The Republican campaign for the party’s nomination is winding down. The string of primaries, caucuses and debates has been a spirit-killing affair. Aside from the stunning mediocrity of the candidates, we have endured the normalization of the following: attack as the dominant campaign tool as each candidate has tried to appeal to an ever more extreme base; the easy acceptance of lies and misstatements of fact; and unchallenged contempt and hatred for our government.
There is something even more profound. It is what is totally absent from the Republican race, and what we can expect to be missing when the general election campaign starts as well. It is the absence of any vision for our country’s future.
What is crystal clear is that the Republican Party and its reactionary base have a view of the America that they want. But it is a view through the rear-view mirror. It is the America that existed in the 1920s, before the New Deal and the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
In this retro-America, white people, specifically white men, are right back on top (as if they had ever left), business calls the shots, minorities, especially African-Americans have been put “back in their place,” Bible-thumping hypocrites are given a respectful hearing, abortions continue to be performed, but they are again done in the back alley.
And the country is essentially owned by corporations and the wealthiest people. They are pretty much able to buy any institution of government in which they have an interest. Thanks, in large part, to a far-right Supreme Court majority.
As for those in need, they are pretty much on their own. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and hope that you don’t get sick. As the cheering Republican debate audience made clear, you don’t have to require everyone to have insurance if you are wiling to allow those who show up at the emergency room without coverage to die.
It should come as no surprise that there is a reluctance to spell out a vision. The last American leader to do so was Ronald Reagan, the all-but canonized saint of Republican America. All of the Republican candidates worship at the altar of Reagan and try to draft off the fumes of his vision. What they cannot afford to do is spell out the disastrous consequences that Reagan’s vision had for the country.
Reagan’s vision was straightforward. The United States was unique, the “shining city on the hill.” By being unique, we were exceptions to all of the rules that applied to other countries. In Reagan’s vision, what made America great was the ability to get very rich in this country. Individual wealth was the measure of our greatness. Next, the barrier to ultimate greatness and the source of most of our problems was government, except for the military. And the best way to deal with this problem was to starve it by constantly cutting taxes.
Finally, it was white people who had made us so great, and they should not feel guilty about any unpleasantness in the past, especially in the Deep South. To avoid these guilty feelings, they should be made comfortable with all of their prejudices. With Reagan, the process of “otherizing” the others got into full swing.
Reagan’s vision has governed the United States for more than three decades, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Clinton and Obama have simply offered a watered down version of it.
The catastrophic results are everywhere to be seen: extreme inequality, disappearing opportunity, ever more entrenched poverty, domination of life by a tiny extremely wealthy (and soon to be hereditary) elite and by large corporations, and infrastructure that is an increasingly difficult to hide embarrassment.
Hatred of government and taxes is now the bedrock of Republicanism, the exception being Reagan’s favorite of vast military spending and, in our times, government surveillance of the “others.”
In many ways, the Virgin Islands has been spared this “vision.” It has largely gone its own way, operating under the radar. But – big but – it also lacks a vision for a better future and for healthier communities.
From time to time, Virgin Islands groups or business sectors work to define a vision for themselves or their industries, and this is all to the good. For example, the Health commissioner has opened the door to the territory engaging in the healthy communities movement.
But there is also a need for an overall vision, or, more likely, individual visions for the three islands and the communities that make them up. This vision would not be “soft” in the tradition of “the children are our future” school of cliché-mongering. Instead it would be a description of what Virgin Islanders would like their communities to look like five or ten years from now.
It would be clear and concrete. It would include descriptions of a revived economy, better schools, the physical and natural environment and local society defined by peace and cooperative efforts rather than violence.
Developing such a vision has at least three major benefits. First, it provides the emotional commitment that is needed to bring about any real change. People can see what they are trying to achieve and buy into it. It is the best possible antidote for pervasive pessimism.
Second, the vision brings diverse people together and mobilizes them to take action rather than just talk. Rather than “celebrating” diversity, it engages diversity.
And finally, the vision becomes the basis for real action plans. The “action agenda” consists of the things that will keep us from achieving our vision. The action plans are the path to overcoming those challenges and promises.
The Virgin Islands has taken several body blows in the past several years. The sharp recession and the Hovensa refinery closing are only the biggest of these. Businesses are struggling, the territory’s hospitals are in trouble, and public and private agencies serving those in need are badly stretched.
Some people might say that this is no time for a visioning exercise. But, in fact, such an effort is more needed in times like this than in good times. And that vision must be a platform for action if it is not to breed more pessimism.
As the author Georges Bernanos once said, “A thought that does not result in an action is nothing much, and an action that does not proceed from a thought is nothing at all.”