What remains endlessly hinted at about the 2016 presidential race, but not fully articulated, is that something enormous — bigger than politics, bigger than America itself, perhaps — is trembling and kicking just below the surface, struggling to emerge.
I have a name to suggest for this hypothetical phenomenon: the New Enlightenment. Nothing less than that seems adequate.
"Something enormous — bigger than politics, bigger than America itself, perhaps — is trembling and kicking just below the surface, struggling to emerge."
There are millions of midwives at the ready — angry, despairing citizens — desperately hoping to assist in the birthing process . . . by being part of the Bernie Sanders campaign. I say this with full cognizance of the flawed, compromised nature of politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular. The political process is a stew of money and competing interests, power, compromise, cynicism and secret deals. But that’s not all it is.
It’s also the opening to our collective future. A failure to acknowledge this leaves the process in the hands of those who think they own it.
The New Enlightenment?
The old Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, which began sweeping across the consciousness of Western Civilization in the 17th and 18th centuries, implanted science, democracy and capitalism at our social foundations and fomented the industrial revolution. But the shortcomings of this enlightenment are many. Slavery, for instance, flourished through much of the Age of Reason. So did war. So did genocide. The worst of who we are maintained its grip on power. We have yet to begin implementing our deepest values in the social and political realm.
The political mindset that sees Hillary Clinton as the pragmatic candidate in the Democratic race is unable to see beyond the parameters of a stunted political system. What she has accomplished in her political career is essentially defined by that stunted system, which not only serves (often in secrecy) the interests of those already in power, but fails to envision the implementation of power except in domination over some enemy or other.
This is illustrated with agonizing clarity by the recent controversy over the tough-on-crime and “welfare reform” policies of the Bill Clinton presidency in the 1990s, which, of course, Hillary supported and promoted, and which have begun coming back to haunt her. While the “war on crime,” the backlash against social spending and the implementation — via imprisonment — of what Michelle Alexander has labeled the new Jim Crow, got seriously underway in the Reagan era, Clinton continued and promoted rather than tried to undo these policies.
"The political mindset that sees Hillary Clinton as the pragmatic candidate in the Democratic race is unable to see beyond the parameters of a stunted political system."
As Alexander wrote recently in The Nation: “Despite claims that radical changes in crime and welfare policy were driven by a desire to end big government and save taxpayer dollars, the reality is that the Clinton administration didn’t reduce the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor; it changed what the funds would be used for. Billions of dollars were slashed from public-housing and child-welfare budgets and transferred to the mass-incarceration machine.” (emphasis added)
She added that: “By 1996, the penal budget was twice the amount that had been allocated to food stamps” and “funding for public housing was slashed by $17 billion . . . while funding for corrections was boosted by $19 billion.”
The result of all this, as Alexander and others have noted — and that Black Lives Matter activists recently brought to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign, confronting Bill Clinton as he campaigned for his wife — is that African-American incarceration rates went through the roof and families and communities were shattered. This phenomenon has resulted in recent, stunning apologies from former supporters of Clinton-era tough-on-crime policies.
For instance, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago, a one-time Black Panther, tore his heart out in an MSNBC interview this month over his support of that bill. “I am ashamed of my role. I sincerely apologize to my God, I apologize to my community, to my family,” he said, lamenting that, in his urgent desire to deal with the devastating impact of crime and crack in the black community, he became ensnared in single-focus thinking: “locking them up, keeping them in jail.”
Despite the anguished sincerity of Rush’s apology, I remain pierced by the question: Why?
Why did sheer, vindictive punishment loom in that moment as the solution to crime? Why was Reagan still the de facto president, with the head of his chosen scapegoat still on the altar of American politics? Bill Clinton’s Democrats surrendered to Reaganism: to the pursuit of black “super-predators” and the defunding of “welfare queens.” They surrendered to racism, as American as apple pie. The New Deal was dead and the Old Deal had reclaimed control over American politics and American thought. And it’s still in control today, settled and unquestioned at the level of the political status quo.
"Social spending must be utterly redirected away from prisons and punishment, away from militarism and war, and toward the construction of real peace."
“Of course ‘sorry’ isn’t enough, given the magnitude of the harm that has been done,” Alexander wrote, referring to Rush’s apology. “A brand new system of racial and social control has been born again in the United States, one that has functioned as a literal war on poor communities of color.”
The focus, she says, must be on rebuilding these communities that have been so devastated over recent decades. Yes, yes . . . but I would push it further. Social spending must be utterly redirected away from prisons and punishment, away from militarism and war, and toward the construction of real peace. The original New Deal was conceived in coexistence with war, but war eventually consumed it.
The cry of the New Enlightenment must be heard: Do not dehumanize! The only true enemy is the darkness we all share, lodged deeply in the collective human heart. When we try to kill it in “the enemy,” we kill ourselves.