A Post-Christmas Post

Jeff Alworth

Sample story, from the Associated Press: "State funding for arts and culture, essentially an endangered species for the past few years, is poised to make a dramatic comeback in 2007."

Another: "task force appointed by Governor Ted Kulongoski is recommending the Oregon legislature pass bills to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians and to allow civil unions."

While enjoying sleigh rides and sugar plums yesterday, I had a roast-beast-influenced moment of clarity: the age of the politics of personal gain may finally have run its course.  These politics, replete with populist rhetoric, first blossomed in the 1980s with Reagan and his morning in America.  As political winds shifted, the left's long run of power crashed against the right's new langauage about empowering individuals by shucking off the encroachment of the federal government into people's pocketbooks and religious lives.  A decade later, the collapse of the Soviet Union solidified the right's confidence that liberalism--that scourge of woo-woo bleeding heartism--was dead.  What emerged through the 90s was a crass, selfish, and harsh Darwinian politics. 

One of the largest failures of the current political movement is that, despite all its populist and religious sentiment, at bottom, it feels hollow and bereft.  During Christmastime, almost everyone in America participates in the cultural rituals of giving.  Whether we're Christian or Buddhist, we begin to think about our loved ones and what we might give that would make them happy.  This simple act of thinking of the welfare of others is deeply enriching.  Particularly as we age, on Christmas day the joy of unwrapping gifts tends to center more on watching the surprise and pleasure on others' faces rather than the anticipation of our own gifts.  In those warm moments, we realize that our happiness is connected to those around us; we give and strangely, we feel fuller.

But folks like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist adopted the opposite strategy: grab as much as you can for yourself and stick it to the other side.  This is the free market in action.  (It is no surprise that John Calvin, the intellectual father of Puritanism, was also a proponent of individual liberty.  In Calvin's prescription, those who were wealthy were favored by God, while the poor demonstrated their damnation.  More than a little of this thinking by Christian Conservatives added a harsh, cruel element to GOP rule.)  Reagan's rhetorical genius was to make this seem like a noble and hopeful philosophy.  The neocons dusted a lot of his old speech off after 9/11, hoping to see the same benefit.  But the naked abuse of power by Bush and DeLay may finally have exposed the soullessness of this political philosophy.

The politics of personal gain mean forever identifying enemies and beating them back--gays, athiests, terrorists, illegal aliens, liberals, defeatocrats, environmentalists.  There's a logic to this, and it meant the GOP has dictated political discourse for 26 years.  But it is also depressing and sad.  I think one of the reasons we welcome Christmas is because it gives us a moment to stop and re-orient ourselves toward the benefit of others.  It centers us, makes us feel like we understand what's really important.  Maybe, finally, we are about to do the same as we consider public policy.  In the past, it has led to such non-free-market solutions as urban planning and free beaches--our parents' gifts to us.

Or maybe I just got caught up in the spirit of the season.

  • iggi (unverified)

    before my pre-holiday level of cynicism reasserts itself i'd like to say: great post Jeff.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    I wish I could be so convinced when Mr. Alworth says that "the age of the politics of personal gain may finally have run its course." The fact is that Calvinist dogma, with its inversion/perversion of Jesus' message about "blessed are the meek" into "blessed are the wealthy and cursed is everyone else", came to this continent with the earliest European colonists, and has been a dominant part of the American landscape ever since, even for folks who don't have a clue who John Calvin even was. Popular culture is chock-full of this notion, which meshes oh-so-nicely with another bit of American dogma: the bit about infinite social mobility and how anyone can make a fortune if he just works hard enough.

  • spicey (unverified)

    The November issue of Harper's has a really interesting long article about this issue. similar tune to the one you're singing, more fleshed out and worth a ready. talks about how the left is missing out on the whole values discussion... which has been grabbed by the right...

  • geoffludt (unverified)

    In the January 7th edition of the Statesman Journal, Oregon’s Governor, Ted Kulongoski (the Governor) offered his opinion that Oregon’s “Growing economy will benefit all”, but he didn’t mean it in that “rising tide raises all boats” sort of way, more like that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine also” sort of way. While it is not clear to whom the governors “all” is referring, his laundry list of ‘to-do’s’ leaves little doubt that the transfer they will be receiving is going to be expensive.

    read more here at rightoregon.org

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