Why the right keeps winning and the left keeps losing

What the left needs is an account of how the suffering we experience in our personal lives stems from capitalist values, and to replace this system with one built on values of love and caring.

Michael Lerner
28 November 2014

Credit: Shutterstock.

Why does the right keep winning in US politics?

Sometimes it's through electoral victories, sometimes by having the Democrats and others on the left adopt what were traditionally right-wing policies and perspectives. Of course, the right has support from billionaires and many major corporations. And I know that the median household income has continued to drop, that while jobs are increasing the pay for middle income and working people has been falling, and that two thirds of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, with great economic insecurity.

But these are all reasons why we would reasonably be motivated to go to vote to ensure that the right, with its program of further cutting the social support network, making it harder for people to get basic governmental services and threatening to close the government down, doesn't win. Yet the opposite keeps happening. Why do so many people end up voting to elect politicians who stand for policies that hurt the economic well-being of a significant section of the people who voted for them?

I asked this question to thousands of people whom my research team and I encountered when I was Principal Investigator for a study about how to deal with stress at work and stress in family life. What we discovered was the following:

Most US residents work in an economy that teaches them the common sense of global capitalism: “Everyone is out for themselves and will seek to advance their own interests without regard to your well-being, so the only rational path is for you to seek to advance your own interests in the same way. Those who have more money and power than you have are just better at seeking their own self-interest, because this is a meritocratic society in which you end up where you deserve to end up. If you deserved more you would have more.” 

Now here is the central contradiction: most people hate this kind of reality. We believe that it is in stark contrast to the values we would like to live by but simultaneously we also believe that the logic of capitalist society is the only possible reality, and that we would be fools not to try to live by it in every part of their lives. This message is reinforced in our workplaces and also by almost every sitcom and television news story available. Unconsciously, many people adopt the values of the marketplace, and these values have a corrosive impact on their own friendships, relationships, and family life. 

So when many people encounter a different reality in right-wing churches that have specialized in creating supportive communities, they feel much more addressed there than they’ve ever felt in progressive movements that focus on economic entitlements or political rights, which sometimes disintegrate due to internal tensions over dynamics of relative privilege and unproductive feelings of guilt.

Only rarely do these liberal or progressive movements actually manifest a loving community that seems to care specifically about the people who come to their public talks or gatherings.

Sadly, the cost of belonging to those right-wing churches is this: that they demean or put-down those deemed to be “other”—those who are not part of their community. These “others” (including feminists, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and increasingly all liberals) are wrongfully blamed for the ethos of selfishness and breakdown of loving relationships and families.

This is ironic because in fact the breakdown of loving relationships is largely a product of the increasing internalization of the utilitarian or instrumental way people have come to view each other, a product of bringing home into personal life, friendships, and marriages the very values that the right esteems and champions in the competitive economy. It is the ethos of capitalism that is destructive to loving relationships, families, and caring communities.

Yet this is rarely discussed by liberal or progressive organizations, though doing so would suggest to people that we actually cared about these issues which are normally described as “personal”, but are in fact a perfect example of how the personal is political—because they are so impacted by the values instilled in all of us by the workplace, the marketplace of consumption and the media.

The Democrats, and most of the left, have little understanding of this dynamic and rarely position themselves as the voice challenging the values of the marketplace or the instrumental way of thinking that is the produce of the materialism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace. They imagine that if they can put forward a pro-working class economic program, it will be sufficient to change the dynamics of American politics. 

They are right that they need a coherent vision, but it can’t solely be an economic populism. What people need to hear is an account of how the suffering they experience in their personal lives, the breakdown of families, the loneliness and inability to trust other people, the sense of being surrounded by selfish and materialistic people, and the self-blaming they experience when their own relationships feel less fulfilling than they had hoped for are all a product of the way people have internalized the values of the capitalist marketplace.

This suffering can only be overcome when the capitalist system itself is replaced by one based on love, caring, kindness and generosity, which no longer judges corporations, government policies, or social institutions as “efficient,” “productive” or “rational” solely by the extent to which they maximize money or power. Instead, liberals and progressives need to be advocating a New Bottom Line that focuses on how much any given institution or economic or social policy or practice tends to maximize our capacities to be loving and caring, kind and generous, environmentally responsible, and capable both of transcending a narrow utilitarian attitude toward other human beings, and of responding to the universe with wonder and radical amazement at the beauty of it all. 

Progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party need to develop a Spiritual Covenant that can apply this New Bottom Line to every aspect of our society—our economy, our corporations, our educational system, our legal system. In short, a progressive worldview that deeply rejects the way most of our institutions today teach people the values of “looking out for number one” and maximizing one’s own material well being without regard to the consequences for others or for the environment. Armed with an alternative worldview, we could stop blaming ourselves for our situation, stop blaming some other, and see that it is the whole system that needs a fundamental makeover.

But many on the left are religiophobic and thus believe that talk of love and caring is psycho-babble. As a result they cede to the right the values issues rather than providing an alternative set of values in which love and generosity and caring for the Earth would take center place. 

What the left keeps on missing is that people have a set of spiritual needs—for a life of meaning and purpose that transcends the logic of the competitive marketplace and its ethos of materialism and selfishness, for communities that address those needs, and for loving friends and families that are best sustained when they share some higher vision than self-interest. The reason that the gay and lesbian struggle for marriage equality went from seeming impossibly utopian to winning in a majority of states in a very short while was that the proponents of that struggle switched their rhetoric from “we demand our equal rights” to “we are loving people who want our love to flourish and be supported in this society.” 

That same kind of switch toward higher values and purpose, and touching into our shared desire for loving and caring world, could make the left a winner again, instead of a consistent loser. 

Nothing alienates middle-income working people more than the usual reason progressives and liberals give for why they are losing elections or failing to gain more support for their programs: namely, that US citizens are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or just plain dumb. Most of us may not know the details of the programs put forward by political movements or parties, by we know when we are being demeaned, and that is precisely what gives the right the ability to describe the left as “elitist,” thereby obscuring the way right-wing politics serves the real elites of wealth and power.

And then radio and TV right-wingers effectively mobilize the anger and frustration people feel at living in a society where love and caring are so hard to come by—against the left! This is the ultimate irony: the capitalist marketplace generates a huge amount of anger, but with its meritocratic fantasy it convinces people that it is their own failings that are to blame for why their lives don’t feel more fulfilling. So that anger is internalized and manifests in alcoholism, drug abuse, violence in families, high rates of divorce, road rage, and support for militaristic ventures around the world.

The first step in recovery is to create large public gatherings at which the left can mourn our losses, acknowledge the many mistakes we’ve made in the past decades, and then develop a strategy for how most effectively to challenge the assumptions of the capitalist marketplace that are shared by too many who otherwise think of themselves as progressives. Without this kind of a recovery process, we are likely to end up with more and deeper despair in 2016 and beyond. 

We in the Network of Spiritual Progressives have developed a model of what it would look like to put values such as love and caring into political practice. Doing so would include implementing a Global Marshall Plan and passing an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The latter amendment would require that all state and federal elections be financed solely through public funding—all other monies would be totally banned. The amendment would also require any corporation with an income above $50 million/year that is operating or selling its services or products within the US to get a new corporate charter once every five years. Such charters would only be granted to those that could prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility, to a panel of ordinary citizens who would also hear the testimony of people around the world who have been impacted by the behaviour of those corporations. We have also begun professional task forces to envision what each profession would look like if they were governed by The New Bottom Line. 

Our network is taking a step in this direction by trying to reach out to people in every ethnicity, race, and faith or atheist community, and inviting you to the University of San Francisco in San Francisco, California, on December 14 for a one-day gathering (starting after church to respect those who go to pray on Sunday mornings) to discuss these issues and to start developing a winning strategy for healing and transforming our world.

If you are interested in more information, or would like us to attend a gathering in your own state, send us an email: [email protected]. And if you agree with our analysis, please join our secular humanist welcoming and interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives at A longer version of this article was originally published by Tikkun magazine.

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