From the Heart

Election '04

Even since Election Day, I've been more and more impressed with the brilliance of Roosevelt's words soon after Pearl Harbor: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." His statement, of course, was logically ridiculous – Americans had a great deal to fear as Hitler's armies threatened to destroy Europe, its people, and its culture, and as attackers from Japan exploded the illusion of invulnerability that geography had provided. Emotionally, though, he was right on target. He countered the fear directly, inspiring Americans to courage. Fear had its victories (witness the internment of Japanese Americans), but in many ways the country pulled together bravely in a spirit of shared effort and sacrifice. Children planted Victory Gardens and collected newspapers; women went to work; everyone conserved nylon, rubber, metal, and other raw materials. Virtually the entire nation could legitimately feel they had a part in the country's defense.

Bush took the extreme opposite tack after 9/11. He encouraged Americans' fear, his minions enflamed their mutual distrust, and the most he did to inspire national effort was to ask us, a few days after the attacks, to start shopping again. Yes, he took us to war, and sent soldiers to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, but apart from the soldiers and their families he has required no sacrifices, financial or otherwise, from the nation as a whole. Unlike Roosevelt, he never enlisted Americans' courage, tenacity, generosity, or resourcefulness to help us work together to make ourselves safer. (Well, he did ask us to maintain a wary eye and report anything suspicious to the authorities. But that's not exactly the kind of activity that makes people feel stronger and more unified.) Instead, he encouraged the nation to depend passively on him and his administration for protection.

Passivity breeds fear. People who feel they can contribute something, anything, to combating a danger feel less anxious than those who believe they can do nothing but wait for whatever will happen next. Bush's post-9/11 strategy thus cultivated America's sense of alarm not just directly, by repeatedly reminding us of real and imagined lurking dangers, but indirectly, by failing to call upon our strengths for our mutual protection.

A few weeks ago, I ran across a description by the academic Janet Sayers of an early discovery by Wilfred Bion, a pioneer in examining group dynamics. Bion noted that when fearful, a group's wish for a powerful protector can work directly against its ability to work together to solve its problems. Such a group feels both disappointed in and absolutely faithful to its leader, simultaneously and paradoxically. As Sayers explains, the group "is hostile to learning from experience. It does not want science or knowledge. It dismisses the leader's attempts at understanding as cold or heartless abstraction."

Sometimes a group like this splits into two factions. One side "agrees on depending on the leader, and the other is so exacting in its pursuit of knowledge that it fails to recruit others to its cause." For obvious reasons, I thought of the then-upcoming election as I read. In its aftermath, I believe that Bion's description offers a partial explanation for what went wrong – too many facts, too much policy, not enough empathy and compassion.

On Nov. 2, Bush won the white vote as a whole by a margin of 15 points, according to AP exit polls. In less populated areas, he beat Kerry by 13 points, while in cities of more than 50,000, Kerry dominated by an identical margin – 56-43 percent. Bush won the Protestant vote by 17 points, the Catholic vote by 3 points, and he took the vote of those who attend religious services weekly by 21 points, 60-39 percent. Even worse, he won over people who said they voted according to moral values by 61 staggering points: 79-18 percent.

Moral values? How in God's name (and I use the phrase sincerely) did the Republicans become the party of moral values? I am terrified for the future of this country precisely because of moral issues. I ache at the fate of our most vulnerable citizens – the poor, the elderly, the ill, the young – if Bush's people enact their agenda. I'm appalled that we'd risk not just the beauty, but the very stability of our planet for the sake of short-term profit. I fear a backlash against groups that progressives have championed, especially gays and lesbians. I'm saddened and bewildered by what looks to me like an eroding sense of mutual care and compassion. I see nothing moral in Bush and his cronies' lies and snide manipulations, nor in their eagerness to enrich the few at the expense of the many. And don't get me started on the war in Iraq.

Since the late '60s, with Nixon's "silent majority," Republicans have worked hard to foster white voters' suspicions of the Democratic Party. Reagan began actively cultivating the religious right in the '80s. Bush Senior laid off a bit on the religious message (and lost), while Bush Junior saw his father's mistake, consolidated the fundamentalist base, and then courted larger and larger numbers of men and women of faith.

The religious message ties in politically with the fear factor that Bush nurtured so well after 9/11. For a lot of people, particularly white folks who are neither urban nor urbane, 9/11 seemed just to have laid another immense weight on an already growing heap of fears. As a city-born progressive, I'll have to use my imagination about what might scare them, but it doesn't seem hard to get a list started.

I can see that it would be scary for a small-town guy to feel that city people, with their unfamiliar and sometimes incomprehensible ways, have all the access, authority, and power in a rapidly changing world. In areas where jobs are gone and people are struggling, I can imagine folks listening to some people on TV and fearing that the continuing suffering of historically oppressed groups rendered their own pain irrelevant to progressive policy-makers. This fear would just deepen if they believed that progressives did not respect them and their ways. People could easily come to fear being lost, unseen, unheard – expendable – in a world that's changing so fast that even the Democratic candidate said he couldn't and wouldn't stop jobs from going overseas.

Frightened people tend to cling to the familiar. For a whole lot of Americans, the familiar takes the form of the faith that nurtured them, or of the values they long to believe inspired a better age.

When people seek safety in what they already know, ideas that contradict received wisdom seem dangerous, not comforting. People who feel open to new possibilities may be interested to learn that children raised by gay parents do just as well as those raised by heterosexual couples. Those who are hewing to familiar paths will just see these ideas as threats to the only stability they have. They won't care about the truth-value of the evidence (although they may be reassured by convincing themselves that it's false). They will reject the idea viscerally, as an intrinsic menace. Conservative priests' and ministers' reminders of the wrath of God just reinforce their fear and narrow-mindedness.

In direct contrast to this narrowing, progressive moral values tend to open things up – to more cultures, more backgrounds, more perspectives, more ways of being. We educated, urban types are not just used to this diversity, we enjoy it. We've all lived and worked around a lot of different people, from a lot of backgrounds, and experience has taught us that the differences that get emphasized politically aren't the ones that count. Some people you'd trust with your life; others are a whole lot of fun; a few are just weasels. So it comes pretty naturally to us to support things like gay marriage – why wouldn't we want all the couples we know and love to share the same protections and possibilities?

We're asking more from people from smaller communities, and from many who have less education. They haven't had the range of experiences that would let them know in their hearts that diversity won't hurt them. Sure, TV offers "Will and Grace" and "Queer Eye," but we're in pretty serious trouble if we're asking people to take their role models from TV shows.

Democrats tried to address the fears of white rural and small-town voters by offering them supportive policies – we'd help them find jobs, get health care, make the transition into a changed society. The strategy, though logical, apparently failed miserably. I'd be very surprised if large numbers of these voters expect Bush and company to create jobs for them or to behave as anything other than the plutocrats they are. But the Republicans did offer them an illusion of safety by championing their traditional moral values, while the Democrats asked them to open themselves to the inevitability of continued change. We spoke to frightened people with ideas that, however irrationally, frightened them more and so offered no solace.

I think back to the young woman in the second debate who asked Sen. Kerry what he would say to a voter who asked for "reassurance that her tax dollars would not go to support abortion." Kerry replied eloquently in terms of principle, saying that he respected her position and outlining his own nuanced position. What he ignored was the clear distress on her face. We progressives are currently facing that woman's anguish at the prospect of paying taxes to support a widening array of policies we find morally abhorrent. Our own feelings can help clue us into the pain she was asking Kerry to address.

Questions from the heart demand answers from the heart – not illogical answers, but answers that give emotion a privileged place. Logic alone, however cleverly framed, rarely counters pain, fear, and passion. I find certain practices that other cultures support – female genital mutilation, honor killings, and making children into soldiers, to name a few – absolutely wrong. If someone suggested I take a "live and let live" attitude toward allowing these practices in my neighborhood, I would recoil in horror or become adamant in rage. I can easily imagine an adept debater punching holes in my arguments against tolerating these practices, finding inconsistencies in my beliefs that I couldn't readily explain away. I can't, however, imagine that person changing my mind.

Of course I'm not arguing that progressive positions are remotely comparable to these practices. I am saying, though, that people who have strong emotional reactions to what are currently tagged "moral issues," like abortion and gay marriage, won't be persuaded by a barrage of facts. Quite the opposite, they are likely to resist more fervently, from the heart, what they experience as "cold and heartless abstraction." To persuade them to join us, we will have to listen to their hearts, and learn to speak from ours.

How might progressives speak to that swing voter, and others like her? Perhaps we might emphasize that, in the interests of living together peacefully, all caring people in a democratic society suffer, sometimes deeply, over paying taxes for policies we morally oppose. Perhaps we might speak more even directly to her distress, and express our gratitude for the emotional sacrifice we ask her to make when she contributes her earnings to support another woman at a time of need. Maybe we all can play a few rounds of "What would Bill say?" – recognizing our former president's near-perfect pitch on these questions. Maybe we can deepen our appreciation for the empathy he conveyed as something more than great political technique.

A lot of "God-fearing" individuals are outside our range, of course – they hold firmly to the straight and narrow, and the morality we believe in is neither straight nor narrow. But religious Americans who believe in a loving God share many of our values. They, too, see fairness, tolerance, acceptance, cooperation, and mutuality as ideals worth working toward. I believe we have to recognize where our efforts to achieve these goals have, however inadvertently, come across as arrogantly indifferent to these Americans' hopes and fears. We need to listen to and understand what they're thinking and feeling, we need to develop our ability to communicate back, and we need to do this without betraying our fundamental values. In a world judged by moral standards, sacrificing core values is just pandering, and it doesn't fly.

When we ask churchgoers for their votes, we're asking them to have the courage to believe, as they have in the past, that our ideals – not just our policies and positions – can take this country to a better future. To reach them, we have to reach into our hearts, as we slowly recover from the heartbreak of Nov. 2, and rediscover our own capacities to appreciate people who, as things stand, really do threaten what we most value: our planet's health, our civil liberties, our commitment to a government that cares for its people. In meeting them politically, we must go beyond devising policies that represent their interests. We must also extend to them the empathy, compassion, inclusion, and respect that have always inspired the best of what we do and who we are.

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