its abuses, not against democracy.)

Farther to the polar left on our continuum is the ideal that democratic visionaries have frequently entertained and tried to realize. Communion is a mode of human relations that comes as close as possible to negating individual differences in the solvent of oneness. When the tension snaps, we are left with a state of being where no distinctions remain, there is nothing for our minds to hold on to, and we are submerged in a mystery that cannot be named. Mystics devote themselves to diving in and letting go, but many of them are notorious misfits when it comes to relating well with others.

On the other side of center, capitalism is an economic philosophy that – particularly in the model of Adam Smith – regards individuals as competitors for a finite quantity of market share and wealth. They could be said to cooperate within the rules and regulations of that market, but their primary interest lies in improving efficiency, gaining an advantage over rivals, and achieving excellence in the product or service they offer. Competition provides opportunities for self-improvement, and the matching appetites of opponents drive their mutual pursuit of excellence, taking the lead where they can.

Farther out to the polar right of our continuum is a mode of human relations which amplifies the differences to such a degree that relationship itself is on the verge of extinction – this time not by dissolving into communion but by bursting apart through conflict. This is where competition loses all sense of rivals cooperating on a field of rules, incentives, and goals and becomes instead a ruthless winner-take-all crusade to crush each other. In conflict, opponents refuse to acknowledge their common ground or shared values – if they can even see these anymore.

In this blog I frequently reflect on what I call ‘genuine community’, which could sound as if I favor only the value-set to the left of center – in other words, that I support democracy and have only bad things to say about capitalism. With my incessant interest in spirituality and our more mystical sensibilities, you might also think that I’m not only left of center but a far leftist when it comes to where I believe we should be. Wouldn’t that be something? All of us submerged in the warm bath of mystic union: no self-regard, nothing to upset us, and no aspirations for the future ….

In fact, my understanding of genuine community is not centered exclusively in communion but includes all four modes of human relations. Yes, even conflict will happen in genuine community as the competing interests of individuals and groups flare occasionally into aggressive confrontation. But a healthy community is capable of containing conflict, marshaling the patience, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, and goodwill necessary for constructive dialogue to take place.

In time, and inside the ground rules of constructive dialogue, opponents discover their common ground and begin working together – first for themselves but eventually for a greater good.

According to this perspective, America is healthiest when democracy empowers its citizens to cooperate in government and community life, at the same time as capitalism provides them with a competitive field where they can sharpen their skills and realize their dreams of prosperity. As a friend of mine recently commented, an ideal situation would be where just-left-of-center Democrats and just-right-of-center Republicans engaged in dialogue, advocacy, and compromise for the wellbeing of all Americans.

Our problem – and this is the heart of our bipolar disorder as a nation in my opinion – is rooted in our apparent inability to stay closer to the center where a healthy balance could be managed. The Republican party is falling farther to the right as the Democrats fall farther left, and the farther apart they get, the less able they are to find common ground and work effectively together. Such extremism (both right and left) throws the larger system into divisions that no longer know how to ‘reach across the aisle’ – so far into opposite ideological directions have they gone.

Now, we should carefully consider the likelihood that our national disorder is really only a projection at the societal level of an imbalance within ourselves individually. Perhaps we have lost our center and that’s why the politicians we elected can’t be the leaders America so desperately needs.

 

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Capitalism Wins

capitalism_democracyFor the first time in American history, capitalism defeated democracy in our choice of a president. I don’t mean that president-elect Donald Trump wasn’t elected by a democratic process (although our electoral college scheme is oddly undemocratic), but that he is not for democracy. His personal worldview and lifestyle do not demonstrate the principles of individual liberty, inclusive community, and human rights. He doesn’t believe in dialogue and compromise. He doesn’t listen carefully or reason well. He lacks compassion for the working poor, the refugee, the differently oriented and otherwise aligned. Trump is a capitalist. We might even say that he’s a celebrity capitalist.

In The Great American Divide I tried to tease apart the two traditions of democracy and capitalism in US history. Our national experiment in democracy has been strained and challenged from the beginning. I’m not treating democracy as merely one form of government among others, but as also a social vision, a deep set of political aspirations that connect – at least in our imaginations if not yet in fact – toward “a more perfect union,” where the individual is understood through the lens of community, as sharing responsibility for the common good. Democracy is fundamentally about ‘the people’, their freedoms individually as well as their obligations to one another.

To throw capitalism into a contest with democracy sounds at first as if I’m committing a serious category error. Democracy is about politics and government, whereas capitalism is about economic opportunity and commerce. You can’t compare apples and oranges, as we say. But actually both democracy and capitalism are what I called seedbed traditions, each holding a set of values and investments for a preferred reality that it hopes to actualize. It doesn’t matter that one is about political process and the other is about economic pursuits.

Whereas democracy looks at the individual through the lens of community, capitalism sees community – or strictly speaking, the collective – through the lens of the individual, of what I desire and deserve, what’s in it for me. This is not to say that democracy disregards the individual, only that it understands the individual as belonging to a social organism, the body politic. It’s really about us – all of us, together. Depending on where you begin, with the individual or with the community, your lens on reality is very different. Your understanding of yourself, of your neighbor, of the larger world around you, and of ‘the good life’ will move you toward one pole or the other.

Frankly, even our founding fathers probably valued capitalism over democracy. Many of them wanted as little government as possible, so as not to interfere with every individual’s ‘pursuit of happiness’, which in their minds was contingent upon our rights to privacy, property, and financial profit. Stay out of my space, keep your hands off my stuff, and get out of my way: this isn’t really about us, all of us, together. But it has been ‘the American way’ from the beginning. It’s how the other nations see us.

Screw ’em. Why should we care what they think?

Peel back the political veneer of Western culture and you’ll see it more clearly as a juggernaut of capitalist ambitions. As our science opens up new frontiers of knowledge, advances in technology enable us to accelerate our pursuit of more – drilling deeper, pushing farther, growing faster (and getting fatter), casting our junk onto the pile so we can have the latest and best. We need to stay ahead of the competition. A rampant capitalism looks only to the prize of its envisioned success, unconcerned for the most part over the collateral damage, systemic side-effects, and long-term consequences of the pursuit.

Happiness is out there and ahead of us, right?

Whether you were for Hillary Clinton or not, the election of Donald Trump was decidedly not a vote for democracy. We can probably all agree that government has gotten too large in some areas, that it’s been sticking its nose in places it doesn’t belong. The framers of the Constitution were wise and well-intended to limit its interference on our life and liberty. In some ways, too, our government has become a big part of the problem. Maybe this represents a course correction for the American Experiment. Both Republicans and Democrats – as parties historically committed to government by the people and for the people – have agreed to democracy’s rights and responsibilities, to its privileges and obligations, to its vision of a people united.

Unfortunately the Republican party didn’t have a candidate survive to the end who could represent them, so they settled for Donald Trump. For the next four years and beyond, our nation will be a capitalist enterprise before it is a beacon of democracy. We will spend and tax, exclude and evict, bullying our way through the global china shop.

Trump has been declared, and now we have to play the hand we were dealt.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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The Will of the People

The biggest problem for Republicans these days is that their 2016 presidential candidate is not a Republican. He is by name, of course; Donald Trump’s name is on the GOP ticket. But Trump apparently has little understanding of or regard for the principles of civility and decency, cooperation and respect, dialogue and compromise, ethical leadership and responsibility, temperance and self-sacrifice on behalf of ‘we the people’ – in other words, little understanding or regard for the foundations of liberal democracy.

As the circus approaches election day, even Republicans are offended and embarrassed, poised now to renounce their candidate in the interest of our nation’s future. How did he get this far? How was it possible that a dozen or so much more qualified contenders got pushed off the stage – a few of them viciously maligned and forced (or so it must have felt) into some mud-slinging of their own? A few reputations and political prospects were not only injured but maybe even permanently wrecked in the fray.

I have a theory.

In evolution there is a force at work that Darwin named ‘natural selection’, which has to do with the ongoing necessity of living things to maintain their ‘fitness’ in the interest of survival and reproduction. A later proponent of evolutionary biology, Herbert Spencer, coined this idea into the phrase “survival of the fittest,” referring not simply to the strongest and most aggressive individuals who can bully their rivals and out-compete for females, but to any organism that can successfully adapt to its environment and find a provident niche where it can thrive. By putting this requirement on living things, nature has raised a gradient against the likelihood that genetic mutations and individual deviance will survive and reproduce, unless it can win this struggle for fitness.

In economics there is another force, which the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith saw at work in free-market capitalism, where rational self-interest and competition in business conspire toward ‘the wealth of nations’. As individuals and industries compete with each other for market share, the cost value ratio of what they offer to consumers keeps the quality of their goods or services from slipping out of favor. This is another kind of selection, and fitness here allows a commercial enterprise to survive and maybe spawn a new generation of innovations. Smith wasn’t praising selfishness in business but rather an interest in building one’s own competitive edge in delivering genuine value.

And in politics there is yet another force, which in liberal democracy has been called ‘the will of the people’ or ‘the general will’. The idea here is that the collective effect of individuals voicing and voting for what they want is a clarified expression of what is best for the body politic. In representative government the people elect officials who carry the responsibility of defending and promoting the majority interest of their constituencies. Not everyone gets what they want, but a broad base of shared value is eventually established where the security, freedom, and each individual’s pursuit of happiness can (at least in theory) be protected.

Now over many decades the Republican Party has been steadily undergoing a transformation of character, from the republic-defending, ethically centered, and unifying efforts of Abraham Lincoln, to what we have in Donald Trump. (Just put those two individuals side-by-side in your mind for a moment and you should start to feel the twisting vortex of cognitive dissonance.) Along the way, the Grand Ole Party sidled up to various special interest groups, some endeavoring to forward a few constitutional rights that are more period-specific than they want to admit (like the right to bear arms against the encroachments of a hostile government), and others seeking to bind our nation to a religious orthodoxy that historically has condemned the advances of science, the liberalization of morality, the creative authority of individuals, and the rise of inclusive community.lincoln_trumpThere is a deep underground reservoir of repressed insecurity, resentment, and bigotry in our national unconscious, which has been kept below a thin threshold of civility – at various times not so successfully. As things progressed for liberal democracy, many of these inner demons made their way into legislation while others got projected onto whatever scapegoats we could find. Unfortunately this repressed shadow attached itself to the Republican Party, altering the platform from a philosophical avant-garde for individual freedom and social responsibility, to something just short (maybe) of institutionalized racism and bully politics. This is not Lincoln’s party, and it’s not what Americans aspire to be.

My theory is that this mysterious force called ‘the will of the people’ orchestrated the steady elimination of worthy GOP candidates and left us with this one very crass and blatantly bigoted contender for the presidency, for the purpose (not conscious, mind you) of pushing the Republican Party into extinction. If there is to be a resurrection at some point, Republicans will need to get their house in order.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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The Great American Divide

dem_repIn the 2016 Presidential debates two candidates stand before us: one a super-rich white businessman, and the other a female politician (also wealthy and white). So while the differences between them could be much more significant (a middle-class Latina against an Asian-American Buddhist, for instance), in the process of the debate I am struck by how the deepest difference between our candidates coincides with a profound fault-line through the center of our nation. It’s not male versus female, white versus black, or even rich versus poor.

Back in my seminary days I had the assignment of researching the agreements, compatibility, and contradictions between American ideology and the gospel of Jesus. Needless to say, while I could find numerous points of agreement (even complicity) between American ideology and Christian orthodoxy, favorable touchpoints with Jesus’ message and way of life were very hard to find. He was not a big fan of empire or orthodoxy, nor of the egoism that drove both of them against his communitarian vision. His ‘campaign’ was on behalf of human liberation, and of a life awakened in love for others.

Orthodoxy and empire cannot allow for the creative authority of individuals. Jesus was killed because his gospel ran counter to the religio-political domination system of his day.

But as I looked deeper into the American psyche it became evident to me that our national history has been a tale of two visions, which are not only incompatible but run in opposite directions. On one side are the principles of democracy as set forth in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and embodied in The Constitution of the United States (1789), committed to the sacred and self-evident truths of dignity, liberty, equality, and community.

The Constitution’s “We the people” very clearly takes the perspective of all citizens, together as one voice. (Granted, neither blacks nor women were explicitly included in this democratic collective at the time, but the Constitution would later be invoked on their behalf as well, demonstrating its essentially inclusive spirit.)

On the other side of the American Divide are the perhaps equally sacred ambitions for privacy, property, and financial profit, as laid out in the Bill of Rights (1794, Constitutional Amendments 1-10). True enough, these Rights were articulated with the principles of democracy in the background, but they really aren’t about democratic aspirations at all. Their cause is with free-market capitalism,

an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth. (Dictionary.com)

If America is a Land of Dreams, these are dreams about breaking out of poverty, making a living, and getting rich. The individual has a right to property and wealth, which must be protected by all means against unnecessary taxation or confiscation by the government. (Hence also “the right to bear arms.”)

It could be argued that democracy and capitalism name two fundamentally different enterprises of a society (its government and economy) and have really nothing to do with each other. And yet, as seedbeds for a general philosophy of life these two value systems advance contrary ideologies. One (democracy) looks at the individual through the lens of community life, while the other (capitalism) looks at society through the lens of individual self-promotion.

Side by side, democracy and capitalism seem like they should get along. After all, haven’t they coexisted since the beginning of our American Experiment? Yes, but their apparent compatibility has been about as natural as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sharing the stage.

The candidates speak very different languages, for the clear and simple reason that Clinton speaks the language of democracy while Trump speaks the language of capitalism. One is centered in the responsibilities of liberty, equality, and community; the other stands passionately on the rights for privacy, property, and profit. One is a proponent of all of us, together. Her opponent speaks mainly for those at the top, as well as for the large number who dream of getting there one day.

In this election, perhaps we are finally having to come to terms with the Great Divide in our character as a nation.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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