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Need to Re-evaluate Ideologies

Dennis Fox

November 14, 1984
MSU State News

This is a tirade I wrote for the student newspaper at Michigan State University right after Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential reelection. It raised issues I was writing about at the time in more academic formats. It elicited a number of responses, mostly positive except for one letter to the editor by a few students that I got to write a response to.

Presidents change. Issues remain.

Here's also one I wrote after the mid-term election of 2002.

An interesting inconsistency between the two post-election editorials in The State News (11/8/84) makes it clear that confused political analysis is not confined to those on the right side of the political spectrum. Although it may be the case that different writers wrote the two editorials, taken as a whole it is evidence that liberals as well as conservatives have a lot of re-thinking to do about the direction in which they would like society to move.

In the first editorial, The State News sneered at those who voted for Ronald Reagan, accusing them of poor political judgment, selfishness, and susceptibility to empty myths. Now all this may in a sense be true, and the editorial anger directed at those voters who opted for Reagan is understandable; certainly, my own students received a similar outburst from me the day after the election. Yet, after dismissing the voters as Reagan fanatics, The State News went on in its second editorial to say that "Once again Michigan voters have proved their intelligence . . . by voting down the drastic tax-cutting measure, Proposal C."

Which is it? Are the voters dupes or not? Or did the voters become more intelligent after pulling the Reagan lever and moving on to the Proposal? I think there really is more going on here than your editorial views suggest.

Many of us who occupy different points on the left have as a long-range goal the transformation of our society into one that is good for everyone, rather than just for those lucky enough or manipulative enough to benefit from the ravages of industrialization, exploitation, discrimination, and other modern facets of materialistic capitalism. Yet we need to step back from the anger, the dismay, the hopelessness many of us feel today and spend some time reevaluating our current ideological commitments.

More significant than the prospect of four more years of Ronald Reagan is the prospect of four or five more decades in which the current college and high school generation looks for solutions that sound easy, rhetoric that sounds reassuring, and an economy that helps them even at the expense of others. It is this willingness to assert "I want mine regardless of the consequences," to embrace the "New Patriotism" as if it is any different from the similar sounding terminology of Nazi Germany, to support continued American domination of Third World countries in order to maintain our bloated standard of living--it is these things and more that are vastly more dangerous than anything Reagan actually might do in the next four years.

Walter Mondale may have had better intentions than Reagan, but decades of liberal reforms have made it clear that reform can only go so far. Democratic Party policies have managed to help many of the poor survive, but the conservatives are right when they object to centralized regulation as the way to do it. The conservative rhetoric about family values, about neighborhoods where people know one another, and about local control needs to be taken seriously by those of us who often tend to dismiss it as just another attempt to bring back a past that never really existed. At the same time, the conservatives must come to see that their yearning for the values of community and family are inconsistent with the capitalist system they take for granted.

The largest bloc in the election last week consisted of the 47% of the people who didn't vote at all. Generally, polls show that about a third of all nonvoters like things pretty much the way they are and don't see much use in voting to maintain it. Most of the rest know from experience that voting for the alternatives before them is not likely to make much difference in their own lives; the people at the bottom in our society would remain there even with Mondale in office. Those of us who do want a truly equitable society that meets both physical and psychological needs must move away from liberal mainstream approaches that seek only to modify the excesses of statism and capitalism rather than to do away with the very framework that allows those excesses to happen.

I'm not calling for a revamped Democratic Party more suited to conservative sensibilities. And, to head off the objections of those who already see The State News as "ultra-liberal," I'm not calling for a Marxist, state-socialist society either. My reading of psychology and anthropology and other areas pushes me in the direction of what Erich Fromm called "communitarian socialism," a noncapitalistic, nonbureaucratic, decentralized, nonhierarchical, less materialistic society which would enhance the positive, autonomous, cooperative, healthy aspects of human motivation. This would be vastly different from our present society, which justifies profit-oriented, competitive, materialistic strivings on the erroneous grounds that "it's only human nature." It would also be very different from societies built upon centralized Marxist lines.

Many psychologists have concluded that human needs include both a sense of personal autonomy and a sense of community. Both are important, and both are difficult to achieve even in the best of societies. They are just about impossible to achieve in societies where people are taught that the way to meet those needs is to accumulate more material goods. Clinical psychologist Paul Wachtel's The Poverty of Affluence makes it clear that the vast increase in the US standard of living over the past few decades has done little to bring about an increase in middle-class happiness; another TV or car just won't satisfy needs for friendship, common purpose, and a sense of control over one's life, regardless of all those ads showing smiling yuppies.

Those of us who really want to work towards a society that meets both physical and psychological needs will have to learn to deal with the masses of people in this country who are not getting their needs met. In addition to the poor, who still go without in a land of plenty, we also need to show more understanding for the large middle class caught in their endless, aimless materialistic quest, for the fundamentalists who may be so concerned about the next world because this one provides them with so little meaning, and for other segments of the population that have legitimate grievances against things as they are. We do need to change things. But we will not be able to do so until we join with those we now dismiss as selfish or foolish, until we learn how to make our proposals for social change understandable to those who have been taught that materialism is the answer, and until we show the middle class how they themselves will benefit from a society that focuses more on mutuality than on material accumulation.

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