How 'Les Misérables' can help lift Republicans out of their misery

Republicans seeking to regain their footing after the 2012 elections--the GOP has lost four of the last six presidential elections, and five of the last six popular votes--might wish to rediscover the firm ground of the Christian reformist tradition.  It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also a vote-getter.

Christian reformism flourished at the turn of the last century, changing America for the better.  In the midst of the storms and stresses of rapid industrialization and mass immigration, the late 19th/early 20th century was an activist era of social uplift in the US.  New ideas sparked movements within both the Republican and Democratic parties, aimed at helping the working poor move up the ladder toward middle-class status.

In the U.S., this movement was led by many leaders, including the Protestant theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, who preached a “social gospel.”  That is, Christ as the champion of working people and their struggle for a better life.

As Rauschenbusch wrote in his 1907 book, Christianity and the Social Crisis,

"Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master."

In Rauschenbusch’s mind, God was needed on the shop floor of the factory, just as much as He was needed in the church.

Meanwhile, from Rome, Pope Leo XIII articulated a similar message to Catholics.  New social conditions, Leo wrote in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), required new social responses to rectify injustice.   As the Pope wrote, “Some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”

Leo denounced socialism and other new “isms” as reprehensible violations of natural law, since they sought to replace traditional family and faith with dangerous new kinds of secularist authority.  Yet at the same time, he insisted that divine order required factory owners to treat their employees better.  The Pope instructed capitalists “not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character.”

Both Rauschenbusch and Leo were seen as somewhat on the left in their time, but it’s worth noting that their goals were ultimately conservative: Both men could see that the secular radicalisms of anarchism and communism were attracting many angry and immiserated workers; both men saw careful reform as the best way to counter those threats.  Yes, they wanted to change society, and yet at the same time, they were determined to preserve the Judeo-Christian order of the previous 2000 years.

Smart political leaders picked up these ideas and wove them into politics and policy.  Our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was a strong proponent of wage and hour laws as part of his overall progressive reform agenda, which he described in 1910 as part of “the long struggle for the rights of man--the long struggle for the uplift of humanity.”  TR continued:

"Our country--this great Republic--means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him."

As TR’s words make clear, “progressive” meant something far different back then than it means today; the progressives of Roosevelt’s era were not the same as the liberals of our time.  Roosevelt was interested in work, not welfare; he simply wanted to make sure that work paid enough to support a family.

Moreover, the old progressives were nationalists, not multiculturalists; they were convinced that America was a great country, and they wanted to make it even greater.  Yet at the same time, they saw the need to fend off Bolshevism by making prudential reforms.  As TR put it, the progressivism of his era was “the highest and wisest form of conservatism.”

In perusing these reformist ideas and policies, today’s Republicans, and all Americans, would gain fresh insight into how to build a new framework for the social and economic advancement of all, including rising demographic groups of new immigrants.   The names and dates are all different now, but the basic ideas--offering opportunity and upward mobility, while at the same guaranteeing dignity for workers--are as sound, and popular, as ever.  In times of trouble, social reform is, among other things, a vote-getter.

Yet for those not yet ready to commit to reading worthy works of theology and history, there’s a new movie that takes us back to the challenges and passions of that era: “Les Misérables.” The film, of course, is based on the 1985 musical phenomenon that ran on Broadway for 16 years; reportedly at least one touring company has been playing somewhere in the world for all of the last three decades.  And now, the musical is on film, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter.  The director is Tom Hooper, whose film “The King’s Speech” won four Oscars, including best picture, two years ago.   I reviewed it here for Fox News Opinion.

In terms of leave-the-theater hummability, “Les Mis” is way up there.  “Bring Him Home” is a standard, and “Come to Me/Fantine’s Death” would be, too, if the lyrics weren’t so sad.  And then there’s “I Dreamed A Dream,” which the middle-aged Susan Boyle took to YouTube immortality in 2009, singing so beautifully on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Those who see the movie will quickly see that while Anne Hathaway has her charms, her singing voice--as heard, for example, in the same song, “I Dreamed a Dream”--is not her greatest strength.  Indeed, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe also remind us that Hollywood picks big stars based on their looks and acting ability, not on their voice training and lung capacity.  On the other hand, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter prove that talented niche actors can also fill musical niches.  And there’s one breakout performance from an unknown: Samantha Barks; she played her “Les Mis” part on stage for a year, and it shows.

Oh, and one other note to would-be ticket-buyers: It’s worth Googling the lyrics to the songs in advance of seeing the movie.  The songs are lovely, but the lyrics are complicated and filled with, well, 19th century references.  And several numbers are sung in counterpoint--that is, two singers singing different words at the same time--so it helps comprehension to know the words beforehand.

A century-and-a-half ago, in 1862, “Les Misérables” appeared as an epic novel from the pen of  the French writer Victor Hugo.  His story, set in France during the early 19th century, carries  us to the highs and lows of French society, while always pointing us, however subtly and indirectly, toward the good.

In those years, after 1815, the French Revolution had come and gone, the Napoleonic wars were over, and the reactionary and unpopular French monarchy had been restored to the throne in Paris.  Yet just below the surface, in France--as well as in most of Europe--the population seethed with revolutionary passions.  The crowded streets of Paris, in particular, were frequently the scene of mob actions and popular uprisings.

“Les Misérables” captured the radicalism that was then in the air, and yet at the same time, the novelist’s art is seen in his capacity to spin a brilliantly circuitous plot-line, weaving in dozens of major characters--and to draw characters whose heads and hearts transcend any one time or place.  That’s why, for a century-and-a-half now, the novel, so full of imagination and empathy, has been turned into innumerable films, plays, and parables.

And while “Les Misérables” the novel is in no sense a political or economic blueprint, it does have a lot to say about the human condition.  What it says, most of all, is that we should be decent to each other--that each of us should, indeed, love our neighbor.   And that in itself is not such a bad message during these tragic times of crazed killers and dead children. Hugo himself, it might be noted, declared that while he was anti-clerical, he firmly believed in God.  Indeed, the last character we meet in the novel is an angel, receiving a human soul into heaven.

The musical-turned-movie is faithful to Hugo’s spirit.  Not too many shows in our popular culture feature a saintly Catholic bishop.  Indeed, the bishop is the man who drives the story forward, by forgiving the thief--the lead character, Jean Valjean, played by Jackman--for stealing from him.  Indeed, when Valjean is arrested for the crime, the bishop assures the police that Valjean has done no wrong and, in fact, gives him still more silver.  Yet when the cops are gone, he makes it clear that Valjean must, indeed, pay a high price--he must reform himself.  As the bishop sings, “But remember this, my brother/ See in this some higher plan/ You must use this precious silver/ To become an honest man.”

And then the bishop piles it on further:  “By the witness of the martyrs/ By the Passion and the Blood/ God has raised you out of darkness/ I have bought your soul for God!”  To be sure, not every forgiven criminal repents, but this one does.  Valjean goes on to become not only the hero of the novel, but its moral core as well.

Yet Valjean, and most of the rest of the characters in “Les Misérables,” do not have it easy.  In the musical “Les Mis,” factory workers sing of their situation: “That’s all you can say for the life of the poor/ It’s a struggle, it’s a war.”  Once again, it’s worth bearing in mind that the poor of the 19th century were workers, or would-be workers; back then, there was no welfare to speak of.  Yet workers working 70 or even 80 hours a week at dirty and dangerous jobs were still not guaranteed of making enough to survive.

So societies of that era had a choice: They could either figure out how to raise wages--through whatever combination of economic growth, unionism, minimum-wage policies, and tariff protection they could muster--or they would face revolution.  As the “Les Mis” workers further sing: “There’s a hunger in the land/ There's a reckoning still to be reckoned/ And there’s gonna be hell to pay/ At the end of the day!”   That was not the voice of ACORN and a few trust-fund liberal dilettantes; that was the voice of our ancestors, workers and farmers alike.  They didn’t want something for nothing, they wanted something for something; they wanted to be paid enough to feed their children.

Victor Hugo spoke to these people.  He believed that justice must be mixed with mercy, not only in the law, but in society as a whole.  Indeed, Hugo’s influence in France can be compared to that of another novelist of the same era, Charles Dickens, who similarly shaped reformist sentiments in Britain and in the English-speaking world.  Both novelists were Christians, not communists; they believed in progress, not revolution.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that the influence of Hugo and Dickens helped prevent their peoples from being tempted by the wicked radicalisms of fascism and communism that overtook much of the rest of Europe in the 20th century.

Now back to our own time.  It’s possible to say, of course, that President Barack Obama has done a poor job of helping the U.S. economy deal with the economic crisis of the last five years.   But if we make that claim, then we have to answer the question as to why he was re-elected by a comfortable margin.

In particular, Republicans will have to ask themselves, “If we lost to Obama, what does that say about us?” And of course, 2012 wasn’t just a victory for Obama; it was a victory for Democrats in the Congressional elections as well.

So it would appear that something has gone wrong with the Republican message.   Perhaps, then,  the GOP needs some reformist retooling right about now.  To be sure, the problems of 2012 are not the same as the problems of the 19th or 20th centuries, but we still face the challenge of rekindling economic growth in ways that the American people consider to be both effective and fair.   We need to rebuild the American middle class, and we need to do it without descending further into the vortex of ever more government that simply inflates the next financial bubble.

How to do all that? How to readjust the social contract?   The voices of Walter Rauschenbusch, Leo XIII, and Theodore Roosevelt can be helpful, of course, but we, the living, are not relieved of the responsibility of figuring out new solutions--reformist and conserving solutions--fully appropriate for our own time.

And then there’s Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” in all its many forms, including this stirring new film.  It’s provides a voice that rings in our ear, the voice of better angels telling us that we can, and should, do better--in our own lives, in our century, in our own country.