Defense Against the Dark Arts

By Doug Muder
The Public Eye Magazine
Summer 2007

It's easy - maybe too easy - for a Democrat to be optimistic these days. Unless you're over fifty, you don't remember the last election night as enjoyable as 2006: 1964, when LBJ apparently crushed the far Right for good.

In 2006 Democrats won the close races, took Congressional seats in red states like Indiana, and swept countless contests too obscure to get national coverage. In my own state, New Hampshire, Democrats now control both houses of the legislature for the first time since the Grant administration. And 2008 hangs on the vine like a firm green tomato. Our Senator Sununu, like Republican incumbents nationwide, can only cross his fingers and hope that things work out. He can't separate himself from an unpopular president and a disastrous war without alienating his own base of support.

As delicious as this moment is, liberals like me need to step back from it and ask this question: Will 2006/2008 be a historic turning point, or just a Watergate-like stumble in America's decades-long march to the Right? Are we witnessing the final unraveling of the Reagan coalition, or just the personal tragedy of George W. Bush?

The answer, I believe, depends on what we do now. Sooner or later - maybe sooner than we think - a slate of Republican candidates unstained by the Bush/Iraq/Abramoff legacy will try to rekindle the Reagan magic. Will we have a counter-spell by then or not?

At Hogwarts, the Reagan spell would be taught in Transfiguration class: Lower-wage workers who coincidentally belong to conservative churches are transmuted into moral crusaders who coincidentally have bad jobs. The progressive working class becomes the religious Right, and the band plays "Onward Christian Soldiers" instead of "Joe Hill" or even "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" And liberals - compassionate, decent people that we think we are - are transmuted in their eyes into soul-destroying monsters.

Thomas Frank chronicled the effects of the spell in What's the Matter With Kansas? and George Lakoff has deconstructed the magic words "family values" in a series of books beginning with Moral Politics. But through it all, most liberals have remained in denial. It just seems wrong that laid-off factory workers fight to protect Paris Hilton from the estate tax. Minimum-wage earners are just stupid to care more about abortion and gay marriage than their own lack of health insurance and their children's dwindling educational opportunities. Eventually, we think, things will get so bad that folks will have to wise up.

They haven't. Iraq and Mark Foley may have weakened working-class evangelicals' faith in current Republican leaders, but the underlying family-values dynamic is still firmly in place. James Dobson is less influential today than two years ago, but the Religious Right didn't die after the Scopes Monkey Trial or the failure of the Clinton impeachment, and it's not dead now either.

We need to be ready when, like Lord Voldemort, it rises again.

Before liberals can banish conservative working-class evangelicals' illusions about us, we have to shake off our illusions about them.

The first image to banish is the self-satisfied moralist standing in judgment over the failures of others. As Ron Sider makes clear in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Religious Right families aren't all Ozzie and Harriet. They suffer their share of divorce, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy, and all the rest of America's social dysfunctions. Far from the smug, self-righteous stereotype, Religious Right voters are often perversely unselfish and idealistic. Their votes defend the Ozzie-and-Harriet archetype that lives in their heads, sometimes at the expense of the troubled or broken family that eats at their table.

Lakoff gets this. His writings focus not on real-life families, but on the dueling images of family in the American imagination, and the ways that political rhetoric invokes a liberal or conservative family image. But as much as Lakoff tries to be detached and non-judgmental, his descriptions of the "strict father" and "nurturant parent" stereotypes promote a second illusion: the harsh and compassionless religious conservative.

In reality, liberals who immerse themselves in religious-right communities are often surprised by the warmth they find. Two examples of this near-seduction are James Ault's Spirit and Flesh and Tanya Ezren's Straight to Jesus. In each book, a liberal social scientist discovers unexpectedly complex and sympathetic human beings - Ault in an upstart Baptist church and Ezren in an evangelical program aiming to turn gay men heterosexual.

Ault in particular provides a needed adjustment to Lakoff's strictness/nurturance dichotomy. The key distinction Ault sees between his own worldview and that of the fundamentalists he studies is "the chosen" versus "the given." Ault's portable professional skills give him a plug-and-play worldview, which challenges him to find a community and a set of social roles he can commit himself to. By contrast, his working-class Baptists see themselves as enmeshed from birth in roles whose obligations - to family, community, and God - are inescapable. Their only "choice" is whether to fulfill their duties or renege on them.

"Choice" indeed! If congenital and inescapable obligations to family, community, and God are the ligaments that hold society together, then each choice to renege causes more of the world to come apart and puts a greater strain on the ligaments that hold. Liberal "freedom" is easily painted as an invitation to drop your obligations and lead a life of self-indulgence, community be damned.

The genius of this dark magic is its topsy-turviness. The more ligaments snap, the more important it is that the remaining ones hold. So the worse the conservative family model is performing, the more strictly it must be adhered to. And who is to blame for its failure? Liberals! If even Ted Haggard reneges on his God-given roles and duties, how much more pressure falls on the rest of us? Damn that Nancy Pelosi!

Of course, any actual liberal knows that the disconnected libertine is not a liberal ideal. The implication seems too absurd to dignify with a denial. Much better, we imagine, to ignore this misdirection and change the subject to something meaningful like jobs, healthcare, or education.

It hasn't worked for thirty years. And without the left-blowing wind of war and scandal, it won't work again. Because once the ligament-snapping dystopia has gotten into your head, it's the liberal agenda that sounds like a magician's misdirection: "Don't worry about the collapse of society. Look at this paycheck."

To undo our transfiguration and cast off our monstrous image, liberals need to attack the spell head-on. We must stake our claim as the upholders of society, not its destroyers. And, rather than changing the subject, we need to explain how our positions on the hot-button issues reinforce our claim.

Can we do that? Yes, because the true liberal ideal is the committed citizen, not the libertine. Liberal freedom is not about individual indulgence at society's expense. It's about leaving a social role where you fit badly so that you can find one where you fit well. Choice is only half of liberalism. Commitment is the other half.

We should tell the stories that back this up. The 15-year-old who chooses abortion and school over motherhood can come back at 30 to raise wanted children in a secure home. The gay couple who adopts a child isn't just exercising their new-found freedom to choose parenthood, they're picking up the slack - building society up, not tearing it down.

None of that will make working class evangelicals slap their foreheads and say, "Oh, I get it now." But it will tell them that we see the dystopia they fear and have our own plan for averting it. We are not monsters.

And once that transfiguration is broken, we will not need to change the subject back to jobs, education, and healthcare. They will raise these issues themselves, and demand our answers.

You can read Doug Muder's essays on his own blog and under the name Pericles on The Daily Kos. He is active in the Unitarian-Universalist church and lives in Nashua, New Hampshire.

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