Getting conscience back into politics

Sam Smith

When I first got into journalism, the bad guys were few enough that one could go after them with a reform political campaign, a newspaper expose, a righteous district attorney or a bit of organizing. The assumption was that they were a disease infecting one’s community, dangerous to be sure but atypical of the people, the systems, and the organizations that they threatened.

Even in Washington, there were aggressive reporters revealing misdoings, a visible subculture of progressive and honest members of Congress, respected figures in the capital who, while not the best role models, at least helped set limits on power’s abuse.

In short, you had some friends in high places. Often they were not enough, but nonetheless you seldom felt totally deserted, devoid of allies, or helpless in the face of law, politics, media and popular opinion.

Then things started changing:

– The rise of television, which shifted political power from constituencies and their leaders to commercials and their purchasers was a major part of it. Not only did ads buy politics, TV turned political debate into just another commercial.

– There was the Watergate scandal that is today so off the board that I have yet to see a story about this being the 40th anniversary of the first presidential resignation in American history. Forty three people – including dozens of Nixon’s top aides – were convicted, but today – as within anything we wish to forget – “that is just history.”

– There was the Washington media fleeting itself up in status and power by being perhaps the only group ever to significantly improve its social position simply by writing about itself. As early as the 1970s, it was clear the capital media was changing sides. It had written itself into the elite.

– By the 1980s we were ready to be as trusting of the media’s story of what was happening as we were of our favorite TV series. It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan – the man who did more damage to our economic values than almost anyone in history – was a second rate actor. Because that’s all we needed anymore.

– And Reagan would be followed a few years later by Bill Clinton, whose mass media script does not mention his role in helping to create today’s economic crisis or that the number of members of his machine found guilty of crimes exceeded those involved in Watergate.

Much of this happened without fanfare, observation, or criticism from those of the sort that used to guide the conscience of the nation. Academia was losing its moral way as the security of budgets became more important than the wisdom of minds. Liberals were so glad to have someone called a Democrat in the White House they didn’t even notice that he had started to dump the New Deal and Great Society. Financial concerns were driving non profits and churches into passivity as their major funders put a damper on action.

Add the Citizens United case and people of passion, belief, energy and morality that used to protect this country from serious errors or move it onto better ground became nearly impossible to find in high places.

Back in 2007, I came across this example:

Alternet provides an unintended insight into one of the problems of our age [concluding] a review of the new Ralph Nader documentary with this comment: “An Unreasonable Man presents many opinions through the 40-some interviews and leaves it to us to decide whether he was a man of principle or a man who fell behind the times.”

There’s your choice, folks. Do you try to be relevant or try to be right? It is not that the conundrum hasn’t appeared before. Consider the successful German businessman during the rise of Hitler or a member of the Alabama white elite in, say, 1850.

What is interesting, however, is how frank and blase the author is about the choice, with an implicit assumption that being of the times means being without principles and that there is at least a reasonable conflict between the two.

We have, it would seem, entered a postmodern paradise where the pursuit of the moral and the decent is not only unnecessary, it has all the status of a bad 1970s disco band.

Now we have the Koch brothers pouring $27 million into just eight Senate races and a capital city that, according to Nation Magazine, has 100,000 lobbyists, only a tenth of them registered.

And we have a liberal professional class that has settled for a few comfortable issues like gay marriage and abortion, having pushed hardly any significant new economic or social programs in over three decades, while treating those it should be helping, educating and enlisting as racist jerks.

A good politics converts voters rather than condemning them.

It defines itself by policies, not by self assigned virtues

It builds alliances issue by issue rather than requiring an all-encompassing loyalty.

It produces candidates that reflect clear goals and values, not cynically manipulated messages that will be found to be lies soon after election.

And above all, it is driven by principles and conscience.

There is little of that politics at the top any more, which is why the rest of America has to stop looking there for solutions.

After all when you have a Republican governor plotting long traffic jams to get back at non-supporters and Democrats planning to nominate for president someone who was the only First Lady to come under criminal investigation, had five fundraisers found guilty of crimes, and three business partners ending up in prison, you know the answer is not with those in power.

Which is why something like the Moral Monday movement is so important. As Common Dreams described its current efforts:

This patchwork group is what leader Rev. Dr. William J. Barber refers to as an “agenda-based coalition: anti-racism, anti-poverty, pro-justice.”

The agenda covers a wide swath of issues that include equitable and well-funded public education; universal health care; environmental protection; voting rights; poverty reduction; fairness for minorities and the poor in criminal sentencing; and equality for women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people.

But, according to Barber, they are united by the overarching principle of morality. “We are deeply committed to a society where people love one another and don’t kick people when they are down,” he said …

“The same people attacking voting rights are attacking labor rights are attacking health care,” he said, adding that under the Forward Together Moral Movement, women’s rights advocates stand on the picket line with the fast food workers.

“That is the point,” Barber said, “to begin to see ourselves as existing in society not as isolated selves but as part of the whole.”

“Where there is no moral imagination there can be no political implementation..”

And as Ari Berman wrote in the Nation:

The movement’s most important accomplishment has been to build a multi-issue, multiracial, statewide progressive coalition, one that North Carolina—or the South, for that matter—has never seen. “In a Southern state, an African-American is leading a multiracial movement that I believe represents the majority of the people of the state,” says Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that is advising the North Carolina NAACP. “It’s a huge breakthrough in terms of racial barriers in the South.”

The Moral Monday movement, though modeled after the 1960s civil rights movement, is more iconoclastic: it’s a majority-white social movement led by a black preacher who belongs to a predominantly white denomination (the Protestant Disciples of Christ). It’s the type of coalition through which the NAACP can be reborn in Appalachia. “We’re all colored people now,” Barber likes to joke.

This is the moral imagination that has virtually evaporated in high places of politics, corporations, media. As Gertrude Stein put it, “There’s no there there.”

It’s part of our job to reinsert conscience into our collective lives. To become visible witnesses of values those at the top have so sadly harmed. After all, we’re all that’s left.

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