In the previous column I said a political philosophy is analogous to a religious faith and the advantage that the rich, privileged and powerful have is they practice politics the way average people practice their religion, as a matter of faith. I want to make a correction. Faith and religion are similar, yet very different concepts. Religion is the means by which people can express their faith. While faith is personal, religions are historic and cultural systems that evolve with time. The latter is why a political philosophy is analogous to a religion in its social implication.
The physical universe we live in appears to be comprised of a series of random phenomena that have no inherent meaning, which would allow you to conclude that the universe exists for no particular purpose. Now that’s an existential problem for human beings, who by our genetic makeup have a need to bring order and meaning to the randomness of the universe.
This is where religion comes in. Not only does religion provide a reason for the universe, giving a rational order to its apparent randomness, but it also provides a purpose for our existence and our role in this larger incomprehensible scheme of things. Of all the intellectual inventions of human beings, religion and its practice may be the oldest and most enduring. In fact, there is no anthropological record of human society that has not included religion.
Political philosophies are the secular version of religion, and they do the same thing. They provide an explanation of and a justification for how society is organized and why your position in that society is the proper order of things. Like religions, their presence is ubiquitous and the organizing principles abstruse. They both have the same social objectives: the acceptance of and compliance with the norms and protocols that will ensure the continuation of the religion or the political system.
To understand American politics, you have to know what’s the current reigning American political religion. This is especially true of presidential and national politics. This political religion is rarely if ever spoken of by America’s political priestly class, national political leaders and the national commentariat, for much the same reason that theology is not often discussed in church.
So what’s this political philosophy that dare not speak its name? It’s called Neoliberalism, and for the last 40 years it has defined and dictated America’s economic, political and social reality. Everything that has happened or not happened in this country can be explained as a function of the tenets of Neoliberalism. What are those tenets?
While the term has its origin in 19th century classical economics, in today’s contemporary nomenclature it refers to a fundamentalist free-market philosophy that advocates and supports deregulating capital markets and corporations, encouraging the unrestricted flow of capital and goods between countries (without regard for the consequences to those countries) and the maximization of profit at the expense of people. Neoliberalism advocates reducing the influence and role of the government in the economy by privatizing public functions (Neoliberalism wants public money but not public accountability) and reducing government spending on public works and infrastructure, including education and scientific research.
To be a Neoliberal is to be somewhere between indifferent and hostile to the role that Thomas Jefferson assigned to government in the Declaration of Independence: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” For the flawed Mr. Jefferson, government was the guarantor of the God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If you are someone who believes health care, affordable housing, meaningful employment with livable wages, being secure in your person, and all children receiving a quality education that aligns with their needs and abilities are all manifestations of those inalienable rights, then what do you do in a society whose state political religion is Neoliberalism?
No religion is monolithic. There are inevitably different denominations, movements or schisms, even as the adherents pledge fidelity to the founding principles. This is true with political philosophies like American Neoliberalism as well. So how many denominations are there in this American political religion?
For all practical purposes there are only two, and as much as they try to pretend there are consequential differences between them, they’re really just different sides of the same coin. Both build their churches serving the same economic interests. For purposes of identification, let’s call them the Fundamentalist Conservative Movement (Trump Republicans) and the Liberal Conservative Movement (Establishment Democrats). I will not spend any time dissecting the Republicans.
Democrats (our Liberal Conservative Movement), however, are more problematic for black voters because they have same commitment to Neoliberalism but talk a very different game. When they’re trying to get you to join church, the sermon is all about social justice. But when they win, our stuff never quite gets to the top of the list, or even on the list. So what should we do?
You should learn to ask the right questions and understand what the answers mean to you. That starts with ignoring any candidate’s campaign speech; they’re worthless. There are two questions you want to ask and every candidate needs to answer. One is: “What do you believe is the role of government in improving my life and the life of my community?” And the second is: “How do you plan to oppose those who would stop the government from fulfilling that role?”
The ability or inability to answer these two questions will tell you everything you need to know about whether this person has the capacity and character to be trusted with your interests. But in order to evaluate what they believe, you must first know what you believe.
To be continued.