(This is first in a series of posts that will eventually become a book. The goal is to find common ground between progressives and other disaffected groups that have lost patience with the current two-party system. Please offer your honest comments and critiques – both on style and substance.)
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, The Matrix movies drew enormous audiences to the box office with a mesmerizing story about the struggle between a futuristic human race and the intelligent machines that they created.
The machines, in search of greater energy sources, have turned on the humans and enslaved them in a prison for their minds – a virtual reality system called “The Matrix” that reproduces life as it was in the late 20th century. This deception has allowed people to believe they are living real lives while their actual bodies are locked in cocoons and functioning as batteries.
The first two films focus on the efforts of a small band of rebels to fight the oppressive machines and free people from this virtual enslavement. By the third and final film, however, it has become clear that the machines are no longer the primary enemy.
A rogue computer program called Agent Smith begins multiplying itself throughout The Matrix, assuming power by any and all channels available. Gaining strength exponentially, Agent Smith is soon able to override many of the ground rules of the system and becomes a threat to the existence of both the humans and the machines. He is even able to replicate himself into the real world outside of The Matrix.
Sensing a common enemy, the hero of the trilogy (a human named Neo) bravely flies into the heart of the machines’ home city with an offer. If both sides can agree to lay down arms against one another, they can band together to terminate the rogue program. Otherwise, Agent Smith will achieve unstoppable power. Reluctantly, the machines agree to work with Neo, and with their combined resources, Smith is finally defeated. The series concludes with an uneasy peace between the humans and the machines
The beauty of The Matrix is that it can be a metaphor for any structure or institution that prevents us from leading a free and authentic life. For some, the Matrix is religion. For others, it is the world of academia. For others still, it is all the social norms and assumptions of American culture. For the purposes of this book, however, we will use The Matrix as a starting point for understanding the current state of American politics.
Think of the Democrats and the Republicans as the humans and the machines (or as the machines and the humans – which correlates to which is unimportant). The two parties have been sworn enemies for 150 years, and the battle is so entrenched that many of the participants can conceive of no other paradigm.
In recent decades, however, the game has changed. A third force has entered the scene, and its power and influence has multiplied at an alarming rate. Just as Agent Smith became a threat to both humans and machines by gaining control in both of their realms, this force has invaded both parties and now has both sides working for its demands. This toxic force is not Sarah Palin (rogue as she may be), but is a much more menacing threat – corporate power. As we know all too well, corporate money not only influences both Democrats and Republicans – it actually writes the legislation that gives the beast even more power.
Recall that Agent Smith seemed unstoppable until the two sworn enemies called a truce and began to work together. I’m not so naïve as to believe that something similar can happen between Republicans and Democrats. The more large corporations gain control, the more the two parties seem to turn on one another, all the while feeding the power of the common enemy. The politicians already in power are too deeply under the thumb of the “rogue agent” of corporatism to make peace with one another. The solution, therefore, lies with not with the major parties and their leaders, but with the growing number of citizens across the political spectrum who are becoming disaffected with the whole system.
These people, who I believe represent a majority of the nation, are typically placed into unhelpful dichotomies – liberal vs. conservative, rich vs. poor, black vs. white, gay vs. straight, rural vs. urban, Christian vs. atheist, etc. – and pitted against one another in elections that serve mainly to preserve the status quo and guarantee the continued reign of corporate power. Any voice or movement from the outside that threatens to awaken the American public from its political matrix (or to kill the corporate rogue agent, if you will) is quickly co-opted or marginalized – as demonstrated by failed campaigns of Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, and Dennis Kucinich in recent elections.
Nader has never pulled together a critical mass of third-party support, but conditions for the 2012 presidential campaign might be different. Disenchantment with the two-party system is bubbling up from the right, the left, and the middle – and although there are many things the different groups can’t agree on, they all know that the solutions to America’s problems start with chasing the lobbyists and their corporate cash out of Washington.
Is this the moment when we need a Neo to step forward – to cross the traditional political boundaries and negotiate an alliance that can stave off our common enemy? Who might that person be? (I happen to think that a progressive has the best tools for the job.) Which disaffected groups are worth courting, and which are best left alone to their own wackiness?
Throughout this book, I will explore these questions, starting with the two political groups that I know best: progressives and traditional small-town conservatives. Please join me for the ride.