Mar 16 - 22, 2006 
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Ortiz y Pino

Looking to the Left

A new book offers a fresh political perspective

By Jerry Ortiz y Pino

I just read Rabbi Michael Lerner's book, The Left Hand of God, and it has me very excited about his upcoming appearance in Albuquerque at the UNM Continuing Education Center. Anyone interested in seeing American politics transformed from its current malaise should read the book—or at least come out to hear Lerner speak.

When Democrats tried to analyze how they'd managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the last presidential election, there was a lot of theorizing about the role of “values” in swinging the undecided vote in Bush's direction and away from John Kerry.

Pollsters, campaign strategists and media pundits all agreed that the only possible explanation for why so many Americans were persuaded to vote against their own economic interest had to have something to do with that nebulous “values” thing. In other words, what was “wrong with Kansas” turned out to be that Kansans were willing to ignore their own pocketbook in order to make a statement about (pick as many as apply) gay marriage, abortion on demand, gun control, prayer in school or standing up to terrorists.

That explanation has bothered me ever since it was put forth in the aftermath of the election. My unease with it is partly because some are saying it indicates that if the Democrats ever hope to win national elections they will have to copycat the Republicans on those issues. “GOP Lite” isn't a very inspiring vision for the party of FDR and JFK.

But Lerner offers a deeper reason as to why Democrats should be uncomfortable with that conclusion: It is correct. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has forgotten its values and the voting public knows it. Voters will never be attracted toward any group that doesn't have solid convictions.

By portraying itself as nothing more than a milder, more sensible version of Republicanism, Democrats have fumbled away a 70-year history of standing proudly for a set of core values that resonated with the American middle class. It was only when Democrats moved away from those values that they started having trouble winning.

The solution is not to imitate Bush and his ilk, but to offer a genuine alternative vision to the people, one every bit as rooted in deeply felt values as the Republicans'. To do this means rediscovering the spiritual and religious roots of progressivism. The rabbi argues that this is not an enormous leap, not a lengthy detour. It is actually a short trip home, back to where the best years of the American adventure began: our faith in a life with meaning beyond accumulating wealth.

Throughout the book, Lerner uses “the left hand of God” as a metaphor for the values and attitudes of optimism, hope, humility, caring and service to others that flow from progressive elements in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

He contrasts it with fear-based religious values and attitudes that also can be found in each of those traditions, the “right hand of God” orientation which warns that “the world is a place in which everyone is going to exercise power over you, dominate you, control you unless you dominate and control them first.”

It is the “right hand of God” mentality which has converted the world into an economic jungle in which survival of the fittest has somehow been made a virtue.

The “left hand of God,” the voice of hope, argues that there is something deeply wrong in this world that cannot be straightened out until we change our thinking about the purpose behind it all. And Lerner suggests that the meaning of life is not (surprise!) maximizing profits for shareholders. His research found that people “yearn for a purpose-driven life that will allow them to serve something beyond personal goals and economic self-interest.”

He says the working people who vote for the right-wing do so because they are responding to the perception that candidates on the right are attuned to the spiritual crisis afflicting our society. But if the left were to address that crisis, it has its own rich tradition to draw upon that could be much more attractive to the working class than anything offered by the right.

Thus the book's second half is devoted to Lerner's “New Bottom Line”—a spiritual agenda for American politics. In it, he demonstrates how a progressive political force can address the most pressing of our social problems, our lack of meaning, by creating a caring economy, a generous foreign policy and a society built on personal responsibility.

Are the Democrats listening? Not yet, if the current roster of presidential aspirants is any indication. Hillary Clinton and the rest of the crew seem content to mill around, awaiting enlightenment, avidly poring over poll results in search of a blueprint for victory.

Instead, they should be reading Lerner's book, Jim Wallis' companion work, God's Politics, Cornel West's Democracy Matters or any of the other recent publications aimed at trying to point this muddled party, this infuriatingly obtuse party, back in the direction it should have been heading all this time.

Lerner will be in Albuquerque at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 2, at the UNM Continuing Education Center on the corner of University and Indian School. His talk is sponsored by the UNM Religious Studies Department and several other organizations and congregations. It should be mandatory for all serious Democrats to attend.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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