In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes:
Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself,
in every battle certain defeat.
Many of us on the Left have not worked hard enough at this knowing.
In an effort to better understand the contemporary Right, I’m going to turn to the world’s oldest story, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The earliest Gilgamesh texts date to 21st Century BCE. But, in the 21st Century CE, there’s more immediately relevant and useful knowledge there than in another analysis of Karl Rove.
Gilgamesh is the story of an all-too-human king who overcomes existential dread, bitterness and desire for revenge, dispositions or leanings that drive the conservative movement today. We need to understand those dispositions.
We’re talking temperament here, not essence. We miss their complexity when we label conservatives as, say, "authoritarian personalities." Call it the Error of Unbecoming Determinism. Needless to say, it’s an error people in a progressive movement shouldn’t make. At the very least, it’s unbecoming to deny to others what we hope for ourselves, and don’t we hope to be better tomorrow? With regard to the philosophical sense of "becoming" or "being," the double entendre is intended, too.
Still, it is important that we try to know what can be known. Roles can be described. And, there are such things as dispositions and temperaments. For instance, some people at one time in their lives might find strength, hope and creative power in the existential uncertainties of life. John Keats called this "negative capability." Others are often made angry and anxious by death, inexorable time and an uncertain universe.
It’s the latter existential orientation that helps connect the evangelical Christian Right to extremist, free-market apologists. It’s a powerful political alliance. Political scientist William E. Connolly, who has identified these connections, calls it "the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine."
Within the evangelical-capitalist alliance Connolly sees certain "affinities of spirituality." By "spirituality" he means dispositions to judgments or actions – not essences – connected loosely to beliefs. A shared ethos, or spiritual affinity, can reach across diverse groups. An atheistic, free-marketeer can find common ground with an evangelical prophet of the Apocalypse.
Connolly calls this "the ethos of existential revenge." Confronted by their certain mortality and an unchangeable past, evangelicals turn to a vengeful God who will punish their enemies and reward believers in a predestined, apocalyptic future. In his dreams, the capitalist hears, "’Vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the Market." Both groups, then, belong to exclusive minorities entitled to the earthly paradise they would use government to guarantee themselves.
It is this shared ethos of revenge and entitlement that led Albert Jay Nock, an intellectual founder of the modern conservative movement, to refer to the few blessed economic conservatives who would save the ignorant masses from themselves as "the Remnant." In his essay, "Isaiah"s Job" (reprinted by William F. Buckley in his 1970 American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century), Nock writes:
There is a Remnant…They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society.
It sounds a lot like the description of the "Tribulation Force" in the bestselling Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Speaking of the series’ heroes, the omniscient narrator says:
With their new pastor they formed what they call the Tribulation Force, a core group determined to challenge the forces of evil during the Tribulation period predicted in the Bible.
In our effort to understand such thinking, we might find a "spiritual affinity" between Connolly and George Lakoff, two thinkers who have looked for themselves. Lakoff speaks of the conservative ethos of authority, discipline and obedience and the progressive ethos of responsibility, empathy and nurturance. It’s his strict versus nurturant parent dichotomy.
What’s interesting is that both Lakoff and Connolly see these dispositions as arising from existential confrontations with meaning and our place in the universe. They are both humanists and pluralists, and they each make it clear their categories are fluid, the borders permeable.
Gilgamesh is a story of existential confrontation. Gilgamesh (the name may mean "The Old Man is a Young Man") is a powerful king who’s become a selfish tyrant. He leaves the city of Uruk seeking to transcend death and time. He fails, but his journey transforms him. He returns to the city as a more compassionate and responsible ruler. The "gate of sorrow" is closed behind him.
Here’s a 5,000-year-old story that resonates with contemporary, cutting-edge brain science and political thinking. This story, other Gilgamesh poems and legends, and recent anthropological and archeological discovers point to the emergence of egalitarian and democratic practices long before the Greeks "invented" democracy. You can read my exploration of these early human practices in "The Promise of Popular Democracy," Part I, Part II, Part III.
Now, what are the practical lessons I promised? I am, after all, a Democratic political practitioner, and it’s the practical potential that, in the end, interests me.
For starters, political progressives should respect the potential for human change or transformation they believe in. Some of today’s opponents can be won over if their deep moral and existential concerns are addressed. We need to articulate our values. Facts alone will not suffice. We can’t eliminate religion or spiritual orientation from politics, and progressives should not be reluctant to mention the spiritual sources of their values in public debate.
Connolly suggests a much stronger political intervention from those who believe in a compassionate God.
Second, we have to remember that everyone doesn’t think like we do. What seems like a self-evident truth to some is a bald-faced, manipulative lie to others. Furthermore, the extreme Right believes a "noble lie" is moral. In their hearts, the "Remnant" and the "Tribulation Force" believe they serve divine purposes. Their followers don’t hear us when we point out the lies. We have to win them over to new truths, not simple accusations of deceit.
Also, there is no silver bullet sound bite. Progressives need a broad and deep "resonance machine" of their own. We have to reach people where they live, where they work, where they play, where the pray. Too many of our political methodologies, from polling to persuasive advertising, are based upon misunderstandings of what humans are, how they think, and how their political opinions evolve. We have to address these errors. Until we know our opponents – and our selves – we can’t achieve the truly pluralistic democracy we seek.