Fr. William Messenger
(editor’s note: These reflections were written following the 1988 Presidential election. They still seem poignant, and are equally applicable to both political parties)
When George Bush said, in the recent campaign, that the election was a question of values, he probably had no idea how accurate he was. But it was not just values. The real issue was how to translate values into ideology, and ideology into a presidential program. The tragic failure of Michael Dukakis was the equally tragic success of George Bush. Dukakis was unable to raise the American conscience to a level of altruism. Bush didn't even try.
In recent years, a number of political analysts have castigated the Democratic party for its introspection and questioning of the American way of life. It has been suggested that the American public wants to live an illusion--to be told that everything is OK even when it is not. It has even been suggested that the Democrats can only win the White House by participating in the deception that America can chart its own course through the world, and pursue its own domination of the planet irrespective of the needs and desires of other countries.
Depressing as it may seem, that last suggestion is on target. I do not believe that Michael Dukakis lost the election over any particular issue or combination of issues. Certainly there are those democrats who voted for Bush because of abortion, capital punishment, or star wars. These are often referred to as the Reagan democrats. But there is something far deeper and more serious going on here.
The ascendancy of Ronald Reagan was conceived by the American obsession with the phallus. That ascendancy was nurtured into adolescence by a fascination with narcissism. Case in point, America's place in world politics. Ronald Reagan, unable to accept the changing face of world reality, perceived America as weak. So, with a phallic mentality, he had to prove that we were "macho", strong, and standing tall. George Bush is now fond of saying that America stands tall again. In what respect? I have traveled to various parts of the world during the last several years. I find that the United States has little moral suasion among other peoples. There is a kind of "standing tall" that is rooted in a commitment to moral principles. The Reagan-Bush team violated nearly all of those principles: Witness Nicaragua, South Africa. There is also a "standing tall" that is founded in fear. Certainly, they accomplished that: Witness Grenada. Perhaps, though, the "standing tall" that Reagan and Bush refer to is really part of the Reagan illusion: Witness the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). It is what we see when looking in a full length mirror--a fun house mirror at that. Don't they know? Even Billy Barty would stand tall in one of those!
At this point it would appear that the Reagan-Bush legacy is for America to live out a very long and painful adolescence. It is more than a little depressing to me to admit that the fundamental issues of American life have been misdirected. When Reagan asked in 1980 and again in 1984 "Are you better off than you were four years ago?", he threw the country into a psychological regression, obscuring maturity. Self-centeredness and greed were to be our new way of life. Economic success and comfort would be the measures of the good life. In the meantime, to keep American business strong, people would die from war, hunger and disease. We could live with that as long as it didn't happen to us.
But it did happen to us. Hundreds of thousands of people have fallen below the poverty line. Our sidewalks have become beds for millions of homeless, our city streets war zones for local gangs. Perhaps worst of all, the Reagan-Bush obsession with the Sandinistas has enabled our children to replace candy with cocaine. Bush spoke of a kinder and gentler America. But he betrayed his real goal when he repeated the query, "Are you better off now than you were in 1980?" Let us not be fooled again. There is to be no kinder and gentler America under George Bush.
Often I have heard people say that they are tired of being reminded of the holocaust. Yet there is a comparison that needs to be made. It is no surprise that Hitler succeeded in unleashing a hideous attack against Jews and against the world community. The surprise is that Reagan did not. After all, Hitler lived in a country that was obsessed with vindicating itself after the defeat of World War I. As such, there was no desire for self-examination, no attempt to discover if Germany was contributing to the advancement of the world community. The only things that mattered were self-esteem and power.
Sadly, that is also the America of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Ronald Reagan was obsessed with vindicating America's image and psyche after the defeat of the Vietnam conflict. Under Ronald Reagan, we were not unlike Nazi Germany. As long as we were powerful and could dictate to others how they should live, nothing else mattered. Not how others looked at us--only how we saw ourselves. Not whether we advanced someone else's life--only whether we advanced our own. Not even if we were right--only if we had power to appear right. The comparison is not idle. It is presented as a warning and a challenge. No nation that shuns self-criticism is worthy of esteem. Any nation that feeds on narcissistic praise, evading the pain of evaluation and growth, relinquishes its claim to world leadership. This is what was at stake in the '88 election.
For the last several years I have ministered in the inner city of Los Angeles. I have seen individuals lose their jobs and families their homes. I have seen the increase in gangs, violence and drugs. I have seen supermarkets and department stores close their doors. I have seen military recruitment officers immorally prey upon poor, and sometimes, desperate youths. These are real life concerns. Yet, through it all, I have witnessed the callousness of a government not concerned with the level of poverty, only with the level of the stock market.
Being born and raised American, I refuse to believe that as a country we do not want to be better than we are--to strive for higher ideals. Not since John F. Kennedy has a president suggested to us that life is more than getting. It is also giving. America was great because we gave of ourselves not to ourselves. This is not partisan politics. Unless we are willing to search within ourselves and rediscover the ideals that gave birth to our nation, I'm afraid that the best America already was.
(Fr. William Messenger is a priest in the Archiocese of Los Angeles)