Politics of Guilt
The Politics of Guilt
by Sam Hitt
At a recent campaign stop in Oklahoma Rick Santorum said that liberal guilt is used by the environmental left as tool for social control, “ . . . the left is always looking for a way to control you. They’re always trying to make you feel guilty so you’ll give them power so they can lord it over you. They do it on climate all the time . . . ”
Guilt is an emotion the right loves to hate. At the same time, few of us on left have considered whether guilt is an effective motivator or take seriously the debilitating effects of obsessive guilt. Heated campaign rhetoric aside, should guilt be the moral center of our political life?
On the positive side, guilt can be a motivator to morally based action, like the mass arrests in late summer that pressured Obama into withholding approval of the climate-destroying Keystone tar sands oil pipeline. Such acts of conscience give political expression to widely shared sensibilities when lobbying, lawsuits and elections are closed off by powerful moneyed interests.
On the negative side, guilt undermines good judgment and leads to political disengagement. During the sixties guilt over America’s senseless slaughter in Vietnam, coupled with the glorification of armed Third World revolutions, was used to justify equally senseless rage by elements of the New Left. Such political violence failed to resonate with the American public and sharply divided progressive forces just when the right was gaining political momentum.
On hindsight a better strategy would have been to build coalitions with isolated minorities, growing populations of immigrants and blue collar workers being hit by the first wave of declining wages and benefits.
Private life beckoned many of those politically active during the 1960s. As they became politically disengaged, the skills needed to build effective and long lasting coalitions atrophied. When Barack Obama jettisoned his promise of hope and change after the election progressives were largely clueless on how to demand accountability.
That is changing as the left reconnects with its morally motivated traditions. A moral politics is effective because it operates in a larger sphere than our corrupted government and is broadly accepted in American life. It’s notable practitioners include Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century, Mohandas Gandhi during the Indian independence movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Right era and in the 1980s the anti-nuclear Clamshell and Abalone Alliances.
Today outrage – a tool most often employed by the right – dominates political discourse. Guilt is not fashionable among the rich and the liberal church has lost the political purchase it once had. But good old fashioned guilt is not dead. It still sparks courageous action in those who heed its clarion call and, if taken in moderate doses, focuses our ethical strivings.
Maybe that’s why Santorum feels the need to rage against guilt as a nefarious liberal tool. This sleeping giant might waken and enable us to create the world we desire.