How religion has shaped American politics over the past 50 years

Inside the evangelicals: 

North Carolina exemplifies how the Christian left’s past informs its present — it’s not just the Christian right

Inside the evangelicals: How religion has shaped American politics over the past 50 years

A stained glass window adorns Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 6, 2016. The church marks its 200th anniversary in the city where it was founded by a former slave. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)(Credit: AP)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

On Oct. 3, Longwood University, a public university in Virginia, hosted the first and only 2016 vice presidential debate. In what were described as the debate’s “most sincere” and “most honest” moments, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN) discussed their religious faiths.

Pence, a Roman-Catholic-turned-evangelical, appealed to familiar concerns of the Christian right, such as abortion and “the sanctity of life.” Kaine, a Roman Catholic, emphasized the moral responsibility of honoring individual choice.

That Pence pivoted toward abortion is not surprising. Since 1973 — when the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized the right to an abortion — the Christian right has put abortion, as well as homosexuality and “family values,” at the center of conservative politics.

This particular focus stemmed from the fear, particularly among white southern evangelicals, of disturbing an old order based on white supremacy, heterosexuality and female domesticity. Decades of judicial and legislative progress toward a more inclusive and democratic nation as a result of the civil rights, women’s rights and gay liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s only increased that fear. It also consolidated southern white evangelicals’ political strength in the Christian right.

It is not surprising, therefore, that since the 1970s, it is the Christian right that has set the discourse about religion in America. What has remained unrecognized is the important role the Christian left has played during the last 50 years.

What is the “Christian left” really?

Generally, left and left-leaning Christians seek religion not so much in expressing faith in social justice. Sociologist Nancy T. Ammerman has found that these “lay liberals” are “defined not by ideology, but by practice.” They especially value practicing Christianity according to the Golden Rule, or Jesus’ message,

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)

Their concerns include income inequality, racism, violence, hunger and homelessness. They do not necessarily support the hard-line ideological positions of the Christian right, including those regarding LGBTQ Americans and marriage equality.

The Christian left does not easily fit within traditional organizational structures, though they do value church membership.

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey is suggestive of this trend. In the American South, where 34 percent of residents identify as evangelicals and 14 percent as mainline Protestant, the survey found that at least 21 percent of adults identify as liberal and 32 percent as moderate. These data suggest that the Christian left has found space within evangelical and mainline Protestant southern churches.

A historic tradition, a southern legacy

The Christian left is not a new phenomenon. American Christians have played important roles in many progressive movements dating back to the anti-slavery movement of the early- to mid-19th century.

After the Civil War, many Christians championed workers’ rights, orphanages and schools, women’s suffrage and resistance to American intervention in World War I. During this time, the black church, particularly in the South, became an important instrument in promoting social activism based on ideas of “social responsibility and good works” grounded in Christianity.

The black church was integral to the civil rights movement. At the time, both black and white Christians living in the South confronted head-on the Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation and voting rights.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which made racial segregation illegal, many white Christian leaders joined hands with African-Americans to advocate for racial justice within their white congregations, as racial injustice continued.

One of the most well-known Christian left organizations at the time was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Formed in 1957, the SCLC put black evangelical clergy at the forefront of the movement, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It coordinated with local civil rights organizations and played a role in voter drives and the 1963 March on Washington. That was where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Perhaps King best summarized his vision for the Christian left, shared by the SCLC, when he wrote from inside a Birmingham jail cell,

“Was not Jesus an extremist in love?”

It is important to note that the Christian left did not limit its reach to racial justice, nor did its significance wane in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Christian right consolidated its political base.

For example, it is not widely known that some Christian denominations welcomed LGBTQ Americans. According to historian Jim Downs, churches for gay men and women, including those located in the South, played an important role in gay liberation in the 1970s. In the 1980s, mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church formed support ministries for LGBTQ members. Episcopalians also took a lead role in affirming women’s rights by ordaining women.

A southern phenomenon then and now

This history of Christian activism in the South continues today. North Carolina — a state that has been the focus of my own research — exemplifies how the Christian left’s past informs its present.

Historically one of the most progressive southern states, North Carolina is home tothe Moral Monday Movement. Formed in 2013 by Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the movement raises its voice against a wide range of issues related to unfair treatment and discrimination such as restriction of voting rights and cutting funding for Medicaid, welfare and education.

When the Moral Monday Movement began in North Carolina in 2013, religious leaders issued a joint statement urging activism not along partisan but religious lines.

The movement has since spread to other southern states, including Georgia, Floridaand Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana. Moral Monday rallies have also been held inAlabama and Missouri.

Lost in media coverage

Despite the growth of movements such as Moral Mondays, however, the Christian left often gets lost in media coverage during election cycles.

This is not surprising as media coverage of religion is limited. In 2008 and 2012,merely one percent of media coverage concerned religion, and 2016 appears to be no different.

Furthermore, whatever coverage does take place is often limited to conservative Christians and the “red states” of the South.

Unfortunately, the “red state” identification does not capture the region’s social, political and racial diversity. It is true that religion is important in the South. In 2014,62 percent of adults in the South reported that religion was “very important” to them. However, the percentage of religious southerners who lean Republican and Democrat are roughly the same (approximately 40 percent).

The voices that have been missed

It is important to note that even in this election cycle, the South’s Christian left has not been silent.

On Sept. 26, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte police officer, Rev. William Barber led a “unity rally for justice and transparency” at a historic black church in North Carolina, where he asked his audience to hold up their “faithful voter cards.” He led the gathering in a civil rights marching song.

This year’s presidential election might be an opportunity for the Christian left to become more visible. There were indications of this when on Oct. 6 more than 100 evangelical leaders denounced Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and warned the media against viewing evangelicals as a monolithic group.

Of course, the “Christian left versus Christian right” discussion is itself limiting. In the context of the rich religious pluralism of the United States, we must ask more broadly what the religious left can do collaboratively to affect change in American political discourse.

There is movement in this direction, including in the federal government. For example, in 2009, just two weeks into his first term, President Barack Obama established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The office has embraced core principles of the Christian left, including social and economic justice. This year it appointed Barbara Stein to the advisory council, who is the first openly transgender appointee and an active member of the United Church of Christ.

Such examples can prove instructive, especially to local, grassroots organizations. As election day approaches, the Christian left can play an important role in taking a stand in favor of this progress.

The Conversation

Timothy J. Williams is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon.


Donald Trump: The Dress Rehearsal for Fascism

Posted on Oct 16, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at an event hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition in Edison, N.J., on Saturday. (Julio Cortez / AP)

Americans are not offered major-party candidates who have opposing political ideologies or ideas. We are presented only with manufactured political personalities. We vote for the candidate who makes us “feel” good about him or her. Campaigns are entertainment and commercial vehicles to raise billions in advertising revenue for corporations. The candidate who can provide the best show gets the most coverage. The personal brand is paramount. It takes precedence over ideas, truth, integrity and the common good. This cult of the self, which defines our politics and our culture, contains the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, self-importance, a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation, and incapacity for remorse or guilt. Donald Trump has these characteristics. So does Hillary Clinton.

Our system of inverted totalitarianism has within it the seeds of an overt or classical fascism. The more that political discourse becomes exclusively bombastic and a form of spectacle, the more that emotional euphoria is substituted for political thought and the more that violence is the primary form of social control, the more we move toward a Christianized fascism.

Last week’s presidential debate in St. Louis was only a few degrees removed from the Jerry Springer TV show—the angry row of women sexually abused or assaulted by Bill Clinton, the fuming Trump pacing the stage with a threatening posture, the sheeplike and carefully selected audience that provided the thin veneer of a democratic debate while four multimillionaires—Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, Clinton and Trump—squabbled like spoiled schoolchildren.

The Clinton campaign, aware that the policy differences between her and a candidate such as Jeb Bush were minuscule, plotted during the primaries to elevate the fringe Republican candidates—especially Trump. To the Democratic strategists, a match between Clinton and Trump seemed made in heaven. Trump, with his “brain trust” of Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, would make Clinton look like a savior.

A memo addressed to the Democratic National Committee under the heading “Our Goals & Strategy” was part of the trove of John Podesta emails released this month by WikiLeaks.

“Our hope is that the goal of a potential HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] campaign and the DNC would be one-in-the-same: to make whomever the Republicans nominate unpalatable to the majority of the electorate. We have outlined three strategies to obtain our goal …,” it reads.

The memo names Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson as candidates, or what the memo calls “Pied Piper” candidates who could push mainstream candidates closer to the positions embraced by the lunatic right. “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”

The elites of the two ruling parties, who have united behind Clinton, are playing a very dangerous game. The intellectual and political vacuum caused by the United States’ species of anti-politics, or what the writer Benjamin DeMott called “junk politics,” leaves candidates, all of whom serve the interests of the corporate state, seeking to exaggerate what Sigmund Freud termed “the narcissism of small differences.”

However, this battle between small differences, largely defined by the culture wars, no longer works with large segments of the population. The insurgencies of Trump and Bernie Sanders are evidence of a breakdown of these forms of social control. There is a vague realization among Americans that we have undergone a corporate coup. People are angry about being lied to and fleeced by the elites. They are tired of being impotent. Trump, to many of his most fervent supporters, is a huge middle finger to a corporate establishment that has ruined their lives and the lives of their children. And if Trump, or some other bombastic idiot, is the only vehicle they have to defy the system, they will use him.

The elites, including many in the corporate press, must increasingly give political legitimacy to goons and imbeciles in a desperate battle to salvage their own legitimacy. But the more these elites pillage and loot, and the more they cast citizens aside as human refuse, the more the goons and imbeciles become actual alternatives. The corporate capitalists would prefer the civilized mask of a Hillary Clinton. But they also know that police states and fascist states will not impede their profits; indeed in such a state the capitalists will be more robust in breaking the attempts of the working class to organize for decent wages and working conditions. Citibank, Raytheon and Goldman Sachs will adapt. Capitalism functions very well without democracy.

In the 1990s I watched an impotent, nominally democratic liberal elite in the former Yugoslavia fail to understand and act against the population’s profound economic distress. The fringe demagogues whom the political and educated elites dismissed as buffoons—Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudman—rode an anti-liberal tide to power.

The political elites in Yugoslavia at first thought the nationalist cranks and lunatics, who amassed enough support to be given secondary positions of power, could be contained. This mistake was as misguided as Franz von Papen’s assurances that when the uncouth Austrian Adolf Hitler was appointed the German chancellor in January 1933 the Nazi leader would be easily manipulated. Any system of prolonged political paralysis and failed liberalism vomits up monsters. And the longer we remain in a state of political paralysis—especially as we stumble toward another financial collapse—the more certain it becomes that these monsters will take power.

Fascism, at its core, is an amorphous and incoherent ideology that perpetuates itself by celebrating a grotesque hypermasculinity, elements of which are captured in Trump’s misogyny. It allows disenfranchised people to feel a sense of power and to have their rage sanctified. It takes a politically marginalized and depoliticized population and mobilizes it around a utopian vision of moral renewal and vengeance and an anointed political savior. It is always militaristic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of democracy and replaces culture with nationalist and patriotic kitsch. It sees those outside the closed circle of the nation-state or the ethnic or religious group as diseased enemies that must be physically purged to restore the health of nation.

Many of these ideological elements are already part of our system of inverted totalitarianism. But inverted totalitarianism, as Sheldon Wolin wrote, disclaims its identity to pay homage to a democracy that in reality has ceased to function. It is characterized by the anonymity of the corporate centers of power. It seeks to keep the population passive and demobilized. I asked Wolin shortly before he died in 2015 that if the two major forms of social control he cited—access to easy and cheap credit and inexpensive, mass-produced consumer products—were no longer available would we see the rise of a more classical form of fascism. He said this would indeed become a possibility.

Bill Clinton transformed the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. He pushed the Republican Party so far to the right it became insane. Hillary Clinton is Mitt Romney in drag. She and the Democratic Party embrace policies—endless war, the security and surveillance state, neoliberalism, austerity, deregulation, new trade agreements and deindustrialization—that are embraced by the Republican elites. Clinton in office will continue the neoliberal assault on the poor and the working poor, and increasingly the middle class, that has defined the corporate state since the Reagan administration. She will do so while speaking in the cloying and hypocritical rhetoric of compassion that masks the cruelty of corporate capitalism.

The Democratic and Republican parties may be able to disappear Trump, but they won’t disappear the phenomena that gave rise to Trump. And unless the downward spiral is reversed—unless the half of the country now living in poverty is lifted out of poverty—the cynical game the elites are playing will backfire. Out of the morass will appear a genuine “Christian” fascist endowed with political skill, intelligence, self-discipline, ruthlessness and charisma. The monster the elites will again unwittingly elevate, as a foil to keep themselves in power, will consume them. There would be some justice in this if we did not all have to pay.

Noam Chomsky Unravels the Political Mechanics Behind His Gradual Expulsion From Mainstream Media

The prolific author and acclaimed MIT professor is never featured on major networks.

Photo Credit: Stuart Andrews / Flickr

Ralph Nader and leading linguist Noam Chomsky engaged in a much anticipated discussion in early October on Ralph Nader Radio Hour. The two raised questions about changing the media narrative in a totalitarian-like state, and how Chomsky got dismissed from the mainstream altogether.

“How often have you been on the op-ed pages of the New York Times?” Nader asked Chomsky.

For Chomsky, the last time was over a decade ago.

“[I was asked] to write about the Israeli separation wall, actually an annexation wall that runs through the West Bank and breaking apart the Palestinian communities… condemned as illegal by the World Court,” Chomsky told Nader.

Chomsky would later pen a similar piece for CNN on the 2013 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But Chomsky has never been interviewed on the network; nor has he appeared on NBC, ABC or CBS.

“How about NPR and PBS, partially taxpayer-supported…more free-thinking and more tolerant [outlets]?” Nader wanted to know.

“I’ve been on ‘Charlie Rose’ two or three times,” Chomsky told Nader, adding that he had a curious story about a particular Boston outlet for NPR based in Boston University.

“They used to have a program in their primetime news programs All Things Considered some years ago at 5:25… maybe once a week or so, a five-minute discussion with someone who had written a new book and there’s a lot of pressure,” Chomsky began.

NPR was going to allow Chomsky to present his 1989 book, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies.

“I got a call from the publisher telling me when I should tune in and I never listened [before], so I tuned in [and] there was five minutes of music… I started getting phone calls from around the country asking ‘What happened to the piece?'” Chomsky remembered.

“I then got a call from the station manager in Washington who told me that she’d been getting calls and she didn’t understand it because it was listed… she called back saying kind of embarrassed … that some bigwig in the system had heard the announcement at five o’clock and had ordered it canceled,” Chomsky explained.

The irony of Chomsky’s media criticism being dismissed by the media is not lost on the former MIT professor, who remains in awe of America’s level of censorship.

“Any one of the former Bush-Cheney warmongers like Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton and others have gotten far more press after they’ve left federal positions; in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post,” Nader said.

And unlike Chomsky, “They’ve been on television public television, NPR and they have a record of false statements; they have record of deception, they have record of pursuing policies are illegal under our Constitution, under international law and under federal statutes such as criminal invasion of Iraq and other adventures around the world,” Nader pointed out.

But the media problem permeates other industries, like education and government.

“Now, a society that operates in a way where propaganda is not only emanating from the major media but it gets into our schools, the kind of courses are taught, the content of the history, is a society that’s not going to be mobilized for its own survival, much less the survival of other countries whose dictators we have for decades supported to oppress their people,” explained Nader.

Listen to Ralph Nader’s full program with Noam Chomsky:

Neoliberalism is creating loneliness

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze
Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

In Britain, men who have spent their entire lives in quadrangles – at school, at college, at the bar, in parliament – instruct us to stand on our own two feet. The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.

As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has brilliantly documented, girls and young women routinely alter the photos they post to make themselves look smoother and slimmer. Some phones, using their “beauty” settings, do it for you without asking; now you can become your own thinspiration. Welcome to the post-Hobbesian dystopia: a war of everyone against themselves.

Is it any wonder, in these lonely inner worlds, in which touching has been replaced by retouching, that young women are drowning in mental distress? Arecent survey in England suggests that one in four women between 16 and 24 have harmed themselves, and one in eight now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder affect 26% of women in this age group. This is what a public health crisis looks like.

If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.

It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.

Studies in both animals and humans suggest a reason for comfort eating: isolation reduces impulse control, leading to obesity. As those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are the most likely to suffer from loneliness, might this provide one of the explanations for the strong link between low economic status and obesity?

Anyone can see that something far more important than most of the issues we fret about has gone wrong. So why are we engaging in this world-eating, self-consuming frenzy of environmental destruction and social dislocation, if all it produces is unbearable pain? Should this question not burn the lips of everyone in public life?

There are some wonderful charities doing what they can to fight this tide, some of which I am going to be working with as part of my loneliness project. But for every person they reach, several others are swept past.

This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.

Two American Dreams: how a dumbed-down nation lost sight of a great idea


As Clinton and Trump prepare to debate next week, noble ideals are overwhelmed in a culture where most Americans do not know what is real anymore and the dream of equal opportunity is a fantasy


Every child had a pretty good shot

To get at least as far as their old man got

But something happened on the way to that place

They threw an American flag in our face.

Billy Joel, Allentown

We know it today as the American Dream. The now-obscure historian James Truslow Adams coined the term in his book The Epic of America, defining “the American dream” as:

a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Adams was writing in 1931, but the dream was there from the start, in Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” formulation in the Declaration of Independence, “happiness” residing in its 18th-century sense of prosperity, thriving, wellbeing.

Nobody ever came to America with a starry-eyed dream of working for starvation wages. Plenty of that available in the old country, and that’s precisely why we left, escaping serfdom, peonage, tenancy, indenture – all different iterations of what was essentially a “rigged system”, to put it in current political verbiage – that channeled the profits of our labor upstream to the Man. We came to America to do better, to secure for ourselves the liberation that economic security brings, and for millions – mostly white males at first, and then slowly, sputteringly, women and people of color – that’s the way it worked out, nothing less than a revolution in the human condition.

Upward mobility is indispensable to the American Dream, the notion that people can rise from working to middle class, and middle to upper and even higher on the model of a (fictional) Horatio Alger or an (actual) Andrew Carnegie. Upward mobility across classes peaked in the US in the late 19th century. Most of the gains of the 20th century were achieved en masse; it wasn’t so much a phenomenon of great numbers of people rising from one class to the next as it was standards of living rising sharply for all classes. You didn’t have to be exceptional to rise. Opportunity was sufficiently broad that hard work and steadiness would do, along with tacit buy-in to the social contract, allegiance to the system proceeding on the assumption that the system was basically fair.

The biggest gains occurred in the post-second world war era of the GI Bill, affordable higher education, strong labor unions, and a progressive tax code. Between the late 1940s and early 1970s, median household income in the US doubled. Income inequality reached historic lows. The average CEO salary was approximately 30 times that of the lowest-paid employee, compared with today’s gold-plated multiple of 370. The top tax bracket ranged in the neighborhood of 70% to 90%. Granted, there were far fewer billionaires in those days. Somehow the nation survived.

“America is a dream of greater justice and opportunity for the average man and, if we can not obtain it, all our other achievements amount to nothing.” So wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in her syndicated column of 6 January 1941, an apt lead-in to her husband’s State of the Union address later that day in which he enumerated the four freedoms essential to American democracy, among them “freedom from want”. In his State of the Union address three years later, FDR expanded on this concept of freedom from want with his proposal for a “Second Bill of Rights”, an “economic” bill of rights to counteract what he viewed as the growing tyranny of the modern economic order:

This Republic had at its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship … As our nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy has expanded – these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.

Political rights notwithstanding, “freedom” rings awfully hollow when you’re getting nickel-and-dimed to death in your everyday life. The Roosevelts recognized that wage peonage, or any system that inclines toward subsistence level, is simply incompatible with self-determination. Subsistence is, by definition, a constrained, desperate state; one’s horizon is necessarily limited to the present day, to getting enough of what the body needs to make it to the next. These days a minimum wage worker in New York City clocking 40 hours a week (at $9 per hour) earns $18,720 a year, well under the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s a scrambling, anxious existence, narrowly bounded. Close to impossible to decently feed, clothe, and shelter yourself on a wage like that, much less a family; much less buy health insurance, or save for your kid’s college, or participate in any of those other good American things. Down at peon level, the pursuit of happiness sounds like a bad joke. “It’s called the American dream,” George Carlin cracked, “because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

“Necessitous men are not free men,” said FDR in that 1944 State of the Union speech. “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” A dire statement, demonstrably true, and especially unsettling in 2016, a point in time when the American Dream seems more viable as nostalgia than a lived phenomenon. Income inequality, wealth distribution, mortality rates: by every measure, the average individual that Eleanor Roosevelt celebrated is sinking. Exceptional people continue to rise, but overall mobility is stagnant at best. If you’re born poor in Ferguson or Appalachia, chances are you’re going to stay that way. Ditto if your early memories include the swimming pool at the Houston Country Club or ski lessons at Deer Valley, you’re likely going to keep your perch at the top of the heap.

Income inequality, gross disparities in wealth: we’re told daily, incessantly, that these are the necessary consequences of a free market, as if the market was a force of nature on the order of weather or tides, and not the entirely manmade construct that it is. In light of recent history, blind acceptance of this sort of economics would seem to require a firm commitment to stupidity, but let’s assume for the moment that it’s true, that the free market exists as a universe unto itself, as immutable in its workings as the laws of physics. Does that universe include some ironclad rule that requires inequality of opportunity? I’ve yet to hear the case for that, though doubtless some enterprising thinktanker could manufacture one out of this same free-market economics, along with whiffs of genetic determinism as it relates to qualities of discipline and character. And it would be bogus, that case. And more than that, immoral. That we should allow for wildly divergent opportunities due to accidents of birth ought to strike us as a crime equal in violence to child abuse or molestation.

Franklin Roosevelt: “[F]reedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” The proposition goes deeper than sentiment, deeper than policy, deeper even than adherence to equality and “the pursuit of happiness” as set forth in the Declaration. It cuts all the way to the nature of democracy, and to the prospects for its continued existence in America. “We may have democracy in this country,” wrote supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, “or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Those few, in Brandeis’s judgment, would inevitably use their power to subvert the free will of the majority; the super-rich as a class simply couldn’t be trusted to do otherwise, a thesis that’s being starkly acted out in the current era of Citizens United, Super Pacs, and truckloads of dark money.

But the case for economic equality goes beyond even equations of power politics. Democracy’s premise rests on the notion that the collective wisdom of the majority will prove right more often than it’s wrong. That given sufficient opportunity in the pursuit of happiness, your population will develop its talents, its intellect, its better judgment; that over time its capacity for discernment and self-correction will be enlarged. Life will improve. The form of your union will be more perfect, to borrow a phrase. But if a critical mass of your population is kept in peonage? All its vitality spent in the trenches of day-to-day survival, with scant opportunity to develop the full range of its faculties? Then how much poorer the prospects for your democracy will be.

Economic equality can no more be divorced from the functioning of democracy than the ballot. Jefferson, Brandeis, the Roosevelts all recognized this home truth. The American Dream has to be the lived reality of the country, not just a pretty story we tell ourselves.

I have always gotten much more publicity than anybody else.

Donald Trump

Then there’s that other American dream, the numbed-out, dumbed-down, make-believe world where much of the national consciousness resides, the sum product of our mighty Fantasy Industrial Complex: movies, TV, internet, texts, tweets, ad saturation, celebrity obsession, sports obsession, Amazonian sewers of porn and political bullshit, the entire onslaught of media and messaging that strives to separate us from our brains. September 11, 2001 blasted us out of that dream for about two minutes, but the dream is so elastic, so all-encompassing, that 9/11 was quickly absorbed into the the matrix of FIC. This exceedingly complex event – horribly direct in the result, but a swamp when it comes to explanations – was stripped down and binaried into a reliable fantasy narrative of us against them, good versus evil, Christian against Muslim. The week after 9/11, Susan Sontag was virtually crucified for pointing out that “a few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand how we came to this point”. For this modest proposal, no small number of her fellow Americans wished her dead. But if we’d followed her lead – if we’d done the hard work of digging down to the roots of the whole awful thing – perhaps we wouldn’t still be fighting al-Qaida and its offspring 15 years later.

Here’s a hypothesis, ugly, uncharitable, but given our recent history it begs inquiry: most of the time most Americans don’t know what’s real any more. How else to explain Trump, a billionaire on an ego trip capturing a major party’s nomination for president? Another blunt-speaking billionaire tried twice for the presidency in the 1990s and went out in flames, but he made the mistake of running as himself, a recognizably flesh-and-blood human being, whereas Trump comes to us as the ultimate creature, and indisputable maestro, of the Fantasy Industrial Complex. For much of his career – until 2004, to be exact – he held status in our lives as a more or less normal celebrity. Larger than life, to be sure, cartoonishly grandiose, shamelessly self-promoting, and reliably obnoxious, but Trump didn’t become Trump until “The Apprentice” debuted in January 2004. The first episode drew 20.7 million viewers. By comparison, Ross Perot received 19,742,000 votes in the 1992 presidential election – yes, I’m comparing vote totals with Nielsen ratings – but Trump kept drawing that robust 20 million week after week. The season finale that year reached 28 million viewers, and over the next decade, for 13 more seasons, this was how America came to know him, in that weirdly intimate way TV has of delivering celebrity into the very center of our lives.

It was this same Trump that 24 million viewers – a record, of course – tuned in to watch at the first Republican debate last year, the glowering, blustering, swaggering boardroom action figure who gave every promise of shredding the pols. One wonders if Trump would have ever been Trump if there hadn’t been a JR Ewing to pave the way, to show just how dear and real a dealmaking TV rogue could be to our hearts. Trump’s performance on that night did not disappoint, nor through all the debates in the long march that followed, and if his regard for the truth has proved more erratic even than that of professional politicians, we should expect as much. In the realm of the Fantasy Industrial Complex, reality happens on a sliding scale. The truth is just another possibility.

I speak the password primeval.

I would give the sign of democracy;

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

In nine days Trump and Hillary will take the stage for their first face-to-face debate. There will be blood. The knives are going to be out, and the ratings are bound to be, need it be said, yuge. The American Dream will no doubt be invoked from both podiums, for what true-blue patriot was ever against the American Dream? And yet for the past 30 years the Democratic candidate has worked comfortably within a party establishment that’s battered the working and middle classes down to the bone. The “new” Democrats of the Clinton era are always strong for political rights, as long as they don’t upset corporate America’s bottom line. Strong for racial and gender equality, strong for LGBT rights (though that took time). Meanwhile this same Democratic establishment joined with the GOP to push a market- and finance-driven economic order that enriches the already rich and leaves the rest of us sucking wind.

That’s the very real anger Trump is speaking to, no fantasy there. Bernie as well; small wonder their constituencies overlapped, though Trump’s professed devotion to the common man stumbles over even the simplest proofs. On whether to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Trump’s moral compass has spun from an implied no (wages are already “too high”), to implied yes (wages are “too low”), to weasel words (leave it up to the states), to yes and no in the same breath (“I would leave it and raise it somewhat”), and, finally, when pressed by Bill O’Reilly in July, to yes-but (raise it to $10, but it’s still best left to the states). All this from the candidate who’s firmly in favor of abolishing the estate tax, to the great benefit of heirs of multimillionaires and none at all to the vast majority of us.

Meanwhile, the Fantasy Industrial Complex is doing just fine this election season, thank you. Speaking at a Morgan Stanley investors’ conference in March, one of the commanders of the FIC, Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS and a man whose 2015 compensation totaled $56.8m, had this to say about the Trump campaign. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in and this is fun … this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Che Guevara: A flawed revolutionary icon

Mike Gonzalez looks at the important lessons to be drawn from Samuel Farber’s new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, in a review first published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

FOR TWO generations of activists, Ernesto Che Guevara has symbolized a kind of selfless heroism. His relative youth at his death in 1967 (he was 38) conserved his air of rebelliousness and the image of a man interested only in the struggle, rather than in power.

Yet Sam Farber who acknowledges these qualities, describes him early in his new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, as “irremediably undemocratic.” The contradiction is striking and central to Farber’s critical analysis of Che’s life as a revolutionary.

Farber’s starting point is the understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working classes, with the emphasis on self. In other words, revolution is, as Marx says (in his Theses on Feuerbach) the “coincidence of the changing of self and the changing of circumstances.” It is in acting collectively in the world that the majority come to recognize their own power and become subjects of history rather than merely its objects. That is the central idea of Marxism.

Yet Che Guevara’s politics and his practice were based on a very different idea–that it is revolutionaries who make the revolution. And they do so irrespective of the circumstances in which they operate, because it is the will of the revolutionary vanguard that is the key.

This voluntarist view is not just misguided; it is alien to the revolutionary tradition to which Farber (and myself) belong. The substitution of the leaders for the mass movement, points ahead to a very different future prefigured in the guerrilla method.

Farber explains that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century utopian novel Looking Backward was one of Guevara’s inspirations. Interestingly the future state that Bellamy imagines was modeled on an army.

Farber reminds us that revolutions do not automatically lead either to dictatorship or democracy; their outcome will depend on the “leading politics” of the movement. In the case of Cuba after 1959, the state was shaped around the command model–a pyramid of orders delivered from above and accepted without question–in which democracy appeared as a risk to the authority of leadership.

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IT SEEMS curious at first that someone with Guevara’s background should have come not just to accept, but to vigorously advocate that inescapably Stalinist project–to dismiss the right to strike and the independent organization of workers as mere obstacles on the road to revolution and to scorn the “false prophets of mass democracy”.

Born in Argentina to left wing parents influenced by the especially Stalinist Argentine communist party, Guevara grew up as a radical Bohemian, a life-style rebel who spurned what he saw as bourgeois habits, from cleanliness to ostentatious consumption. His protest against that culture took the form of a kind of a puritanical asceticism.

The politics would come later, though he was a visceral anti-imperialist from early on. And by the time he reached Mexico, where he met the Cuban rebels for the first time, he had begun to steep himself in Marxism. But it was a Marxism in the abstract, not linked to activism of any kind.

The members of the 26th July Movement with whom Che landed in Cuba in December 1956 to launch the guerrilla campaign were, as Farber describes them, rightly in my view, “déclassé”–political rebels from mainly middle class backgrounds with few roots in the mass movement. Guevara shared that dislocation.

With the victory of the revolution in January 1959, Che joined the Castro brothers in its leadership. It may surprise many readers that Che was–and Farber marshals a powerful body of evidence to prove his case–together with Raúl, the architect of the new state, though ultimately the political skills of Fidel carried him to the top of the pyramid.

It was not a search for personal power that made Che the unconditional supporter of a one-party state–unlike Fidel, for whom it was his driving impulse. But it reflected an admiration for the Stalinist state in its most sectarian and undemocratic manifestations–the state as the exclusive vanguard.

That model drove Che’s critically important interventions in the economy in the early years, based on rapid industrialization, but taking no account of the realities of the Cuban economy. By 1962, Che acknowledged how mistaken those economic policies were, but by then it was too late to turn the clock back.

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WHAT THIS “economic voluntarism”, as Farber calls it, illustrated was not just the single-minded dedication to the immediate creation of a communist state along Stalinist lines, but also a central feature of Guevara’s politics that Farber calls his “political tone-deafness” or his “schematism”.

It was already implicit in his early (1960) manual on Guerrilla Warfare, and definitive especially in his later activities in the Congo and Bolivia. For Guevara, political strategy was not shaped by the specific circumstances in which it unfolded.

So in a Bolivia with an extraordinary tradition of working-class militancy, and which was in the throes of a bitter strike wave when he arrived in 1966, he was insistent on creating a rural guerrilla force and paid no attention to the working-class movement except to call on its militants to join the guerrillas (which no more than a handful did). A year later Che was dead, together with most of his comrades.

In the Congo the failure of the movement there was attributed by Guevara to the lack of a vanguard leadership. And in his arguments with the French agronomist Rene Dumont over the right to strike, Guevara angrily rejected Dumont’s insistence that it was fundamental to a socialist democracy, just as he did in his famous essay Socialism and man in Cuba, insisting that “a mass party was only possible when the masses have attained vanguard consciousness”.

By the mid-sixties Che was increasingly critical of the Soviet economy’s drift towards capitalism, but at no point did that lead him to a criticism of the bureaucratic state. How could it, after all, when he had been an architect of the one-party state in Cuba?

What impresses in Farber’s book is the way in which he interweaves a critical assessment of Guevara’s politics with general arguments about the meaning of socialism. And at its heart, that socialism is democracy of the most radical and profound kind.

The one-party state that Che forged with Raúl Castro continues in Cuba today, overseeing the restoration of a capitalist economy. The lack of resistance to its inevitable effects are a product of a one-party regime that denied the diversity of working-class politics and imposed a system in which the majority had no freedom to act, criticize or generate alternative socialist projects.

Would Che have been happy with the outcome, and the corruption and manipulation of power it has produced? His role in creating the system suggests that he would, albeit perhaps with some misgivings. And he would have despised the yearning for a materially better life among the majority as the unacceptable infiltration of capitalist values.

So what should we do with this flawed revolutionary icon? Recognize that his high moral standards, his resolute internationalism, and his egalitarianism were qualities to cherish. But the one-party state he favored and its repression of democracy consigned the subjects of revolution to a position in which self-emancipation became impossible, as the self-proclaimed vanguard usurped their role, at first in the name of revolution but soon, and in the absence of any possibility of control from below, in their own self-interest.

First published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

“Star Trek” in the age of Trump

Why we need to embrace its 50-year mission now more than ever

The doomsday pessimism and defensiveness peddled by Donald Trump could use a dose of Enterprise hope and harmony

"Star Trek" in the age of Trump: Why we need to embrace its 50-year mission now more than ever
(Credit: Getty/Alex Wong/CBS/Photo montage by Salon)

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission, no, wait, 50-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life for itself, to boldly remain relevant across space and time.

And it has. Especially today, in the age of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the message of “Star Trek” — openness, harmony and the spirit of exploration — feels more applicable than ever.

The unstoppable science-fiction franchise turns 50 tomorrow, with the first episode having hit NBC airwaves on Sept. 8, 1966. Over its subsequent half-century run, “Star Trek” has spanned 13 movies, including a new installment, “Star Trek Beyond,” which opened in July. There have been six TV series (a seventh comes in 2017), plus a handful of fan-created homages. The “Trek” phenomenon has also inspired Trekkers to dress in costume, collect merchandise, buy comic books, adopt the Vulcan salute “Live long and prosper” and quote lines from movies as daily parlance.

But unlike Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and their shipmates, who traveled to new worlds every week, Americans remain, like Khan, the show’s recurrent fictional villain, marooned on a somewhat hostile planet. Just as Khan was exiled to Ceti Alpha V, where he forged a new society, most of us — for the time being at least — are stuck on planet Earth. Here in 2016, our nation is engaged in its own terrestrial wars between alien-like political foes — Democrats versus Republicans, conservative Christians against Muslims, police supporters against Black Lives Matter activists, the haves battling the have-nots.

In these contentious times, the spirit of “Star Trek” still speaks to us.

What the show has always boldly declared is this: Disregard the doomsayers, those who predict our species’ demise, those who look to disharmony. Instead, the goofy, awkward optimism of the “Star Trek” franchise suggested, Aim forward into a future of cooperation and harmony.

Sure, if you’re gold-shirted officer Kirk, you get to sleep with wayward crew and alien species from time to time. If his bedroom shenanigans were a bit self-serving, didn’t that amorous touch also foster interspecies understanding? By and large, he came in peace.

This fall as the presidential race hits warp speed, “Star Trek” still offers a vision of how we could and should be. (Depending on which Romulans or Changelings you speak to, Hillary Clinton is either one of the gold-shirted good guys or a nefarious Orion slave girl bent on revenge; Trump is either a warmongering Klingon or a disposable Redshirt who doesn’t survive the episode.)

“Star Trek” first launched during a time of great unrest: the 1960s. The ground war in Vietnam had been launched in an effort to stop Communist expansion in Asia. On the homefront, racial tensions flared and violence erupted. Fears about overpopulation and environmental destruction haunted Americans. Yet here was a show whose multiracial, multiethnic, multinational and, yes, multispecies crew worked together. From Spock to Uhura, Chekov to Sulu, “Star Trek” proposed a melting pot of humans, male and female, white and black, Asian and Russian — and even Vulcan — who all work together toward a common goal. In “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the diverse crew even included a robot, Data, and a member of a onetime enemy species, the Klingon Worf.

That mission was the exploration of space, “the final frontier,” in the spirit of knowledge and science.

This vision is a powerful counter to Trump’s demagoguery, which places the problems of our country at the feet of “bad people” from foreign lands, who have darker skin, who practice alien customs and who, we are told, mean us harm. For Trump and the supporters he engages, our differences aren’t outweighed by what we share. Trump’s vision of the future depends on having enemies to attack — Hillary Clinton, Mexican immigrants, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. What would make America great again, in his mind, is more mistrust and taller walls.

This hive mind-like approach is not unlike that of the cybernetic Borg of “Star Trek” who want to assimilate every foreigner they encounter.

Imagine a son or daughter of an undocumented immigrant on Trump’s crew. That’s not the galaxy Trump that lives in. Perhaps in an alternative universe, he might embrace these ideals, and the legions of white nationalist, neo-reactionary, alt-right nativists might be less afraid of “the other.” But until we invent a way to travel through a wormhole — or send Trump and his ilk through one — making his supporters feel less paranoid and less likely to blame anyone but themselves for their problems isn’t going happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, walls keep rising between African-Americans and police, veterans and civilians, Wal-Mart workers and billionaires.

We must remember the immortal words of Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”

The four-year mission of the U.S.S. Trump could not be more opposed than the original five-year “Star Trek” mission of cooperation, adventure and hope.

Let us hope that it is Trump who is the alien species, not those of us who believe in science, exploration and a peaceful universe. After all, you can’t build a wall in space.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” He can be reached and onTwitter.