Coakley v. Brown: Democrats Search (For) Their Souls

I refuse to accept the idea that we are mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround us… I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Oslo


If former Playgirl centerfold model Scott Brown pulls ahead of Martha Coakley up in Massachusetts today, the Democrats will be lurching from a partial sweaty-palms moment into full headlong panic mode. This will initially be presented in the media as “soul searching.” Of course you cannot find your soul unless you have one, or hope to have one, and herein lies a small problem for the World’s Oldest Political Party. But whether Coakley makes it into the Senate or not, I would say that all democrats of the small “d” persuasion really need to listen up now, as we have arrived at something of a Ballad of the Thin Man moment (“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”)

One year in, the bright hope of the Obama administration has grown dim. The president’s approval rating among whites hovers at just forty percent, with a plurality of whites even willing to agree with the statement that Obama has been a worse president so far than George W. Bush. There is a good bit of racism in this, of course, but there is much more. There is also a perception (a perception encouraged, needless to say, by Republicans, Tea Party agitators, and broadcast bloviators) that the president and the Democrats more broadly have paid lip service to the job crisis while continuing to kowtow to the Lords of Finance. The Right’s tears for working families never quite manage to conceal their big sharp crocodile teeth, but it still must give them an illicit thrill to put on populist drag yet again to decry the arrogance and elitism of liberal Democrats.

Make no mistake: in assessing the pull of the Revanchist Right “message” we are right to begin with the viscera, because it almost goes without saying that the content will be incoherent. Culture elites naturally cannot ever approve of the way the poor yobs allow their viscera to rule their behavior: it is all so deplorably vulgar and ignorant. Thus it happens that Democratic leaders will almost always decline to appeal to the voters’ guts, speaking instead of the sweet reasonableness of modest bureaucratic fixes. Democrats will say from time to time, and mainly for the TV cameras, that the bankers have been very, very bad boys and ought to be made to go sit in a corner. But outside of Kucinich I am not hearing many Democrats say, in effect, expel these bad actors from school and take away their power to do the same thing to us all over again. And for all the talk of voter indifference and ignorance, we can be sure that a great many everyday people are quite well aware that leading Democrats, up to and including the Chief Executive, speak with seriously forked tongues when the excoriate powerful interests. Voters know that these same Dems will proceed to break bread with these very same interests—and quite possibly a nice artisanal bread slathered with pate de foie gras—the minute the TV lights are switched off.

It seems to me that the open contempt Democrats feel for an ignorant electorate ill behooves people who have contributed to incoherence by failing to articulate a strong, resonant, and consistent message about what is happening in this country. Yes, as my friends always remind me, it is true that a significant part of the incoherence ailing our democracy results from the general atrophy of critical, independent thinking, as literary culture recedes year by year while advertising/entertainment culture continues to rot out the cortical material. But politicians of both parties have contributed to the confusion and cynicism in public life by deploying the very same manipulative techniques used by merchandisers and entertainers. Voters mind this less when Republicans do it, however, as they expect and even admire the cunning of the strong; Democrats fare poorly because they tend to insist on their integrity, all evidence to the contrary.

I have charged Democrats with failing to mount a resonant and consistent narrative about what has been going on in the country, and I also suggest that one key reason for this is that Democrats have been badly compromised by their own lucrative liaisons with powerful predatory types. The Democrats’ absorption of the Right’s sauve qui peut mentality often comes out in unconscious ways. Take, for example, the president’s much-ballyhooed “Race to the Top” program to pump new federal dollars into public school systems that promise bold steps to improve results. Think about the deeper message that the race-to the-top metaphor sends. To me, at least, it says that education is a competitive activity in which a few will succeed and shine while the majority of young people will fail. True, what Robert Reich once called the “secession of the successful” is the dominant social reality of the past 30 years, but is this Social Darwinist reality one that the Democrats should be reinforcing?

And so, if we are not going to be getting a compelling narrative from Democrats wedded to an unjust status quo, where might we look for one?

As I have argued often in these pages, prophetic religion—a worldview thoroughly steeped in the consciousness of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets—actually possesses a compelling narrative that just happens to fit present circumstances remarkably well (plus ça change and all that).

In this prophetic worldview, the strong oppress the weak in numerous ways but very often by means of debt and debt peonage. Check. Oppressors aggrandizing their power by unjust means join house to house and field to field until they have control of just about everything. Check. They don’t pay their workers fair wages. Check. They imagine themselves to be superior beings. Check. Sanctimonious priests and false prophets preach personal piety and offer soothing consolations to the rich while turning a blind eye to deeply-entrenched systems of oppression. Check. The people’s rulers very often turn to foreign wars and flog external threats in order to distract attention from gross domestic injustice. Check. Political and religious leaders alike collude in maintaining the illusion that there is no alternative to the status quo—or that, indeed, the status quo has been divinely ordained. Double check.

Of course, just because faith communities have continuing access to this ancient but still-vital prophetic worldview, with its powerful narrative force and its thrilling image of Almighty God standing always with the victims and the voiceless, there is never a guarantee that faith communities will have the guts to tap into such strong stuff. Too often faith leaders are perfectly content to spew weak bromides and keep prophetic voices tightly muzzled. But that muzzling never quite succeeds, because as long as the Scriptures continue to be read out loud and the ancient liturgies properly observed, someone is going to notice that the deepest values of their faith are in direct conflict with the deepest values of a Social Darwinist culture. This can produce mere cognitive dissonance, or—with the benefit of some inspired and courageous clergy leadership—it can sometimes produce what Dr. King once called creative maladjustment to an oppressive status quo.

Waiting for US religious communities to get real religion—and thus to become creatively maladjusted to the status quo in ways that might awaken the populace with the kind of strong narrative that in turn could cause the sellout politicians to quake just a bit—might seem to be a very thin reed upon which to lean for a bit of hope in lean times. But tell me: has anyone got a thicker one?