Andy Schmookler: Cry the benighted country

Andy Schmookler

“Make America great again?” Not a bad idea, but first we need to understand what’s gone wrong.

In every society, both constructive and destructive forces are always at work. But the balance of power between those forces is not constant. Factors like the impact of national experience and the quality of leadership can strengthen either the best or the worst in a society.

Compare Great Britain and Germany at two points in the 29th century.

In 1910, a relatively stable time before the outbreak of World War I, we might have judged British society moderately better than the German — healthier as a result of a somewhat more orderly recent history and of Britain’s more democratic power structure.

But the difference between them was not dramatic.

Thirty years later, the balance of power between the forces of light and darkness in the two nations had become starkly different.

In Britain, the words of a new leader, Winston Churchill, summoned forth the best in the British peoples — their courage and their commitment to defend humane values.

In Germany, against which those values now needed to be defended, the leadership of Adolf Hitler was bringing forth the worst elements of the German culture and of its people.

While Churchill was summoning forth the heroic in his people (in “their finest hour”), Hitler was turning many of his people into moral monsters (“Hitler’s willing executioners”)

Many of us in America today sense an adverse shift in the balance of power between those elements that have made our nation great, and those that tear down what’s best about our nation.

This adverse shift can be seen in several key parts of the American body politic.

On the liberal side, one can ask: does liberal America, taken as a whole, convey an inspiring message about the sacredness of its values?

If one compares what we have heard from Democratic leaders over the past generation with, for example, the words FDR spoke to the nation — in his great 1940 “I see an America” speech, or those engraved in the granite of FDR’s memorial in Washington — the change seems unmistakable. The force of moral and spiritual passion has largely been drained from liberal values, weakening accordingly the power of those values to shape our society.

(The pope’s recent speech to Congress provides another demonstration of how liberal values — compassion and a concern for the well-being of all, inclusion, cooperation for the common good — can be articulated with a moral and spiritual resonance that has become attenuated in the liberal politics of our times.)

When it comes to the political right, who among us — not in the sway of the propaganda bubble that has led many of our good citizens into a false reality — can fail now to see what a dark and destructive force has taken over the once-respectable Republican Party?

One would be hard put to find, from the past 15 years, instances of that party’s actions making America better, rather than inflicting damage. Hard put too to find among the hundreds of talking points that Republicans have put into our national conversation many that have been more truthful than deceptive.

Here is where liberal America’s loss of moral and spiritual passion has been most costly to the nation, making the liberal response to the rise of this destructive force on the right woefully weak — quite inadequate to protect the nation.

This combination of the destructiveness of the right and the weakness of the left have resulted in one of the most profound crises in American history.

This is a time when, as the poet Yeats said, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are filled with a passionate intensity.” A time when, as a result, the lie has too often defeated the truth.

Meanwhile, the press has done a poor job of bolstering the force of truth against the lie during one unprecedented and degrading political development after another:

  • An extraordinary presidential assault on the rule of law (2001-09).
  • A massive transfer of power from the people to Big Money.
  • The deliberate sabotage of the government for political advantage by the opposition party.
  • The crippling of the nation’s ability to respond to climate disruption, i.e., to what may be the greatest challenge humankind has yet faced.

It was not always thus in America. Our nation was indeed once a beacon to the world, and could be again. But only if we can recognize and reverse the adverse shift in the balance between the constructive and destructive forces at work in our nation.

Andy Schmookler, the Democratic nominee for Congress in 2012, is an award-winning author who lives in Shenandoah County.