“The good things in our nation did not come about by chance, and they will not be preserved by indifference.”The Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Keeping a democracy takes work.
Disuse of democracy by a careless majority is cause enough for worry in a world of constant struggle between tyranny and freedom. But when that indifference is coupled with a deliberate effort by a wealthy minority to undermine the public good for private gain, we find ourselves at a point where Americans are in danger of having government by the people smothered by an oligarchy focused on the enrichment of the few and the repression of those who disagree with them.
America as an idea is a work in progress, with an eye on the prospects for the future. At our best, we are always growing, always becoming, as we move toward that more perfect union. But we are not always at our best. The history that really happened, as opposed to the history we’ve told ourselves for much of our existence, is that we have not always had the full flowering of democracy that we so proudly celebrate here in America.*
That’s true in part because the presiding oligarchy has never wanted one and has worked to align their personal goals with false definitions of what government by and for the people entails. Those who favor authoritarianism and hierarchy — who favor an America that privileges only those who support their point of view, be it economic or theological — have certainly been working overtime for more than 400 years to institute their vision. If we are to keep government by the people alive in this country, it is important to understand how that minority defines and frames issues as they work to undermine pluralistic democratic rule.
When we think of what use to be called the commonweal, or the good of the people, our mind conjures up liberty, freedom, rights, the public good, and truth. Yet in recent decades, each of those words and phrases has been redefined in ways that denigrate the core concept of community obligations and beliefs so critical to the American experiment.
Let’s begin with liberty.
In a comment to last week’s post, my friend Deborah Meister suggested that, “’Liberty’ used to mean ‘liberty for… [something]’ —- something like, freedom to develop one’s gifts and then to offer them in helping to shape a society.” But today, after a long effort by the oligarchy to move beyond the concept of a common good, liberty is generally understood in our culture as “‘freedom of choice’ (by which its proponents mean freedom of consumer choice) and freedom from constraint. There is a world of difference,” Deborah adds, “between liberty to choose one’s obligations and liberty to ignore them all in favor of an existence centered on self or, at most, on self and family.”
Which leads us to rights.
In a true pluralistic democracy, rights come with responsibilities and are generally practiced with some sense of empathy for fellow travelers in the world. At the very least, rights with responsibilities are seen as the price of citizenship. But with a selfish world-view focused on anti-science, racism, and patriarchy, many of those fortunate enough to live at the top of the pyramid, generally through an unearned privilege such as the accident of birth or race, do not see it as their responsibility to use their rights to show empathy and concern for others. Hierarchy, in this case, suits their purposes just fine.
Some wonder why evangelicals and other conservative Christians support the wealthy oligarchy so passionately. Part of the reason is that evangelicals often believe in a hierarchy of 1) God, 2) man, 3) woman, and 4) child in that order. Some who hold such beliefs easily fall into the trap of believing that giving rights to “others” such as women, people of color, or LGBTQ individuals, takes away their rights and position on the pyramid. This is why those religious communities don’t have any problem with Donald Trump. His enemies are their enemies. His hatred is a feature, not a bug.
That point-of-view clearly confuses the general population. Most of us believe that to be Christian is to “love your neighbor as yourself” with a broad — some would say Christ-like — definition of neighbor. Having grown up in a region where neighbor, for many Christians, had a much more narrow focus, I am here to tell you that what most of us know just ain’t so. Religious rights are seen by these groups as theirs to define, along with the ability to interpret how “others” fit into that worldview.
From a distortion of religious rights, it is a short jump to the contortions around religious freedom.
Similar to the redefinition of “rights”, some evangelical Christians have also reshaped the concept of “freedom” to fit their purposes. When White Evangelical Christians talk about becoming a minority, they believe it creates a universe where there is more for “the others” or “them” and less for “us.” So they talk about Donald Trump restoring their “freedom.” Writing on Religion Dispatches, John Stoehr rightly calls out that type of thinking for what it truly is: utter nonsense.
“What they’re really saying is that the president will prevent people lower down the order of power from achieving more freedom and equality, ‘violating’ their ‘freedom.’ He must do that by any means, even if he confiscates kids from their mothers, bans a world religion, or commits treason. None of that matters as much as maintaining the supremacy of a religious identity…”
Oligarchs and their supporters have also worked to twist the meaning of public and private.
Writing in 2015 about the huge growth in wealth inequality that the gaming of the system has permitted over the past 40 years, social critic Lewis Lapham asks his readers to consider…
“…reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words ‘public’ and ‘private.’ In the 1950s, the word ‘public’ connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); ‘private’ was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs). The connotations traded places in the 1980s. ‘Private’ now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), ‘public’ becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).”
This use of words to shape a viewpoint that is authoritarian and against a pluralistic democracy brings us to truth.
We find ourselves at the end of September 2020. Slightly more than a month out from the election. The day before the first presidential debate. A day after details from the president’s long-withheld tax returns came out in a front-page story in the New York Times. And a week after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill her seat.
With all of that before us, it is well to remember how the oligarchy attempts to define right and wrong, true and false. It is important, I suggest, to take back the words and narrative of democracy.
The Senate Majority Leader could barely wait an hour after Justice Ginsburg’s death before assuring us all that his lying would ensure that he would attempt to rush through a nomination for a new justice before the end of the Senate’s term on January 3rd and perhaps before the election. And Donald Trump, who has his own issues with the truth, promised to put forward a nomination immediately, which he has now done for Judge Barrett.
It was predictable that Trump and McConnell would move forward with barely disguised glee. They both have long track records proving they don’t truly believe in democracy, only power for the powerful. And they twist words to fit their lies. To understand our true position in this fight, we need to resist against charges of fake news and the manipulation of facts.
One way to take back the narrative is to remind ourselves that the Majority Leader is not so much a hypocrite but rather a bald-faced liar. He is hiding the truth behind his motives. What he really wanted four years ago was to keep President Obama from nominating a third Supreme Court justice, so he made up some bogus argument — twisted words defining a new Senate “tradition,” if you will — to lie about his true intentions. What he really wants in the next two months is for the Republicans to select their third justice to the court in a little under four years, so he makes up another bogus argument to lie about his true intensions. He isn’t being hypocritical as much as he is lying with words whose meaning he changes to fit his purpose of covering up what he really wants to do.
And here at the end of September, we can look at how words are changed to fit a political purpose by considering the president’s twisted explanations and logic around election security. When you are down an average of more than 7% in the national polls, want people to stop talking about your disastrous pandemic response, are captured on tape lying to Americans about the virus, saw the majority of your party in the House of Representatives disappear in a blue wave in 2018, and have driven unemployment to Great Depression levels, what do you do to change the conversation from all your losing?
You do what Donald Trump has done his entire life. You “create a fiction: You tell the world that you are not losing, the other side is cheating, and you will not allow it.” Trump is working, by changing the meaning of words and concepts we all understand, to hijack the conversation. So many gullible Americans bought into his fiction that he was a rich, successful businessman when the first details of his tax return tell us otherwise. And he wants Americans to believe he can strongarm his way into staying in office indefintely.
And that, dear readers, puts us in a very difficult place as the oligarchs who now control a once-great party are seeking to smother democracy.
The response to Donald Trump’s fictional strongman routine or the nonsense of the religious right is not to run around with your hair on fire or to get depressed and not vote. No, the response is to see clearly what Trump, McConnell, and their supporters in the government, right wing media, white evangelical community, and Russia are trying to do. And then you get to work, doing whatever is within your power, to help keep our democracy.
More to come…
*Yes, I know the difference between a republic, a pure democracy, and a representative democracy.