In the third piece in this series, I used the pattern of connections in the dense network of cause and effect to show the existence of a Force that might reasonably be called “a Force of Evil.” (With “Evil” being defined as a “coherent force that consistently acts to make things worse in the human world.”)
But that was not actually how I came to discover that important reality.
I chose to present that Force in that way because that approach was most suitable to the purpose of putting that “Force of Evil” into the social-evolutionary picture of what has happened to the human species as a result of our taking the fateful step onto the path of civilization.
In other words, showing that “Discernable ‘Force of Evil’” as it transmitted its “pattern of brokenness” through time could be readily integrated with the explanation I offered in the second piece in this series – “The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large” – for why human civilization evolved in directions that people did not choose but could not avoid.
In yet other words, that way of showing that Force served best my overall purpose in this series, which is to present the “integrative vision” of the human story that is my life’s work.
But I first saw that “Force of Evil” in a very different way. Not in terms of how it unfolded over time, but rather how such a Force was suddenly showing its face with all its variety of manifestations all visible at the same time. The whole thing was right in front of our eyes. Visible in the present, a “coherent force” consistently making things more broken.
It began as a single moment of “seeing” in 2004. It was a kind of “seeing” that I can’t explain in the terms of my rational and naturalistic worldview. But that moment was so impactful that it sent my life on a new path on which I’ve remained ever since. I “saw” Evil — somehow — and it moved me.
I was moved to undertake the work of investigating – empirically, rationally – the alarming phenomenon I saw. And what I was that a particular “actor” – in my own country — had been taken over by “a coherent force that consistently works to make things worse.”
I call such a phenomenon a “Pure Case,” defined as an “actor” that is so consistent in its destructiveness that the evidence compels one to infer the reality of such a “Force” governing its choices.
By “actor” or “player” I don’t mean only individuals, though we in America have lately witnessed how an individual can show an uncanny ability to speak and act in ways that invariably have a destructive impact. But such an “actor” can also sometimes be found at the level of a nation, or a political party. Any entity that shows a considerable degree of coherence.)
Usually, the various actors on the national and world stake are mixtures of the constructive and the destructive. But what makes an actor a “Pure Case” is that its impact on the human world is not such a mixture, but is quite consistently destructive.
How can such consistency be explained? What seems clear to me is that one must infer from so non-random a set of choices, that some sort of Destructive Force is being expressed through that Pure-Case actor.
Before I go into the evidence that led me to think in terms of a “Force of Evil” (or “Destructive Force,” etc.), I need to say something about the history of my political positioning, lest I be misunderstood.
Because the Pure Case in question is the Republican Party of our times—a once-respectable party that has undergone a profound transformation over the past generation. Anticipating that some might dismiss my judgment of what that Party has become as an expression of partisanship, I need to present a bit of my history, which shows that this is not the case.
My Long History as a Bridge-Builder, not a Partisan
Anyone following my work up until 2004, would have described me as a bridge-builder, continually working to overcome the growing polarization between the political sides in America.
- In the 1980s, I was closely associated with a Washington group called Search for Common Ground.
- In the 1990s, I wrote several books whose purpose was to overcome the divisions between the worldviews of the liberal and conservatives worlds. (One of which, whose subtitle was A Quest to Bridge America’s Moral Divide, was published in 1999 by M.I.T. Press.)
- Also in the 90s, I delivered talks/sermons – bearing the title “Beyond Dispute” — to liberal groups around the country, in which I argued that America needed for us to engage in less ideological combat and more constructive dialogue.
In that era, I saw both of the two political sides in America as holding onto their own half-truths, and polarizing in ways I thought both dangerous and intellectually misguided. My goal, in my work in that era, was to seek ways of integrating those “half-truths” into some “higher wisdom” in which the apparent contradictions might be resolved.
And that’s what I tried to do in what was the main work during the decade from 1992 to 2002: namely, conducting talk-radio conversations in the very conservative area – the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia – into which I’d moved with my family in 1992.
The station on which my program appeared was also broadcasting Rush Limbaugh three hours a day. But nonetheless, in those years, the conservatives who comprised my listeners and callers were still the kind of traditional, rural, conservative Republicans that had long been part of the Republican base.
Over the years, I came to appreciate the values of my conservative callers, and to treasure the community of discourse we created together on the air.
And if I changed from a builder of bridges to a wager of battle – if I came to see the Republican world as driven by a force extraordinary in its destructiveness — it wasn’t because I had changed into some Democratic partisan. It was because I saw that a once-respectable Party had lately been hijacked by such a orce.
In the 90s, my conservative callers to my radio show had presented their views in good faith. But the political party to which they belonged – and whose propaganda was transforming their consciousness — no longer spoke to its supporters in good faith. I got a ring-side seat to observe how their transformation was making constructive conversation impossible.
“Beyond Dispute” got replaced by “Press the Battle.”
And when my fellow liberals – for reasons having to do with what Liberal America had become in this era as well — resisted the idea that it had become time to wage battle, I replied that the change in circumstances required a different response from those who cared about what’s been best about America. The world can present us with more than one kind of situation, I argued, and because of that one needs more than one kind of response in one’s behavioral repertoire.
The Systemic Nature of the American Crisis
Seeing that something destructive was rising in power in America, I imagined two ways a message might be effective.
- Still feeling great affection for the conservatives I’d come to know, I thought that a message that showed them that what they were supporting was “not the friend of their own deep values,” could help peel away some of the support that was empowering this destructive force through the ballot box. (I continued in that belief for many years but, having had many opportunities to test that idea – as a candidate for Congress, and as the author of hundreds of weekly op/ed column in my very red congressional district – I eventually had to recognize that I was overly optimistic on that score.)
- I thought also that if I could show liberals the extraordinarily dark nature of what the Republican Party had become, that message could help rouse that part of the American body politic to fight against it with the moral passion, and the kind of strategy, appropriate to combatting such a Force.
My first attempt was to enlist a very prominent American – with great visibility and moral credibility – to take on the task of delivering such a message, while offering my help – gratis – in any way he saw fit. Then when he declined, citing his exhaustion, I approached another who also had a national platform. This outstanding person said he felt “too old to lead the parade.
At that point, I decided that — despite my relative obscurity — I would have to do my best from my own platform, and I built a website for that purpose, which launched in the fall of 2005.
I named my site NoneSoBlind.org, after the famous line “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” And I inaugurated the site by publishing an essay – which also appeared on a more prominent website — calling for “a prophetic social movement,” characterizing the “prophetic” — from Jeremiah to John the Baptist — as involving speaking “moral truth to immoral power.”
Already struck by the striking consistency with which the force that had taken over the Republican Party was making things worse, I sought to call my (liberal) readers to that consistency. And to its implications.
The main page of NoneSoBlind characterized what was visible about the thrust of that Party in this way:
It makes a fight over everything.
It is insatiable in its quest for wealth and power.
It appeals to the worst in people, to hatred and fear.
It divides groups of Americans against each other.
It preys on the vulnerable and serves the privileged.
And it lies in virtually all it says.
As time went on, I gleaned that in the worldview of much of my readership, there wasn’t a conceptual space for what I was trying to show. Even as the darkness of the picture continued to emerge during the Presidency of W – exploitation of fear, casting away national unity for political advantage, torture and torture memo, etc. – Liberal America (and its political arm, the Democratic Party) continued to regard what was happening in America’s political realm as “politics as usual.”
I began occasionally employing the rhetorical approach of asking the question, “What do we call something that….” and then provide some such list that constituted a reasonably full picture of the conduct of the GOP of that moment. Adding to the list such things as:
- Taking from those who have less to give to those who have more.
- Undermining our democratic norms and institutions.
- Stoking racial hostilities rather than trying to harmonize such relationships.
- Blocking action to protect the human future and the planet from the destructive potential of climate change.
I hoped to get people to infer from that “pattern of brokenness” and the work of a force behind it that continually degrades the human world.
To underscore that consistency, I also began challenging people to come up with a single instance where – in its words or deeds — the Republican Party, in its contemporary form, had made things better, and not worse. I myself, I said, was finding it increasingly difficult to find any such examples. (At this point, I can find none.)
This remarkably non-random set of choices — not even as good as a political party choosing between Good and Evil by flipping a coin at every juncture – surely is clear evidence of Something at work. And that Something, I endeavored to show, operates pretty much like what our civilization has traditionally called “Evil.”
It was a surprise to me – philosophically, social-scientifically – to discover this reality—i.e. this discernable coherent force that consistently works to make the human world worse. But there it was, and it seemed to me – starting in 2004, and seems to me still – important that this force be recognized.
And the first way I saw it was not through movement (over time), visible like the “wind.” (As shown in the previous piece.)
Rather, I saw it first in the consistency of an “actor’s” choice to make things more broken, the Force becoming visible like a figure that emerges from the dots when a kid with a comic book draws lines of connection.
Investigating the “Pattern of Brokenness” Visible in the “Pure Case”
I embarked on a quest to understand what I was seeing.
How could such a thing happen, I wanted to know? How could a normal (reasonably constructive) political party get transformed into something that consistently acts in ways that make the world more broken?
It was by studying that transformation of the Republican Party that I discovered the kinship among various forms of brokenness, and saw the need for the concept of a “pattern of brokenness.” I. e. that I saw what it was that war, cruelty, hatred, greed etc. had in common: all of them make the human world worse.
The Brokenness Begets Brokenness approach – described in “The Discernible Reality of a ‘Force of Evil'” — shows how the various forms of brokenness generate each other, over time, through their impact in the world. The Pure Case approach showed how there was an affinity between different forms of brokenness that enabled them to fit together as components of the same thing.
For example, when George W. Bush was President, when I first saw this unified Force rising in power and doing great damage, I sought to explain the deepening darkness by noting the “alliance” that had been formed among several forces that had long been problematic in American history:
- The American impulse toward imperialism, which manifested early in the taking of the continent from the Indians, and now seemed a big part of the explanation of the invasion of Iraq (which, it should be noted, was making both the United States and the world much more broken);
- Religiosity of a particular self-righteous and punitive spirit, one full of rage and projection;
- The Greed that, by design, fuels the market economy, and that knows no such things as “Enough.”
It turns out that “the Battle between Good and Evil” has much in common with other kinds of battles: Alliances can make a side stronger.
As time went on, I saw another way that the formation of Alliances between different forces of brokenness helped explain how such a thing could happen to a major American political party. Here’s what I saw.
Well within living memory – i.e. in the past five and a half decades – historical developments brought two powerful forces of brokenness together under the tent of one party. Thus fortified by alliance, the Force of Brokenness was able to take over what had been a normal American Party and turn it into the Pure Case we can see now.
These historical developments are not hidden:
If one were asked to identify the forces at work in American civilization — during the era from the end of the Civil War through the Eisenhower Presidency – that most powerfully prevented the nation from living more fully up to its ideals, two such destructive forces seem salient:
- One is the force of corporate greed – an inevitable feature of the market system – the power of which continually enabled that system to stack the deck against the disorganized masses. This force found a home in the Republican Party;
- The other was the force of White Supremacy, which gave us the Civil War and (after losing that war) expressed itself for example in the terrorizing and oppressing Jim Crow regime which, through the generations, denied black people their basic rights as citizens. During that era, that Force of racist tyranny had its home in the Democratic Party.
Throughout that period, these two forces were on opposing sides of the political battle. So, while they each were able to move the policies and actions of their own party more toward Brokenness than they otherwise would have been, in that arena where power got handed (where the electorate chose between the two major parties) they cancelled each other out.
But then came the time in the mid-60s, when the Democratic coalition was willing to take a stand for the “civil rights” of African-American citizens. The Party that had formerly helped uphold Jim Crow led the passage of legislation to ban those unjust power structures. And as the Democratic President (LBJ) signed that legislation, he declared privately that the Democratic Party had lost the South for a generation.
It has been twice that long (and counting), as Republican leaders — first Nixon (with his “Southern strategy”), then Reagan (launching his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi), and onward into the present — have reached out to the white voters of the states of the former Confederacy. As a result, over a few decades, the Force of White Supremacy departed from the Democratic Party and transformed what had been the Solid (Democratic) South into the Solid (Republican) South.
The Force of Corporate Greed was still remained (mostly) housed in the Republican Party, but now it had gained as its ally the Force of White Supremacy. And these two Forces of Brokenness had such a natural affinity for each other (both are about using power to get more than their fair share) that they could first take over the Party they now shared and, from that base, that fortified Force of Brokenness could work to take over the whole of the nation.
And the advance of that Pure Actor has reached the point where the Force that harnessed Greed and Racism – power used unjustly — is now working pretty openly to replace American democracy with a Fascist regime.
(That threat of Fascism was visible before Trump. One could see it with the divisive politics of W’s Presidency, which executed a deliberate decision to sunder the post-9/11 national unity in order to tar the Democrats as “soft on terror,” and continually used “the war on terror” to cultivate fear in the American people for political purposes, where torture was authorized at the highest level — and then covered up that criminality with the infamous “torture memo,” by whose logic any President could commit any crime and escape the Rule of Law.)
Corporate Greed and White Supremacy thus formed a highly consequential alliance, but it is not a symmetrical one. The main purposeful thrust of this Force is to serve the Corporate Greed, because that represents a relatively organized (economic and political) force—and one that has developed skill over the generations at getting what they want. But the passions behind White Supremacy provide an essential fuel for the power of that alliance, because in a democratic system power depends on votes, and those passions have been used to garner the necessary political support.
(“Used” because, when this Alliance works its political will, the people who are moved by their racist feelings to support today’s Republican Party end up with nothing that has made their lives better. (This is a pattern that recapitulates the way the thousands who fought and died for the Confederacy were sacrificing to maintain a slavery-based political economy that worked against their own interests.)
The few who represent Brokenness in their insatiable lust for power and wealth manipulate the many to focus on the Brokenness of the various battles of Us against Them (of which the historically most enduring in America has been Us Whites against Them Blacks).
The Force works to increase the inequalities of wealth and power, giving still more to those who have the most at the expense of those who have less of either.
Brokenness leads to more brokenness.
Discerning the Forces at Work in the Human World
With the mind-boggling complexities of the human world, it a challenge to discern the major components of the drama, the systemic forces at work beneath the surface of events.
In the 1990s, as I indicated earlier, I thought I perceived one important dynamic: polarization. Watching the struggles playing out in the political and cultural realms of America, I saw that the two sides of the intensifying conflict were pushing each other further out toward their respective extremes. With the gap between their positions expanding, the two sides were increasingly embattled.
I wrote a piece for the Baltimore Sun titled “The Dance of Polarization,” in which I presented thoughts on how the dynamics of polarization worked. I used down-to-earth examples from my own life, illustrating how the interaction between two people could lead to polarization. (I described how my son and I polarized on the issue of his procrastination, and how my mother and I polarized on the issue of how cautiously or boldly I drove with her in the car.)
(Writing about this was part of my using my own small voice to see if each side might recognize what was valid in the views of the other, thus making it more possible for the American people to work together to achieve good things for the nation.)
At that time, I was focused only on the way people were communicating – unconstructively, by moving further apart rather than finding common ground, but nonetheless expressing themselves in good faith.
But eventually – certainly by 2004 – I came to see America’s problem with polarization differently.
I came to see that something else was driving the polarization. One could see a political force intentionally driving a wedge between the sides, deliberately working to foster feelings of hostility and contempt. The communications I had heard from individuals speaking in good faith I now heard as reflecting the false picture that propagandists had been feeding them in bad faith.
Polarization pays, if you’re a Force that wants the ability to choose the nation’s war forward into a future contrary to what the people want. It paid because dividing the American people against themselves effectively nullifies the power of “the will of the people,” and enables that force to do ugly things.
I no longer saw polarization just in terms of people being people, like me and my mother in the car. I saw it in the context of a larger picture of a political force that seemed to be working in a variety of ways, as if its goal were to make the world worse:
- worse in bringing out the worst in people, increasing the forces of fear and hatred;
- worse in driving us toward environmental catastrophe, blocking urgently needed action on climate change, serving the Force of Insatiable Greed even at the sacrifice of the human future;
- worse in replacing democracy with plutocratic and fascistic oligarchy, specializing in lies and unending conflict rather than cooperation.
Polarization turned out to be one of a larger bag of tricks used by a more fundamental Force: the Force of Brokenness (or Evil) that was visibly turning the Republican Party into that Pure Case that is advancing Fascism in the nation now.
By the time I published my 2015 book, WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World and How We Can Defeat It, I had studied another more fundamental dynamic: Something that was reasonable to call “a Battle Between Good and Evil.”
(The purpose of that book was to convince Liberal America that the current political battle calls for us to fight with the intensity and moral purpose shown by the heroes in some of our cultures main sagas, fighting for Good against Evil as in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar.)
And when it came time for the book to be launched, I wrote an op/ed to announce it titled, “Cry the Benighted Country.”
The piece lays out the systemic nature of the problem of the adverse shift in the balance of power between those forces that we’d experienced over the previous quarter century. It was the whole American system that was failing, each component in its own way.
- While the Republican Party was being taken over by an extraordinary, destructive force, and
- the people of Conservative America were being led by this transformed GOP into darkness – led to support what those people would have condemned as Evil in previous times —
- Liberal America was failing – because of its own blindness and weakness — to defend the nation against that force.
- And meanwhile, while the power system of the United States was undergoing this historically extraordinary and profoundly dangerous transformation, the American press was not telling the American people what was happening. (It has never been clear to me to what extent this failure of the press represented a failure to understand what was happening right before their eyes, to what extent it was the consequence of the intimidation of the press by that force on the right, and to what extent it reflected the press’s complicity with that plutocratic and fascistic force.)
- The combination of these developments in the American body politic had resulted in an adverse shift in that balance (which – by 2015 – more and more people were beginning to sense).
“Cry the Benighted Country” began with the statement, “In every society, both constructive and destructive forces are always at work. But the balance of power between those forces is not constant.”
Regarding the America of these times, the question arose: How did all these defects arise together in the same era? Was there some underlying dynamic that was causing these different forms of dysfunction to arise simultaneously in the various components of the American body politic?
Or were all these dangerous ways that parts of America were falling short just separate phenomena that just happened to occur together by some unfortunate throw the dice? Was it just bad luck that the “disease” took hold of the political right at the very moment that our ever democracy’s “immune system” was weakened?
The idea of “polarization” seemed again to provide some connective tissue between the various ways the various parts of the system deteriorated.
One way of conceiving of the breakdown in the integrity of the American power system was that the two political sides had polarized – become each other’s opposites – in generating a disconnection between Power and Goodness.
- The Republican world was showing itself to be intense and adept in the struggle for power. But meanwhile, it was becoming morally bankrupt.
- The Democratic side, by contrast, was becoming ever more reliably constructive. But it shrank from confrontation with the destructive force waging battle against them.
When I ran for Congress (2011-12) I often called attention to this particular form of polarization:
- The Republicans make a fight over everything, even though it is crystal clear is that what America needs from them is to seek out every possible good way to cooperate with the other side to get good things done.
- The Democrats aren’t willing to fight over anything, even though it is crystal clear that the other side is damaging America and America needs them to fight and win to protect the nation.
It was as if there had previously been more of a Whole (of some sort) in America, and now it had been broken apart, by this process of polarization, into two opposite forms of brokenness.
(Polarization seemed to make the two sides into a photo-negative version of each other– with neither of them well-structured for the protection of the Wholeness of the human world.)
There was another dichotomy that has seemed important, but less obviously a form of polarization. The conservative and liberal subcultures of the United States made different, but equally serious mistakes of a moral and spiritual nature:
- A preponderance of the Republican base has made the moral and spiritual error of mistaking the Evil for the Good.
- A preponderance of the Democratic world made the moral and spiritual error of not recognizing that something reasonable to call “the Battle Between Good and Evil,” is actually vital to understanding the human world, and the challenges that we face.
Are these two serious errors connected? They are not opposites, not photo-negatives of each other. Yet these errors don’t seem like mere coincidence either.
I’m inclined to see the dynamics behind both sides losing their way as something in the overall system of American civilization going on at a deep level in the culture—something having to do what might be called “a diminished connection with the Good.” In other words, those errors reflecting a weakness in the culture’s moral and grounding (and thus in the people molded by that culture). Weakness that
- made the conservatives more vulnerable to being seduced by Evil, and
- made the liberals more vulnerable to adopting a worldview that disabled them from seeing, understanding, and combatting Evil, when it arose against them in the nation’s power system.
Something clearly must be broken in “good people” when they can support a force that acts as the opposite of what they declare are their values—Christian values, constitutional patriotic values, values of Good Character.
And something clearly must be insufficiently whole – insufficiently tuned into the meaning of things in moral and spiritual terms — when intelligent people on the left fail for twenty-five years to See Things More Whole. Vital things like the “coherent force that consistently works to make the human world worse” that has manifested itself in the conduct of the Republican Party of this era.