Renewing the American Experiment: A Post Election Reflection

Green Festival San Francisco Sunday, November 7, 2004 3:00 – 3:45 PM

Congratulations to Global Exchange and Coop America, and especially to Kevin Danaher, Media Benjamin, and Alisa Gravitz for their vision and leadership in organizing this incredible festival. These gatherings bring forth an inspiring flow of positive energy of people committed to creating a world that works for the whole of life.

For more than a year now, the attention of the world has been focused on the U.S. election. The focus on solving the immediate crisis of removing the most corrupt, inept, and dangerous U.S. administration in memory has drawn our attention away from the deeper issues. Meeting here to direct our attention back to the work of deep change, it is appropriate to recall the profound truth articulated in the Earth Charter

“We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future.”

We are here because we believe another world is possible, and we are committed to living her into being.

The Great Turning

Buddhist spiritual teacher Joanna Macy speaks of The Great Turning. The old Era — the 5,000 year Era of Empire is dying. A new era — an Era of Earth Community — is birthing. We are experiencing the chaos and uncertainty of the turbulent transition as the cultural and institutional foundations of the Era of Empire disintegrate and the cultures and institutions of a new Era begin to take form from the remains of the old. These are frightening times, not only because of the uncertainty, but also because the media give so much more attention to the dying than to the birthing. Our mission at YES! magazine is to make the birthing more visible and help people become engaged.

Nature provides a powerful metaphor for the experience of the Great Turning in the story of the caterpillar as told by evolution biologist Elisabet Sahtouris. The caterpillar is a voracious consumer, devoting its life to gorging itself while paying no heed to the consequences of its gluttony for the plants on which it feasts. When the caterpillar has had its fill, it fastens itself to a convenient twig and wraps itself up in a chrysalis to take a rest. Once it is snug, crisis strikes as the structures of its cellular tissue begin to dissolve into a formless goop.

Even as the old structure is dissolving, guided by some deep inner wisdom, the millions of still living cells that have separated from the dying structure begin to rejoin to form imaginal cells suggestive of the organs of a new creature. Correctly perceiving a threat to the old order, but misdiagnosing the source, the caterpillar's immune system attributes the threat to the imaginal cells and springs into action to attack them as alien intruders. The imaginal cells prevail by linking up with one another in an extraordinary cooperative effort to bring forth a new being of extraordinary beauty and wondrous possibilities. In its rebirth, the butterfly lives lightly on the earth, serves the regeneration of life by pollinating flowers, and has the capacity to traverse vast distances to experience life's possibilities in ways the earthbound caterpillar could scarcely have imagined.

We humans similarly stand on the threshold of a rebirth no less dramatic as our familiar institutional structures disintegrate around us. The work of those of us who have by choice or circumstance separated from the dying structures of Empire is to grow the imaginal cells of a just and sustainable planetary Earth Community. The transformation of the caterpillar is physical; the human transformation is cultural and spiritual. Whereas the caterpillar faces an outcome preordained by the experience of countless generations before and embedded in the genetic structure of its cells, we are path-breaking pioneers in uncharted territory.

Era of Empire

By the best of our modern reckoning, the Era of Empire began in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley around 3,000 BC in the area known as Mesopotamia. We now call it Iraq. It seems somehow fitting that what hopefully will be the last Empire in the human experience now finds itself mired in a war it cannot win in the land of the first Empire.

Since the beginning of Empire, much of the world has known only the dehumanizing domination and oppression of rule by kings and emperors, who have used stories of imperial god kings, heroic nationalism, and dangerous foreign enemies to legitimate their power, and gain the voluntary submission of the oppressed by embedding in the public mind an image of a dangerous world divided between the worthy and the unworthy, the good and the evil.

It is also instructive to note that the economy of every Empire in the recorded human experience was built on a foundation of slavery or its equivalents of bonded labor, sweatshop workers, and disenfranchised migrant agricultural laborers — all stripped of their basic human rights. It is inherent in Empire's structure. The power and privilege of the few depends absolutely and inherently on the oppression of the many. It has been so since the beginning of Empire — and it will remain so until we liberate our societies from the institutions of imperial oppression.

Empire's violence against humans is exceeded only by its violence against nature. As best we can determine, many of the great Empires of history have self-destructed by destroying the soils, forests, and fisheries on which their own existence depended. In recent years, corporate globalization has extended the destructive ways of Empire to the entire planet.

We must come to terms with the reality that within the context of Empire, identity politics is a competition for the right to be the privileged oppressor. This competition is inevitable in winner-take-all political systems in which the power of those at the top depends on the exclusion of those below.

Empire pits every individual in a life and death competition with every other not only for a chance at a dignified place in human society, but as well for survival that rewards greed and violence and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that peace and order can be imposed only by a strong central authority. True justice depends on replacing the dominator institutions of Empire with the radically democratic partnership structures of Earth Community.

The American Experiment

The gestation of the human transition to a more democratic era began in earnest with the initiation of the American Experiment on July 4, 1776 when America's founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to issue a bold declaration that raised the human species to a new understanding of its possibilities and changed the course of history. That Declaration framed and launched the American Experiment dedicated to demonstrating the possibilities of a society governed by ordinary citizens that gives full expression to the ideals of liberty, justice, and opportunity for all — the ideals of the true American patriot. It is a message for our time.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed..

The American Experiment was at the time a truly audacious idea. When the founders boldly declared that all men are created equal and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, the evidence of 5,000 years of rule by hereditary emperors, kings, and feudal lords suggested such an idea might even be contrary to human nature.

We are encouraged to believe that as U.S. citizens our freedoms were handed to us by the founders and are secure in our Constitution. The truth is quite different, as our current experience demonstrates. The road to democracy in America has been long and uncertain. The American Experiment was launched in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. The Bill of Rights was added in 1791. The Thirteenth Amendment of U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery didn't come until 1865. It was not until 1870, nearly a hundred years after the nation's founding that Black men won the right to vote with ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Women did not win full recognition of their humanity, citizenship and right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, nearly a hundred and fifty years after the founding.

Each step brought the United States closer to realizing the vision of human possibility for which people the world over have come to admire our nation. Viewed in isolation, 200 years seems a long time. Given the backdrop of 5,000 years of imperial history, it's impressive that we have come so far in only 200 years.

Our work, however, is far from done. The arrogant overreach of the right wing extremists who control our government reminds us that democracy remains to this day an unfinished project even in America.

American Plutocracy

When the Bush administration came to power in 2001, it quickly populated its cabinet with former corporate CEOs, board members, and lobbyists to pursue a political agenda unabashedly devoted to building the power of a ruling plutocracy and consolidating U.S. imperial dominion over the world through military force. Relieved of our innocence, we can no longer escape the dark reality behind American democracy. Since the founding of our nation, we have been an imperial power ruled by plutocratic elitists deeply averse to the democratic American ideals of liberty and justice for all.

I am among the majority of Americans who grew up believing that the American Revolution marked the beginning of a historic transition from monarchy, rule by kings, to democracy, rule by ordinary people. It was in fact a transition from monarchy, rule by people of extreme wealth with special titles, to plutocracy, rule by people of extreme wealth without titles. It should not be surprising given that the founders were themselves all white male property owners. Most owned slaves.

The first two hundred years of the American Experiment centered on the struggle for the power of the vote. Now we are confronted by the basic truth that without economic democracy — democratization of the rights and powers of ownership — the power of money trumps the power of the vote and political democracy becomes a façade. Economic democracy is an essential foundation of political democracy.

Simply resisting the more destructive initiatives of the corporate plutocracy is a losing strategy. It is time to engage a proactive strategy dedicated to renewing the American Experiment and move forward the ideal of rule by ordinary people by replacing the economic and political institutions of plutocracy with those of a true democracy. Let us start with the Economic Democracy Agenda.

Economic Democracy Agenda 

The proper goal of an economic democracy agenda is to replace the global suicide economy ruled by rapacious and unaccountable global corporations with a planetary system of local living economies comprised of human-scale enterprises rooted in the communities they serve and locally owned by the people whose wellbeing depends on them. The following are key elements of such an agenda.

  1. Local Preference: The rules of commerce properly favor local enterprises and products.
  2. Economic Democracy: Give a high priority to home ownership and an equitable ownership stake for every person in the productive assets on which their livelihood depends.
  3. Healthy Communities: We properly measure economic performance by indicators of social and environmental health.
  4. Fair Share: Graduated taxes for corporations and individuals. Those whom society most benefits benefit properly pay the greatest share of taxes for its maintenance. A fair tax system is a graduate tax system by which the wealthiest corporations and individuals contribute a growing share of their income to support the well-being of the whole.
  5. Fair Markets: Fair markets are competitive markets. This requires strong anti-trust to break up monopolies and give clear preference for human-scale, locally–owned enterprises.
  6. Fair Trade: Market rules properly assure that trade among nations and communities is fair and balanced and encourage local self-reliance in meeting basic needs.
  7. Fair Voice: Market rules should be established by people, not corporations. At a minimum corporations should pay for their lobbying expenses from after-tax income just as individuals do.
  8. Responsible Enterprise: Corporations and their owners are properly required to internalize the full costs of their operations and to bear the same liability as any other business for harms caused.

Political Democracy Agenda

Our present winner-take-all political system focuses attention on a single-minded competition for power that centers on the character assassination of opponents, attracts the unprincipled, and drives out problem-solving. Our goal is a political system that invigorates the political discourse by bringing a wide range of voices to the table, focuses on solving problems, and gives a meaningful voice to every person. Our reform agenda properly includes the following key elements:

  1. Voter Rights: Guaranteed right to vote for all citizens.
  2. Clean Elections: Public financing of elections.
  3. Fair Access: Require broadcast media outlets using the public airwaves to provide free airtime for ballot-qualified candidates.
  4. Open Debates: Open political debates to a wider range of qualified candidates under nonpartisan administration.
  5. Equal Representation: Introduce proportional representation to produce legislative bodies more representative of the range of political opinion and interests.
  6. Voter Choice: Introduce instant runoff voting to open the election process to multiple parties without the spoiler effect.
  7. Equal Voice: Abolish the Electoral College and introduce direct election of the president and vice president to give equal weight to every vote.
  8. Electoral Integrity: Replace the system of partisan Secretaries of State with a system of nonpartisan election administration and implement a legally enforced requirement that election software be open source, automated vote counting equipment be regularly audited, and vote counts be subject to manual verification.
  9. Human Rights: Are for people, not corporations. It is time to eliminate the legal distortion that corporations have the same rights as natural persons.

Democracy seemed an audacious idea in 1776. This is 2004. It is no longer an audacious idea. It is time to make it a reality.

Polling data tell us that most Americans want peace, fairness, a healthy environment, opportunity, freedom, democracy, and security for all — a world centered on people, not profits; on spiritual, not financial, values; and on international cooperation, not domination. These are not distinctively liberal or conservative values; they are the universally shared values on which the United States was founded. It is time to focus on our shared values and our common dream.

The Election

Now let us turn to a question some of you may have had on your mind since Wednesday morning. Putting aside questions of possible election fraud, how is it possible that our nation has handed over the presidency for another four years to an administration with a devastating record on jobs, fiscal responsibility and foreign policy, led the nation into an unwinnable war on the basis of a lie, and fueled recruitment to the ranks of terrorist organizations? These are some post-election reflections with implications for the work ahead.

Let's start with a crucial fact. Apart from members of the corporate plutocracy, most Bush voters did not vote their economic self-interest. Pundits say they voted their moral values. Actually, they voted their psychology: their longing for meaning, identity, and community in a world of family and community breakdown. Demagogues played to these very positive and healthy longings by turning them to a scapegoating of feminists, gays, and lesbians to divert attention away from the deeper economic causes of family and community breakdown.

For the media to suggest that only Bush voters were voting their values is surely quite odd. Perhaps it is because we progressives rarely make explicit reference to values in framing our positions —even though we were voting our moral values on every issue. Truth telling is a moral value. Peace is a moral value. Not killing tens of thousands of innocent people for a lie is a moral value. Economic justice is a moral value. The human dignity of every person is a moral value. The right of a woman to control her own body is a moral value.

It is important to understand how the political forces of the far right managed to deny the most basic of moral values in the name of moral values and convince so many Christians to buy into a politics of Empire deeply at odds with the deep Christian values of love, compassion, and personal responsibility.

Politics of Empire

The materialism of modern economic life denies our humanity by alienating us from our spiritual nature. Unscrupulous advertisers and propagandists manipulate our unsatisfied longing for spiritual meaning, identity, and community with false promises and beguiling stories to sell us often-harmful products for which we have no need and to gain support for political agendas contrary to our deeper values and interests.

Heroic and righteous stories of God and Country that play to desires for meaning, identity, and community based on in-group loyalties to race, class, religion, and nationality have long been used by the propagandists of Empire to lend moral legitimacy to the violence of domestic domination and foreign imperial conquest. These stories present God in the role of king or father to affirm the righteousness of hierarchy and the imposition of order by all-powerful rulers; contrast the virtues of one's own race, class, religion, or nation with the sins of evil enemies to justify their violent subjugation and the confiscation of their labor and assets; and commonly affirm traditional family values grounded in patriarchal gender roles and the authority of the strict father.

The techniques of the master propagandist are well known to the corporate plutocrats and religious theocrats who were drawn together in alliance more than thirty years ago by their shared aversion of democracy. They have been working together ever since to shift American politics sharply to the right, gain a monopoly on political power, and reverse the gains of the American Experiment. Much of their success has turned on their use of right-wing think tanks and media to define the stories and the language of the political discourse.

Defining Terms

In an earlier presentation on “Renewing the American Experiment”  I discussed how the far right gained control of the national debate on economic and security policy by controlling the prosperity and security stories that define and limit that debate. The 2004 U.S. presidential election demonstrated their related skill in defining and using the language of our electoral politics to destroy potential competitors. To understand what really happened in that election it is necessary to tune into the right-wing media, particularly the right-wing radio talk-shows and what passes for news and political commentary on Fox television. The strategy, which turned on defining two words — liberal and leader — was elegant in its simplicity.

Rightwing commentators and talk-show hosts have for years been repeating versions of the refrain, “liberals are elitist snobs who look down on ordinary people, have no values, hate Christians, criticize America, and side with evil terrorists.” “Liberals hate Bush because he is a Christian.”

The rightwing definition of “leader” is based on the metaphor of the strict father who acts with moral certainty based on Christian biblical teaching, rules with an iron hand, does not negotiate with his lesser, and has no need to explain or apologize for his actions.

Much of the Bush campaign was devoted to defining Kerry as a “wishy-washy liberal.” To those uninitiated in the rightwing definitions of “liberal” and “leader” to which a major portion of the U.S. electorate had been conditioned, this seems a substance-free, almost silly, accusation. To the initiated, however, the terms “liberal” and “wishy-washy” communicated a powerful psychological message: “Kerry is an elitist snob who has no values, hates Christians, looks down on ordinary people like you and me, and lacks the moral backbone to protect the national family from its evil enemies.” “Bush is a God fearing Christian guided by the moral certainty of biblical text and called by God to guide and protect the nation as a resolute father leader in a war against evil.”

Doing Bush Better

Kerry countered primarily with promises to do a better job of what Bush promised to do: protect the country, create jobs, balance the budget, and fix social security, health care, and education. That should have been a no brainer given the Bush record in office, but in the end the vote turned on character and the far right already had that tied up by their control of the language.

Kerry offered no alternative vision. He in fact had no real opportunity to do so because the stories and language by which the electorate might understand a truly democratic vision of a just and environmentally sustainable society organized on the principles of cooperation and self-organizing networks simply aren't out there to build on.

In the end, Kerry voters were mostly voting against Bush's failed policies, moral perversion, narrow worldview, and psychological dysfunction. Kerry offered his base nothing more than their hope that he would as president be more honest, intelligent, and morally mature than Bush. That alone brought forth a massive and unprecedented progressive mobilization, but it wasn't enough. Kerry tried to compete with Bush on Bush's terms, which gave the Bush handlers the upper hand in defining the debate and in defining Kerry.

The Far Right has been laying the foundation for its takeover of U.S. political institutions since the early 1970s by building a powerful network of right-wing think tanks and media and organizing its religious base. It has since succeeded in locking the nation into a Politics of Empire based on division, fear, manipulation, and domination. It is a bullying politics reminiscent of a childish playground brawl that substitutes name-calling and character assassination for problem-solving and undermines the credibility of our political institutions. The challenge before us is to displace the Politics of Empire with the Politics of Earth Community based on inclusion, possibility, and partnership — an authentic values-based, problem-solving politics of mature adulthood.

Values and Stories

We humans long for spiritual meaning. But the only voices out there that most people hear speaking about values and spirit are those of the Far Right. Even though virtually every progressive leader I know is working from a deeply spiritual place, we rarely speak openly in our environmental, peace, and justice work of values or the sacred. The time has come to speak publicly of values and the spiritual foundations of the progressive cause, and to articulate spiritually grounded stories of human possibility and the world it is within our means to create. The elements of such stories are at hand.

It somehow seems especially fitting that in the previous hour we heard from one of the great story tellers of the progressive movement, Janine Benyus, and in the next hour we will hear from Brian Swimme. Brian, an astrophysicist, will be sharing stories of the living universe that came into being as diverse energy particles and for the past 15 billion years has been evolving toward ever-increasing complexity, potential, and reflective consciousness. The only conceivable explanation is that this process is guided by a deep spiritual intelligence and driven by divine purpose. It is my personal belief that the whole of Creation is a manifestation of a spiritual intelligence seeking to know itself through a creative process of becoming. That process is on going, and we humans are participants in its continued unfolding.

Janine is one of a new generation of biologists who are advancing our understanding of life's extraordinary capacity for creative self-organization. The insights of such cutting-edge biologists have profound implications for our understanding of our human possibilities. They are finding, for example, that nature has no equivalent of the centralized command and control structures characteristic of the institutions of Empire. Contrary to the popular misconceptions that evolutionary progress depends on competition and the destruction of the weak by the strong, the new biologists are finding that life is a fundamentally cooperative enterprise. Life never exists except in relationship to other life. And the successful species are not the most ruthlessly aggressive competitors; rather they are the species that find their place of service to the whole. If life can flourish in creative cooperative, self-organizing community —  why not humans? 

Elisabeth Sahtouris, who spoke here yesterday, brings these two narratives together in a meta-story of Creation, human possibility, mutual responsibility, and service.

We could choose to slip into despair at the result of the election of last Tuesday. Or we can rejoice at the evidence that the vast majority of Americans are prepared to put values, meaning, and community ahead of immediate economic self-interest — and embrace it as an opportunity. Let's talk values; let's tell the stories that help us see ourselves as spiritual beings in service to Creation's continued unfolding.

Let us bring forth the message that life itself exists only in community; that true human prosperity, security, and meaning are to be found in the life of vibrant, interlinked communities that offer every person — without exception — the opportunity to realize their full humanity. This deep truth is properly the central narrative of the stories of the Era of Earth Community it is ours to bring into being.


This is our opportunity to renew the American Experiment and to join with all the world's people and nations in a cooperative effort to realize the ideals of liberty, justice, and opportunity for all people, everywhere.

In the chaotic and frightening times of the Turbulent Transition we must regularly remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of the human experience. We are called by the deep forces of creation to awaken to a new consciousness of our own possibilities and to embrace the responsibilities to one another and to the planet that go with the capacities for reflection and intentional choice that are distinctive to the human species.

The time has come to choose our future. The work starts here. We have the power. We are the ones we've been waiting for.

Thank you all for your courageous and important work.

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