The Psychodynamics of the Tea Party’s Success – and How to Beat It
After many years as a psychotherapist studying the psychodynamics leading Americans to move to the Right, (before I became a rabbi and editor of Tikkun), I began to understand why a fringe and extremist group could be so successful in gathering support that would eventually lead to its ability to shut down the functioning of the government. If you read to the end of this letter, I promise you’ll get some new perspectives on what is happening right now in American politics.
I’m writing to you, as a reader of Tikkun, because I need your help in getting a new perspective into the public arena so we can build an effective movement to counter the Tea Party before it is too late. I’ll lay that perspective out below.
That help can take two forms:
a. donating to Tikkun Magazine and/or our public education arm, the (interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming) Network of Spiritual Progressives;
b. joining our network and possibly even coming to the training we will be doing in January 2014 to prepare people for the struggle ahead to stop the plunge toward the Right before it becomes overtly fascistic both in style and content (read more about this at spiritualprogressives.org/training). If you read this letter through, it might hopefully contribute to understanding why the right-wing extremists are winning and what we could do (with your help) to change the picture dramatically.
Here’s what I learned about why right-wing extremists are on the ascendency:
1. The Right has a coherent worldview, deeply mistaken, but nevertheless held firmly and taught widely through the media it controls and the many institutions it funds. They know what they want—the elimination of government except for its policing, fire-fighting, immigrant fighting, and military services.
But the Left (by which I mean everyone who believes that government should, among other things, offset the worst consequences of the competitive marketplace by providing a minimal social support system to prevent what might otherwise be outright rebellion) knows what it is against, but has no coherent or widely shared view of what it is for.
Most people on the Left haven’t understood this simple point: Martin Luther King Jr. did not become an iconic figure in American society by giving a speech whose main point was “I have a complaint.” The Left has dozens of complaints, most of them very legitimate, and around each complaint groups mobilize and fight for mild reforms, but there is no overall worldview that links them together. That is why groups on the Left often compete with each other more than cooperate, and why victory in one sphere often does not translate into a strengthening of all the other groups on the Left.
We at Tikkun and the NSP have that needed worldview—not trying to revive the New Deal (though some of its directions were great) or to simply fight for more material entitlements and political rights (though those struggles deserve our full support), but rather to build a larger vision of The Caring Society—Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth.
Or, as we put it in the NSP: we want a New Bottom Line so that institutions, social practices, corporations, government policies, our education system, our legal system, and even our personal lives are judged efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money or power (the Old Bottom Line) but also and particularly to the extent that these institutions, corporations, social policies, laws, etc. nurture our capacities to be loving and caring, kind and generous, and ethically and environmentally responsible, as well as enhance our capacities to respond to other human beings (not just in the United States but also all around the world) as fundamentally valuable and deserving of respect and their needs as equally important as our own needs, and enhance our capacity to transcend a narrow utilitarian attitude toward nature (for example the approach to thinking about the physical world around us primarily in terms of “What’s in it for me? Can I sell something in nature to make a buck? Can it make me feel good?”). By transcending that kind of thinking we can respond with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of life, consciousness, and the universe itself!
Now you might think that people on the Left already agree with all that. But ask anyone not on the Left when was the last time they heard a political leader (Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Hillary or Bill Clinton, or even people like the editors of The Nation, Mother Jones, or Harpers, or the people you hear on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now or Pacifica Radio, or National Public Radio, or the people who write on popular leftie blogs, or even people like Ralph Nader, Robert Scheer, Bill Maher, or even Jon Stewart—and don’t get me wrong, I love Amy Goodman and Jon Stewart) talk explicitly about love, kindness, or generosity (much less awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe). Most people outside the Left will tell you that they don’t hear that from the Left.
In fact, as my own empirical study of these dynamics (detailed in my 2006 national best seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right) revealed, people often move to right-wing churches, which become conduits to right-wing ideology, precisely because they hunger for a vision of a world based on love and caring and generosity (ironically, though, the Right’s actual politics are the opposite of these values—but they at least make the effort to identify with those values). The Left meanwhile, seems to only identify with values of fairness and equality—good values, which we must build on also, but not enough to motivate people anymore, as forty years of left-wing rhetoric around those values has adequately demonstrated.
When you watch the Occupy Wall Street movement raising all those old leftie cries of inequality and the power of the 1 percent, and then watch how so many Americans continued to march after the politics and policies of the politicians who subordinate themselves to the 1 percent, even when doing so was not in their material economic interests to do so, you get an understanding of how misleading and misguided has been the old Democratic Party common sense that “it’s the economy stupid.”
Of course Lefties often ignore this by saying, “The Right has so much money that they can shape elections,” but the truth is that the Dems managed to win the presidency in 2008 and 2012, so money alone is not adequate. Or the Lefties say, “people are stupid” because they don’t act rationally to fill their own needs, ignoring two important points:
a. the very fact that others hear this is enough to convince them that a major point of the Right is correct, namely that the Left has contempt for you ordinary Americans because the Left is elitist and doesn’t care for you, doesn’t like you, and hence doesn’t deserve to be trusted (a point made to me over and over again in my empirical studies of the psychodynamics of American society by people who became right-wingers because they felt put down all the time by people on the Left), and
b. that it never occurs to people on the Left that ordinary Americans have other needs besides material needs and needs for equal power—namely needs for love, compassion, empathy, and some sense of a spiritual or higher purpose for their lives, and these are rarely addressed in the Left in a way that ordinary Americans could actually hear.
2. The Democrats are perceived as wimps, because they don’t fight for what they say they believe in.
So even though temporarily they are slightly winning the battle about who is to blame for the government shut down, they keep missing opportunities to challenge the Tea Party and their supporters.
If the Dems had a backbone, they would have insisted that if the government is going to be shut down, then all of the government will be shut. Instead, they’ve taken the standpoint of the Republicans in dividing “essential services” from “non-essential,” and saying only non-essential services are to be shut down. So when it comes to taking care of the poor and the powerless, those services get shut. The Republicans cleverly have taken up this ideological softness and said they would fund one program at a time.
What Dems should have been saying, and could still say, is this: the aim of the Republican Party is to destroy government so that it can no longer be a check on the ruthless aims of the corporate elite who will pollute the planet earth and destroy the life support system of the planet for your children and grandchildren and will lower the wages and incomes of the middle class endlessly in order to enrich themselves. Government has been doing a poor job at constraining them, but at least it is some job, and the 1 percent , the people who own 40 percent of the wealth of this country, they don’t like being constrained in their selfishness, so they want to disable government from being able to demand a living wage for workers, a safe work place, food that is not poisoned by unhealthy additives, and air, water, and land that has not been polluted by corporations to maximize their profits. Well we are not going to let them do this.
So if the right-wingers want to shut down the government, then everything will be shut. So, no pay for anyone who receives government pay, including the Congress (which right now continues to get paid), the entire military (after all, we are not in a war, and if we are still fighting in Afghanistan, we shouldn’t be), all of Homeland Security, NSA, FBI, etc. including the people searching us when we get on airplanes (and if the airports have to shut down, that’s another consequence of the Republican’s move), the border guards and the entire Immigration and Naturalization service.
Moreover, when shutting down other federal services, the priority should be given to shutting down those in the districts where the congressional reps voted to shut down the government. The president should call upon the people in those districts to create recall elections for their congressional reps, and insist that those districts that voted to keep government running should be buffered as much as possible from the effects of Tea Party extremism. Let the people in those districts fully understand the consequences of what their representatives voted for.
But who could expect the Dems to act in a strong way now, when they’ve been capitulating for the past forty years, embracing so many of the assumptions of the Right rather than courageously fighting for the interests of the 99 percent. It was, after all, the Obama administration that expelled more undocumented workers than previous administrations, refused to punish Wall St. bankers and investment brokers for their irresponsibility in causing the Great Recession that still goes on and has caused so much suffering for the middle class, refused to punish those involved in torturing prisoners caught in the “war against terror,” innovated drone warfare, allowed the NSA to spy on American citizens, and largely ignored the accelerated destruction of the environment.
Nothing was more illustrative of this wimpiness than Obamacare. Instead of embracing a simple and easily understood way to solve the health care crisis—Medicare for Everyone with payment coming from our taxes and savings from price controls on hospitals, physicians, and pharmaceuticals—Obamacare delivered a system that is hard for most people to understand, and that has a critical defect: requiring people to buy health insurance without simultaneously enforcing rigid price controls on the private health insurers. Despite the wonderful aspects of Obamacare (getting health insurance for tens of millions previously uninsured, though not for everyone who needs it, and forcing insurers to include those with pre-existing health conditions), this fault will eventually cause Obamacare to be seen as proof that government intervention doesn’t work (whereas it actually only proves that halfhearted interventions in the economy don’t work, just as Obama’s economic policies have shown).
Obama and the Dems will say that they were being “realistic,” but the Dems held control of both Houses of the Congress and could have passed Medicare for Everyone. Had Obama fought for that, rather than giving pharmaceutical firms a private deal to escape government allowing the same pharmaceuticals to be imported from Canada where they sell for a fraction of what they cost American consumers, and rather than forcing individuals to buy their own care or pay a fine, and yes, had he been willing to lose the fight for that and then go to the country in 2010 and ask for a stronger mandate by electing progressive Dems, he would have energized his own base who were so dispirited by all of his compromises that they could barely get themselves to vote in 2010, much less convince anyone else to do so.
And it was that disillusionment that created the space for the super-wealthy funded Tea Party to take off as a new voice of hope. It was early in 2009 that we at Tikkun bought a full-page ad in the Washington Post to warn Obama that unless he actually confirmed in action the “this is the time for change” expectations that he had raised in the 2008 election, people would revert to despair very quickly. Obama and the Dems had allowed the electorate in 2008 to get beyond all their “realistic” ideas (the realist idea that a progressive Dem, let alone an African American progressive Dem could never be elected) and to momentarily believe that real change was possible, even when the cynical voices around them, and most importantly inside them, told them not to trust, that they would once again be betrayed as they had been by every politician from Jimmy Carter (when he was in office, not later when he became who people hoped he would be when elected) to Bill Clinton.
So when Obama capitulated to the war makers and the Wall Street interests, the people who had risked believing in the possibility of serious transformation in America, particularly those who had previously been skeptical of politics but momentarily allowed themselves to be open to the possibility that the cynical voices inside themselves and around them were wrong, were devastated, humiliated, and felt burned.
I’m not claiming that it was those people who became the Tea Party, but rather that the social energy of hope was replaced with a deeper cynicism about what government could or would do to live up to the real needs of people, and in that situation, the Tea Party spoke to a variant of “common sense” when it said, “why should you pay so much in taxes for a government that is never going to deliver you anything valuable? Defund that government!” In that situation, there could be no effective counter-argument from the Dems and the liberals who had themselves been the “realists” who had led government away from making serious changes and who had given up the battle before it was fought.
Instead, the Dems allowed the Tea Party to set the national discourse, because the Dems had no coherent ideology or worldview or vision of the world they were trying to fight for. Unlike the Right, which for decades had been educating people to their ideas by fighting for causes that seemed at the time totally unrealistic, the Dems continually avoided articulating ideals and programs that could be seen as unrealistic, thereby failing to educate anyone to anything except the value of compromise and being realistic. And that, it turns out, is very unrealistic.
3. Now add into this the actual decline of American political power and economic power globally, coupled with the intense assault by the 1 percent on the incomes and economic security of the rest of the population, the growing awareness and despair about the way climate change might be real and might lead to environmental disaster, and you get a huge amount of insecurity about the future, and a willingness to grab on to a variety of pseudo-solutions, including anti-immigrant hysteria (“they are taking our jobs”), racism (“the minorities are taking over our country”), anti-union sentiment (“they are just looking out for themselves and don’t care about the rest of us”), militarism (“we may not be as strong as we used to be, but we can sure show other people we’ve got the strongest army in the world, so I don’t have to be so scared of the future”), and withdrawal into private life (“I can’t change the big picture, so I’ll just attend to my family, and to recycling my paper and plastics”). This is the terrain when larger hopes are dashed and few people hear anyone explaining to them what is happening, why they are feeling so scared, what’s right about those fears, and most importantly, how things could be different and less scary.
4. The takeover of the culture by the ethos of materialism and selfishness. Of course, these themes have been part of society ever since class society began, as ruling classes tried to convince everyone that it was reasonable for some people to have more than everyone else. But rarely in history have we seen such a huge buy-in to that ideology and to the common-sense notion that people are basically ego-driven and selfish and that “what they really want is more and more things,” as we see in the media-driven culture of the twenty-first century.
5. The destruction of public space with TV, which has greatly accelerated in the computer age. True enough, the internet democratizes information so that anyone can get access to it. But it simultaneously further privatizes life, increasingly undermining the great value of public space in which people would encounter ideas and meet people whom they would never have met in their work world or their families. When you go into a bookstore, you see books you didn’t know existed. When your primary way of buying books is online, you encounter primarily the books you already know about, plus what the booksellers think you might want to buy based on your past buying history, making the unplanned encounter with the different (ideas or people) far less likely. Similar dynamics happen when TV and the computer world narrow to niche marketing and niche consumption, so that people rarely encounter that which can happen in public space—the eruption of protest and of ideas that the media never told them existed.
Now the mainstream leaders of the Democratic Party can’t talk honestly about most of this because they themselves are in bed with the 1 percent and the corporate elite, needing their financial support to win elections, needing legitimation in the media the 1 percent controls and which will marginalize any candidates for office that talk about any of these issues but particularly anyone who overtly talks about the problems being rooted in part in the global capitalist market and the values of materialism, selfishness, and endless growth (which means using more and more of the earth’s resources without concern for the well-being of future generations in order to satisfy media-generated “needs” for more things, including a new generation of computers, iPhones, and other electronics) that are the core of the capitalist worldview.
But neither will the Left be able to discuss these issues, because it is tone-deaf to the hunger that many people have for a world based on non-utilitarian values, a world in which people are valued just for being human and not for “what they can do for you” to satisfy your needs or desires, and for a universe that can elicit feelings of awe and wonder, and not be reduced to a scientific formula. Moreover, the Left is populated by many people who have (quite justifiably) been repulsed by their own experience in religious communities that espoused or embodied patriarchal, racist, homophobic, and ultra-nationalist ideas or chauvinisms. These people seem unable to recognize that while their particular religious communities may have been reprehensible, that there are many religious communities and spiritual practices which do not embody those distortions, and are actually concerned with advancing love, kindness, generosity, and awareness of the awesome and mysterious aspects of the universe. Because of this religiophobia, the Left pushes away or marginalizes within its own ranks those who are seeking a life which has sufficient space for these spiritual concerns and the yearning for higher meaning and purpose to their own lives. Such a Left gives credence to the Tea Party and the Right which can, in reaction to that Left, claim that the Left is fundamentally elitist and hates ordinary Americans and their religious culture, thereby winning over people who on other grounds would be likely to be moved by the Left.
So this is what we at Tikkun have to offer, a worldview and analysis that you will not find elsewhere, or at least a little of what we have to offer. In every issue of Tikkun we have articles (not accessible in full online except to those who join the Network of Spiritual Progressives, who receive Tikkun as a gift of membership, or to those who subscribe to the print edition) that deepen this discussion. And we are now trying to rebuild our Network of Spiritual Progressives, which was badly hurt both by the inability of many of our members to pay yearly dues while in the midst of the still-ongoing Great Recession as well as by the dispiriting and despair that became widespread as Obama became more of a mainstream politician than the change agent he had promised to be (and nothing we could say in warning had the slightest impact of preparing people for this disillusionment).
And yes, we have a plan—to build a force on the Left capable of doing to the Dems what the Tea Party did for the Republicans—to move the discourse far from the accommodationist center to… well we’d like to say move it to the left, but actually it would be more accurate to say, move it to the love. Because the Left is so self-defeating because of the limitations we’ve already articulated. And many people on the Left don’t believe we are on the Left at all. Well, we won’t fight for that public space, because we do in fact have an analysis which, while including much of what the Left has to say, goes far deeper into the psychodynamic and spiritual levels of human reality.
Wait, you say you are not spiritual? Nonsense! You are spiritual, or at least what we mean by spiritual in Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, if you agree with our New Bottom Line articulated above, want to see a world based on it, want the Caring Society (Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth), and recognize that our own well-being depends upon and is intrinsically tied to the well-being of every other person on the planet and the well-being of the planet itself.
So here is the pitch. We need you and we need your financial support. Of course, everyone in the business of fundraising says that we should have been pitching this way earlier, and with far less words. But our bottom line is not money, but solidarity—we want you to be with us no matter how little money you have. Yes, we’d like you to make the highest donation you’ve ever made to a nonprofit (think $5,000 or $1,000 or $500 or $360 or $250 and not just this year but every year). After all, we have no rich backers, for the obvious reason that what we stand for offends the super rich and makes the ordinary rich uncomfortable too. But we want you to be part of us even if you have very little money—you can join our Network of Spiritual Progressives at spiritualprogressives.org, and if the PayPal plan doesn’t allow you to do that without having more money than you can afford (but please stretch a little) we will welcome you as a member if you simply send a check to Tikkun/NSP, 2342 Shattuck Ave, #1200, Berkeley, CA, along with a paragraph about your financial situation (but since we have to pay our publisher Duke University Press for every print magazine we get from them, we can only offer those who give less than $50 an online subscription, if you request it when you send your check).
But there’s more. We want you to become trained as a person who can become a communicator of our perspective to others. That’s why Cat Zavis and I have teamed up to offer a training over the MLK Jr. Holiday weekend in January in the SF Bay Area, and why, if you can’t come to that, we want you to recruit fifty people to be part of that kind of training closer to where you live. More information about that training can be found at spiritualprogressives.org/training. I’d love to see you there, because in that kind of a small setting we can form bonds that are harder to build at large demonstrations of conferences.
And that gets to the key point: we can only beat the Tea Party with an alternative worldview and an alternative program. We have some of that in our Global Marshall Plan (which Congressman Keith Ellison has promised to reintroduce into this session of Congress, despite the fact that any progressive idea will be dead on arrival in the current House of Representatives). We also articulate this alternative program in our money-out-of-politics campaign, which requires (not just encourages) corporate environmental responsibility through our ESRA (Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) and our Spiritual Covenant with America. We take these same ideas and apply them also to building Middle East peace (read it in my book Embracing Israel/Palestine). But we invite your wisdom and smarts to help us further develop our approach—come join on the ground floor.
The core idea that characterizes our spiritual progressive strategy: love, kindness, generosity, and caring for each other and the earth must become the explicit goals of any liberal or progressive movement seeking to heal and transformation our world. Though we at Tikkun and the NSP fully endorse liberal and progressive fights for economic entitlements and political rights, they are too limited, fail to speak to the heart, and do not explicitly highlight the way capitalism’s ethos of materialism, selfishness, and endless economic growth not only endanger the environment but also undermine community, solidarity, friendships, and loving relationships, and lead people to despair about each other and about building a world that is ethically coherent and spiritually nurturing.
What makes me optimistic, even in the face of the Obama administration’s centrism and the fragmentation of liberal and progressive movements, is that love itself permeates the universe and continues to manifest itself in the aspirations of most human beings. I call this Love’s Rebellion—a refusal to accept the ethos of materialism and selfishness as the ultimate truth of our lives, an insistence on seeing the goodness and generosity in others, and a determination to replace “power over” with genuine caring for each other! So even though most of us get scared, and then start to believe that it’s materialism and selfishness that are “the reality” of human nature, this loving force that permeates the universe and is the life-force of all human beings will never be extinguished and continues to pop up when you would never expect it.
That love force is what was behind the amazing transformations of the past fifty years—the miraculous overcoming (though not yet final vanquishing) of patriarchal assumptions and practices in much of the world, the emergence of a multicultural consciousness that is inclusive of many minorities whose culture and contributions to humanity had long been ignored in the West, the overcoming of some (definitely not all) of the overt forms of racism embodied in segregation and apartheid, and the amazing victories for gay marriage which went from something seen as totally unrealistic a mere ten years ago to a reality confirmed by the right-wing dominated Supreme Court in 2013! That love force is there in everyone, and once you become an activist on its behalf through Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, or enable others to do so by your tax-deductible contributions, you will see how your own insistence on its reality is infectious, leading others to listen to the voice of love inside them that they have discounted or repressed for fear of being disappointed or humiliated by others for being so “unrealistic.”
But Love’s Rebellion doesn’t operate despite what we do, but through us as we choose to go with those voices inside, and not the voices of cynicism or despair.
We can’t do this without you. Yes, you! This isn’t just sales talk—it is the truth. The people receiving this communication are the only people we know who can make this vision happen. If you know others, share this letter with them please! Please take a moment now to write a check or to donate on line. We so need your financial support. You can also send a check or credit card info along with your email and snail mail addresses to me personally at my home 951 Cragmont Ave, Berkeley, Ca. 94708.
Let me end by blessing you for being willing to have read this far, and for being our ally, and my ally. That solidarity is what keeps me going!
2342 Shattuck Ave, #1200, Berkeley, Ca. 94708
P.S. I’m proud that Tikkun/NSP was able to mobilize our community after the Trayvon Martin trial to show our outrage at the profiling, harassment, and economic deprivation that the African American community continues to suffer. NSP members went to African American churches to physically show that we were standing with our African American brothers and sisters. The experience reinforced our commitment to fight racism both politically and through acts of caring on a personal and communal level. And I’m happy to report that legendary African American civil rights champion and Baptist minister J. Alfred Smith Sr. has agreed to become a national co-chair of Tikkun‘s Network of Spiritual Progressives!