America is in the midst of a religious crisis. Our core belief system is being challenged. And when your faith is threatened, you become more religious, not less.
What is our religion? Work. Work that is freely chosen and meaningful. When Americans ask each other "What do you do?", they aren`t simply inquiring "What do you do for a living?", but also "What is your role and status in the lifetime of work that we share?"
Newt understands that voting Americans are scared to death about the future of work. Will there be enough dignified work for the middle class? Recently, I watched the new speaker address a conference about America's economic future sponsored by Newt, Inc. His warm-up act was the futurist couple Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who recited the fundamentals about our ongoing, painful transition from the industrial era to the information age.
You may have read reports of the event. The New York Times ran a dismissive review by their reigning stylist, Maureen Dowd. Better that the Times ridicule Newt than flatter him, but like most reporters, Ms. Dowd missed a chance to analyze the speaker's appeal.
Given my own contempt for Newt, I was surprised by his blunt charisma. He attacked the cybernetic potential of the future with the same relentless, cunning glee with which he seized the speakership. Additionally, because he's learned that the Song of Himself isn't everyone's favorite tune, he's added empathic refrains. "Somewhere there has to be a missionary spirit in America that says to the poorest child in America, `The Internet's for you. The information age is for you.'"
Whether or not that missionary spirit was in the conference ballroom, there certainly weren't any poor children (or poor adults) present. When Newt introduced a story comparing Germany and the United States, he asked who had been to Germany. Virtually everyone in the audience raised a hand. Newt noted that on the autobahn there is no speed limit, but if a law were passed mandating a 100 kph limit, all Germans would obey it the next day. Then they'd efficiently elect a new party favoring no speed limits. But in the U.S., Newt observed, everyone views the speed limit as "a benchmark of opportunity." Preacherlike, he asked the audience for a show of hands to confirm that most American drivers are willing to breach the legal frontier in order to get ahead.
Newt's point? In the U.S., you canÕt expect the bureaucracy to lead us into the future because the populace is always speeding forward. So a politician's prime job should be to clear the bureaucracy out of the way.
This Reaganesque idea, easily crafted into a campaign slogan, evokes an optimism basic to our religion of work. Americans believe that it is in our nature to solve economic problems. More fundamentally, we believe that right thinking plus hard work can be transformative, moving us from a lower economic plane to a higher one.
Crude versions of this belief structure can be seen in late-night TV commercials for motivational tapes. ("Do you really, truly want to be a winner?") But there are sophisticated versions as well, for example in the writings of the American philosopher John Dewey, who believed that consciousness not only can transform Being, but positively wants to.
Karl Marx got this wrong. He thought that material circumstances create consciousness and that the drive for personal liberty was a concern that would disappear once the means of production were commonly owned.
Yet the American urge to feel free is as strong as our urge to produce. We're most energized when we combine the two urges. We collectively believe that if left to our individual devices, we can conquer all obstacles.
This faith and the enormity of the obstacles we are now encountering help explain the last election. In the past 15 years the crucial bloc of voters (because it is both growing and volatile) consists of people who feel their economic situation has gotten worse. By nearly a 2-to-1 majority, they voted for Republicans in 1994. Some members of this group have attended college, but they don't have advanced degrees. And their economic perceptions are accurate: They've been losers in postindustrial America. With increasing automation throughout an integrated world market, only those skilled in handling information (just 15 percent of our workforce) have thrived.
Those whose income has stagnated or whose job security has deteriorated can't afford to vent their feelings at work. So they direct their anger at those publicly in charge. After all, the government seems as if it's gotten fatter. (In fact, its size as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product has remained almost constant for the past 15 years.) And the tax dollars it takes (though also relatively constant for the past 15 years) hurt more when youÕre feeling squeezed everywhere else.
What's causing the squeeze? With no external enemies on the horizon, suspicion turns inward. Maybe illegal immigrants are taking your rightful place. Perhaps our permissive culture is perverting the good, old-fashioned rules. Or blacks and women are being given all the breaks.
And who are the culprits publicly associated with these fears? The same politicians who champion large, regulatory government. Basically: Democrats.
Also, in a culture of problem solvers, many citizens simply figure that if the party that has controlled Congress and the presidency can't move the economy forward, the opposition should be given a chance.
So voters install a Republican majority that offers some immediate cash back, but also intends to weaken the already-worn institutional brakes (progressive income taxes, corporate regulations, unions, the minimum wage) on the new economy.
Why? Oddly enough, although Americans prize their individualism and their right to a fair reward, they also identify with the overall forward movement of the economy. That's why, for example, many Americans who have no stocks listen to the daily Dow Jones report. And why for the next year, so many citizens will join politicians in scapegoating those on welfare. The dole brings to mind the sin of sloth. And cheating. If the American economy isn't working as well as it should, perhaps it's because sinners at the bottom are pulling us down.
How to respond to this nasty national mood? By trying to elicit the best in our religion of work. When I spoke with one of Franklin Roosevelt's granddaughters, Anna, she said she was viscerally repulsed by Newt's repeated invocation of her grand-father. She felt that in the service of destruction, Newt has co-opted FDR's optimism and experimental verve.
Democrats must reclaim this legacy by discussing America's work crisis with a confident, pragmatic spirit. All privatization isn't bad; all government programs aren't good. Some revenue and control probably should be returned to the states.
Conversely, Newt must be exposed as operating in bad faith. When he claims he wants the poorest child to join the Internet, we should say, "Hallelujah! But then, why did you vote against every piece of pro-child legislation in the last few years, a record matched in the Senate only by Jesse Helms?" When Newt destroys college loan programs, we should point out that he has no desire to help American students gain the skills necessary for the 21st century. Every time he puts forth tax cuts, we should hammer home how they primarily benefit the already prosperous. It's an open question just how much government can ease the transition into the information age, but few Americans want it to tilt the playing field further in favor of those already winning.
Newt urges us to get religion, though we already have it. In time, his meanness and greed will reveal him as someone interested only in his own welfare. Not slothful, but a cheater. Although Newt appeals to our faith, he is a false prophet.