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The Post-Mortem on Hillary Clinton's Politics of Meaning

By Max Green

Rallying for community spirit in America is sort of like cheering loudly for your home baseball team to finish second in the pennant race. Those who favor a shift from individualism to community, "communitarians" they are called, do so while upholding and, indeed, giving preferred position to individual rights, the very thing they oppose. Individualism is our primary language; as such, communitarians honor America's history of individual rights and the pursuit of private property. They would point out, however, that it's not our only tradition, and that today Americans have forgotten a "biblical and republican tradition" which is increasingly important in tempering the noxious effects of self-interest run rampant. Communitarians believe Americans must fight to reappropriate this second tradition even though, in the end, public spirit will usually be overpowered.

A year ago Americans witnessed one of these battles and the theory held to be true: community spirit got trounced. In April of 1993 Hillary Clinton spoke in Austin, Texas about how American society has fragmented into competing self-interests. "We lack a sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we're connected to each other," the First Lady said. Pointing to the market economy as the cause for alienation and spiritual despair, she concluded that "we need a new politics of meaning." The press attacked her remarks with open hostility. The Washington Post characterized them as "psychobabble"; the New York Times, labeling her "Saint Hillary," called them "rehashed 60's idealism." Most vicious was the New Republic, which claimed to be "mystified" by Mrs. Clinton's speech, observing snidely, "It's good to know the First Lady is pro-meaning. But before signing on, one question: What on earth are these people talking about?" The story died quickly; Mrs. Clinton stopped referring to a politics of meaning. The media's pillory might have contributed to this. More likely her silence was motivated by a New York Times story which uncovered a $100,000 profit Mrs. Clinton made on cattle futures, rendering her indictment of free market materialism a little hollow.

The event was small, forgettable. But it merits further consideration because it was one of the more recent tests of a new political idea on the horizon: community spirit. Sorting through the charred wreckage of Hillary Clinton's politics of meaning may explain why it failed and tell us what to avoid next time.

The First Lady's comments were borrowed from a school of thought begun a few years previous by Michael Lerner, the editor and publisher of Tikkun magazine. Lerner had been writing extensively about how the Democrats were out of touch with ordinary people's pain because, since FDR, the party had focused on rights and entitlements. This overlooked the "meaning" needs of Americans--ethical, psychological, and spiritual--which, in the absence of any alternative, was being exploited by the Religious Right. Two processes were at work: (1) citizens are pacified by a distant, bureaucratic government which takes care of local responsibilities like welfare, thus severing the direct connection between taxpayer and recipient; (2) workers are spiritually alienated because they feel that their jobs are pointless, that they're not contributing to a greater good. Seventy percent of workers daydream about their sex lives or what they'll do once they leave work, according to Lerner. All too frequently, Americans escape from this day-to-day pain through TV or alcohol.

The solution, Lerner says, is to change from an ethos of selfishness to one based on love and caring. It's a paradigm-shift, he says, requiring us to oppose the free market and big government institutions which cultivate selfish and narcissistic attitudes. One of Lerner's strategies is to apply the following litmus test to every government policy: "How much does this legislation address and support spiritual sensitivity and loving relationships?" As Lerner writes, "We need to encourage a shift in the dominant discourse so psychological and spiritual needs are no longer seen as `soft' or irrelevant, but rather as fundamental to what it is to be a human being."

The media smell a rat whenever they hear anything slightly idealistic, so it's little surprise that, after Mrs. Clinton, they ravenously tore into him. Initially this struck me the wrong way. Lerner seemed like a nice guy, if a little touchy-feelie. It didn't seem right for the media to portray him as a 60's loony who sniffed too much tie-dye ink. As I read the Lexis/Nexis printout of newspaper stories about Michael Lerner, I flipped through page after page of blistering criticism and felt a little, well, protective--sort of like a mother whose asthmatic son is getting teased by the big bullies at elementary school.

But sometimes bullying may be good for your kid. It may toughen him up, and Lerner can probably use a little of that. You don't have to be H.L. Mencken to be turned off by a new politics based on "love" (offhand I can think of a half dozen Americans who I hate and at whose obituaries I'll cheer: my landlord, my ex-girlfriend in London, whoever stole the back tire of my mountain bike, Oliver North, etc.). But why is this? Why does the battle cry of "love" make most people cringe? Similar words were used on the Sermon of the Mount, and if two millennia are any judge, they were pretty effective.

Lerner may have a tougher audience than Jesus Christ. In a Politics of Meaning roundtable (Tikkun, 10/93) political philosophy professor Michael Sandel challenged the word "love" (he offered "recognition" or "respect" as substitutes); after Lerner passionately defended the word, he proceeded to psychoanalyze Sandel. Lerner guessed that as a male professor, Sandel was "resistant to feelings" because he likely thinks they are "messy" and "unscholarly" and perhaps "too feminine". Needless to say, Sandel was quiet for the rest of the roundtable.

Is it possible to criticize Lerner's rhetoric of love without being cynical or unfeeling? I think so. My objection is one of realism: universal love just seems too far up in the clouds. Lerner's central weakness, shared by most other failed utopians, is that he doesn't acknowledge the dark side of human nature. While we can appeal to the "angels of our better nature," we can't unconditionally rely on them. The Federalist Papers make this case quite well. With cold-eyed yet hopeful sentiment, the Founding Fathers created a structure of government depending on a measure of virtue yet expecting--and trying to minimize--the pernicious effects of vice.

Lerner's flowery language is matched by his hazy generalities. "The key is not in the details," Lerner says of his politics. To any thinking person, this should send up red flags. Community, after all, sounds good in the abstract. It gives off a warm glow, makes us think of Lake Wobegon or an old Norman Rockwell painting on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. But the word can be misapplied--in 1626 Salem certainly had a tightly knit community--and without specifics, the politics of meaning has no content. We'd have the same Darwinistic society, it seems, except businessmen might say a few cheap words about "love" and "caring" before they stab each other in the back.

It might seem like an inner contradiction, then, that after initially dismissing specifics Lerner presents a 14 page "Politics of Meaning Platform" in his May 1993 issue. The paper is an afterthought, though; it's little more than a convenient response to what must have been a common question for him at the time: "Why is this politics of meaning so fuzzy?" The platform covers the standard topics--education, health, economic policy; when these recommendations are not meaningless (isn't it a false choice to "heal people rather than fight disease?") they are underdeveloped ("Teach empathy in school) or scatter-shot ("Create a Department of Families.").

More substantive is Lerner's February 1992 essay about alienated labor in America. Because job stress affects family life, Lerner suggests creating consciousness raising seminars in which workers divide into "Occupational Stress Groups" and share coping skills. Another of Lerner's ideas is to follow the Israel kibbutz model whereby workers know they're contributing to the common good. As Lerner writes, "I used to marvel at how garbage collectors, chicken pluckers, dishwashers, and cucumber-pickers in a kibbutz could all revel in their work, seeing in it an expression of their contribution to the building of Zionism." Because American workers rarely see their labor related to a larger communal goal, Lerner says workplaces should create a mission statement. Employers and employees should draft a statement explaining the function of their work and the conception of the common good it is serving. The government would reimburse companies for the time spent.

These ideas seem cosmetic, however. The Occupational Stress groups a weak palliative for workers' day-to-day pain because their material conditions don't change. They seem like little more than group therapy, and this is flawed, I think. Americans shouldn't try to be one big AA support group. The kibbutz idea also seems a little lacking. As one who has spent most of my adult life working in rotten low-wage jobs--busboy, waiter, data analyst, parking lot attendant, model for an acupuncture class, plastic water bottle-packager--I know I'd have truly loved to have spent an afternoon helping my boss draft a statement showing how much I pitched in to the common good. Maybe we could have done some calculations and figured the Max Green Contribution to GNP (.0000000000001%? maybe more like .0000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%.) There are a few points here. First, kibbutzim, by virtue of their size, allow workers to see their contribution; America does not. Second, private property doesn't exist on a kibbutz, so the common good is more apparent. Is Lerner suggesting the same? Is his kibbutz analogy a hidden indicator of greater things to come (a la Marxism?) But the analogy obscures an even more fundamental point: the ethos on a kibbutz is not communal for communal's sake. It's directed at a larger goal, the establishment of a national homeland for Jews. A cursory look at similar tightly knit communities--black churches during the civil rights movement, Oceania in Orwell's 1984 which was always at war with a foreign enemy--makes one skeptical that community can be achieved without a larger idea animating it.

For all these weaknesses, one of Lerner's ideas holds promise. The underlying premise of the politics of meaning is that institutions affect personal attitudes. This idea, most recently embodied in feminism, is that Americans' narcissism and selfishness are not simply a sign of our defective character; rather, institutions (the free market, for instance) reward these traits and thereby foster them. Major implications flow from this. Not the least notable is that any permanent and longlasting change in ethos must fix the relevant institution(s). Group therapy, then, is flawed because it treats a symptom, not the disease. Once we begin studying institutions--and shift from a language of psychology to one of public policy--we are no longer straightjacketed in trying to change from narcissism to caring. A whole range of options opens up.

Let's examine self-interest in political behavior. Over the last four decades interest groups have proliferated in Washington D.C. This fact is not remarkaboe on its face (in the 18th century Madison foresaw the evil of "faction"), but it's quite extraordinary when one considers their narrowness. Legions of full-time lobbyists in Washington D.C. mobilize over single-issues--dairy subsidies, interstate trucking regulations. Is it any wonder citizens are cynical about politics if most of what happens on Capital Hill is special interests trying to selfishly grab whatever they can? This process is woefully deficient because it leaves out a crucial component: the common good. When public policy is dictated by nothing more than the sum of particular interests, it's not surprising that individual demands for government services exceed the collective supply of money generated by taxes. The result: deficits and debt.

Self-interest comes in a more pernicious type: indifference, passivity. Fewer than 50% of Americans vote in elections; over 70% can't name their representative in Congress (despite supporting term limits). Political scientist Benjamin Barber describes this state of affairs as "weak democracy." But the fact that more Americans can recognize Montel Williams than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is not a matter of low IQ. Rather, I think it's a reflection of the privatization of life away from civic affairs. It's a toxic individualism, the type Tocqueville famously described in Democracy in America as "a withdrawal into private affairs" in which a person forms "a little circle of his own," leaving "society at large to itself." These politically alienated Americans are not selfish ("a perversity of heart," Tocqueville says) as much as forgetting their connectedness to society ("an error of the mind"). So they retreat into their private lives, watch ESPN all day.

In the 1840's civic and political associations countered both of these types of civic narcissism. A nineteenth century Freemason attended meetings and talked about public affairs--bear traps, local policy toward the Indians; this interaction importantly forced him outside the small area of private affairs and self-interest he occupied every day. New England town meetings had a similar effect. Tocqueville saw these as coming "directly from the hand of God" because they offered a hands-on civic education, and although later research has somewhat rebuked his starry-eyed description, town meetings did involve deliberation over public affairs. Because the act of persuasion required one to speak in terms of the common good, it made citizens more aware of it. Self-interests were still present (farmers and industrialists regularly battled over tariffs) but, because opinions are not fixed, the process of debate made nineteenth century citizens more conscious of other points-of-view, more open to compromise.

Over the last 50 years self-interest has narrowed, civic and political institutions have deteriorated. The New Deal started this unintentionally with its massive redistribution of power from localities to the federal government. As federal governmental activity grew, interest groups around affected policy areas began to form, according to Cigler and Loomis in Interest Group Politics, and this lead to a "mushrooming" of interest groups in Washington D.C. At the same time, grass roots organizations were left disconnected, useless. It's little wonder that, with little direct political power, citizens became passive. There's more here, of course. Civic associations also seem to have changed with growing income inequality. In the nineteenth century Tocqueville could write about "equality of condition" (excluding blacks), and because of this, civic associations reliably mixed citizens with each other. Post-World War II associations seem more like "lifestyle enclaves," to borrow Robert Bellah's phrase, because members share income brackets and, usually, ethnicity. The degree to which these associations broaden self-interests is questionable.

How do we reform our political institutions? Returning political power to states and localities seems like a poor idea, I think. While this would offer more Americans civic educations (an insignificant number relative to the mass public) it would come at a high cost. Economic conditions have changed since the 19th century. As John Kenneth Galbraith writes in The New Industrial State, big business and multinational corporations exert tremendous influence over public affairs; the only agency powerful enough to regulate them is the federal government. Decentralized town meetings are a 19th century solution to a 20th century problem.

A better idea is reconstructing the public sphere. By "public" I'm referring to schools, libraries, parks. Tax incentives should encourage contractors to build public benches in their downtown business plazas; libraries should be well-funded; public school choice, allowing students to attend any school and not just the one in their district, should similarly be supported. In New York recently a thousand middle class white families sent their kids to a school in East Harlem, and they are pleased with the results. National service, wrongly packaged by President Clinton as a way to pay for college (making it an entitlement for teenagers), should be presented as what it is: one of the precious few places today where races and classes mix, where blacks from Dorchester talk with whites from Southie. Business enterprises open to the public should also be supported--baseball games, festivals.

The rally cry might be "Let's Return to Civic Spirit." If this is too abstract, we could always focus on any number of political problems--entitlements, the inner cities. The important part is to recast Lerner's psychological terms of love and caring into political words like civics and citizenship. Amour sociale is a natural human sentiment; the ability to appeal to this politically requires the savvy of a cold-blooded advertiser from Oglivy and Mather. The way not to do it, judging from Hillary Clinton's fiasco, is to speak in abstract, flowery language. A better strategy may be to talk about creating a public space where we can meet our neighbors, be citizens, interact with others.

We shouldn't make extravagant claims, though. Individualism will always run strongly in the veins of Americans. We treasure our privacy. A great part of the liberal tradition is that it lets you do whatever you want--join a gang, tattoo "Metallica" on your chest, rent porno movies, hole up in your room and stuff yourself with junk food. "Don't Tread on Me" is one of our strongest impulses.

But, at the same time, we are social animals, as Aristotle said, and it's important and refreshing to break out of our narrow circles. As Rabbi Hillel once wrote, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I for?" Today Americans have a clear abundance of individualism and a clear shortage of common goodism. The time seems right to repair this balance.


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