I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun a discussion about politics, usually about Donald Trump and the enabling Senate, only to have friends say: “Please. No more! I can’t stand it! I want to shut out all that noise so I can live my life.”
Often enough, they invoke the privilege—or the earned vulnerabilities—of age to shut off conversation. Their arguments range from plaintive to enraged. On the mild side, it might go like this: “I just want some peace in my old age.” Some are more indignant: “I only have so much time left. I’ll be damned if I’ll let that jerk dominate it.”
Almost everyone seems a little taken aback by my passion, and I’ll admit that I lack emotional distance when it comes to the high-jacking of my country by a narcissistic, greedy, ostentatious, ignorant, child who has the compassion of a stone and the inclinations of an autocrat.
My persistence seems to go against the cultural grain. At my age, my observations and reactions should be leavened by my hard-won perspective. “This too shall pass,” I should intone. I should have turned my full attention to philosophical and spiritual pursuits. Or to amusing myself. I should tend my garden and mind my own business. What’s wrong with me?
The polling data are clear. They tell us that, generally, the older you get, the more conservative you get. Psychologists explain; We draw inward when we age: “…when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are more likely to engage in protective or defensive behavior.”
But, of course, I’m not a general idea. I’m an individual and my mother’s son, to boot. Let me give you just a tiny example of her spirit. At the age of 87, in the middle stages of dementia, and imprisoned in a “memory unit,” my wife, Franny, said that she had to get home to vote. “Is that jackass Bush still there?” she snorted. There was no let up from her. I loved it when Franny first told me the story and feel buoyed by it now.
In my family, politics defined character. When my parents described someone, they would first say: “She’s Left” or “She’s Right.” Not that the person was nice, generous, stingy, smart, talented. The core of a person’s identity and values could be found in their political views. If you were Right, you were probably selfish, unwilling to share the national largesse with the majority of people. If you were Left, you were generous. This language might have been cryptic to outsiders, but to us it was crystal clear.
I have gained some sophistication over the years, reading extensively in political theory and psychology, working with scores of people, sympathetically practicing therapy with every kind of person, and living through many decades; but, truth be told, just like political researchers tell us, I haven’t wandered very far from the proverbial family tree.
Politics was like religion in my family. As deeply as some people held their belief in God and the prophets, my family worshiped our nation’s ringing declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” We were patriots in that very literal way.
Admittedly, we practiced our patriotism in a form that others considered unpatriotic—we were socialists in the 1940’s and 1950’s, during the ‘red baiting’ fury of the McCarthy period. We never doubted that ours was a truer representation of the American faith. Others did. We were censored and ostracized. But the experience of being outsiders simply fortified our commitment to “the Left.” We would be damned before caving to the convenient and conventional views of the majority, whose interests, we believed, had been appropriated and then discarded by the 1%.
To this day, I have no inclination to grow mellow or to acquiesce to what we then called “the power elite.” The idea that the Trumps and the Koch brothers and even Democratic-leaning bankers and hedge fund managers should tell us what’s best is no more palatable to me now than it was to my parents. I’d prefer a rejuvenated labor movement and the continued growth of grass roots activities.
At times of upheaval or before then – when change is in the air – liberals invoke the curative effects of moderation and political centrism. Bill Clinton, for instance, is famous for, downplaying poverty and disparities of wealth, and the increasing corruption of our political system. He helped to dismantle important parts of the welfare system. Democrats and Republican moderates have long soft-pedaled environmental degradation and other key issues of our time. In other words, they sacrificed the greatest good of the greatest number for their own victories, and convinced enough people that they were right. We the American people need to do better. We need to risk defeat as we aspire to a better world.
There are a slew of contemporary politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC, who will compromise on strategy but won’t readily compromise their core values. And because of their utter sincerity, and the trustworthiness of their values, they may capture the American imagination more vividly than the appeasers.
I know that victory over Trump and his bigoted authoritarianism is paramount. But isn’t it possible that those who sincerely stand for values, not just victory, stand a better chance of winning in 2020?
I know that people of my vintage tend towards moderation and what some would call wisdom. But I don’t believe centrism is wisdom. I believe that it is wiser and stronger to take a stand. At this great historical crossroads, much like the times leading up to the Civil War, we will be measured—and need to measure ourselves—by our moral stamina. So many of the people now in their 70’s stood up for Civil Rights and against the injustice of the Vietnam War. Even as we worry about the costs of retirement, even as we want quiet and calm, we must stand again.
As I look back over my years and over our history, it is clear to me that wisdom doesn’t always trend towards moderation. Sometimes it trends towards a stark, clear, and immoderate vision of doing the right thing. Now is one of those times.