by Rabbi Michael Lerner
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 magazine, the voice of our interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives), 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.
It would be nice if we could ignore all this and dismiss it as “merely politics.” But the rise of the Right-wing worldview will intrude into your life in the next few years unless you are willing to join those of us who are trying to provide an alternative to the obviously ineffective way the Democrats and the existing Left have tried to respond. I’ll be talking about this on my web-based class through the Open Center on November 17, and then offering a Training for people who want to become activists with us spiritual progressives in changing the psycho-spiritual dynamics in American society that are leading in a dangerous direction (the training will be over the MLKjr. weekend in January 2014, details at www.spiritualprogressives.org/training).
Here’s what I learned about why right-wing extremists are on the ascendancy:
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.
Most liberals and progressives knows what they are against, but few agree with each other an a coherent picture of what they are 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 magazine and our educational arm the NSP-Network of Spiritual Progressives are presenting that needed worldview by articulating a larger vision of The Caring Society—Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth.
Our central point: we want a New Bottom Line. Societal institutions, social practices, corporations, government policies, our economy, our education system, our legal system, and even our personal lives should be 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 respond to Nature with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of life, consciousness, and the universe itself!
In an empirical study of American society in which I and my colleagues at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health interviewed some 10,000 middle income Americans, we discovered that 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.
Sadly, many liberals and progressives dismiss these concerns as relevant to the Right’s success. They attribute the Right’s success to its access to money (ignoring how the Dems raised nearly as much money as the Republicans and is that the Dems managed to win the presidency in 2008 and 2012) or by assuming that those who respond to the Right are just stupid, people who can’t act rationally and hence vote for candidates who serve the interests of the 1% rather than interest of people like themselves.
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.
Rabbi Lerner is editor of Tikkun and author of Jewish Renewal, The Politics of Meaning, Spirit Matters, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right, and Embracing Israel and Palestine.