Rewriting the Ten Commandments of American Politics


I was nakedly cruel toward Dukakis. And I am sorry… My illness helped me see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me. A little heart, a lot of brotherhood.

Lee Atwater (1991)

It took a fatal illness for Lee Atwater to become an advocate of brotherhood. Earlier in his career, as the coordinator of George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign and as the National Chairman of the Republican Party, he perfected the pitbull tactics that have become the Ten Commandments of American politics. After the election of 2000 the two-party system is fractured into two warring camps, and the presidency and Supreme Court have lost a great deal of their former legitimacy. Democracies are fragile systems, vulnerable to breakdown of civility, rules, and tolerance. Politics in American history have seldom been known for high-mindedness, but not since the first half of the nineteenth century has the political climate been as bitter as it is now. And it could not have come at a worse time. At the very time we need to be taking farsighted steps to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, protect ecosystems, conserve biological diversity, and move the world toward a decent future, we have the prospect of at least four more years of denial once again led by oil men. Precious months, years, and decades are being wasted. For two decades critical thresholds have been going by like mile markers on a highway. With every marker passed, good possibilities disappear.

Whatever hope we have now depends on understanding the prevailing political rules—not to emulate them, but to change them. The rules that must be changed are these:

  • 1Appeal always to peoples' resentments and fears, not to their rationality, compassion, or farsightedness.
  • 2Confuse, obfuscate, and muddy the waters, never clarify or instruct, particularly on issues of long-term importance. Do not ask the public to understand com- plex issues. And never ask the public to sacrifice even for the sake of their children's future. Remember, as George Bush put it in 1992, the “American way of life is not negotiable” even when it is wasteful, inefficient, unfair, and counterproductive.
  • 3Demonize your opponents and promise to restore honor and “character,” implying that the other side has neither.
  • 4Investigate your adversaries without ceasing. The gullible will assume that anyone under investigation must be guilty of something.
  • 5Applaud scientific evidence when it supports corporate profits, oppose it when it has to do with biotic impoverishment and climatic change.
  • 6Politicize everything, particularly the courts.
  • 7Have no enemies to the right, no matter how nutty or outrageous.
  • 8Appease the religious right at all costs. And, if you can manage it, claim to be born again. Never give details.
  • 9Protect and expand corporate power and the interests of short-term wealth while attacking government as the source of all problems.
  • 10And of course, insist that the other side stop “partisan bickering.”

These are the rules for a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners kind of politics that leaves behind political ruin and cripples our capacity for the kind of broad, consensual political action we will have to take soon if we are to avoid the worst of what looms ahead. They are the work of cynical people who intend to undermine a robust democracy—in which all people, their votes and their lives, really do count—through what appear to be democratic means. They are counting on a spineless, perhaps mendacious, media to put the right “spin” on things.

The collapse of communism and the absence of dependably loathsome enemies confounded the right wing in American politics for a time. But the warriors of the right discovered the new threat posed by “liberals,” minorities, women, gays, and environmentalists. The right wing in American politics has always needed enemies even when it had to invent them. Its national legacy, among other things, includes McCarthyism, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, government shutdown, impeachment of a president they could not defeat at the polls, and, now, an electoral coup d'etat orchestrated between the Governor of Florida, Florida State officials, Republicans in the Florida Legislature, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court. So much for the “rule of law.” The local legacy of right-wing politics is a kind of “look the other way” approach that condones hate crimes, proliferation of deadly weaponry, the growth of militias, and a menagerie of political extremism.

None of this exonerates the Democrats and moderates of either party. They are complicit in the vast corruption of our democracy by corporate interests. With few exceptions they have been clueless, gutless, feckless, and uninspired advocates for the poor, children, the working class, future generations, endangered species, forests, and ecosystems. It is time to reexamine American democracy and its prospects.

In one of the most prescient books of the twentieth century, historian Walter Prescott Webb (1951)/1975) argued that democracy became possible after 1500 when the ratios of population to land and resources expanded with the discovery of the New World. In his words: “these boom-born institutions, economic systems, political systems, social systems—in short, the present superstructure of western civilization—are today founded on boom conditions” (  p. 14). Ours, he wrote, is “an abnormal age, and not a progressive orderly development which mankind was destined to make anyway.” Capitalism and democracy were both “subsidized” by the frontier “in a way we may not like to admit” (  p. 301). During the course of the twentieth century, all the ratios of population to land and resources returned to where they had been in Europe in the year 1500. What we count as prosperity now depends heavily on drawing down natural capital of soils, biological diversity, forests, and climatic stability. We are simply not as rich as we think we are.

Democracy, in Webb's view, was an artifact of abundance, but a large fraction of that abundance has been used up by the boom economy. What remains must be stretched over the needs, aspirations, and wants of 6.1 billion people, a number that will rise to something between 8 and 10 billion in this century. How will democracy survive in a world of, say, 8 billion people, a quarter of whom are severely impoverished and subject to ethnic hatreds, the growing stresses of rapid climatic change, soil loss, and the breakdown of entire ecosystems? How will it survive in a United States divided between gated communities and decaying inner cities? How will it survive the erosion of community and a public increasingly unhinged from reality by an all-pervasive entertainment culture? As Robert Kaplan (1997  )   asks, “Is democracy just a moment?”

There are important thinkers who believe it will be just that. After surveying our prospects, economist Robert Heilbroner (1974):175) once wrote that “I not only predict but I prescribe a centralization of power as the only means by which our threatened and dangerous civilization will make way for its successor.” Political scientists W. Ophuls and S. Boyan (1992) have argued similarly that without “a population willing and able to restrain its own appetites for the sake of the common good … ecological scarcity [will] engender overwhelming pressures toward political systems that are frankly authoritarian by current standards.” That kind of restraint, however, does not have a chance in a society marinating in hypermaterialism, so perhaps we do indeed face more dire possibilities. But far from some kind of ecological authoritarianism we are witnessing the opposite: authoritarianism imposed by corporate interests—what E. L. Doctorow (2000) calls the “eighth circle of thieves” whose goal is to keep the present system going as long as possible, whatever it takes. These are the oilmen, the coal men, purveyors of sprawl, advertisers, and interests tied to roads and automobiles.

It would be a mistake to dismiss these and their allies as stupid people. Some may be mired deep in denial and ignorance, but I think many of them know the score. For them the logic of political economy goes something like this:

  • • An economy that does not grow will die, so growth must continue at all costs.
  • • Without growth, redistribution of wealth would be necessary.
  • • Redistribution, however, would encourage social decay and invite social chaos—to say nothing about its effects on the privileges of the wealthy.
  • • Economic growth is therefore the only way to maintain social cohesion.
  • • Conservation is unsuited to a growth economy; growth requires unlimited access to fossil energy, forest products, and minerals that are becoming more scarce in the United States.
  • • Unimpeded access to global markets will make up for the depletion of U.S. resources.

This is the logic of the powerful and comfortable armed with the philosophy of “after us, the deluge.” Like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, they imagine themselves to be eminently practical and regard the general public as sheep. Present appearances notwithstanding, their power and influence is as vulnerable as that of the managers of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. They intend merely to buy as much time as realpolitik can purchase in order to hog as much as can be hogged in the remaining years before it all goes bust. Some certainly know that the big numbers are moving inexorably against them and will, in the not-too-distant future, bury them. The problem is that it will bury the rest of us as well.

Such politics are utterly inappropriate for the challenges of the twenty-first century—what Thomas Berry (1999) calls the “Great Work.” Our task is to begin “the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would [relate] to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” The Great Work requires us, among other things, to make a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, from an extractive to a regenerative economy patterned on natural systems, from inequity within and between generations to fairness, and from violence to nonviolence toward people and nature.

The challenge of the Great Work is nothing less than a moral and ecological recalibration of humans in the biosphere. We did not choose this work any more than the generation of World War II chose to fight Nazism or that of the 1860s choose to fight slavery. But it is our challenge and we must rise to it. It is like no other challenge humankind has ever faced. And it will require a rapid transition in virtually every aspect of our material and political life.

But the challenge of the Great Work is first and foremost one to our spirit, and for that we need not authoritarian government but a better and wiser kind of politics. Czech President, Vaclav Havel (1992):116) calls it “genuine politics”:

Genuine politics—politics worthy of the name, and the only politics I am willing to devote myself to—is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community, and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility, expressed through action, to and for the whole, a responsibility that is what it is—a “higher” responsibility—only because it has a metaphysical grounding: that is it grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere “above us,” in what I have called “the memory of being.”

If we want a better world than that now in prospect, “we must—as humanity, as people, as conscious beings with spirit, mind, and a sense of responsibility—somehow come to our senses” (Havel 1992:116).

Coming to our senses politically will mean transcending both right-wing fanaticism and “market madness” and left-wing illusions and utopias ( Havel 1992:66). Far from discarding democracy, it will mean adapting it to meet the radically different, leaner conditions of the twenty-first century. It will mean rethinking old assumptions about the conduct of public business for and by business. We should not assume that corporations have the same rights as persons or that wealth buys special privilege. Instead of unaccountable global hierarchies, a genuine politics would be formed on robust local institutions and strong communities. The processes of genuine politics would help form an authentic public engaged in the conduct of public affairs. It would elevate the public mind above pandering to the lowest common denominator. It would promote the general interest, not particular interests. It would raise standards of fairness. A genuine politics would not have to be gussied up to appeal to one religious group or another. And a genuine politics would not permit the interests of its children to be discounted for any economic reason whatsoever.

Genuine politics would require genuine leaders, people of full stature equipped to do the hard work of educating the public, rebuilding political institutions fallen into disrepair, and refocusing our attention on the Great Work ahead. Authentic leadership cannot be bought. It does not cater to our wants but calls us to do our duty. Real leaders inspire, energize, and motivate us to be better and wiser citizens than we would otherwise be. The irony of great leadership is that it inspires leadership at all levels. And if we are not to surrender to authoritarian temptations of either left or right we must become competent citizens making communities that work in the fullest sense of the word.

Make no mistake, the work ahead will be hard, but easier by far than not doing it. Authentic leaders of the twenty-first century will help us understand that to continue our present course is sheer madness. They will help to chart the transition from the cowboy economy powered by fossil fuels to a world powered by sunlight. They will help to redefine prosperity from that dependent on robbing the defenseless to one that protects soils, forests, biological diversity, ecological resilience, and entire ecosystems for all children. Above all, real leaders will help us rewrite the commandments for the conduct of our public business:

  • 1Appeal to voters' rationality, compassion, and vision.
  • 2Instruct, clarify, elevate the political dialogue.
  • 3Honor your adversaries—politics is not a war but a conversation.
  • 4Find common ground.
  • 5Never corrupt or politicize scientific evidence.
  • 6Maintain the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial power.
  • 7Hold your own side to rigorous standards of fairness and decency.
  • 8Maintain the separation of church and state.
  • 9Insist on the same kind of separation between money and politics.
  • 10Be willing to risk losing elections for the right reasons.

What sounds so idealistic—the improvement of our politics—is the only realistic hope we have to surmount the challenges ahead. In practical terms this will mean not merely reforming the way we finance elections, but throwing private money out of the electoral process altogether. It will mean reclaiming our political language so that words such as patriotism come to include protection of soils, wildlife, forests, natural assets, and future possibilities. And it will mean rebuilding civic competence and the public capacity to solve public problems. Perhaps the greatest irony of our time is that what once appeared to be altruism is, in fact, the foundation for a higher form of self-interest based on the inescapable fact that our prospects are now joined. To the skeptics, I would say we've risen to the challenges before and we must do it again.

By the end of his life Lee Atwater had it right. And getting it right, in Vaclav Havel's words means: “If there is to be any chance at all of success, there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly” (1992:8).