[Editor: Most of this was written at the beginning of 2016. I could not get a full newsletter out, but I wanted this published as an opening concern for the year. To be clear while Part I deals with U.S. politics (though “fear and despair” have global concerns, and Part II will look more at one global topic), it is not written to endorse any party or candidate. Apart from not knowing positions well enough since I am not American, its value is simply meant as a piece for reflection for whatever value it brings, and regardless of perspective].
Fear and despair have stalked the land (fortunately so have courage, hope and tenacity; a separate topic). While I could list the simmering conflicts around the world, this section will focus on the dynamics affecting most of this readership (Western world and primarily the U.S., given the global reverberations such responses would have). [Addendum: Human Rights Watch just produced its annual report, entitled, “Politics of Fear”, reporting on 90 countries].
Part I: The Ominous Symptom of “The Strong Man”
The first fear dynamic surrounds Donald Trump. The focus is not Trump himself – commentaries abound – but the glimmer of insight arising from Trump’s supporters. The caricature by some is that Trump’s followers are crazy. I disagree. These people are responding quite normally within the framework of how they view the world. People would not respond that way in such numbers for so long unless it really was grounded in something deeply distressing.
In that context I feel I am witnessing an extremely disturbing phenomenon with the following broad contours:
- There exists a substantial seam of society whose sense of marginalizing dynamics is so deeply felt that the normal recourse is considered futile. Thus the only viable option they see is the archetypical “strong man” who will make things right.
- While a sense of marginalization / disenfranchisement can have layers and many factors and even be illusory, in this case its primary source is a disconnect from the American dream (defined as the opportunity for meaningful work which results in societal progress and standing). Part of it is the debilitating widening income gap. Part of it is an “elite Washington” – either political party – disconnected from normal people’s reality. Part of it is fueled and even manufactured by hidden money (see 3(i) below). Part of it is the continued globalizing trends (oversea jobs, reduced sovereignty; see TPP). In such dynamics there is a sense of loss of control and thus easily a diminishment of one’s sense of worth.
- Futile normal recourses: (i) Government is part of the elite and is lobbied and shaped by the elite – corporations, etc. (for example, Koch Brothers’ “Dark Money” [CBC] and the resulting right shift that disgusts traditional conservatives [Patheos]); (ii) In a reverse “Occupy Wall Street” sense (where OWS was a great groundswell which arose from the 2008 economic collapse, yet accomplished nothing, zero), the rage against the machine is seen as futile. Thus the only recourse is the “strong man.”
- A side-effect is that the thin veneer of civilization erodes, and thus racism and xenophobia increase. It also seems to bring a diminished desire for dialogue, engagement with the other and empathy.
In smaller degrees the above dynamics have played out over the years. But this time the dynamics are potentially seismic in nature. Three points:
- For the first time in my life I feel I am witnessing parallels in North America to what gives rise to the “strong men” of the past like Hitler and Mussolini. To be clear my entire focus in not on the strong men nor suggesting similarities (I find those claims quite wanting; although I find Trump’s statements often reckless and inflammatory), but rather entirely focused on the ferment beneath;
- While I do not think this will be a tipping point, the fermentation will continue until the underlying issues are addressed, specifically until those areas of well-being that have withered, are restored;
- For all the wonderful people who are attempting to tilt dynamics in sound directions, or who still uphold the core value of dialogue, listening and empathy, may you remain steadfast. This will lessen any pendulum swing and will reinforce or more quickly re-anchor solid societal grounding.
For anyone wanting an introduction to the notion of the hidden layers of power and what some consider the gutted notion of democracy in America, Sheldon Wolin’s (Princeton prof., died 2015) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism work is briefly explored in Inverted Totalitarianism [TruthDig]
While many people warn of the demise of any form of substantive democracy, others point to some aspects that can start to strengthen democratic tendencies. The hope here is that this is not a cache-22 limit on human aspirations – this list does deal with the rather intractable need to devolve power – but rather will be seen a century from now simply as a particularly thorny epoch. A brief list includes:
- Get unbridled money out of political campaigning; create transparency in lobbying.
- Address the financial systems still unchanged after the 2008 financial crisis.
- Address the widening income gap – its chasm has become life-stifling and life-distorting.
- Provide robust oversight that can establish an appropriate surveillance balance between truly threatening activity and personal privacy.
In the end, the high drama may fizzle, normal political discourse may return for the time being. But without change to the disturbing undercurrents, the “strong man” catastrophe will remain waiting for the next person able to capitalize in a twisted fashion to the genuinely disturbing undercurrents.