What makes a King out of a slave? Courage.
— The Cowardly Lion
Democrats like Doug Jones enjoy quoting MLK, but only in the most selectively self-serving ways. Invoking Dr. King’s haunting call to consciousness, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” plays well in the minds of newly-victorious, bootlicking opportunist politicians, but only because it lacks the basic courage necessary to establish anything that remotely passes for a conviction. I’m guessing Senator-elect Jones would not have invoked that metaphor in a concession speech. If a Democrat defeating a hateful robber baron were tantamount to the arc of the moral universe bending in the right direction, then that arc is bending in an existentially dangerous direction of late. It takes no courage whatsoever to turn Dr. King’s quote into a thinly veiled I-told-you-so for a campaign acceptance speech. Besides, few Americans believe that our nation had just begun headed down the wrong path upon President Trump’s rise to power only a year ago. And, I think, it’s helpful to reflect on what connections there may be between the decay of democracy in America on the one hand, and the utter absence of courage in American politics on the other.
Among the hardest turns in American politics toward abandoning moral convictions in recent history has to be the Third Way, or what amounts to a classically Orwellian rebranding of the cowardly conditional “If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.” The Third Way explains why yesterday’s neoliberals and neoconservatives have been on a honeymoon since Trump won, why it’s now perfectly acceptable to address civil and human rights issues as being completely distinct from economic issues, and how actually exercising basic civil rights — like taking a knee, boycotting/divesting from something, or reporting a story — can be publicly discussed in terms of criminal liability. Bill Clinton’s compact with Democratic voters, that we can openly accept corporate ownership of our political system provided we continue to pay lip service to the virtues of diversity, was the ultimate Faustian bargain of the modern era. By championing causes such as privatization (1, 2, 3) and electoral corporate sponsorship, and scrapping what remained of New Deal reforms, Democrats could remain in the game for a while longer providing a two-party foil for their donors on Wall Street. It took no courage to pledge allegiance to the market. It took no courage to arrange the divorce between civil rights and the economy during the Tech Revolution, which continues apace. It certainly took no courage for Republicans to accept Democrat’s new footing as a relative rookie to corporate panhandling, legitimizing the pay-to-play scheme that now dominates what Washington politicians do, but was once referred to as bribery. We’re supposed to think we have a choice. That’s where the term “Third” Way came from, and that market logic abdicates our responsibility to muster the courage it takes to self-govern.
Participating in elections is not supposed to take any courage. It shouldn’t take courage for an American voter to participate in an election, even though it infamously does within various minority communities. The most important aspect of election integrity from a voter’s point of view, after their vote is counted, is that they’re designed to be confidential, regardless of their perceived legitimacy, which is insightful. Whatever forms of fraud one believes our elections to be compromised of, no one complains that it was found out whom they voted for. This value of keeping one’s political affiliation confidential is a version of the social norm that also renders conversations about sex and religion taboo. Try to pin anyone down on exactly why that is and you’ll find less than satisfying answers. If America were an actual democracy, there would be more of us who participated in voting, beyond the passive consumption of billion-dollar ad campaigns, not fewer. The amount of lip service American politicians give to the importance of democracy stands in breathtaking contrast to the rates at which citizens turn out to vote. If there is any miniscule shred of democratic values left in America, then we have to acknowledge the message from the plurality of citizens who do not vote: that not participating in elections is more compelling than participating in them, for whatever reason. That is to say, taking election turnout rates among Americans as a poll itself for evidence of whether or not elections are perceived as legitimate, one cannot avoid the conclusion that Americans do not generally regard voting as a necessary part of maintaining our society. There is officially no courage involved in either participating in elections, or sitting them out. More broadly, it is offensive to out oneself in public for having a political conviction of any kind, and the modicum of courage it takes to do so is duly mocked and selfishly policed by anyone.
To the extent that violence has become an ascendant quality of American life, courage has conversely been exiled where power is displayed. It takes no courage for a congressperson to vote for a bill that would further increase military spending, or to observe endless moments of silence for mass shootings the press decides to cover. It takes no more courage for the president to drone a child on the other side of the planet than it does for him to use nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip in any context. Courage is not the same thing as gall, which requires no fear. There is exactly no courage exhibited on the part of policy makers who advocate for broken windows policing tactics, or for doing so with tanks and helicopters. You could call an epidemic of private prisons flourishing from the contributions they make to political campaigns something, or the kickbacks that private prison companies give to judges for convictions something, but you cannot call it courageous. Regardless of all the violence in America and its politics, there is an accompanying vacuum of courage.
This appears to be why such movements as #MeToo have had such refreshing traction. That traction was purchased with the courage of individual women coming forward, and especially in solidarity. Those who organize to help abused women often seem compelled to mention what a great personal toll mustering the courage to come forward has taken on the women who do. Now, it understandably takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up to someone like Harvey Weinstein, and #MeToo is surely still the beginning of what hopefully becomes a sea change, but the movement demonstrates, as clearly as any other for civil rights, that courage is the foundation upon which civilizing change is built in America. It comes to make sense that authoritarian leadership despises real bravery and thwarts civic courage in the most important, non-violent forms.
It’s no more courageous for Democrats to attack third party candidates, or voters themselves (!), for their own failures than it is for the sliver of Americans who vote to participate in elections they know are rigged: by gerrymandering, super delegates, compromised voting machines, the electoral college, felony and racial disenfranchisement, or by whatever other utterly antidemocratic policies we know are legal and employed.
Real bravery, however, isn’t only discouraged during election cycles, which at this point resemble a giant, bewilderingly complicated hamster wheel, frantically spinning in place. For example, so called Right to Work laws undermine many Americans’ First Amendment protections, effectively precluding their having a say in how the wealth they generate is distributed. Similarly, the recent cowardly kibosh on class action lawsuits insulates corporations from the wrath of consumers they unjustly harm. Likewise, the FCC’s craven decision to end net neutrality will predictably throttle the courageous innovation and imagination that has, until now, comprised much of the democratizing magic at the heart of the internet.
All this as bootlicking opportunism (currently conflated with what the President refers to as loyalty) is fervently rewarded in every facet of American life, now broadly saturated in the values of winner-take-all and growth-at-any-cost. And, perhaps because these values have become so ubiquitous, rendering it nearly impossible to live one’s life entirely outside of that moral framework, a debilitating sense of self-reinforcing despair germinates for those of us willing to muster the courage to simply allow that reality whatever humiliating moments of consciousness we can bear. We know it takes courage to greet the day, with all the problems they inevitably present. But, as Americans, we need to get creative and find more sources of encouragement than we currently do, if we are truly committed to resisting the current political order in a meaningful way.
The Cowardly Lion does it with his friends, in solidarity. And in the same scene when the Wizard attempts to co-opt their movement by claiming authority over the lion’s own newfound source of encouragement, the curtain is pulled back, exposing the rotten cowardice with which power is administered in Oz. The lion’s transformation in that story represents a singularly important step Americans need to make in order to take responsibility for their own governance. It takes courage to pick up where MLK actually left off, such as through bearing witness to “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and not by parroting the fact that you may “have a dream” or proclaiming that the arc of the moral universe bends in any particular direction by fiat. It takes courage to nurture the alliances that need to be forged in order to counter the ways that power and resources are currently distributed throughout society. It takes courage to acknowledge the ways in which the society we live our lives is dangerously flawed. And the degree to which self-inflicted calamities, like climate change, or war, or end-game social inequality are all intimately related and threaten our very existence, demands that we begin to take more risks in pulling back the curtain currently shrouding the insidious “collusion” at the heart of American power, namely between Wall Street and Washington.