Interview with Tikkun magazine

1998 Tikkun Magazine

In our September/October (1998) editorial we welcomed Paul Wellstone's candidacy for President, noting that it would certainly lead to a higher level of political discourse than the mush we expect from other Democratic Party candidates. Although we are prohibited from endorsing any candidate, we can certainly recognize that Senator Wellstone will be an articulate representative of the progressive political perspective that is frequently ignored by the media when it frames the range of "responsible" political alternatives in America. And yet, we believe that progressive politics is inadequate because it does not speak to the deeper psychological, ethical and spiritual issues that are central in shaping the political behavior of most Americans. After writing that editorial, editors Michael Lerner and Peter Gabel met with Senator Wellstone and discussed his reactions to our critique.

LERNER: As we stated in our editorial, we have tremendous respect for your courage, which we first experienced when you came to Israel to attend TIKKUN's 1991 conference in Jerusalem in support of the Israeli peace movement (while the Shamir government was still in power). You were the only Senator to have the courage to identify publicly with the peace movement. And you have taken many courageous moves since then (notably around health care and welfare issues). Yet our own years of interviewing middle income working Americans has led us to believe that progressive politics cannot win in America because of its too narrow focus.

We support the progressive movement, but we have learned from the thousands of working people who have been part of groups run at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, the parent body of TIKKUN magazine, is this: most people perceive that progressive politics is largely about inclusion of those left out of "the American dream" defined in narrow materialistic terms. Yet while we and most Americans support the progressive notion of "equal opportunity," they simultaneously resent this narrow focus for the following reasons: a. because of the implicit message being given to them that "YOU have made it and already achieved the good life, so you are being selfish if you don't put more energy on sharing what you've already achieved with others." Their reaction: "I don't feel as if I've ‘made it' because my life is economically precarious and stressful, and what's more because the material well being I have achieved hasn't really brought me much fulfillment. I need more material security, but even more important, I need to feel that my life has meaning, and some higher purpose.

But what these liberals and progressives are talking about is more ‘opportunity.' Well, sure, I think everyone should have the right to ‘opportunity', but since it's really the ‘opportunity' to compete with others in the competitive market, and since I've already has that opportunity and don't really think it's so great, I can assure you that these progressive folks don't really know much about what is wrong with America. What's wrong isn't that most of us need more opportunity or better skills in the competitive market, what's wrong is that everyone is competing and acting like everyone else's competitor, and nobody can trust anyone else because everyone is just ‘looking out for no. 1.' It's the selfishness and materialism that surrounds me that makes me feel scared, insecure, and makes me feel like I don't know who I can really trust. One thing for sure, I don't trust those progressives, because they don't seem to have a clue about what's really hurting or worrying me, even though I'm glad that on the economic level they are fighting for some basic benefits that I also really want, like social security, health care, and greater job security and health and safety at work."

In short, people are telling us that while they agree with the progressive economic agenda, and its commitment to equal opportunity and inclusion, they don't feel addressed by the progressives because the progressive don't speak to the spiritual crisis in their lives or to what I call a politics of meaning.

WELLSTONE: Well, when I speak about the need to provide every child with a decent education including the pre-school preparation for kindergarten that some children get and others do not or to provide every citizen with decent quality health care, I don't think I'm talking only about economics, this is a politics of values. Sure, this is about economic opportunity, but it's also a call for our community to be our best selves by identifying with our highest values. I've spoken to union workers about what I call "the new isolationism" is America, an isolationism not in foreign affairs but in human affairs. It used to be that we would understand of those most down-trodden that "there but for the grace of God go I." But today we are told we must face all our problems by ourselves. Basically, the refrain of this society has become: "You are on your own." I talked to a friend last night who has Parkinson's disease-and she told me the health care system's basic response is "You are on your own." If you have a child who is developmentally disabled, "You are own you own." I want to challenge this. So I want to put together the hard hitting break-and butter politics along with the issues of a politics of value. And I also want to raise a set of tissues that aren't even on the table today, starting with monopoly.

Take telecommunications. Look at the concentration of power and control in that area. That's economic, populist, citizen politics to take on the influence of money in politics. This is not going to just be a "message" campaign. We are going to have a great staff and we will be a formidable political force-it's amazing the turnouts we've been getting and the range of people who say they are going to support this campaign. We are going to have a very serious grassroots effort. But, the words have to be memorable. People have to hear words that not only sound right but feel right. I think it's in part the economic message, but it's also in part a message about community, about who we are as a nation, about how to live a life in which you don't have to separate the life you live from the words you speak, be that in your relationship with your family, your community, your country or your world. I don't want to give an inch on "family values" agenda, for example, and I agree with Cornel West and Sylvia Hewlett's message that we should as a nation make sure that parents are in a position to do their best by their kids. That has a lot to do with nurturing, protecting, and caring. So I don't see any conflict between economics and ethical issues-I think we have to do both.

LERNER: Both Peter Gabel and I were invited to speak to the Democratic Caucus of the House of Representatives before the 1996 election, and afterwards many of the hundred or more Congress people in attendance were very enthusiastic. We also proposed a progressive pro-family agenda. But when that agenda actually came forward in September, it was merely a rehash of various programs for economic entitlements that would provide services for those who could not afford to buy family-related services (like child-care or elder-care). Now, of course we believe that this MUST be a part of a progressive pro-family program-but not its essence. Everyone with an ounce of sense knows that the crisis in America is not restricted to those who don't have enough money. Families across the board are in crisis, because they are trying to build loving relationships in a society that undermines love and privileges selfishness and materialism and "looking out for no. 1." The ethos of the competitive marketplace generates this way of thinking, and a pro-families perspective must challenge this dominant set of values by proposing an alternative set of values, must call for a society based on love and caring rather than on selfishness and me-firstism.

If you want to address the family crisis, ask what it is in our society that makes it so hard for people to see each other as created in the image of God, as fundamentally valuable for who they are not just for what they can do for you. Talk about the way our economic marketplace encourages people to treat each other as vehicles for our own needs rather than as beings who generate our sense of awe and wonder, and the way it thus undermines our ability to make real commitments to others (since increasingly our "commitments" are only market calculations that say "I'm with you as long as you are the best available deal"), and talk about he way that this ethos of selfishness and materialism is what really undermines loving connection and you've got yourself a way of speaking about the family crisis that speaks to the values crisis in this society. Every human relationship is being imperialized by the ethos of the marketplace, so that loving and caring behavior is increasingly perceived as some naïve behavior from childhood fantasies while the "realistic" way of getting around in the adult world is to "look our for no. 1."

WELLSTONE: Above and beyond the question of how to grow the economy there is a legitimate concern about how to grow the quality of our lives. That's part of what I'm addressing when I challenge the new isolationism and the "You are on your own" mentality (as though we are not supposed to notice the other seven billion people on the planet) and I challenge the current political thinking that sees community solutions as though they are almost a sin (because each person should be left to themselves to deal with everything). So I'm not merely dealing with economic solutions-I will challenge this kind of value. Part of the focus of on volunteerism is also an important part of what I want to encourage, as long as it's not put forward as an alternative to social policy. I myself am very decentralist as opposed to supporting centralized as bureaucratized forms of public policy. But I don't know if I will try to make the connection between the particular economic system we have in this country and the way it pushes people off base in terms of value-I don't think that will be the way I make the argument.

But I will tell you that I have loved talking about a politics of value-it's not just economics, there has to be something more, both community wide or nationwide, and also in terms of how people live their lives every day. I have a different way than you have about how to best articulate the values piece, but I disagree with your editorial in its assumption that I will have a straight and narrow economisitic and stale campaign framework.

GABEL: My mother will be 91 and she has Alzheimer's disease. One of the most significant things that has happened to her since the onset of this disease was the appearance in her life of a young artist who comes to visit her and volunteers her time to help my mother paint. The worst aspect of Alzheimer's is the disconnection from the other human beings, the isolation, and the lack of feeling worthy. This young artist has helped my mother, who cannot have a conversation, draw some 46 paintings! Our kind of Politics of Meaning public policy for elders would want to encourage this kind of activity. A policy that only talks about social security and that focuses primarily on how much the benefits should be or how to best insure its future financial viability, while important, misses the need for elders to be recognized for their wisdom, to be loved and cared about.

I favor in San Francisco, where I live, for the city to either require or strongly encourage public service on the part of high school students to establish intergenerational bonds of connectedness in the spirit of love and caring that goes beyond economic security issues. By the way, that is also a way to address the problem of teenage gangs. You can't address that problem just by a jobs program-you have to provide kids with a sense of meaning that they get from gangs. In gangs kids find pride, connection and a sense of worthiness, and giving them a chance at a job rarely does that. Whereas giving them a sense of contributing to others and you have given them something that is a real alternative to the meaning that they otherwise might find in a gang. That's a seniors policy that goes beyond economics.

WELLSTONE: But if I were not to talk at all about the outrageous privatization proposals for social security, I wouldn't be taken seriously.

LERNER: We WANT you to talk about that level, also but within a larger framework of meaning and values.

WELLSTONE: Right, so we agree that it's not one or the other. But your point, Peter, is very correct. What you are doing is appealing to the goodness in people, and that's exactly what we need to do more of in this society. For example, in Minnesota we have several hundreds of thousands of students in service learning in the schools. I fully support this. But I don't want community service to be the alternative to good public policy-because I've seen some students dichotomize in such a way that they essentially are saying "community service, good; politics and action around public policy, unsavory and bad." I don't want to encourage people to make that distinction that leads them to give up on politics or think that they can't take on the issues of power (Michael you've written about how people make themselves more powerless than they need to be-and that's what I don't want to encourage when they dichotomize between community service and political action). But essentially I love what you said. There are so many heroes and heroines, so many people who should be famous, who give lie to argument that we can't do something positive.

GABEL: That is social activism, because it spreads a form of connection between people that tends to weaken the more alienated connection between people that leads to them feeling unable to be involved in challenging concentrated power.

WELLSTONE: I understand. Fair enough.

GABEL: I think the giving component in very important in the conceptualization of what we are trying to encourage, rather than talking about it just as "service learning." The capacity to give of oneself speaks to a spiritual dimension of a person's being than a more narrow framework. If you can evoke that dimension in how you talk about these things. To return to the example of the artist working with my mother, the thing that is missing is the imprimatur of the government. The artist now experiences what she is doing as a purely private act, whereas I think the mayor ought to be recognizing these kinds of acts as a part of what "we" in the City of San Francisco are doing for each other-and that would give her a sense of pride if she were being publicly recognized.

WELLSTONE: I love it.

LERNER: This connects to another theme that progressives rarely understand: the difference between objective caring and subjective caring. Liberal and progressive governmental programs have delivered a set of economic benefits or social programs, what I call "objective caring." But the way these programs are delivered is often insensitive and without any attempt to get the recipients to actually experience themselves as being cared for. Government employees hired to implement objective caring are never rewarded, and are often punished, for taking time to show subjective caring. No wonder, then, that many people experience government operations as bureaucratic and alienating (think of your own latest experience in the Post Office or when trying to get some needed service from a government bureaucrat). Instead of developing a constituency for government programs, liberal programs have lost support for government because they have never paid attention to creating in people a sense that government was actually a vehicle through which other people in your community were trying to show that they cared about you. Imagine how different it would be if government bureaucrats were evaluated for promotion on the basis of how much they had been able to make the public feel that they were cared about by their fellow citizens who were using government as a vehicle to show this caring.

WELLSTONE: I may not have the same labeling of these ideas as you. But I once wrote about my own experience as a community organizer and I came to the same conclusion as you: economic rationality wasn't really what motivated people, but when people came together in these community organizations they came to view themselves in such a different light, because they were helping other people and could see themselves as really being a good person and this gave them more satisfaction about how they were living their lives. I think this holds true in government as well.

As I listened to you, Michael, I thought of the program we started in Minnesota, the block nurse program. I've often wondered why we aren't doing more to allow people with health problems as they age to continue to live at home or in greater dignity. So government pays for a block nurse to visit people at home, but also to train the neighbors in ways to help the person stay at home, backed up by periodic visits of the block nurse, backed up when necessary by medical specialists.

Finally, although I think policy is very important, I want you to know that my experience in politics is that people rarely know all your policy decisions, but they support you based on whether they like you or not. I have had people in Minnesota who were committed Republicans tell me that they watched how I and my wife Sheila took care of our parents when they were ailing, and that because they decided we were good people because of how we acted they decided they'd vote for me. That's how people actually make decisions. And the more you can make your own life the basis of your self-presentation, without in some sickening way promoting it, how you've lived your life and what your values have been and how you've lived by them and connect that to larger issues, the better you will do politically.

LERNER: Yet your opponents are certain to try to shift the discourse to presenting you as a big government liberal spender. And unless you can help people get that you know why they have a legitimate beef against the way big government liberal programs have operated, you will be in deep political trouble. The politics of meaning distinction between objective and subjective caring gives you a way to do this, Paul, because it allows you to acknowledge that people have really been disrespected and not treated right by the government, because, you can argue, we need governmental policies that reward subjective caring. In fact, you could talk about liberating government bureaucrats from bureaucratic consciousness...

WELLSTONE: That's right...

LERNER: And allow those government employees to act from their most loving and caring place, not from their most bureaucratic place.

WELLSTONE: And, on the other hand, it drives me crazy to see a person like Gingrich take up the language of empowerment. Of course, we also have to make a case against the Right wing's incorrect case against government. But I'm certainly aware that there is going to be a massive effort to marginalize my campaign by saying "old big government spending liberal." It's not true, and there are a lot of ways to take it on, but what you've said is certainly part of that. Ideas still matter, so if you come up with language and ideas that genuinely moves people it makes a huge different, even in this age.

LERNER: Would you support a Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution which would require corporations to reincorporate once every twenty years, and they would only get a new corporate charter if they could prove a history of social responsibility as measured by an Ethical Impact Report.

WELLSTONE: I'm very cautious about constitutional amendments, for many reasons, one of them being that it takes a very long time to make something like that actually happen.

LERNER: How about the Social Responsibility Initiative I've proposed which could be introduced into Congress, and into state legislatures, and local city councils, which would require corporations which are filing bids for public funds (for example, to fulfill a contract for something the government needs) to file an Ethical Impact Report and to instruct the awarding body that it must award the contract to that corporation which, while otherwise able to fulfill the terms of the contract and which is among the low bidders for the contract, has the best history of social responsibility?

WELLSTONE: I like this proposal and its call for greater accountability for larger corporations. I think that what you are doing is really expanding the definition of an environmental impact statement, and I think this is on the mark. It makes corporations think more deeply about the consequences of their decisions and engages the public in recognizing the way some of these companies make decisions that have revolutionary consequences for our lives without ever feeling any need to consult us. It's not a proposal for government to take over corporations, but it calls for serious accountability. I really like it. It's similar to what I tried to do when I added an amendment to a bill by one Senator who called for a requirement that we focus on the impact of each piece of legislation we passed on "parental authority." I introduced a second degree amendment which would broaden this to analyze the impact of legislation on children. So I like this kind of concept of extending accountability not only in the public sector but in the private sector-and involving citizens in the process.

The mood of people in this country goes in two opposite directions at this point. People are increasingly disengaged, cynical, and disillusioned. On the other hand, it's not because people don't care about the decisions that crucially affect their lives. I think having the Social Responsibility Initiative or other initiatives that get more people involved in taking control of their lives is really very good. We need a new kind of citizenship, so that we can see citizens as themselves earning the rank of patriot because of their involvement in community affairs. People who are working together to create a better city or even to the nation as a whole. We as a society need to be encouraging people to focus not just on individual wants but on serving the larger community. So I want to call for a new century of citizenship. This is not being naïve or romantic-we are talking about democracy, the most important thing we have in this country.

LERNER: One thing we've heard from people inside corporations is that they often find themselves conflicted between their own ethical vision and the need to maximize the bottom line of the corporation. What the Social Responsibility Initiative would do is give these people a new source of support, because they could then argue to their corporate stockholders that paying more attention to the ethical impact of their corporation was going to make them more competitive for future government contracts.

WELLSTONE: That's right. It's important for us to not caricature people in the business community. I've met many people in the business community who really believe that they are trying to serve both their business interests and the interests on the larger community. But at the moment, they tell me, they are often put at a competitive disadvantage for trying to do this. So if you build more of this kind of reward for ethical behavior and public accountability, you create a more level playing field for people who really want to be involved in giving a larger role for their ethical decision making. Your idea would give many business people a greater incentive to pay attention to the ethical consequences of their decisions.

LERNER: What's your suggestion for how to deal with the globalization of capital and its increasing ability to dictate terms to local communities who wish capital to remain there? What strategies would you have?

WELLSTONE: I have been in profound disagreement with the President, the Vice President and this entire Administration on these issues. First of all, I disagree with the way they frame the question. I don't think this is a debate about whether we as a country are willing to participate in an international economy. Of course we are! No one is talking about building walls on our borders. But the question is whether with this new international economy there will be any rules. I think there is a very strong link between human rights in other countries and a fair international economy for Americans. There ought to be strong restrictions on child labor laws in other countries, fair labor practices, environmental regulations and human rights guarantees, so that corporations can't take advantage of the denial of these basic human needs in other countries to find a cheaper way to make their products, thereby disadvantaging American workers. We need these human rights built into our trade agreements with other countries. So we need to renegotiate the terms of existing agreements. Secondly, people have every right to be skeptical about what the new global economy is bringing for them and their families (including their realization that it is hard to compete against twelve-year olds making twelve cents an hour is some foreign sweat shop).

When I look at some of the economic prescriptions given by our international monetary organizations, which are closely aligned with some of our big corporate interests (no conspiracy suggested), the advice seems to be "devalue your currency and cut your benefits to your citizens, reduce wages, and general austerity.” Supposedly this is going to help them. Well, they export products at a price at which we can't compete, but meanwhile they are unable to develop a middle class at the wages being paid so they can't consume what we in the U.S. produce, so there's little market for our goods. This kind of international community does not lead to a general upward development but downward development in all countries including the U.S. Finally, we need to focus on more home-grown economies and more self-reliant communities where more of the capital is kept inside the small communities. We need to support small businesses, local coops, and this kind of thing.

LERNER: As you know, we at TIKKUN believe that the best interests of the Jewish people would be served by the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state that would live in peace with Israel. Though we opposed President Bush on many issues, we deeply appreciated his use of American power to deny loan guarantees to Israel till West Bank settlement activity has stopped-and many people in the Israeli peace movement who supported Bush on this feel that his actions helped Rabin win the election in 1992 by winning to the peace side people who did not want a confrontation with the U.S. with all its potentially harmful impact on the Israeli economy. What could we expect from a Wellstone presidency in the way of standing up for peace should Netanyahu continue, in the post-13% withdrawal phase, to do all he can to ensure that "final settlement talks" never result in significant Palestinian self-determination?

WELLSTONE: I have consistently supported the peace position, and have resisted those who tried to mobilize the Congress to support the Israeli Right and undercut the peace process. There is no future in Israeli and Palestinian children killing each other for years to come. In my advocacy for human rights I have not hesitate to being openly critical of Israeli human rights abuses. I am a strong advocate for peace.

LERNER: Bill Clinton is also a strong advocate of peace but is not willing to use the power of the presidency to push Israel because of the political consequences he might face from rightwing elements in the American Jewish community. How would you be different?

WELLSTONE: I've been very outspoken on these issues and will continue to do that as President. If this peace process breaks down, we will have to find other ways to move the parties forward, but I'm not sure of what particular proposal I would make. But I will not forget the Palestinian people and their human rights, because I support human rights in all countries around the world. There has to be a way to reach the goal of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, because I believe in human dignity.

LERNER: Is there anything else that you think our readers ought to know about your candidacy?

WELLSTONE: I think we ought to remember what Emerson wrote: The true test of civilization is not the census nor the size of the city or the crops, but the kind of man (and I'd add woman) the country turns out. This kind of national goal we ought to be thinking about is way beyond national product-it is how do we as a nation help our children to be the best kinds of people they could possibly be? And that's very close to what you, Michael, have been writing about in Tikkun and the politics of meaning.

LERNER: Yes, it is what I've stressed by saying that we need "a new bottom line" in which productivity and efficiency are judged by how much a given institution or social policy tends to create more loving and caring human beings who are capable of ethical, spiritual ecological sensitivity.

WELLSTONE: Yes, I agree, and that's why I think your editorial in September was wrong about me, because I am really not just interested in technocratic policies, but really am concerned about values and community and new way to understand patriotism that you've been talking about, and I do want to make that a huge part of what I will be talking about in this coming Presidential campaign. And I learned this when I was a community organizer-that although people very much care about specific issues and do want to win specific economic self-interest issues, but I also learned that people cared about a different sense of self-interest, one which is more connected to what will make people feel proud of themselves and their lives.