Dispatches from the Election: The 2008 Election and the Soul of America

If a national soul exists, it exists inside each of us; and inside me, it hurts. There is a knot pulled tight in my chest. Promise and hope pull the heart strings in one direction; fear, disorientation and dismay pull in the other.

And when I search the national conversation for news of this epochal contest, I find talk of lipsticked pigs and of bridges built of pork. The thought suddenly intrudes that it was Piggy who died in The Lord of the Flies, and I wonder what ship might arrive to save us.

The philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote a book called The American Soul. He acknowledged the difficulty of defining the soul of a nation of immigrants, a nation that, theoretically, finds its unity in its diversity of peoples and beliefs. Then again, that’s a pretty good place to begin thinking about the nation’s soul.

This grand diversity lives between us and in our individual hearts as well. In his 1630 sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," John Winthrop spoke the contradictory aspirations of his heart, and his charges aboard the Arbella heard him define the great struggle that remains ours to this day.

In the first and second paragraphs, Winthrop speaks of a beneficent rich and a grateful poor, of God’s natural hierarchy, of the merits of authority and the demand for obedience.

But in the third paragraph, Winthrop hopes that in the New World we will recognize that:

[E]very man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his Creator and the common good of the creature, man.

What’s worrying me — what I think worries many people — is that Winthrop’s egalitarian hope is, this year, at risk of permanent eclipse by the authoritarian demand. It feels like the future of democracy is at stake.

As I write this the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the now impossible-to-ignore economic consequences of our seven-year nightmare have brought the 2008 campaign back down to overheated earth.

Barrack Obama can resubmit to the public his economic warnings and policy remedies, recommendations that received little notice from the national press until now. John McCain, outrageously, poses as an outsider, a Republican Huey Long come to throw the bums out while promising a chicken in every pot.

This is a bit much to take. No wonder Emerson urged us to pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things.

But there’s no such thing as an Emersonian political consultant.

There’s no media specialist worth his salt who wants to fight this out with words fastened to "visible things," or, put another way, with words related simply to the truths of our lives. Virtual games are more comfortable and mutable, and the players of such games much less accountable for the consequences of their actions.

I’ve been asked to survey developments of the 2008 presidential campaign and report what I find to the readers of Religion Dispatches. I’ve started my reports, which I’ll file periodically over the coming weeks, with a confession of the hope and dread this season is creating inside many of us.

But I must also try to follow Emerson’s advice and get behind the rotten diction. What’s going on?

America is as deeply divided as it has ever been. The fact is not lost on either campaign. Conventional wisdom would give the advantage to the Democrats, who seek to capitalize on a devastating, inhumane, unnecessary and unpopular war, and an economy wobbling toward collapse. The Republicans want Americans to think of something else, anything else. An attractive and talented if inexperienced governor from the other side of Canada might just be perfect for the task.

But it’s not all about distraction. If everyone in America voted this year, Obama would win. So the McCain campaign must raise the morale of its supporters and destroy the morale of Obama’s supporters. When we wonder why McCain and Sarah Palin continue to lie while the truth might serve them even better, remember this: they are not trying to persuade voters as much as they are 1) reassuring their supporters and 2) frustrating their opponent’s supporters. Nothing demoralizes like a successful lie.

Obama is running as the embodiment of John Winthrop’s egalitarian hope. He has certainly put himself at a disadvantage by promising to rise above the deceitful tactics that have marked so much of our contemporary politics. It’s like playing a chess game without his knights and bishops.

Can inspiration beat fear in hardball American politics?

Two weeks of pounding by the McCain/Palin campaign forced Obama to counter-attack, to temporarily abandon inspiration so voters could be reminded of what his opponents really stand for. So far, I believe Obama is doing this with integrity.

But this high wire act tightens the knot in my chest. That is my hope up on the wire. That is my family’s future.

In this instance, my hope is embodied in Barack Obama, a black man. His race, and the nation’s painful racial history, have everything to do with the political events unfolding before us.

The political scientist Rodney Hero holds that racial attitudes remain the most powerful determinant of election outcomes. Few doubt the claim. The McCain campaign is well aware that while the nation has come far on matters of race, there are some white Americans who will not vote for a person of color. Many of these voters, however, cannot admit that fact about themselves. They need an excuse. Whatever other attractive qualities she may provide, Sarah Palin is that excuse.

Obama knew he would be judged by many still held captive to racial stereotypes and his demeanor on the campaign stump reflects that awareness. But I know his campaign team, and I know they are aware that they would, in the end, be abandoned by some white voters simply because of Obama’s race. And their plan for victory was shaped accordingly.

It is most telling that neither side in this contest wants to talk much about race. Neither do the journalists covering it.

Until we attach our attention to this particularly visible thing, we will not heal the American soul, regardless of the outcome of the 2008 election. With some luck and hard work, there will still be a soul to save on November 5.

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