Several months ago, I found myself driving on a small road just outside the city of my birth, Lexington, Kentucky. Visiting for the weekend from my adopted home town of Brooklyn, the last thing I expected to run into on my trip was a traffic jam. So I was doubly jolted when I was forced to slam on the breaks to avoid rear-ending the phalanx of cars stopped in the road ahead of me. What began as a leisurely drive had abruptly turned into total gridlock.
As I lurched ahead, it became apparent what was going on: church had just let out. And not just any church. This one was housed in a huge compound-like structure, with small buildings flanking what was clearly the house of worship, a gray concrete behemoth adorned with a super-sized scarlet cross. My grandmother, a passenger in the car and patron of another, more understated, religious establishment, informed me that the church was ever-expanding and already replete with extensive facilities for children and entertainment and dining for adults. In other words, the church wasn’t just a church; it was an all-purpose, one-stop operationó an evangelical Walmart. And it was getting bigger and bigger, with new members joining the flock continuously. I didn’t think too deeply about the implications of all this at the time, but with the election now past and the exit polls and pundits trumpeting the decisive significance of ‘moral values’ in the reelection of our born-again president, I’ve begun to reassess the meaning of my church drive by.
It’s stating the obvious to say that the Left has a serious problem on its hands in this country. And as with most serious problems, the solution is rarely simple. In The Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci, his health weakened by the combination of serious physical ailments and the harsh conditions imposed by prison life in Mussolini’s Italy, spent his final years wrestling with the singularly important question of his time, and ours: how do repressive, anti-democratic regimes ascend to power on the wings of popular support.
We now have to ask ourselves that same question. And, in my opinion, the most readily available solutions to our current problemsó compelling the Democratic Party to forsake its DLC leanings and move in a leftward, populist direction or looking to a third party alternativeó in and of themselves strike me as a bit limited. Much of what’s wrong with our politics lies outside the scope of institutions that are thought of as explicitly political; rather it resides in the social relationships and institutions that make up our civil societyóin the religious institutions, the social clubs, the media, etc.
When the right wing ascended to power in the early 1980’s, it did so with more than just the figure of Reagan. Through the work and foresight of its intellectual vanguard and grassroots activists, it constructed a worldview that has become, for many people, the commonsense way of looking at politics, culture and economics. As Reagan’s British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, succinctly put it: ìthere is no alternativeî to neoliberal capitalism.
While it’s difficult to measure what constitutes commonsense, it can be gauged by what is or is not acceptable to speak at a given moment. For example, in the early 1970’s Nixon famously and openly extolled the virtues of Keynesianism, a rhetorical move which would have branded John Kerry an extremist. Conversely, to be an adherent of neoliberalism or monetarism in the early 70’s was enough to place someone at the far right fringe of the political discourse.
In the wake of a stagnating domestic economy, increased job insecurity, declining real wages, and widespread social upheaval, the Right offered the stability of discipline, order, and moral rectitude, with a good mix of tacit and explicit racism tossed in. The Democrats, meanwhile, offered up almost exactly the same economic policies, but continued to pay rhetorical fealty to their labor and civil rights past. In other words, they failed miserably to address the declining material condition of their base, either with policy or ideology. Such is the position in which we now find ourselves: two major parties that are for the most part substantively indistinct but with vastly different capacities to insinuate themselves into the civil society of mainstream America.
This election should tell the Left about more than simply the deficits of the Democratic Party in general and the DLC wing of it in particular. It should also tell us something about how we look at the politics of culture in this country. Our civil societyóor at least a lot of itóis broken. It’s been hijacked by an organized, aggressive, and well-funded right wing and steered in a direction that is at its core anti-worker, racist, sexist, and anti-gay. Meanwhile, concentrated corporate power and its neoliberal policy agenda continue to drive down the standard of living of most Americans.
The war over values that is implicit in all that must to be seriously engagedósomehow, someway: Is there any reason why civic institutions and churches like the one I passed by in Kentucky couldn’t be remade to emphasize the values of liberation, internationalism, and social, economic and racial justice? Is there any reason, besides lack of funding, why we can’t learn the lessons of the ideological ascendancy of the Right and execute a long-term project aimed at shifting the commonsense in this country, especially those red states, toward a more progressive vision of society?
As Gramsci used to say when speaking about a historical moment at least as bleak as ours: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
JOHN WHITLOW is anti-eviction lawyer in Brooklyn, NY.