Over at None So Blind, Andrew Bard Schmookler has a post underscoring (again) what I think is one of his core insights, to wit, that the difference between Left and Right in the USA is a fundamentally spiritual one. This is a touchy subject to articulate, and I am not always sure Schmookler gets it exactly right, but I'm even less sanguine about my own gropings. This is because the rhetoric in which such "spiritual struggle" is couched is so assumed to tend towards a polarization of us vs.them that it is hard to use it without making even one's allies worry that you are firing up the tanks.
As an aspiring philosopher my commitment is always to find the way to speak in a sober and non-inflammatory way about the most important things. This means: no playing down the import, and no ratcheting up the rhetoric. (Due allowance made for human failings.) We might think that Exhibit A of what "spiritual warfare" means is the suicide bomber ready to send a few infidels to Hell in order to get into Paradise; but the alternative to this is not to deny the spiritual dimension but to redefine the struggle as something other than physical violence. I am absolutely committed to undoing the demonizing of my opponents, but the method of this is not to feign agreement.
I first read Schmookler years ago, back when The Parable of the Tribes was relatively new. I commend this book to anyone. Here I am re-posting, slightly edited, the comment I made on Schmookler's post, which specifically raises the issue of the "enthusiasm gap" between the two major political parties in the US.
When I first encountered NSB, it was this diagnosis that the missing dimension of the political discussion was spiritual which I found most compelling. He argued that the Right had generally tapped into a sense that Evil exists and was capitalizing on the energy this gave them, but that it was a misdirected recognition (they wrongly identified Good and Evil); whereas the Left was foundering because it lacked the ability to call evil Evil. (I hope ABS will correct me if he feels I’ve travestied his position). (And please pardon all the Officious Capital Letters, they are only there for emphasis).
My sense is that (at least some of) the current leadership of the right is cynical enough to exploit the spiritual enthusiasm that the righteous indignation of their base gives them, but I do not really believe that they (the leaders) really en bloc share that indignation except in bad faith.
As to the left: their difficulty is that the moral core of the left is far more left than the Democratic party. The leadership know themselves to be utterly morally compromised, and this can only be demoralizing. They settle for “what can be done” in the art of politics, but they know very well it is not much and not enough.
Schmookler asks, why is it that Obama the candidate could generate so much spiritual enthusiasm, but Obama the president, not so much? To this I answer: it was in part a fluke of the historical moment. Spiritual enthusiasm centers on symbols. There was a great symbolic momentum against not just 8 years of moral cretinism in the White House but the whole history of our country going back to the Missouri Compromise and before. The left was so fired about telling itself Yes We Can that it did not really ask what is was we could and would. Those who remained just a little dispassionate noted even at the time that the sizzle quite overshadowed the steak. At the time, enthusiasts who even heard this critique wrote it off as a necessity of election politics, confident that once in office, we would sort out the details. This might even have happened, but the details sorted us instead.
The symbolic triumph attained was a sugar high. The next rush would be that much harder to get because it would not come with a symbol.
The symbol that had kept the right going for (nearly) 8 years had been the smoking ruins of the WTC. A different symbol displaced that one with Barack Obama’s candidacy.
That symbol was: the coming of the Dream, the end of racism, palpable proof that we had put that behind us. In fact, insofar as we have “put it behind us,” this is shown not by having a black president but by the fact that the president still runs into the same intense difficulties that a white president would — this is how we know humanity, by its limits, not by its superpowers.
The great danger now though is that this same symbol has been seized by the right and combined with the first symbol, thereby inverting it. From the very beginning there have been snide insinuations, carefully never overtly endorsed by the GOP as a whole but nurtured: Obama is “not one of us.” This was not enough to derail the impetus of the candidacy, because that symbolic victory had a greater allure. But now that that sugar-rush has passed, now that we think racism has really been defeated (>snort<), there is only the workaday reality to stand against a new symbolic momentum, this time coming from the other direction, and this "not one of us" is being woven together with hints about who he "is": a Muslim, for instance. And we know what they do….
I hope no one will misunderstand me and think I am reducing Obama’s victory to his being voted for “because he was black.” I am speaking of the force of symbolic power-plays.
The last thing I might mention is that --to generalize again-- the Left has tended (for the same reasons mentioned above) to downplay the spiritual in general. It is thus not such a wonder that it flounders when trying to generate spiritual enthusiasm. For a long while, the spiritual per se (="the religious") has been thought of as the territory of the right, alas. It is not by chance that the last time the religious left took a major role was during the civil rights era — which bequeathed us the great symbol that gave us our last high.