Some progressives think that we would have the most power in this country if people were just able to gather the facts. They think that media bias, poor education, and general apathy conspire to keep the public ill-educated, ill-informed, and improperly lacking in a sense of civic duty. Other progressives acknowledge these systemic obstacles to power and think we can overcome them by the clever use of Lakoffian Framing, or cognitive science. Still other progressives are so accustomed to being out power and so distrustful of elites (whether political, economic, religious, or academic) that they are too disdainful of power to support anyone who seeks it. For me, these are the three great errors that prevent progressives for attaining power. These are three of the four lethal cynicisms.
The first lethal cynicism is the conviction that the people are too stupid, too susceptible, and too selfish to be counted upon to do the right thing. It’s really a lack of faith in the whole concept that the Will of the People, as expressed through a majority (or plurality) vote, will give us satisfactory results.
The second lethal cynicism assumes the premises of the first, but believes that we can tap into the stupidity, susceptibility, and selfishness of the people by learning how the brain processes messages, and then apply what we’ve learned to turn people’s innate shortcomings to our political advantage.
The third lethal cynicism despairs that power can ever be exercised benevolently, and slips easily into the conviction that all power is bad, and all power is equally unworthy of support.
Now, there is a distinction between the second lethal cynicism and the first and third. The advocates of framing believe that people can be brought to do the right thing and they believe that power can be exercised benevolently. When you lose faith in the people and you lose faith in the potential for benevolent use of power, you reach the fourth lethal cynicism: apathy.
Apathy easily turns to despair. In fact, apathy is a defense system against despair. But it’s also a gradual unlearning of belief in our system of government. And the prerequisite for all effective political action is a belief in our system of government. Once you lose that belief, the only political action possible is revolutionary.
You want to know why Egypt and Saudi Arabia spawn terrorists? It’s because all avenues of legitimate political action have been cut off in those countries. Where your options are apathy or revolutionary action, you will see terrorism arise. Ironically, this is why I take issues like the FISA Bill so seriously. It is dangerous enough to take away our privacy. But to take away even our illusion or expectation of privacy is really dangerous.
Progressives are especially susceptible to slipping into apathy when confronted with backsliding in our belief in ready avenues for progress. If the Democratic Party becomes an agent in our own oppression we instinctively look to a third-party. When no viable third-party alternative presents itself we slip into despondency, and harbor thoughts of rebellion or flight. But this is not a constructive instinct. The Democratic Party is but a vehicle for change. There are other vehicles for change, but there are no other parties, nor will there be. The Civil Rights Movement changed the Democratic Party. The Abolition Movement created the Republican Party. There are ways to effect change outside of the two-party system, but ultimately that change must be reflected in the minds and decision-making of the people that actually wield power. Thus, the ultimate aim of progressive action is indeed power, and majority power within the two-party system. It doesn’t have to be concentrated in just one of the two parties. It can be a majority coalition of both. But the goal of progressive action is still power. And the whole premise of the movement is that power can be exercised benevolently.
But benevolence cannot be equated with purity. Making the perfect the enemy of the good just prolongs the day when we can proud of the power we wield. The other side does not rest when we become apathetic. The other side rolls right over us, and they do it with less resistance.
I leave you with the wisdom of Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski:
WALTER: –We’re sympathizing here, Dude–
DUDE: Fuck your sympathy! I don’t need your sympathy, man, I need my fucking Johnson!
DONNY: What do you need that for, Dude?
WALTER: You gotta buck up, man, you can’t go into the tournament with this negative attitude–
DUDE: Fuck the tournament! Fuck you, Walter!
[There is a moment of stunned silence].
WALTER: Fuck the tournament?! …Okay Dude. I can see you don’t want to be cheered up. C’mon Donny, let’s go get a lane.
[They leave the Dude sitting morosely at the bar. As he stares DOWN INTO HIS EMPTY GLASS]
You can learn everything you need to know about life from The Big Lebowski. I’m certain of it.