The Politics of Meaning


June 29, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- Some people have such a nice way of telling you you're full of prunes that you almost believe them.


One turns out to be Michael Lerner, editor-publisher of Tikkun magazine and chief prophet of the ''politics of meaning,'' a line of thought that has gossipy Washington all abuzz because it has caught the eyes, ears and perhaps heart of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Now he was calling to win mine. Mr. Lerner was upset that one of my columns had referred to his philosophy as apparent ''psychobabble.''

''I have enough respect for you and your work that I felt I had to give you a call,'' he said, touching all the right buttons in my heart. ''I think you have unintentionally misunderstood and, as a result, misrepresented the politics of meaning.''

Actually, I intended not to poke fun at Mr. Lerner's politics of meaning, but rather at Mrs. Clinton's rambling attempts to articulate it in New York Times and Washington Post interviews and in her April 6 speech on the topic in Austin. Fortunately, Mr. Lerner, 50, a veteran of progressive movements in the '60s, does a better job of explaining it.

The ''politics of meaning,'' he says, are politics that address our psychological, ethical and spiritual needs, not just our social and economic concerns.

Liberals unintentionally helped Republicans drive a wedge between themselves and working- to middle-class voters. While conservatives as varied as Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Pat Robertson, Dan Quayle and Rush Limbaugh directly and, in my view, inadequately addressed the family-wrenching problems of drugs, divorce, abandonment, delinquency, welfare and crime as matters of spiritual decay, liberals tended to speak of them almost exclusively as matters of economic distress to be solved by government programs.

Common sense should tell us that the problems are a complex combination of both. The touchy questions of personal responsibility, growth and security do not naturally take care of themselves, even in the most utopian social-engineering schemes. The Clintons know it, although, like most liberal leaders these days, they have been reluctant to talk much about it.

The result, he says, is a loss of public faith and trust even among working-class Americans who clearly had benefited from earlier liberal reforms and programs.

''Today people relate to the Democrats sort of like the way they relate to insurance agents,'' Mr. Lerner said. ''As if the Democrats provide a valuable service, but don't necessarily win your confidence.''

This must change, he says. A politics of meaning, articulated persuasively and followed resolutely, might not solve all of President Clinton's popularity woes, but it won't hurt him or his wife in the arduous process of getting their co-presidency on the right track.

''It is not Clinton's leftward drift that has failed him,'' Mr. Lerner said. ''It is his failure to address fundamental issues that touch people's lives with meaning and purpose, like the decline in important traditional social and spiritual values that have created crises in modern family and community life.''

That's why in 1986, the heyday of Reaganism, Mr. Lerner founded Tikkun, which in Hebrew means ''to heal, repair and transform the world,'' as a progressive Jewish alternative to the conservative Jewish Commentary.

When he met Hillary Clinton at a White House lawn reception for Jewish leaders, he discovered the Clintons were regular readers of the magazine.

Mrs. Clinton quoted liberally from Mr. Lerner in her Austin speech: ''We realize that somehow economic growth and prosperity, political democracy and freedom are not enough.'' And, ''We lack meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, we lack a sense that our lives are part of some greater effort.''

Unfortunately, once she has raised the right questions, she doesn't carry us much farther along the path to the right answers. Unlike Mr. Lerner, she wanders rhetorically, as if she either is not sure of her ground or fears being bashed by cynical journalists (ahem!) who lie in wait whenever politicians try a bit too hard to sound like clergy in search of their inner child.

The result, so far, has sounded, unfortunately, like psychobabble, as if she's on a spiritual quest the rest of us aren't so sure we want to join.

It does not have to be that way. The Clintons, who have been going to church all their lives, have a golden opportunity to bring the church's important values (Hillary Clinton speaks appealingly of a political morality based on the Golden Rule) out to the streets in the manner of Martin Luther King Jr. and countless other liberals of the spirit who moved humanity in the past.

If they can reconnect liberal politics with the spiritual insecurities felt by the many Americans who tell pollsters they are dissatisfied with the way the country is going, they can build the kind of unbeatable coalitions Democrats have enjoyed in the past.

But, first, they must believe it themselves and articulate it persuasively. Margaret Thatcher, who effectively gave her own meaning to the politics of meaning, called it ''the politics of conviction.'' She got that exactly right.

It is also called ''leadership.''

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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