The topic below was originally posted February 14th, on my blog the Intrepid Liberal Journal and crossposted today at The Wild Wild Left, Independent Bloggers Alliance, The Peace Tree and Worldwide Sawdust.
American politics typically reflects our cultural ethos of the moment. Just consider these questions:
- Has our culture promoted community or celebrated greed?
- Is our foreign policy based upon cooperation with the community of nations or the imperatives of empire?
- Can individuals live in dignity regardless of their profession, economic class, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation or is gentrified wealth valued above character?
Ultimately, the answer to each of those questions is determined by the answer to this question: are we a culture of fear or confidence? The answer is America has vacillated between the two and been both at the same time. A confidence-based culture survived the Great Depression, defeated Nazi Germany, saved Western Europe with the Marshall Plan, nurtured a growing middle class, expanded rights and opportunities for minorities and women, welcomed immigrants that helped build this country, landed on the Moon and prevailed in the Cold War. It was America’s confidence-based culture that allowed my grandfather to escape Nazi persecution in Poland and comfortably raise a family as a salaried worker in the garment industry.
A fear-based culture engendered paranoia about Japanese Americans, communists, black criminals, radical feminists, environmental extremists, rock music, socialized medicine, Islamic fanatics, foreigners, as well as government regulation of business, atheists, secularists and social egalitarianism. It was our fear-based culture that detained the innocent Muslim brother of a former graduate school classmate of mine in 2002. Sadly and shamefully, industry, corporate interests, the media and politicians to ensure profits and maintain power effectively utilize fear.
President Eisenhower presciently warned Americans about the military industrial complex as the defense industry exploited fear in the name of national security. Through systematic brainwashing from birth, Americans are conditioned to fear black men while the correctional industry gorges itself on their exponential incarceration rate. Overall, the hidden hand of a fear industrial complex guides Americans.
In response to this pathology, those of us on the political left are motivated by fear and loathing of fear merchants who champion unjust wars, gratuitously incarcerate non-violent criminals and demonize unions. People like me are afraid of global warming, globalization, government officials that sanction torture in our country’s name, the rising cost of living, HMOs that allow bean counters to overrule doctors, the housing market, overzealous preachers who denounce evolution, the decline of public education, our crumbling infrastructure and the systematic erosion of our civil liberties.
Hence our political dialogue has become the great fear debate. Conservatives fear people who want to redistribute wealth, promote permissiveness, debase our white Judeo-Christian identity and surrender America’s position as the world’s lone superpower. Liberals like me fear the agents of corporatism and national security zealots who ignore the environment, steal elections, exacerbate the widening gap between rich and poor, launch immoral and ill-conceived wars and claim it’s all in the name of God and freedom.
Most Americans have overdosed on fear. I know there remains a fringe that will never get over their fear addiction. The thirty-percent that still support George W. Bush on one side as well as far left-wing reactionaries who regard anyone who ever votes for Democrats as unprincipled compromisers. The majority of Americans however are exhausted by fear. Seven years of the Bush/Cheney war mongering crime syndicate and a Democratic Party led by a self-gelding machine of ineptitude too afraid to stand up to them have Americans hungering for a fresh politics of confidence and renewal.
How remarkable that at this moment in history, we have a kaleidoscope candidate for president in Barack Obama with ancestry from Kenya and Kansas. A growing and diverse movement is projecting its’ hopes upon him. Some have condescendingly taken to referring to this as a cult. Such people are missing the point.
Across the divide of race and gender, Obama is increasingly viewed as someone who represents their ideals. I was absorbed by a conversation I overheard while taking the A-Train back home to Brooklyn today. A young Hispanic woman wearing an Obama t-shirt and a middle-aged white man in an expensive business suit, who acknowledged voting for Bush twice were talking about how they both wanted Obama to become president. What really amazed me was when the gentleman said, “I don’t agree with him but the country needs him.” I almost decided to stay on past my stop just to hear more of the conversation.
Now Obama is no saint. For example, Paul Krugman has rightfully taken Obama to task for attacking Senator Clinton’s plan for universal health care with a reprise of the Harry and Louise style propaganda from 1994. As far as policy is concerned, I believe there are larger considerations then the differences between Clinton and Obama on healthcare: namely that Obama opposed the Iraq war while Clinton cowardly supported it out of political expediency.
Putting that issue aside though, while critics like Krugman dismissively refer to Obama’s support as cultish they’re missing a larger point: if people with very different backgrounds and experiences such as the two I witnessed on the subway today are projecting their hopes upon Obama, he has a far better chance of serving the progressive cause then the polarizing Hillary Clinton.
On the flip side, Obama may also crash and burn either as a candidate or later as president, leaving the country even more disillusioned and fearful then before. When you’re a human kaleidoscope it’s almost inevitable that some constituencies will become disillusioned.
Nevertheless, I’m hoping Obama can help my country repair the national imbalance that currently favors fear over confidence. Not with the faux confidence of George W. Bush that is really fear under the guise of bravado and leads to the chest thumping and self-defeating pursuit of empire. Or the fear-based triangulation of Hillary Clinton that seeks to project strength through political expediency over doing what’s right. We need a leader that can inspire Americans to boldly address challenges as one people instead of dividing the spoils amongst race and class at home while alienating the world abroad as an empire in decline.
I had other preferences for president: Russ Feingold, Al Gore and John Edwards. I’m sure many of you reading this had other preferences as well. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee I will vote for her because any Republican is far worse in my opinion. Indeed, a John McCain presidency would be a calamity. However, in choosing between Clinton and Obama, I ask my fellow Democrats to chose the candidate that can best strengthen as well as consolidate institutions that empower the progressive cause of economic and social justice. Obama isn’t merely our best chance to win this November. He represents America’s best opportunity to reject fear and reclaim our future with confidence.