While the 2018 midterm elections gave progressives some hope, we continue to struggle with the hate, fear, bigotry and xenophobia on display in U. S. politics. For a few years these dark forces have been rumbling openly. Why? Because hate, fear, bigotry and xenophobia are politically powerful tools.
A couple of days after the midterm, Ethical Culture Leader James Croft called our situation “a nightmare.” Initially I resisted his characterization of a country that just elected more women and people of color to the House than ever before. I wanted to nurture the hope in my heart that our system can build a better future.
But perhaps my perspective is warped by my privilege. I am comfortable enough to want to hold on to hope. But, as James, explains, when people say, the system generally works, they usually really mean that the system generally works…for some of us. It works for me. It works for many people, including most members of Ethical Societies.
But for immigrants arriving on our borders to try to build a new life for their family, for gender non-conforming people, for farmers in poor countries suffering the effects of climate change, the system is not working. Perhaps too many of us think that we can tinker around the edges and all will get better.
All indications are, however, that tinkering won’t work. Power has a tendency to protect itself. Too many of us are too comfortable. James Croft points out that often those who really try to expose the ugliness and abuse of power in our system, end up losing their power. They have their White House press passes revoked. They are called a traitor to class and country. They are fired and sidelined because they took a knee during the national anthem.
So what do we do? Perhaps we more readily have to admit, as James put it, that this is a nightmare that is real. Maybe we have to get over our need for optimism so that we can do some radical reconstruction. Perhaps James was right in saying, “Accept the nightmare. You can still be of use.”
James is offering an existential call for courage. Embracing a sobering perspective on how bad things have become in our political world might be the first step toward meaningful change. James believes that we are being taught some important lessons that we have to take to heart, as difficult as it may be. Some of these lessons are:
People are worse than you think.
People will go to any lengths to win
Politics is not about facts or policies, but about feelings and personalities.
I’ll admit that I still resist these lessons. I want to see the best in others. I want to think rules can keep power in check. I want to believe that enlightened leaders can explain our way to a better world. But perhaps I’m wrong. It depresses me.
Two messages James offers give me hope and direction. First he reminds me that we need to talk to others, especially on the opposite political side, with greater curiosity and openness. We need simply to, “[l]earn to listen to other people.”
Second, we need to be bolder in our call for change. We need to “[t]hink revolution, not reform.” What that looks like will need to wait for another time. But revolution is not about tinkering around the edges. It’s about rebuilding our system so that justice counts more than bigotry. It’s about assuring that every American has real political power.