I woke up this morning dreaming of fire. I assumed it to be a recollection in my unconsciousness of the recent moment when my dinner caught fire on the stove. (All is well, thanks.)
But I wonder if it's not that at all.
This is on my mind because I’ve just finished reading an enlightening and maddening book. So, today, a book review.
The book is Listen, Liberal, (1) by Thomas Frank, a journalist from Kansas whose wheelhouse is American politics. Among his many other books, What’s the Matter with Kansas? from 2004 explored the ways in which so many people in mainstream America had been duped into voting against their own best economic interests, with his home state Kansas as the metaphor and microcosm. That book was about the GOP’s lack of ethics and general inability to give a damn about people.
This book, is subtitled “Whatever happened to the party of the people?” and it skewers the Democratic Party for essentially the same thing: lack of ethics and general inability to give a damn about people. Not exactly a sequel, and something more than point-counterpoint, Frank’s work is a look over 80 years, with special attention to the past 35 – the years beginning with Bill Clinton in which the income equality established by FDR dems took a back seat and then was finally tossed from the moving vehicle of the party.
He begins “For a generation, Democratic politicians have talked of ‘hope’ as though it were their unique selling proposition, a secret ingredient they had that no other major-party brand could offer. Today those same Democrats express annoyance at the suggestion that anyone could really have taken them seriously on this hope business…. When it comes to tackling the ‘defining challenge of our time,’ (2) however, many of our modern Democratic leaders falter. They acknowledge that inequality is rampant and awful, but they cannot find the conviction or imagination to do what is necessary to reverse it.”
The deeper you get into the book, the more scathing the historical record. Page 173, he quotes Larry Summers, the Harvard economist and bank deregulation advocate who became Obama’s chief economic advisor (and had previously served in the Clinton administration):
“One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated.”
Wow. Good god, wow. To be clear, Larry: Black people are supposed to be incarcerated and exploited? undocumented immigrants are supposed to work long hours and pay into a social security system for which they’ll never receive a dime? women are supposed to be paid 54 to 90 cents on the male dollar? (3) LGBT folks are supposed to lack job security and worry that employers’ queasy and righteous stomachs will trump a job done well?
Frank takes us through the 2016 campaign, with an afterword penned post-election, and makes it painfully, undeniably, infuriatingly clear that there is no longer a party of the people vying for top office. No such party exists. And this is by design.
You may recall my editorial sometime in 2016 about why I was intending to vote 3rd party. (4) A turning point for me in that decision was the realization that the Democratic nominee was just as embedded with the moneyed class as the guy from the other party.
But this editorial today isn’t my grand “I told you so” moment. This editorial is about hope. Hope was never the secret ingredient of the Democrats; hope is not to be found in the mid-term elections, the speeches of the Golden Globes, the nomination of Michelle Obama. Those things cannot be wells of hope unless someone finally says “enough” and brings the system to its knees.
We kill the ones who try. The annals of human rights, human progress, are veritably littered with the headstones of those who tried: Dr. King, whom we have just celebrated again; Jesus, whom we worship. Plus so many others in between and since, those who sought the good and who braved the social consequences, the fatal retaliation of a system, the massive weaponry of the bad – even the bad in their own party.
There was a fire in my dream. Maybe it was my dinner. But maybe it was a system, burning to the ground, and rising from ash into something that approaches God’s vision of well-being.
The mid-terms will be here soon enough, and maybe they will matter. Perhaps by then we the people who care about each other will have regained enough sense of our own power – the power not to be duped – that we may choose people of integrity who can mend this god-awful system. Not people of a party, but people of a vision. Maybe we will bring the fire this time. When we do, things can change. We are people of hope and the mid-terms are coming.
Maybe the midterms will bring nothing. Maybe at their best, they will only stop the bleeding (and that's not nothing). Maybe the real power is all around us – those fighting for black lives, lobbying for health care, standing with refugees, calling attention to the horrors of our world. Maybe we are the power, we people of faith who have enough regard for creation to want to contribute to its healing.
Or maybe we are like ancient Israel, waiting for the anointed one who will usher in a reign of peace, a time of enough. Maybe our lives are constant advent, waiting.
But, Lent is also bearing down, the time when people of a certain faith gather our thoughts and confess our complicity. We begin Feb 14 with ashes. With all empathy and sensitivity to all those from whom fire has taken away life or livelihood, those for whom the image may be too real to contemplate, it is still true that sometimes you simply have to burn some things down to start anew. Metaphorically, liturgically, electorally.
So, we begin with a fire. We burn the palms of the last parade of hope, the reminders of the last time we betrayed goodness, the indictment of the last moment we were in a crowd (perhaps a crowd at the voting booth) screaming simultaneously “blessed are they; crucify them.”
I invite you: consider the fire, the ashes, the dream, the hope.
And read this book.
1. Frank, Thomas. Listen, Liberal or whatever happened to the party of the people? Picador. 2016.
2. A phrase he attributes to Barack Obama.
3. AAUW stats, showing variability by race, age and location.