Perspectives on politics
by Tom Stites
With the November election bearing down on us, politics seizes the fronts of our minds. Here are two new books that go a long way toward making sense of our divided and chaotic political landscape, one set in the nineteenth century and offering a window to the present, the other in the present and offering a door to the future.
But why, you may ask, should a religious magazine be reviewing political books? A fine answer comes from the past in The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform (Beacon, 2004; $16), edited by David M. Robinson. In the words of Emerson, who abandoned the Unitarian pulpit for a career as a public lecturer in another conflicted era, the years leading up to the Civil War, “Civilization depends on morality,” and political conflict “is the inevitable result of the relation of the soul to the existing corruption of society.”
In Regime Change Begins at Home (Berrett-Koehler, 2004; $19.95), Charles Derber digs into today's conflict and corruption. This is simply the most important political book I've encountered in two decades. Read it and chances are you'll never see the political landscape the same way again.
It's as if Derber took the map of American politics, scrubbed all the boundaries off of it, and then drew new boundaries that make more sense. Republicans and Democrats and other familiar features of the landscape survive Derber's remapping. On Derber's map presidencies matter far less than regimes and the tectonic social movements that erupt in regime change.
Derber, a sociologist and political economist at Boston University, uses the word “regime” in its root meaning: the prevailing governmental or social system. He says that American political history since the Civil War has had only five regimes, each spanning several presidencies; we are now living in the Third Corporate Regime.
Derber says so many Americans have become economically marginalized by this regime that grassroots movements, with the help of the Internet, are sprouting into a new populism that he predicts will topple it.Robinson quotes from Emerson's lecture “American Slavery,” written as the foundations of the First Corporate Regime were emerging before the Civil War: “Our merchants do not believe in anything but their trade. . . . The power of money is so obtrusive as to exclude the views of the larger powers that control it.” Adds Robinson, an Oregon State University scholar of the Transcendentalist movement, the challenge of the era was “to reestablish the connection between ethical principle and public policy.” Sound familiar?