Successful politics is energized by ideals. Without ideals, politics is no more than a professional activity like accounting or lawyering. At its best, it is well meaning public service. At its worst it is cynical and self-serving, even legalized criminality. It is not a search for truth, without which, since politics leads a society, society becomes moribund and corrupt. People need idealism, even irrational identification with myth and religious inspiration, to give meaning to their secular and political efforts. Unfortunately, the forces of control and manipulation can often use this need to further their very non-idealistic goals.
The remarkable resurgence of religious fundamentalism and the success of faith-based politics in the last twenty years is a testament to this principle. Forty years ago, the sociologists and intelligentsia of this country were quite certain that fundamentalist religion was a spent force. The rationalists and the professional bureaucrats, understanding little about human psychology, believed America could settle into an expanding consumer economics egalitarianism without the irrational influence of religion as a central force in the culture. They thought that Campbell Soup, Tide Soap, Coke and Chevy in a society where bias was illegal was enough. Obviously, they were wrong.
Humans need a higher purpose than attending to their day-to-day needs. Psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in his famous hierarchy of needs, noted that after physiological safety, love, belonging and self-esteem, there is a need for self-actualization, a term that involves higher human ideals, including self-transcendence. That Maslow did not specifically include the instinct toward the irrational, the spiritual and religious, in his hierarchy was a mistake.
Rationalists, and this includes most psychologists and liberals, continue to be blind in this aspect. They certainly recognize irrationality, but as a dysfunction, rather than an integral aspect of the human psyche. Carl Jung, above all major psychological thinkers, recognized this as a disastrous oversight. Jung was a deeply spiritual person and recognized the instinct toward the mystical as a fundamental human drive. If the positive aspects of this drive are blocked, its negative face will surely show itself. The history of religion is filled with barbaric examples of this twisted idealism, often in brutal suppression of diversity, humanism and true spirituality.
In his own era, Jung understood completely how Hitler gained power by appealing to the “shadow” of this need for an irrational self-actualization in the German people. Dispirited by their defeat in WWI, caught in a culture of rational decadence, governed by an ineffectual, uninspiring, bureaucratic government, the German people were lured into the mystical rituals of Nazi race mythology and Nietzscheian celebration of the “superman.” Lenin realized the same in Russia with the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Politics and the state co-opted the energy of religion. Violence, mystical privilege, and an unholy alliance between dogma and power are irrationality’s dark side, and can be manipulated for political ends. It is so very important to remember then, that in the absence of light, the darkness will find a way to reign. It is thus of extreme importance to remember that spirituality, the embrace of interconnectedness and self-transcendent love, is the light of the irrational human psyche.
America faces a similar historical swing. Democrats have become the party of secular bureaucracy, void of emotionalism and irrational symbolism. They believe it is enough to offer the public reasonably good government, supportive of the lower levels of need hierarchy, offering only the slightest idealism in the form of regulation-enforced pluralism. The lukewarm support the public has for liberal/progressive politics is the natural result.
Wall Street Republicans and their Evangelical allies, on the other hand, recognize the need for an irrational idealism, and appeal to it through patriotism and dogmatic exclusionary religion. They have created a potent politics combining fear for personal safety, the pursuit of self-esteem through consumer culture and religious and patriotic fundamentalism. Until Progressives understand this human need for infusing political and secular conduct with the energy of a self-transcendent idealism, they will continue to falter when competing with religious and political conservatives who wield dark irrationalism like a whip.
Successful progressive icons like Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King understood the importance of energizing their politics with inspirational idealism to great effect. If this country is to be rescued from the grip of religious fundamentalism and Corporate/Neo-conservative rule, then Progressives need to understand this phenomenon and begin practicing and preaching something akin to what I am calling spiritual secularism, the passionate application of spiritual ideals like compassion and interconnectedness to the secular world of politics. This is an idealism that brings with it an energy that can overcome irrational darkness and en-light-en our society as we search for truth entering into a very precarious future.