A Map for Leaving MAGA Land
Democracy, always a glass house, faces attack from all sides. The attacks are generated by demagogic candidates taking a wrecking ball to democracy. This theme is commonplace in today’s climate of political warfare. Faith in democracy has declined in America, but I believe there is a map for leaving MAGA Land.
Here’s the problem: With both sides hurling huge rocks at the “glass house” of democracy, damage is being done beyond the ability of glass techs to repair. Almost half of all Americans believe the United States might “cease to be a democracy in the future,” according to a new Yahoo News-YouGov poll.
And each side swears the other side is doing all the damage. But all our fingerprints are on the rocks smashing into democracy’s “glass house.”
Historian David Blight, a postmodern Paul Revere, sounds the alarm: “American democracy is in peril and nearly everyone paying attention is trying to find the best way to say so.”
Have the ties that bind been irrevocably broken? There’s evidence that we can no longer engage one another in meaningful dialogue. A recent survey found that 16,000,000 Americans believe that violence will be required restore democracy. Democracy is damaged by such implied threats of violence.
How does one engage the enraged? Demonizing the left and shaming the right will have no impact. Democracy can’t be saved by shaming any more than it can be preserved by resentment and revenge.
Stone throwing is not a democratic practice. In a political environment where so many stones have been thrown, nothing is produced by stumbling blocks to democracy. People throwing stones can’t be building blocks for renewed democracy.
I have not lost faith in democracy. I am still persuaded that good women and men, of a sound mind, a love for democracy, and the intellectual gravitas to discern the best path can preserve our nation. Democracy has been damaged but is resilient.
Once we trained our best and brightest in diplomacy, statesmanship, democratic values and ideals. Now we offer online programs in propaganda, lies, distortions, dirty politics, “winning at all costs,” intimidation, emotional rhetoric, and political consulting. Our democracy degrades in value day by day with the dropping of another of the historic values of our nation.
Philosopher Charles Taylor says his point is to show that proponents on all sides are throwing “huger rocks . . . than are safe for dwellers in glass houses”, and “both sides need a good dose of humility” concerning how “fragile” their positions are and how deeply each is implicated in histories of violence.
Metaphor, as I have argued in The Creative Power of Metaphor, has the power to create new realities. Democracy can be reclaimed. I offer three such tropes designed to break the spell of rage that consumes our politics.
The first turn in leaving MAGA land starts with deliberative dissent with a nod to complementarity and democratic values. We can, according to rhetorical scholar Robert L. Ivie, draw on a “commonplace of complementarity.” Words that orbit the concept of complementarity include cooperation, mutualism, compromise, and the common good.
Historian Robert S. McElvaine demonstrates that the American people survived the Great Depression by gravitating toward values that were considered “feminine”: cooperation, mutualism, rapport, and empathy. “They sought to escape dependence not through “male,” self-centered, “rugged” individualism, but through cooperation and compassion.”
I believe we would be better served if we could regain the values of Depression-era Americans. Democrats and Republicans are the same but different. Different gifts, different skills, different perspectives but each bringing to the table what will be good for the nation. Complementarity doesn’t suggest that one party is better than the other party. Nor does it exclude one party from the highest offices in the land.
Complementarity produces friends not enemies. Fellow legislators are not out to destroy one another, but to encourage one another for the common good. In this revived atmosphere there are no fire-breathers but a plethora of kind, smart, and reasonable leaders. One gets the commonplace sense that all of America’s leaders could use a basic course in civics and civility.
There is a biblical complementarity found in Paul’s metaphor of the human body. There is an insistence that we are many but one, that we each bring gifts to the table. Imagine a democracy where politicians do not think more highly of themselves than they ought but think with sober judgment.
If offered the opportunity to be of service to Congress, I would recommend 100 days of deliberative dissent on substantive issues. All “emotion-laden” issues, culture-war issues would be prohibited from discussion in the House and the Senate. Reasoned dissent would be the core value of democracy. Ivie puts it exactly right: “Dissent that promotes deliberation and resists alienation articulates a partial convergence of conflicted interests, agendas, and identities – identifying intersections, interdependencies, and complementarities …. It resist[s] gratuitous caricatures of political opponents …. It arrive[s] at provisional conclusions instead of absolutes, conditional decisions subject to reconsideration and further deliberation rather than final, totalizing outcomes.”
I believe there are intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle. They exist outside the media bubble because they are not outrageous, arrogant, camera-hogging perversions of leadership. Instead of rewarding the wacky, what if our media accented the policy wonks on both sides that study, prepare, and debate actual issues? If these hard-working, ethical, freedom-loving leaders were freed from the shackles of partisanship, I believe they would emerge as the serious and persuasive heroes of our grand history of legislators. The American people would witness a new generation of leaders rise to the level of the past great “lions” of the Senate and House. CSPAN would record tremendous debates between a new John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. The public would soon weary of the incoherent babblings of emotional, wacky speeches signifying nothing but noise, the clanging of cymbals, and the rattling of death chains.
Once a people at home in the glass house of democracy, too many Americans, suffering the wanderlust of the biblical prodigal son have departed the house of freedom. They now waste our best intellect, our best political instincts on bottom-of-the-rotten-barrel of weak-minded politicians. And in return all we have is competing with the hogs at the trough. Led by the “hogs at the trough” in D. C., Americans are fighting in the hog pen over the food of hogs – the husks from the corn on a planet threatened with ecological disaster. The prodigal son, our democracy, is not only getting muddied; he’s losing his grip on life.
We have been imbibing the worst kind of rhetoric, one derided by Plato all those centuries ago. In Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias, for example, Socrates compares rhetoric to “cookery”—the equivalent of junk food—and observes that although some rhetoric might taste good, consuming it too readily or mindlessly could condemn your soul to an overweight hell.
When the prodigal son came to himself suggests that he had not been in his right mind. In a like manner, democracy has been off the rails for six years, people not in their right minds.
Now we can return to our right minds. This is democracy’s hope. There is still a large enough, courageous enough, powerful enough constituency that loves democracy, knows how to make democracy work, and is willing to sacrifice for the common good.
Complementarity folds into open commensality—from mensa, the Latin word for “table.” It means the rules of tabling and eating as miniature models for the rules of association and socialization. It means table fellowship as a map of economic discrimination, social hierarchy, and political differentiation. Perhaps Congress needs a communal table rather than its current spatial arrangement.
Our current addiction to rage, fear, anger, and resentment may dissolve over a good meal. Imagine people from blue states and red states and taking their places at the democratic banquet with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, FDR, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama.
John Dominic Crossan argues that sharing food is a transaction which involves a series of mutual obligations, and which initiates an interconnected complex of mutuality and reciprocity. Food exchanges are basic to human interaction. Implicit in them is a series of obligations to give, receive and repay. These transactions involve individuals in matrices of social reciprocity, mutuality and obligation.
We turn to biblical wisdom for the trope of commensality. What Jesus advocates is an open table without culture’s vertical discrimination and lateral separations. Egalitarian commensality puts everyone on equal footing. The table becomes the focal point where bodies meet to eat, to discern, to decide, to promote the common good.
Open commensality is the symbol and embodiment of radical egalitarianism, of an absolute equality of people that denies the validity of any discrimination between them and negates the necessity of any hierarchy among them. The rhetoric of mistrust, disgust, hostility, accusations, insults, and conspiracy theories disappears as fellow Americans, who are not enemies, break bread together. This is the body of democracy, and it is worth the blood of its lovers.
The third trope for reviving democracy is symbiotic partnership. Lewis Thomas, in Late Night Thoughts While Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, composes his list of the seven wonders of the modern world.
His number three wonder is oncideres, a species of beetle that has three consecutive thoughts on her mind – a mimosa tree, laying of eggs, and the welfare of her offspring. How did the mimosa tree ever enter this picture? Here’s what happens. The beetle crawls out on a limb, cuts a longitudinal slit in the tree and deposits her eggs. She then backs up a foot and cuts a circular girdle all around the limb. The limb dies from the girdling, falls to the ground, the larvae hatch out and eat the dead limb and grow into the next generation. The mimosa tree is obviously indispensable to the life of the beetle.
What about the mimosa tree? Left to themselves, unpruned, mimosa trees live about twenty-five years. Pruned each year by beetles, the tree flourishes for one hundred years. Lewis remarks, “It is good for us to have around on our intellectual mantelpiece such creatures as this insect and its friend the tree, for they keep reminding us how little we know about nature.”
This symbiotic partnership – good for the beetle and good for the mimosa – also can remind us that Republicans and Democrats should be about the business of evolving multiple symbiotic partnerships. Democracy pruned of anger, fear, and resentment can flourish for another century or more. Surely Democrats and Republicans, even in their current anti-intellectual snit fit, have larger brains than beetles.
I am convinced that conversations with national leaders who are determined to restore democratic values, repair our trust in democratic institutions, and improve democratic discourse will enable us to safely exit MAGA land.
Put down the stones and walk away from the glass house. Let us embrace a complementary democracy, break bread together as fellow Americans, and develop pluralistic partnerships. Together ordinary Americans can repair democracy.