As the legislative session winds down, it is time for soul searching. I find myself reflecting on the meaning of politics and, more so, the politics of meaning.
Some of you may remember a book from the mid ’90s by Rabbi Michael Lerner, “The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism.” What you may not remember is Hillary Clinton briefly adopted many of the ideas expounded in it when she, herself, was soul searching about her identity as first lady. She had been in conversation with Lerner before the book was published and gave a speech in Texas in which she spoke of a country gripped by “alienation and despair and hopelessness.” This was in 1993. The evidence continues to mount for this grim diagnosis — school shootings, the rising profile of white nationalism, church shootings, the spiraling opioid crisis. She, via Lerner, argued that the nation was experiencing a “crisis of meaning.”
While we are reminiscing, you likely remember Barack Obama’s infamous remarks about folks in small town Pennsylvania who “cling to guns or religion.” There was a larger context in (then candidate) Obama’s message that was lost in that ill-chosen phrasing. He was speaking about the effects of economic dislocation and didn’t use “crisis of meaning,” but was clumsily hinting at it. The problem, of course, is that we all “cling” to things that give our life purpose. A basic feature of our humanity is we are storytellers and narratives are core to our identity. I am a gun owner. I am a peace activist. I am a mother. Each of those statements are connected to stories and those stories are filled with meaning that helps us navigate the world. So when I talk about the politics of meaning, I intend to consider how policies shape the broader context of how we conduct our lives.
Consequently, I wince when my fellow Democrats are incredulous that working folks frequently vote against their economic self-interest. We should praise people who place moral and ethical values above economic ones. Democrats don’t bring the same judgment to wealthy liberals who support raising their own taxes at the expense of their economic self-interest. We need to understand the larger narratives that shape such decision-making among the working poor and others. Some of it may be motivated by some questionable motives, but what else might it be? To engage in the politics of meaning is to think about how to connect with someone’s dignity, with their aspirations, with their self-understanding. The politics of meaning invites us to think about how to help give someone a sense of being at home in the world. Many of the larger narratives that have connected people have been unraveling and for many, it feels like their worldview is under assault, crumbling. The collapse of an older economic order, the traditional family, the decline of religious institutions, all contribute to the “crisis of meaning.”
For others, the breakdown of old forms of meaning has been liberating because they didn’t fit into the story, they were excluded. For them, the “traditional” family was oppressive and their crisis was one of alienation from the existing social order. The hard work of building new sources of inspiration and meaning still needs to be done. It is made all the more difficult by the limited array of choices offered in our current political climate. Too often, we operate on a bill-by-bill basis, rather than engage in the serious question of how each policy links to the fundamental sense of connection and security we all need.
In the end, if we pursue a legislative agenda committed to putting meaning at the center of our deliberations, we will have made Vermont more humane, and maybe restore a bit of hope and possibility in the world.
Rep. Randall Szott, D-Barnard, sits on the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.