Rabbi Michael Lerner: Psychopathology in the 2016 Election

Republished from Tikkun by permission.

Psychopathology in the 2016 Election

by Michael Lerner
November 3, 2016

IT’S NO SECRET that the past several decades have witnessed
growing economic inequality and deepening economic insecurity for a
very large section of working people both in the U.S. and other
capitalist countries around the world. Yet what most analysts miss
are the hidden injuries of class that become dramatically
intensified when the underlying psychological and spiritual
dysfunction of global capitalism interacts with economic
insecurity. Right-wing, ultra-nationalist, fundamentalist, and/or
racist movements gain support as more people begin to lose faith in
the efficacy of democratic governments and turn to authoritarian
leaders in the hope that their own fears and pain can be
alleviated. This has been happening around the world, not just in
the U.S. As a nonprofit we are prohibited from endorsing any
political candidate or party, so the reflections here are not meant
to influence your voting in 2016, but to shape an agenda for how to
build a healthier and more just society in the coming decades.

In his presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders addressed
some of these economic inequalities by advocating for New Deal-type
reforms, but he shied away from any systematic critique of the
capitalist order itself. Unfortunately for his supporters, in his
televised debates at least, Sanders failed to address the
psycho-spiritual pain in people’s lives caused by the hidden
psychic injuries of class and globalized capitalist ideologies.

This pain operates on two levels. On a psychological level
people are suffering because they have absorbed the capitalist
message: “You live in a meritocracy, so you get what you deserve,
and if you haven’t achieved the level of success you want, it’s
your fault. Moreover, everyone is out for him or herself so you
have to maximize your own self-interest, regardless of the impact
on others.”

On the spiritual level, tens of millions of people are suffering
because they desperately want meaningful and purposeful lives and
instead are trapped in jobs that do not produce anything of lasting
value, and feel that they are wasting their lives yet believe that
there is no alternative and no way out. What’s worse is that many
find their work is not really respected (in fact they have a hard
time respecting it themselves because they can’t see how it
connects to anything with a higher purpose than a paycheck for
themselves and massive profits for the super rich).

The liberal and progressive forces have a limited understanding
of why the very impressive list of economic changes and important
populist benefits Sanders offered the American people did not win
him a majority of the votes cast by Democrats in the 2016
presidential primaries. Given his powerful fundraising from
millions of Americans, they can’t blame it on the candidate not
having enough money to finance a competitive campaign. Sanders
rarely addressed the hidden injuries of class and capitalist
ideology and how they are absorbed, even by working people whose
economic lot is very insecure and who objectively might have been
expected therefore to be more responsive to Sanders’s platforms.
Sanders stayed on a primarily economistic discourse, talking about
the pain caused by economic insecurity but not about the deeper
distortions in our own self-perceptions and the way we relate to
each other—distortions and behaviors that are endemic to the way
we’ve been socialized since we were children with the values and
judgements of the competitive marketplace.

To address that deeper level, Sanders would have had to go
beyond New Deal entitlements and challenge the essentials of the
capitalist worldview and the institutions that daily reinforce
them. Most Democrats, social change activists, and
environmentalists don’t want to look at the need to transform the
larger economic system. Some don’t want to look because they are
benefitting from that system even as they mourn some of its
consequences for those they describe as less fortunate. Others
avoid looking because they believe any larger systemic change is
unrealistic and a waste of their time and money. So instead they
focus on more narrow and local struggles, or national single-issue
campaigns that seek to make narrowly constructed changes without
challenging the deeper, systemic problems.

Some activists maintain that we can save the life-support system
of the planet without replacing the capitalist system and its
intrinsic need to expand consumption. Some imagine that global
peace can be obtained without ending nationalist and religious
extremist bravado such as the claim that the U.S. is a special
nation that has a right or responsibility to lead the world and be
‘number one’—economically, culturally, and politically. Some
believe that a just world can be obtained without a radical
redistribution of wealth—hence the efforts for a higher minimum
wage instead of a living wage and confiscatory taxes on those whose
wealth exceeds $10 million. Illusion after illusion after
illusion—most held in the name of ‘being realistic’ where what is
realistic is defined by the one percent and their allies in the
media, at universities, and their large array of hired mouthpieces
who speak about the impossibility of creating fundamental equality.
Given this fear that they would be too far ahead of people by
talking about a vision of a very different kind of world, liberals
and progressives often end up sounding like a bunch of
complainers—they know what they are against, but rarely do they
publicly articulate what they are for, and so it’s hard to know if
those in one movement, say environmentalists, really want the same
world as the people rallying for Sanders’s economic agenda or the
people opposing the use of torture, drones, and other forms of

When reactionary movements gain public support, liberals and
progressives simply dismiss them as products of racism, sexism,
homophobia, xenophobia, or stupidity rather than trying to
understand what is missing in the Left’s message. It is so much
easier to demean those with whom we disagree than try to understand
their legitimate grievances even if the ways they articulate those
grievances are irrational and scary. Yet until we do that, these
forces will grow, even if Donald Trump loses by a landslide in the
November 2016 election. This is because if he loses, his loss can
be attributed in part to the peculiarities of his personality and
style of presentation, which have alienated fellow Republicans.
These are often the same Republicans who themselves have been
advocating policy directions and ideas that are just as militarist,
racist, sexist, in favor of the one percent, homophobic,
xenophobic, and Islamophobic as those championed by Trump.

So let’s look deeper.

The Economic Dimension

The facts of economic inequality were dramatized and popularized
by the courageous energies of those who participated in the Occupy
Movement. Due to their efforts, it is now well known that the upper
one percent of income earners controls a vastly disproportionate
amount of the wealth of this society. As The
Guardian newspaper reported in May 2016, white working-class
Americans “have seen their wages stagnate or even decline in real
terms” and that “median net worth fell for every group in the U.S.
between 1998 and 2013 except for one: the wealthiest 10 percent.
Working-class Americans saw their net worth decline in that period
by a staggering 53 percent. Meanwhile, the richest tenth got 75
percent richer.” The wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households own
76 percent of all the wealth in America.

Income and wealth inequality translates into deep feelings of
insecurity in the lives of most working people. Over 60 percent of
Americans report that they don’t know what they would do if faced
with an unexpected bill of $400 or more. Many have to rely on
growing credit card debt, and then find themselves paying off the
interest on that debt with money they need for basic

While other advanced industrial countries around the world have
significant differences in wealth, many of their populations don’t
find themselves in as much distress. In the decades after World War
II, powerful labor and social democratic movements struggled
against their own capitalist elites and created basic protections
including universal health care, free (or mostly free) educational
institutions, guaranteed incomes or generous benefits for the
unemployed, health and safety regulations at the workplace,
four-to-six week paid vacations each year, free (or generous) child
care for parents, and retirement benefits for the elderly. Not only
did these provide economic security for their citizens, they also
created a culture and society in which people are gradually
absorbing the value of caring for one another. They understand that
to have a thriving, healthy society, everyone’s well-being and
needs matter. The U.S., in contrast, has one of the least generous
packages of social welfare for the non-wealthy. In the past few
decades the wealthy have successfully dismantled or significantly
reduced their tax burden and, in turn, the amount of money
available for basic social services and repair of crumbling public
facilities, and they are not honoring pension agreements for
teachers, firefighters, and other public service employees. And as
unions lose their bargaining power in the face of corporations
willing to take advantage of global trade agreements negotiated by
the Clinton and Obama administrations (agreements that make it
economically attractive to move their operations abroad to avoid
taxes, environmental restrictions, and minimum wages),
middle-income working people find their employment terminated
and/or their promised retirement funds no longer available. They
are then left desperately seeking employment even in what used to
be the expected ‘retirement years’ in their seventies and eighties,
often finding that the only jobs they can get are in low-paying
fast food or grocery store jobs previously targeted to teenagers.
All this intensifies their capitalism-generated belief that
everyone is alone, so you have no choice but to focus on taking
care of yourself because no one else will be there for you.

Bringing Home the Values of the Marketplace

Most people between 20 and 65 spend the majority of their waking
hours in the world of work, and in transit to and from work. In the
workplace, people quickly learn that their value is judged by how
much they contribute to ensuring that the owners and managers of
the corporations or other economic entities for which they work
obtain the greatest amount of money and power (the Old Bottom
Line). College economics courses teach that the productivity,
efficiency, and rationality of businesses are measured by how much
money or power they accumulate. Thus, it doesn’t take long for
employees to recognize that (1) their employers are primarily
interested in maximizing their own self-interest; (2) the goods or
services they provide are first and foremost designed for the
purpose of maximizing the Old Bottom Line without regard to serving
the common good; and (3) that they themselves will be judged poorly
if they try to put some larger communal, ethical, or environmental
concern above the Old Bottom Line. And they are surrounded by
others who have also internalized these lessons, have adapted to
the value structure of the world of work, and are also in the work
world to advance their own economic well-being.

The union, socialist, and communist movements of the first half
of the twentieth century provided a counter-force to this singular
focus on maximizing money and power by articulating a worldview of
service to humanity and solidarity with fellow workers. But in the
post-World War II period those movements were essentially repressed
by society-wide efforts that (1) purged people from the workplace
and labor movement who held these ideals; (2) portrayed socialist
and communist ideas as fundamentally evil (made easier by the
pseudo-communist dictatorial and repressive regimes of the Soviet
Union, in Eastern Europe, and China); and (3) celebrated the
accumulation of wealth and power as the highest goal. For many
decades now, the media, which is mostly owned by the one percent,
took a reverential approach to the rich and famous. They
continually advance the notion that the rich deserve respect and
honor for having accumulated their wealth and for being ‘job

In such a society, working people increasingly came to believe
that the fundamental reality of the world and the only way to
succeed was to look out for number one. In this worldview, anyone
who thought that people could care about others was seen either as
subversive, terribly naïve, or delusional. To be a winner in this
society requires one to maximize one’s own self-interest, which is
often achieved by perfecting the techniques of manipulating others.
This is evidenced in ‘reality’ television shows such as The
Apprentice, The Bachelor/The Bachelorette,
and Survivor that represent a societal assault on
generosity and a glorification of selfishness. These shows send a
clear message: “this is the real world, so either develop the
skills to dominate others or be prepared to be dominated

The media and education system massively reinforce these values
of materialism and selfishness. For example, popular television
shows such as Game of Thrones andHouse of
Cards focus on who has power over whom. Most of the characters
in shows such as Girls and Transparent lack any
moral fiber and manipulate others to meet their own needs. From
these shows, viewers learn that people are more successful when
they know how to use other people to achieve their own ends
(whether that be power, money, sexual conquest, or fame). Even
children’s cartoon shows often reflect this same struggle for power
or show people humiliating or making fun of others. These shows
portray it as humor or good clean fun, but, in fact, it sends a
powerful message of how to survive and be successful in

By permeating our whole society, these messages have the
consequence of making people feel unsure of whom they can trust and
increasingly fearful that even those closest to them may prioritize
advancing their own interests over genuine love and solidarity.
People increasingly look at each other through the framework of
“what can you do for me; in what way can you take care of my
needs?” People learn to suspect each other’s motives and fear that
they cannot rely on others. Many emotionally distance themselves
from others, even those they are closest to. As people start to
look at their spouse or partner in these terms, seeing them as
vehicles for satisfying one’s own needs, marriages become
increasingly fragile, the divorce rate escalates, and people in
marriages no longer feel that they can be sure their partners will
stick with them in the future

The triumph of selfishness as common sense creates a huge
psycho-spiritual crisis and a society filled with deeply scared and
lonely people. The resulting psychological distress can lead to
addiction and depression, and in some cases suicide. And it
generates a spiritual crisis in two ways. First, people want to
live meaningful and purposeful lives but find themselves trapped in
unfulfilling jobs that provide few opportunities to exercise their
intelligence, creativity, desire to cooperate with rather than
compete against others, desire to feel that they have done
something of value with their time on this planet, and their desire
to contribute to the larger society. Second, they unwittingly
integrate the values of the capitalist marketplace into their
personal lives. These values stand in stark contrast to the
spiritual values that teach people to see each other as
fundamentally valuable sacred beings who are created in the image
of God and who deserve to be treated as valuable in and of
themselves, rather than merely as means to satisfy other people’s
wants and needs.

All this, rarely discussed in the public arena (and never taught
in high schools or colleges), creates a huge sense of fear,
despair, anger, and/or depression amongst large swaths of
Americans. No wonder people get attracted to fantasies of ‘small
town America’ where people supposedly cared about each other, not
realizing that the capitalist ethos of ‘looking out for number one’
has been part of Western culture for hundreds of years, and its
early articulations can be found in every imperialist regime from
the ancient Romans and Greeks to Elizabethan England to the early
American founders who shaped the direction of American society in
part by mass murdering indigenous peoples and enslaving Africans.
It is true that an ethos of community and solidarity has never been
quite as low as in the past fifty years of American life as the
individualism fostered by the competitive marketplace even seeps
down into the consciousness of young children, but the
romanticization of earlier periods of imagined solidarity among
people has to be tempered by the way that actual scarcity plus the
emerging ethos of individualism has been part of American society
since at least the late eighteenth century.

The only places where people can experience a different set of
values is either when participating as a fan or team member in
professional sports where both momentarily unite, regardless of
economic disparities, in support of a larger, overarching goal
(i.e. to win), or the religious or spiritual world which, at least
in theory, preaches that one cannot serve both God and money.
Millions of people flock to right-wing churches, synagogues, and
mosques precisely because they often find there a caring
community—one that truly meets their needs for recognition,
respect, genuine care, and support. Because the community fulfills
these needs, people are willing to buy into the otherwise
outlandish belief systems presented by the leaders of those
communities, beliefs that demonize those outside their particular
community. Unfortunately, while these communities often provide
donations for the needy, feed some hungry people, or collect
clothes and blankets for some homeless, they often support
political and economic programs that seek to defund government
programs that might have more effectively stopped those “market
forces” that are the cause of much of this poverty, hunger, and

Meritocracy and Self-Blaming

Not only do the values of selfishness and materialism that
permeate the capitalist marketplace infiltrate people’s personal
lives, undermining family stability and causing great distress, but
the capitalist society justifies the huge wealth inequalities by
convincing people that where they have ended up in the economic
struggle of all against all is a function of their own merit—how
smart they are, how hard they’ve worked, to what extent they have
the personality traits that will ensure their success, etc. It is a
huge pretense—intelligence tests show that differences in
intelligence are distributed equally among economic classes, and
you need only hear the stories of working and poor people to know
that they often work as hard if not harder than anyone in the upper
20 percent of wealth holders in this society.

In the past several decades the fantasy of living in a world in
which merit determines who has more and who has less has been
massively reinforced by mandatory testing of students beginning in
elementary school and continuing throughout the remainder of their
schooling. Those who perform best on these tests are rewarded with
better opportunities to go to elite colleges and then on to
graduate or professional schools. The tests themselves, supposedly
objective but actually heavily class, gender, and culture-biased,
focus on a narrow range of skills in the use of English and math,
totally ignoring other factors that might be rewarded in a more
spiritually and psychologically aware society (e.g. empathy,
compassion, environmental sensitivity and sustainable behavior,
caring for others, generosity, creativity, awe in response to the
beauty and preciousness of the universe, understanding of what
social and economic justice requires, familiarity with the classic
works of both Western and Eastern societies, or any form of ethical
or spiritual wisdom). What they do measure, along with grades, is
the willingness of the most ambitious teens to twist themselves and
their lives and jump through the hoops being presented to them by
learning the skills necessary to do well on the tests, because
those are likely to be a good predictor of who will be good and
loyal aides to the one percent and who can’t be trusted to close
their eyes to the ethical distortion of accepting the unfair
aspects of this society and its environmental destructiveness and
militaristic approach to the problems of the world. Yet these tests
are mistakenly thought to measure your worthiness to succeed, hence
deepening self-blame. I know this from personal experience—when I
got to Columbia and hence ‘made it’ into the Ivy League, I found
there (and in the other Ivy schools I visited when I was on
Columbia’s debate team) a large group of those so hungry to ‘make
it’ that they were willing to do almost anything to find the angles
to advance themselves without regard to others.

Through this process of internalized self-blame, the capitalist
class structure both creates pain and isolates people from others,
creating a vicious cycle of deepening agony, loneliness, emotional
depression, and sadness. And with capitalist consciousness now
pervading much of the world, there is a kind of collective,
unconscious depression that permeates and impacts all of us, even
those who have managed, to a certain extent, to consciously avoid
self-blaming tendencies. That pain is then compounded by the
suffering of the earth itself as its life-support system collapses
under the weight of capitalist accumulation and production,
reflecting and contributing to global depression.

We are left with a world filled with people who know there is
something deeply wrong but have no overarching framework to help
them understand the depth of their internal suffering. If provided
with a worldview that could help them rise above their self-blaming
stories, they would see that the fault is not ‘in their stars,’ nor
in themselves, but in the totality of oppressive, life-destroying
dynamics that confront them daily in every corner of their lives,
from overcrowded highways, to the bombardment of ads and television
shows urging them to buy more goods than they can afford, to the
disappointment some parents feel if their children begin to reflect
the ethos of materialism and selfishness of society.

What I have learned as the Executive Director of the Institute
for Labor and Mental Health for the past 38 years, and in my years
as principle investigator of a National Institute of Mental
Health-funded study of the psychodynamics of stress at work and in
family life in American society, is that most people hate the
materialism, selfishness, and competitiveness of this society and
desperately yearn for a higher meaning and purpose in their lives,
but believe that there is no way that the system can be changed.
They hide this yearning even from themselves because tapping into
the gap between their lived lives and potential lives, if their
needs were met, is unbearably painful unless the context in which
they allow themselves to feel these feelings is one in which they
are learning from others how much each person’s individual pain is
a manifestation of a more collective reality and not their own

Yet this hunger for a life of meaning and transcendent purpose,
and for a world in which people are caring and generous, cannot be
extinguished. This is precisely because it is always present, even
if most people do their best to hide it from others and from
themselves. No contemporary social order based on oppression and
the fostering of selfishness, materialism, and self-blame can ever
be sustainable for long periods of time. A longing for meaning,
purpose, connection, and mutual recognition, if directed in a
positive fashion, can provide a foundation for a revolutionary
consciousness. If, however, these needs are effectively manipulated
by reactionary leaders and movements, they can be used to lead
people in a more reactionary direction. And when right-wing
programs and policies fail to deliver a more fulfilling life for
people at work and for people in family life, this failure will be
blamed on the demeaned others of the society who are portrayed as
taking from the white majority the economic security, community
solidarity, and safety that supposedly existed at some earlier
historical moment.

How the Right Reduces Self-Blame by Blaming Others and
the Left Misses

The right-wing in the U.S. became popular in the 1970s and 1980s
by telling people that there was a spiritual crisis in American
society that arose from the selfishness and materialism that had
permeated our society. They argued that this spiritual crisis is at
the root of increasing divorce rates and instability in family
life. They then presented themselves as the ‘pro-family force’ with
a powerful message: “You are not to blame for the instability in
family life that you are experiencing—this is a social problem
based on the insidious role of selfishness and materialism in our
society.” And the terrible truth is that the Right, in at least one
way, was correct—there was and still is a spiritual crisis and it
was at the root of much of the pain people feel in their lives.

Particularly in the post-Civil Rights Movement period of the
late ’60s and from then on, the Right has addressed American’s
underlying psychological pain of alienation and sense that everyone
is out for him or herself, and spiritual longing for meaningful
lives, by blaming the most vulnerable in our society, those who
were seeking to rectify long histories of oppression—African
Americans and other peoples of color, then feminists, gays and
lesbians, young people, and more recently undocumented workers and
refugees. The Right claimed that these groups were responsible for
introducing the selfishness and materialism that was corroding
societal values and destroying families. The legitimate attempts by
liberal and progressive movements to provide well-being and equal
rights for oppressed groups were instead described as quests for
unfair economic and social advantage, won at the expense of white
working-class people whose economic, psychological, and spiritual
suffering were the products of these allegedly narrowly focused
self-interested groups who didn’t care about the welfare of

So please understand what is happening here. People have very
legitimate pain in their lives and tend to blame themselves for it.
The Right comes forward and helps them reduce the self-blaming by
teaching them to externalize their anger at these ‘others.’ That
anger is also directed at the government, which is portrayed as the
enabler of these selfish special interest groups, and at liberals
who tax people to achieve support for some minimal economic
reforms. The Right encourages people to assert themselves and their
needs by advocating for lower taxes and defunding government. (Not
coincidentally, this goal of defunding government is championed by
major sections of the one percent who want to reduce their own
taxes and decrease the government’s capacity to increase the
minimum wage, enforce environmental, health and safety regulations,
and place other restrictions on a corporation’s ability to maximize

People who embrace the Right’s message, and externalize what
would otherwise be a self-blaming anger, do in fact experience a
reduction of self-blame, and a deep sense of relief that leaves
them feeling cared for by the Right. And that feeling is so
emotionally nurturing that many people who will actually suffer
more than benefit from the Right’s programs nevertheless join the
march toward downsizing the very government set up to protect their
interests. But since government itself provides ‘objective caring’
in the form of material benefits, but rarely provides ‘subjective
caring’ in the form of treating the recipients of government
services with a deep sense of respect and appreciation, it’s all
the easier for the Right to foster this resentment at government.
And it doesn’t help when liberals in government like Bill Clinton
and Barack Obama become advocates for trade policies which are more
in the interest of the one percent than the interest of the rest of
us—who can blame people for feeling betrayed by ‘big’

Meanwhile, the Right, which presents itself as the champion for
the needs of people wounded by the dynamics of selfishness and
materialism in this society, is simultaneously championing the very
dynamics of the capitalist marketplace and its ideology that are
the source of much of this suffering.

And this creates the perfect opportunity for the liberals and
progressives to enter the discussion and point out that much of
people’s suffering is rooted in the hidden injuries of class and
capitalist values—not only in the economic inequalities, but also
in the psycho-spiritual crisis that the capitalist marketplace

But liberals and progressives have been stuck in a narrow
economistic worldview best summarized by the saying that permeated
Bill Clinton’s administration: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Completely ignoring people’s inner pain and fear, they mistakenly
believed that the strategies advanced by the Right (i.e., racism,
sexism, homophobia, xenophobia) are the primary motivations leading
people to embrace the Right’s demeaning of the powerless. The Left
attributes these hateful attitudes and policies to a supposed
inherent malice and hatred in the majority of Americans rather than
see it as we do—as a failed and misguided attempt to alleviate
their pain and suffering. Deeply enmeshed in their own
religiophobia, people on the Left rarely open themselves to the
possibility that there could be a spiritual crisis in American
society. And it is this intellectual/emotional block that makes it
almost impossible for many liberals and progressives to even begin
to understand these dynamics, let alone address them in a
compassionate way that could offer supporters of the Right an
alternative way to understand and integrate their own suffering, a
way which might draw people to the Left.

A Compound Fracture: The Legacy of Humiliation from

In research we conducted at the Institute for Labor and Mental
Health (the parent body of Tikkun magazine) with
middle-income people who were moving to the political Right, we
discovered that many of those attracted to right-wing
authoritarianism had been shamed as children by a punishing parent.
Let me explain how this happens.

An infant child enters the world helpless and vulnerable, yet
full of love and trust and generosity of spirit. She seeks parental
love, acceptance, and ultimately approval. Yet many parents are
unable to fully reciprocate, having themselves been emotionally
damaged, in part by their having absorbed the consciousness of the
capitalist marketplace. A child’s depth of human vulnerability and
neediness overwhelms many parents who feel inadequate to the pure
love that their children need and simultaneously are offering them.
This triggers parents’ own feelings of inadequacy from having
experienced as children their parents’ inability to be fully
present and loving to them, an experience which many children make
sense of by mistakenly feeling that they themselves are the
problem, that their parents’ emotional distancing or inability to
fully love and recognize them is a function of their own inadequacy
in ways that they don’t really understand but which nevertheless
make them feel fundamentally lacking and ‘not ok.’ This feeling was
subsequently reinforced in their adult life when they blamed
themselves for not having ‘made it’ in the economic marketplace or
securing satisfactory love relationships as an adult.

The frustration and anger from this internalized sense of
failure is compounded by the messages they receive in the workplace
and through television shows that suggest everyone else (except
people portrayed as ‘losers’) feels successful and satisfied. This
angst is then taken out on their own children (sometimes violently,
and other times in a pattern of discounting or being emotionally
blind to their children’s needs in ways remarkably similar to the
ways that their own parents had been emotionally blind to their
needs). So the child quickly learns that to receive love and
approval, she has to hide her neediness and block off her own
desire to be loved or fully recognized for who she is. That
requires ‘toughing it out.’

Once the child reaches adulthood, she faces a world where she is
surrounded by people who have been similarly wounded. Fearful of
being seen as a failure or even as mentally disturbed should she
reveal her pain, she feels that she must present herself in a false
way as completely ‘fine’ and ‘doing great.’ And so does mostly
everyone else in her life. But then, covering her own vulnerability
and pain, she feels all the more lonely and disconnected even if on
a superficial level she has developed a large circle of friends
(who are also hiding emotionally). At a deep level she feels
unrecognized, her hunger for a deeper level of love and mutual
recognition at times hidden even from herself. Sadly, the
frustration engenders either escape into drugs, alcohol,
television/internet addiction, emotional depression, or excessive
anger at one’s own children or at others. And the cycle repeats
generation after generation.

“The hidden psycho-spiritual injuries of global
capitalism shape 2016 American politics.” 

Many of us are deeply wounded from this process and carry a
sense of inadequacy and deep hurt that we are not recognized or
loved for who we really are. For some people, these childhood
wounds made them particularly sensitive to the various ways that
they perceived themselves as failing in the capitalist marketplace.
Yet they chose not to share their internal struggles with their
friends out of fear that doing so would lead to others seeing them
as the ‘losers’ that they feel themselves to be, and they fear that
such a perception by others would lead them to end their
friendship. But once they participated in the consciousness-raising
groups we ran at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health and
allowed themselves to acknowledge self-blame and recognize the
self-punishing attitudes they carried with them from childhood,
their views shifted, depression eased, and genuine loving
connections became more easily attained.

This kind of intervention can break the cycle described above by
both bringing it to light and providing healing through connection,
mutual recognition, and acknowledgment of their frustrated needs
for a life of transcendent meaning and love. Through our groups,
many middle-income working people eventually came to recognize that
while their anger at liberal politicians for failing to stand up
and fight for the changes they promised in their campaigns was
entirely legitimate, it was also intensified by the repetition of
personal humiliation they experienced as children and in the
competitive marketplace that shapes adult lives. So it was
liberating for many to become aware of the ways they had
unconsciously blamed themselves for not having gotten the quality
of unconditional love and recognition that they needed as children
from parents who themselves did not have the skills or training to
overcome the ways that these parents had lived a life of

These unexpressed and partially unconscious feelings of
abandonment and despair were triggered yet again when liberal
leaders and the Clinton and Obama administrations revealed
themselves to be more about serving the interests of the powerful
than about love, justice, and peace. People throughout our society,
including people who, for example, hadn’t voted for Obama but
secretly hoped his promise of fundamental change might actually
happen, experienced unbearable disappointment and a sense of
humiliation that they had allowed themselves to hope again and then
were forced to face the reality that the liberal heroes in whom
they had invested this hope lacked the confidence to stand up and
fight against a ruthless and immensely powerful one percent. No
wonder, then, that the early days of hopefulness of the Obama
administration yielded to disillusionment, anger, and a
ruling-class funded and manipulated Tea Party response of
unmitigated anger and pseudo-populist demand to defund

Our groups helped participants untangle their present-day
disappointment in, and anger at, politicians from their historical
sense of emotional abandonment and the humiliation that arose from
it, which had been subsequently reinforced by their experience of
‘losers’ in the capitalist marketplace. This allowed those in our
groups to recognize the manipulation of their feelings by
right-wing movements and thus they did not turn to them to
alleviate their pain and suffering. Unfortunately, however, many of
their friends, facing similar dynamics but lacking the awareness
our groups provided, were attracted to right-wing movements. These
movements allowed them to reduce self-blaming by releasing their
anger at marginalized others. A momentary release of self-blame,
however, does not create a world with less selfishness, so their
friends who joined the Right were primed with new hatreds at new
groups to be blamed and demeaned (most recently Muslims and
undocumented workers).

What we also discovered was that some of the racism, sexism, and
homophobia that abounds in America today arises from resentment
based on the mistaken belief that the needs of white working people
have been ignored as ‘the special interests’ (those facing
discrimination) have won the support of the elites of American
society. This perception is not entirely irrational. Political
elites, who are the centrists in both the Democratic and Republican
parties, cannot deliver much for the majority of American working
people without stepping on the toes of the economic elites whose
interests they share. So what they do instead is integrate a small
section of women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and other
demeaned groups into positions of influence or power while the
majority of those groups remain in subordinate and powerless
positions in the class structure.

Meanwhile, the one percent and their coterie and the media they
own and control celebrate the advances made by people in demeaned
groups (women, African Americans, gays and lesbians, etc.), without
changing the basic class structure of society. By allowing a small
percentage of people in discriminated groups to make it into the
upper earners of the society, the one percent generates the hope
that we, all the rest of us, can too ‘make it’ when in fact these
small advances by a few do not trickle down to the masses.

So, for example, Hillary Clinton upon winning the votes to
become the Democratic nominee proudly told an adoring crowd that
her nomination had broken the glass ceiling for women, when in fact
most women are still getting paid less than men, are still the
objects of sexist treatment and vicious rapes, and are still either
put on a pedestal for praise or demeaned behind their backs.
Similarly, the economic conditions of Blacks improved only slightly
under the Obama presidency, neither has Justice Clarence Thomas’s
role on the Supreme Court done much to break the glass ceiling for
African Americans. Individuals from oppressed groups who succeed in
the economic or political sphere do not necessarily change the
fundamental racism, sexism, or classism of society.

Because these advances in money and power do not appear to
benefit them, many middle-aged white men feel that their needs have
been completely ignored. But instead of directing their rage at the
capitalist system, the Right steers them to direct it against the
demeaned others and against the Left, who are championing these
oppressed groups. This gets intensified when the Left fails to
expose these dynamics to working-class people, instead dismissing
white working-class men as inherently racist, sexist, etc. This
only increases the rage of those men (and sometimes working-class
women as well) and makes them re-experience the humiliation,
disrespect, and sense of being misunderstood. They are then
attracted to politicians who promise a return to an America which
never really existed for most working class people in the past. But
the fantasy of it—small towns where people were known and cared
for, now being stolen from them by all these ‘others,’—is a
powerful lure to reactionary politics based on a real and
legitimate need for human connection that is systematically
undermined by the very economic order that right-wing politicians
blindly support.

Given this false analysis of where their pain comes from, it is
no wonder that some of these white men want to strike back at those
whom they perceive as disrespecting and humiliating them. They
cheer for candidates like Senator Ted Cruz or Trump because they
give voice to their anger and frustration. They have a sense that
some ‘other’ is to blame for their lot in life and mistakenly
believe that the Right’s call to reduce taxes and downsize
government will somehow ‘stick it to’ those others who have,
according to the right-wing story, benefited unfairly from taxes
and ‘big’ government. The middle-income white people who fall for
this line are unaware that these policies are promoted by
capitalist elites who want to downsize government precisely to
eliminate government regulations that, in fact, protect the needs
of the working class (such as the right to organize, minimum wage
laws, food safety laws, safety of drugs, protections against
dishonest bank lending policies, etc).

Many of these people feel that no one has ever stood up for them
or genuinely recognized them as deserving of care and kindness. So
when ultra-nationalist movements arise and promise to “Make America
Great Again,” people believe that things will magically return to
how they were before African Americans, women, and gays and
lesbians made gains for equality, mistakenly directing their blame
at them rather than at the ruling class for its massive onslaught
of attacks on the rights of the working class. People in the U.S.
and in other countries around the world participate in racist or
even quasi-fascist movements which give them a sense of hope and a
momentary feeling of being part of a community, thus placating and
redirecting their deeper rage. Their sense of relief is intensified
when these movements also promise to stop the so-called special
interests from further undermining their rights and entitlements.
When these same people then join anti-abortion movements and
identify with the powerlessness of the unborn fetus, they also
experience a temporary sense of empowerment from being able to
protect and care for another in a way that they never experienced
for themselves. This compounded sense of empowerment is healing for
them, though the relief is very temporary like the impact of some
of the addictive illegal drugs.

Another draw of dogmatic nationalist movements and their leaders
is that they actually stand for what they believe in, regardless of
how offensive or outrageous. Many people are sick and tired of the
empty promises of centrist politicians on the Left and Right. For
fifty years or more, Democratic and Republican Party politicians
have promised changes and equal opportunity—but the advantages the
upper 20 percent of the population have by virtue of being able to
afford better schools, tutors, after school sports and music and
art for their children, not to mention personal connections and
financial backing when entering the world of work, belies the
promise of equal opportunity and thus implicitly perpetuates
self-blame. What most people need is not equal opportunity to beat
out someone else in the competitive marketplace, but rather a
society where everyone’s fundamental needs (both material and
psychological) can be met without in the process denying others the
fulfillment of their fundamental needs!

People know they are being conned by the politicians of the
moderate middle, the ones who always end up being loyal lapdogs for
the interests of the one percent, so when a Trump-like politician
or movement comes forward and breaks all the conventions of
normalcy, many people feel elated and validated in their view and
experience of politics and the world. “Finally,” they tell each
other, “someone is puncturing the façade, even if in outrageous
ways.” Indeed, people from all corners of the political spectrum
have admitted to me that they responded to that aspect of Trump’s
campaign (even while many explicitly disagreed with his most racist
and sexist statements, particularly after the Orlando massacre in
June 2016).

“Psychopathology: a society repressing our need for love
and meaning to our lives.”

Others responded to the hopes generated by Sanders, though they
couldn’t get the satisfaction of watching Trump smash all the
‘political correctness’ idols. The joy and relief that someone was
breaking through to the other side of the mind-numbing conventions
of normalcy for people whose lives are experienced internally as
anything but ‘normal,’ felt momentarily better than a life of being
‘realistic’ and fitting into a society whose norms might seem
laudable but whose felt reality was terrible. So, many people felt
elated when the emotional deadness and phoniness of centrist
politicians was momentarily exposed in the presidential primaries
of 2016, their promises distrusted, their well-controlled
presentation of self punctured and seen as fake. As long as these
outsiders are yelling that “the emperor has no clothes,” many of
the victims of the hidden injuries of class may give them a pass on
whatever else they say, no matter how outrageous,
self-contradictory, or even fascist.

Unveiling the falsity and oppressiveness of daily life in class
society should be a central focus of progressive politics. Once the
Left really understands these dynamics, and is willing to address
them, it can and will emerge with a more empathic and wise set of

Our task through the Network of Spiritual Progressives is to
challenge the racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., but to do it in a
way that helps everyone understand that working people (including
people of color, women, and gays, among others) are being
victimized not only economically but also psychologically and
spiritually. So when some white working-class men, responding to
Black Lives Matter, say “all lives matter,” we need to hear this as
a cry for recognition and respect even as we insist on challenging
and exposing the double oppression that Blacks, women, gays, and
other marginalized peoples experience by the assaults and
oppression they face as the demeaned others of our society.

Holding both of these truths is the precondition for a
successful transformative movement

Outrage at the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia,
anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia is important and must not be muted
in order to appeal to white people. But neither should we allow our
outrage at these obnoxious forms of oppression distract us from
acknowledging the pain that working people in this society suffer
by virtue of their class position and their internalizing the
hidden psycho-spiritual injuries of capitalism. Forcing us to
choose between these two positions is a strategy that ruling elites
in our society have exploited to their advantage. The only chance
of success liberation movements will have in advanced industrial
and post-industrial societies is to embrace a both/and, rather than
either/or, approach. We must validate each group’s experience of
oppression and help people in each class position and each identity
group develop a sensitivity toward and desire for solidarity with
those who experience different forms of oppression than their

Empathy and Compassion for Those With Whom We

Here is the key to helping people transform their consciousness
and stay away from the hate, anger, and fear-dominated movements of
ultra-nationalists, fundamentalists, racists, and/or sexists:
instead of assuming that these people are fundamentally evil or
intrinsically distorted, look for the kernel of genuine needs
(love, connection, recognition, respect, safety, and caring) that
have been systematically thwarted by society, the economy, the
media, school, families, religions, and/or other people, groups,
and institutions. Understand these unmet needs as underlying their
harmful beliefs or hatred. Find ways to validate these needs as
legitimate and deserving of respect. Once they have a sense of
being ‘gotten,’ you can help them explore strategies other than
their current hateful and oppressive ones to meet those needs.

I don’t mean to suggest that doing this is easy. It is going to
take a whole lot of psychological sophistication on the part of
people on the Left to move from demeaning those with whom we
disagree to speaking to them in empathic and compassionate

We will need political, spiritual, and movement leaders and
activists who articulate and embody this empathy and compassion to
help lead us.

We will need a domestic Empathy Tribe—people who have learned
the skills of empathic communication and who are willing to go
door-to-door in the old-fashioned style of community organizing,
but with a very different message than community organizers
conveyed in the past. It is going to require that we insist that
our schools, colleges, and media reflect this empathic approach as
they simultaneously challenge the materialism, selfishness, and
meritocratic ideologies of capitalist society.

Empathy is the necessary precondition for a transformative
movement. But a potentially successful movement needs something
else: the ability to get people to envision the world they really
want, to allow themselves to dream, and then to join with others to
struggle for their highest vision of the good. That movement must
move beyond a list of complaints to articulate a vision of the
world we are for, not just what we are against. It should advocate
for, what we at our Network of Spiritual Progressives call, a New
Bottom Line. A New Bottom Line is one that judges the success of
our social institutions, government, and corporations based not on
the Old Bottom Line of whether they maximize money and power, but
instead assessing them on the extent that they maximize love and
caring, kindness and generosity, empathy and compassion, social and
economic justice, peace and nonviolence, and environmental
sustainability, as well as encourage us to transcend a narrow
utilitarian approach to nature and other human beings. In short,
the Caring Society: caring for each other (everyone on the planet)
and for the earth. To see what such a society and its institutions
might look like, please go to www.tikkun.org/covenant and read through our
preliminary vision.

Building this movement would be far easier if Bernie Sanders
were to call for a national convention immediately after the 2016
election and put forward a platform that included the consciousness
articulated here as well as proposals such as the New Bottom Line,
advocacy for homeland security to be won through a strategy of
generosity (our Global Marshall Plan), and our proposed
ESRA—Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution. But I’m not holding my breath—the absence in the
Sanders campaign of the psycho-spiritual perspective articulated in
this editorial and through the past three decades in Tikkun,
and in the past decade in the work of the Network of Spiritual
Progressives, was, in our opinion, one of the critical flaws that
made it impossible for Sanders to reach more of those who have
suffered from the hidden psycho-spiritual injuries of the ethos of
global capitalism.

Sanders, and much of the Left, has not yet been willing to grasp
the psycho-spiritual crisis facing most Americans—they see the
economic deprivation but they do not speak to the more complex
feelings of pain and self-blame, and they react to any talk of a
spiritual yearning for a world of love with incredulity and dismiss
these thoughts as ‘psychobable’ or worse, a slippery slope toward
the religious world they have long rejected.

For Sanders’s movement to still be successful, the Left needs to
draw on the model and wisdom of the women’s movement that created
small consciousness-raising groups that both helped women see the
ways in which their personal struggles were in fact a product of
the patriarchal society in which they lived and empowered them to
challenge the systems and structures that undermined their freedom
and power. Our Network of Spiritual Progressives’
consciousness-raising groups would likewise help people understand
both how their personal struggles are often largely (not totally
and always) a result of the capitalist system in which they live
and not due to their own shortcomings and failures (think of a
12-step program to overcome capitalism) and also help them explore
what a world (both their work worlds and their personal lives)
would look like if they were governed by the New Bottom Line, as
well as teach the empathy skills so desperately needed to reach
across the political and cultural divide.

This endeavor may well be dismissed by many activists as a
distraction from winning the next mini-battle. Even the larger goal
of seeking to build a political party of love and justice may seem
both fanciful and impossible. Yet the consciousness raising now,
and the building of a love-and-justice oriented political party in
the future, are exactly what is needed. I fear that the supposed
radicals and revolutionaries are stuck in their own variant of
subservience to that which is—the realities of the world as
presently constituted—and hence are not really visionary, radical,
or revolutionary enough.

Without a movement that combines the New Bottom Line and
resistance to racism and xenophobia with a compassionate and
empathic approach to those with whom we disagree, and without an
explicit embrace of the ideal of a world governed by love and
generosity, caring for each other and the earth, and awe and wonder
at the grandeur of this incredible universe we are unlikely to stop
the growth of hate-filled movements which are likely to play an
important role regardless of who wins the 2016, 2018 mid-term, or
2020 presidential elections. Resisting hate-oriented movements and
the racism/xenophobia they promote is absolutely necessary, and yet
a huge distraction from the fundamental challenge facing the human
race: to stop the systematic destruction of the life-support system
of the planet. That is why it is so very important for the message
of spiritual progressives to permeate the Left so that it can
effectively counter these destructive movements and simultaneously
shift the focus to overcoming the competitive marketplace whose
ethos of endless growth and expansion of consumption is at the
heart of the assault on the environment. And that is why the task
of building and rapidly expanding a Network of Spiritual
Progressives, www.spiritualprogressives.org, Tikkun’s
movement aiming at consciousness change of the sort described in
this editorial, is the most important thing we can accomplish in
the next ten years. Please join—let’s build this together!

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with
Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of
Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun
Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California.
He is the author of eleven books, including two national
bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A
Path to Healing and Transformation
. His most recent book,
Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from
Amazon.com and in hard copy from tikkun.org/eip. He welcomes your responses and
invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual
Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun
magazine). You can contact him at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.

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