Discomfort in an Age of Demagoguery

You know you're in Santa Fe when Sunday morning services take place in a travel store. Which is where I found myself over the holidays, surrounded by white-haired seniors of the far-left variety and travel guides on floor-to-ceiling shelves. The lecturer for the morning was Craig Barnes, author of Democracy at the Crossroads and a local public-radio host. A frequent lecturer on political issues in the Santa Fe area, he sat astride a stool and asked the fleece-clothed mystics gathered: "What would be a wise course in an age of demagoguery?"

My mind flashed on the evidence of the demagoguery all around us these days. House Republicans just took a big, blunt instrument to so-called Obamacare last Wednesday -- which would insure 32 million Americans -- by voting to repeal. Many of them celebrated with the same kind of empty rhetoric that was so common in their campaign speeches during the midterm elections -- that troubling new brand of Palinese so typical among GOP leaders these days.

During the GOP's weekly radio address, Republican Sen. John Barrasso, for example, urged the American people: "Ask yourself -- are you better off or worse off now that the health-care law has been on the books for almost a year?" Never mind that the majority of the reforms associated with Obama's health-care plan have not yet gone into effect. Republican Congressman David Dreier, House Rules Committee chair, characterized the health-care bill as "job creation's biggest enemy" -- using the pain of the unemployed to turn them against their own interests. This new brand of GOP Palinese is pretty pat: Overpromise and under-research; always simplify and never apologize; make the opposition look like tin men -- all brains, no heart.

Barnes evoked everyone from Havel to Buddha, in constructing a poetic and humble argument that embracing uncertainty may be the best weapon against demagoguery: "Perhaps it is the willingness to move forward in a good spirit, uncertain and at the same time unafraid, that is the singular characteristic that we as humans have had all along."

But here's the rub: Uncertainty makes us hard-driving, decisive Americans wildly uncomfortable. Demagoguery, on the other hand, is soothing. Let's take Speaker of the House John Boehner, for example. Speaking about the Iraq War, Boehner has said, "Will we fight or will we retreat? That is the question that is posed to us."

Wouldn't it be nice if the Iraq conflict could be reduced to that? We'd have a real opportunity for an abstract Platonic dialogue or maybe a made-for-television movie about courage and triumph. In reality, what we've got is a thorny tangle of economic, moral, political, and spiritual questions that demand volumes, not sound bites, of investigation: How many lives and dollars are worth a dysfunctional democracy? Is there an effective way to disempower despots that doesn't involve violence? What are the repercussions for our failures in Iraq for future generations? These questions -- the kind explored in documentary films like My Country, My Country or books like The Good Soldier -- don't play well to voters, because they're discomfiting. They make us feel ill-equipped and overwhelmed.

Naomi Klein, the ultimate pied piper of uncomfortable realities, has reported that Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, has a plaque on his desk that reads, "If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?"

This is quintessential corporate hubris, but it is also the comforting stuff of demagoguery. We are literally swimming in failure -- toxified by oil and the blood of Lower 9th Ward residents who were left to die -- and yet our leaders reassure us that there is no problem that our robust American spirit can't solve. That there is no problem at all, except perhaps, the unnecessary complexity being imposed on us by those wonky liberal leaders -- the Debbie Downers at every red, white, and blue party. Why can't liberals just drink the Kool-Aid, slap on the flag pin, and join in the sloganeering like everyone else?

I've even heard Democratic strategists make this argument -- that progressives will continue to fail until we learn how to employ the same emotionally manipulative empty rhetoric as the "other guys." It is as if they've been fooled into believing there would be no cost for our disingenuous capitulation, as if the ends would justify the means.

I don't think American citizens deserve certainty. I know it makes us comfortable -- both in our political sphere and in our personal lives -- but it's dangerous and delusional. It leads us to elect people who don't acknowledge the full complexity of the times we are facing and fail to take responsibility for their own errors in judgment (case in point: Sarah Palin's "blood libel" pity party rather than a genuine acknowledgment of her misguided and violent rhetoric and symbology). It tempts us into believing we aren't complicit in our contemporary challenges -- that the BP oil spill or the War in Iraq has nothing to do with our gas-guzzling SUVs, that the genocide in the Congo is not connected to our conflict-mineral enhanced cell phones and laptops, that the economic meltdown is uncoupled from our complacency or consumption.

We don't deserve the comfort of certainty, but we do deserve the comfort of clarity and community. This is why my fellow listeners that Sunday -- weathered by years of living and working and protesting -- gather in a travel store in Santa Fe each week. After all these years, they're still hungry for those shining moments when a politician, or a religious leader, or a community organizer says something that resonates with what they know to be true about the nuanced, terrible, and still beautiful world, as Obama so eloquently did at the Tucson memorial service just a couple of weeks ago. They're still hungry to be a part of an activist community where the dire challenges we face and the resilience and eternal perfectibility of the American union are both acknowledged, where we find faith in the basic goodness of people and the polity.

Barnes explains, "This quality of faith ... lies silent in America, buried under the propagandized story of the free market and the grandeur of individualism and self-interest." These chances to gather and say it out loud, no matter how quirky or seemingly small, unearth and accumulate that faith.