What have we learned—pre election edition
By Bernie Mayer
I dreamed I was Donald Trump last night. Really! I was trying to fix a bridge that I had built that was dangerously defective. To do so, I needed to change a light bulb, but in order to reach the fixture I had to stand on cardboard boxes which kept collapsing on me. All the while people were telling me that I had to fix the bridge and I just kept telling them to cool their jets. This election is intruding on my dreams. Yikes!
Anyone who wants to interpret this dream is welcome to do so—but good luck. My hunch is that this reflects the frustration I have felt about trying to get into the head of Trump and his supporters (see “A Failed Challenge” in this series). Clearly this is really bugging me. I don’t seem to be able to do this. But maybe I can at least make some sense of what has made this election so intense, so divisive, so anxiety laden, and so gripping? Probably a pretty vague and mushy sense at best, but even that would be better than letting Trump into my dreams!
I know that it is way too soon, the emotions too raw, to draw clear lessons from what has transpired these past 18 months, but nonetheless I want to share some of my current thinking before I know the outcome--before I am either in the grips of intense grief or breathing a deep sigh of relief. In particular, I want to take a stab at the question that has been haunting so many of us—what the hell is going on? So l am going to offer a few thoughts about what is driving the nature of this contest, knowing full well that my perspective is as limited as is all of ours.
My most overwhelming feeling at this moment is sadness mixed in with some fear and anger that we have arrived at this point. This contest has not only been divisive—it has threatened our basic democratic values and commitment to even a modicum of civility. It has been laced with racism, misogyny, threats of violence, authoritarianism, and more. And the groundwork has been laid to undercut any potential for our newly elected leaders to govern effectively. What has happened to us?
We have seen no shortage of attempts to answer this question—but they don’t seem to me to get to the root of the problem. Sure some of what has happened has to do with appealing to the fears of a previously privileged ethnic group (us white guys) which is gradually (and rightfully) losing its special place of advantage, and this election has built on a long history of nativism and no-nothingism in American political culture. But I think the rancor and divisiveness we are seeing is embedded in a deeper if more elusive dynamic—call it the entropy of democracy. Chaos is building and things seem increasingly out of control in our world, and democratic institutions seems increasingly clueless about how to cope.
Many, maybe most, Americans have a growing sense that democratic institutions are not up to dealing with the increasingly complex problems we face. We are experiencing cognitive dissonance that shakes our basic sense of security on an almost existential level. We are caught between our beliefs in the value of democracy and freedom on the one hand and our sense that there are critical issues that demand decisive action of the kind that democracy is not always so good at. The decision making systems of not just the US but our entire global community seem overloaded and out of control. And our most essential problems seem to be getting worse. Some of this is an illusion—there is less violence, less war, less starvation in the world than there has ever been. But what previously seemed more isolated problems (for example, did we really have to worry about what is happening in Bosnia or Rwanda?) now appear to be more global threats, and this makes them far more frightening. 9/11 has become for Americans the symbol of this. Our response to this dissonance is a critical factor in this election.
How are we as a nation responding? We respond like people always do to cognitive dissonance—we deny, we exaggerate, we divert, we devalue, and we flood. We deny that there is a contradiction here, finding comfort in Churchill’s famous quote about democracy: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” Maybe so, but the halting and often ineffective responses we have made to refugees, to climate change, to sexual abuse, to income inequality, to nuclear proliferation, to hunger and to random and organized violence call this into question. Our best hope I believe is to attack these problems through a deeper commitment and more strategic use of democratic institutions, but that does not take away the reality that democracy has not been so great at dealing with our “hairiest” and most “wicked” problems. We sometimes try to deny that these problems are really so serious or that they even exist. The clearest example is the response to climate change by some of our leading politicians. If we can’t figure out how to take decisive action without sacrificing other important interests, and if we are unwilling to take on the political challenge of coming to terms with the genuine choices we face, then lets just deny that there is a problem at all.
We sometimes exaggerate the problems to such a great degree that we feel justified in giving up on either democracy or on engaging with the challenges we face-- or both. We divert our attention to issues that we can more easily grasp and deal with. Often we devote our attention to issues that hardly exist at all—such as illegal immigration or voter fraud. Sometimes we divert in awful ways (the problem is the “Mexican rapists” storming over the border) sometimes in more benign ways (how do we control deficit spending). Diversion of both ilks are efforts to avoid facint our most fundamental challenges. We often devalue the importance of one or another element of the problem—democracy is not that important (maybe we say it doesn’t’ really exist anyway) or the climate is going to change, get over it. Or we flood the field—that is to say, we bury the fundamental dissonance under so many other things that we can avoid facing it (look at the progress on race relations, on poverty and hunger, in science, etc.).
We all use these mechanisms all the time, but the bigger the dissonance the less likely they are to work. The really importance dilemmas in our world have to be confronted and it often seems that no one is really taking these one, particularly in this election. One candidate offers simplifying solutions to complex problems—“trust me I’ll fix it, only I can, and it will be beautiful.” Embedded in his simplification is a denial of the problems we really do face and a devaluation of the importance and even the existence of democracy. The other candidate says we do face serious problems, but we can work together to fix them—minimizing the sense of so many that in fact we have lost the capacity to do so.
We have to accept the central political paradox we face. Democracy is not very effective at dealing with huge structural problems, and yet it is only by strengthening our democracy that we can attack these effectively. We face immense challenges, and we need to act decisively and rapidly, but we can only do so through the decision making structures that we have created, which are often halting and piecemeal. This is the scary situation we find ourselves in because the problems we face are complex, hairy, wicked, and getting more so all the time.
We need political leaders who can address these challenges without denial, minimization, diversion, devaluation or flooding. We need them to embrace the complexity of the challenge but with a straightforward message that most of us can relate to. This is easier said then done, but it is sometimes done. At his best Obama has been able to take on the dissonance we experience, such as in his speech in Charleston about racial issues in America. But in this election season, Clinton’s approach has been piecemeal problem solving—often proposing very good and potentially far reaching policies but not addressing the deeper sense of dissonance that underlies this season of discontent. Clinton operates from a solid commitment to our democracy as the basis from which problems must be addressed. But she has not yet taken on what we must do to make democracy work better—that was what Bernie brought to the table and hopefully will continue to do.
Trump has approach this dissonance by diverting attention to the evil of elites and by denying the seriousness of the problems. He says how horrible things are all the time—so he does speak to the underlying sense that we are not dealing with our most essential problems. But then his proposed solutions to the problems are simplistic at best, and more often simply non existent. Instead he implies that it is democracy that must change—by becoming less rather than more democratic. He advocates loosening the constraints on our leaders (so long as he is the most powerful leader) so that they can attack elites and fix the problems and in that way everything will be beautiful. This is a sham, I believe, but an attractive one because it taps into the underlying sense that our institutions are not up to the task of dealing with our most significant problems.
Democracy, I believe, offers the best and really the only mechanism for addressing our most important problems. Our way through the chaotic challenges we face is to work to shore up the democratic capacity of the decision making systems across all levels of our society—work, family, community, courts, local, state, federal governments, international organizations, universities, etc. I recognize that in doing so, we may make it harder at times to arrive at decisions about our biggest issues, and we may unleash more divisive forces. But unless we embrace a deeply democratic approach to decision making, we will only be able to address our big hairy, divisive, wicked, existential problems in a superficial way, thereby making them bigger and harrier.
But as I look at this rather intimidating reality, I see some genuine cause for optimism. People are really fed up with the divisive, angry, dialogue that has characterized this election. This too has led to cognitive dissonance. On Saturday (November 4), the New York Times reported on results from a poll that showed a high level of public disgust with the way this election has been conducted—and this is something almost everyone agrees on—although of course the blame is laid all over the place. People are despairing about democracy, but they want it to work. We all have a challenge to try to make it work—on all levels. And democratic institutions have a history of rising to the occasion when the going gets really rough (think of WW II, major public health crises, the gradual but clear coming together of the international community about climate change, and the mostly successful efforts to contain nuclear proliferation). So in the face of the increasing chaotic nature of the world we live in, democracy is a negative (that is organizing) attractor.
After the election, we can focus on getting on with the challenge and deepening our democracy so that we can take on our most daunting problems.