Sunday, March 30, 2014

Forming a Successful Political Coalition II. Transcending Divisive Social Issues



Skeptics of the two-party system have observed that, with respect to economic issues, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party follow the same neoliberal agenda. What distinguishes the two parties is that the former is more “liberal” in terms of social issues and the latter is more “conservative.” So, for example, a socially liberal person may remain loyal to the Democratic Party because he or she supports gay marriage, even if he or she is frequently disappointed by the failure of the Democratic Party to take a strong position against larcenous bankers, corporate oligarchs, and war profiteers. A socially conservative person may remain loyal to the Republican Party because he or she opposes gay marriage, even if he or she is frequently disappointed by that party’s performance in other policy areas.
It is essential that Americans participate in a broad political coalition that is capable of challenging the two-party duopoly. To build this coalition, it will be necessary to confront these divisive social issues and find a way past them.
Let’s consider gay marriage and the desire to protect members of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community from workplace discrimination. Many social conservatives are members of evangelical Christian communities. They are taught by their pastors that homosexuality as a sin. Children are taught this by their parents. And there are undoubtedly countless school teachers who convey, year in and year out, an implicit or explicit disapprobation of homosexuality. This sort of cultural conditioning will foment visceral feelings of disgust toward homosexuality.
There is no point in arguing that antipathy toward the LGBT community is something that can be kept out of politics. Perhaps dedication to the 1st Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion ought to restrain people from applying their religious views to the question of LGBT civil rights, but it doesn’t.  Politics comes down to matters of personal judgment and personal judgment is apt to be colored by religious convictions. The Founders grappled with the same issue. Even though they gave us the 1st Amendment, and even though it is clear that their intention was to establish a country where people of any faith could find equal representation under the law, their judgment of what is just or unjust was colored by Christian beliefs. This is not necessarily a bad thing. 
Sergius & Bacchus: Gay saints?
 To form a new political coalition, it is not enough to say, “Let’s agree to put aside these contentious social issues until we have jailed the bankers, put an end to government collusion with anti-American and anti-free-market multinational corporations, and defeated the war-mongering military-industrial complex.” I wish that it were that easy. But it is not that easy because gays who wish to marry will not – and should not be expected to – wait until economic injustices are resolved.
What is realistic, however, is to conscientiously set out to reduce the level of rancor that these social issues generate. Currently, Americans are divided by intense mutual animosity. There are the zealous opponents of the so-called “homosexual agenda” or “homosexual lifestyle” on one hand. On the other hand, there are zealous advocates of LGBT rights who delight in ridiculing, pathologizing, or baiting the so-called “homophobes” among us. There are those who absolutely must march, dressed in drag or skin-tight latex shorts, at St. Patrick’s Day parades. The hothouse flowers – which is to say, teachers and students at small liberal arts colleges – use the term “cis-male” to refer (pejoratively) to men who behave like heterosexuals.
The level of passion exhibited on both sides of the debate has taken on the character of a life-or-death struggle: if we relent in our efforts, the thinking goes, our opponents will gain the upper hand. If that were to come to pass, the future would be unspeakably grim. Thomas Jefferson was wont to use the expression, “we have the wolf by the ear and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose.” So it is with partisans on each side of these social issues: they feel that they can neither relent in their struggle nor coexist peacefully with their opponents.
In order to transcend this rancor, it is necessary to understand its origin. I’ve suggested that anti-gay sentiment is consistent with some interpretations of the Christian scripture. But this does not provide a full explanation, because early Christians did not hesitate to preside over gay marriages and Sergius and Bacchus, who were almost certainly gay, are saints (source). And really, any Christian has a choice between heeding the words of the law-giving, punitive God of Leviticus or the words of that radically tolerant Son of God who told us to love our neighbor and to refrain from casting stones. The question is then one of uncovering the motivations that guide Christians toward certain passages and interpretations, and away from other passages and interpretations.
The broader concern among evangelical Christians appears to be that the family is under attack, by which they mean an intact nuclear family with a husband, a wife and offspring. In times of spiritual doubt Christians seek clarity. Their approach to defending the family is to state, in no uncertain terms, what it is and what it is not. Unfortunately for the LGBT community, many evangelicals appear to be in agreement that what the family is not is best summed up by the title of the book Heather has Two Mommies.
What could give rise to this perception of the family being under attack? Is this perception solely attributable to the existence of an influential LGBT rights movement? Or is this perception sustained by evangelical Christians’ concerns about the proliferation of divorce, pornography, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, and secularism? If so, we may ask, are these concerns legitimate?
It’s probably true that Roman tyranny sustained itself for many years by ensuring that the people were provided with bread and circuses. And it’s probably true that if Americans spent as much time engaged in the careful study of politics as they do watching pornography on the Internet, we’d have a much better-informed electorate. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to conjecture that this compulsion for momentary gratification fosters self-absorption, and self-absorption in turn fosters a combination of self-neglect and callous disregard toward the lives of others.
Spiritual philosophy, in its truest form, guides us to a keener awareness of the subtle consequences of own own behavior. It reminds us of the necessity of compassion. What is singularly lacking among anti-gay zealots and gay-rights zealots is compassion toward those with whom they disagree. And without compassion, rapprochement between the two camps will never happen.
I’ll suggest that the rancor occasioned by these divisive social issues is indicative of a primitive “in-group / out-group” mentality. It is sheer emotivism – that is, espousing beliefs and engaging in actions simply because they express one’s own prejudices and appeal to one’s own vanity. The ascendency of primitive thinking is very likely a symptom of the profound anxiety that 99% of Americans feel: anxiety occasioned by a lack of job security, the fact that it is nearly impossible to save as much for retirement as one must, the prospect of life-long peonage to student loans and mortgages, and the sense that their government is becoming increasingly hostile toward the interests of the poor and middle class.
To follow up on that last point, anxiety about the satisfaction of basic human needs, according to Abraham Maslow, leads to a more primitive way of thinking. Likewise, confidence in the ability to satisfy one’s basic needs leads to self-realization and compassion toward others. Maslow’s thinking may be usefully supplemented by Alderfer’s consideration of the forces that act against self-actualization. This is shown in the figure below. I will conclude by suggesting that the creation of a viable political coalition to challenge the two-party duopoly will be aided if its members find the courage and strength of will necessary to transcend primitive emotivism (despite their anxiety) and hold fast to spiritually-informed, compassionate rationality. Once this elevation of consciousness is achieved, it is likely that these divisive social issues will cease to divide. 
Maslow &Alderfer believed that sophistication of thinking is partly determined by quality of life