Hope in the Dark? In Search of Ways Forward

night-skyWhen power shifts and the presumptions which have underpinned our way of engaging the world no longer hold, what then? For the past quarter century, many of us engaged in policy analysis and implementation have worked in the spirit of ‘possibilism’ – seeking entry points for change that, though initially small, have the potential to set in motion far-reaching, positive consequences. But more than we perhaps had realized, our work has presupposed that the center broadly holds.

We have presumed that there is a reasonably stable ‘outer’ concentric circle within which experimentation plays out, facilitating an evolution-like process — momentum for initiatives that add value, and dead-ends for bad ideas.  But with the election of Donald Trump (henceforth DT) in the USA (and similar elsewhere, though in this piece I will write principally from a US perspective) we find ourselves in a world where the stability of the outer circle, the container, has itself been put into question. How, now, are we to engage?

In an earlier effort to explore possible pathways of development for messy democracies, I distinguished between long-run vision, medium-run strategy, and short run process. The vision as to what comprises the core elements of a flourishing democracy remains intact. However,  when confronting a risk of reversal of the magnitude which is possible under a DT presidency, strategy and tactics need to shift profoundly. But how?

Checks and balances institutions, for societies endowed with them, comprise the first, and crucial, line of defense against the erosion of freedom and democracy. In the US context, one of my responses to DTs victories has been to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League.   Looking beyond America, South Africa’s experience over the past eighteen months (on which I will write separately) offers a hopeful (though still unfolding) example of how a combination of courts, activism and elections can contain predatory political leadership. However, playing defense  is not enough.

The air is filled with talk of resistance, of the necessity of not normalizing  a DT administration. The urgency of the moment is clear, and I do not want to lessen it. So what follows might perhaps usefully be viewed as a complement rather than an alternative to this sense of urgency.  How can we act in ways that not only respond to the short-term imperatives, but also help incubate a platform for a reinvigorated politics and society?  Here (adapting some with the grain approaches for the current moment) are some  potential entry points.

First, cultivate alliances. Checks and balances institutions are a first line of defense, but ultimately the sustainability of democracy rests on a broad societal consensus in favor of democracy and the rule-of-law. This consensus has been America’s ‘civil religion’, one reason why it is so startling that so many voted for DT. But it is wildly premature to conclude that a short-term expression of discontent reflects a broader abandonment of America’s core principles. Defense of democracy requires a coalition that reaches across the traditional left-right ideological spectrum. Thus, rather than responding in kind to anger and polarization, opposition to DT needs to capture the higher ground of America’s political center.

Second, embrace a democracy-friendly discourse —  one which, as per Albert Hirschman, “moves beyond extreme, intransigent postures, with the hope that participants engage in meaningful discussion, ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of other arguments and new information”. DT’s discourse has, of course, been the exact opposite – an embrace of whatever might help to arouse supporters, with zero regard for its truth value.  But the breakdown in discourse goes beyond DT.

Openness to evidence comprises the bedrock foundation, the necessary condition, for civilization to thrive; yet we find ourselves in a world where the arbiters of the truth value of claims are losing their legitimacy. This can be explained, in our era of rapid change, by the power of cognitive dissonance to override inconvenient evidence.  But explaining is not enough. We urgently need to rebuild mutual confidence, a consensus across society as to the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of fact-based discourse – else (if it is not already too late) all will be lost.

The news media confront an urgent, immediate challenge – and the article linked here from the Brookings institution offers an intriguing road map for how it can be addressed. There also are more personal challenges, especially for those of us who work with policy, evidence and ideas.  I have taken pride (an interesting word….) in being open to persuasion when the data are inconsistent with my preferences – but  this often isn’t obvious to others. The reasons surely have as much to do with me as those with whom I engage. Nurturing a democracy-friendly discourse will require work at many levels.

Third, focus on the consequences for inclusion and equity of the coming tsunami of policy initiatives from the DT administration. DT’s success is a (perverse) consequence of the accelerating dualism of American society – major gains at the top, stagnation for everyone else. In his campaign, DT promised to make things ‘great again’ for the struggling (predominantly white) middle. But the reality is likely to be the opposite. Here are a few  examples:

[Added January 1, 2017:  Climate change also offers a compelling immediate focal point for activism, as detailed in the comment/discussion below.]

Proposals such as these will provoke a powerful reaction. Sustained, systematic and widely communicated documentation of their likely consequences has the potential to reinvigorate an inclusive, democracy-friendly discourse on policy choices and their consequences. The Scholars Strategy Network offers a powerful platform for this kind of work, as illustrated by its Director, Theda Skocpol’s, recent piece in the New York Times on health care reform. The think tank New America offers a further, intriguing model for bridging the gap between analysis and civic discourse. Sustained work along these lines can both renew confidence in the value of evidence-based analysis and, as important, lay the foundation for development of a new generation of inclusive responses to the dauntingly difficult structural economic realities of the early 21st century.

Fourth, cultivate islands of effectiveness. Developmental forces continue to be present throughout society – within civil society, at state and local level, within public bureaucracies. As I explored in depth in my earlier work, in politically contested environments developmental actors can achieve valuable victories by focusing on specific initiatives, acting collectively, and building coalitions capable of fending off destructive, predatory influences. Not all space has closed. In a generally dispiriting time, showing what is possible continues to matter — both as antidote to despair and as inspiration, pointing the way towards a more hopeful future.

To some, the entry points I have highlighted above might seem inadequate to the moment. But it seems to me crucial that we look beyond a politics that offers nothing beyond deepening polarization. German politics in the interwar Weimar years of 1918-1933 provides a cautionary tale. As a white South African inspired by the fall of apartheid, as a Jew who has refused to be defined by history and the stereotypes of others, as a parent with two American children, I continue to believe that the life worth living is one fueled by our hopes and dreams, not our nightmares. The dream that all humans are created equal, with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The dream of equal dignity. The American dream. The human dream.



5 responses

  1. A persuasive case to add climate change as a focus for immediate activism has been made by my former colleague at the University of Cape Town, Don Ross. I copy below his input (made on FB), my response, plus a few useful links:

    Don’s Comment: It will be important to focus the biggest fights on potentially winning issues. I think that climate change can be the Stalingrad for the Trumpists. It has a nice combination of properties that make it the right hill for digging in on. First, the Trump cabinet selections, and the Putin connection, suggest that horrible energy policy is their priority, so they won’t back away if they get into the political reeds on it. Second, people are already starting to feel the impacts of climate change in the weather, and over two-thirds of Americans now believe it’s real. Indeed, I expect people will soon start blaming more disasters on climate change than it’s really causing; it has all the right features to be a basis for social panic. Third, it combines economic self-interest with moral high ground for the agents best placed to lead effective resistance to federal over-reach, state governments on the Pacific coast and big cities generally. Fourth, millennials actually care deeply about the issue, and no political renewal can be effective if they’re just carping on the sidelines. Played right, I think that the Trumpists could come to be passionately hated by 70% of the electorate by mid-term time. But this has to be played as war, and in wars composite symbolic enemies are needed. In particular, Trump’s core supporters will need to be demonized as fools who stoke their own ignorance out of nostalgia for a carbon-driven economy. Anger will be the only emotion up to the political job, and it won’t leave room for empathizing with Oklahoma or West Virginia. Despair? Surely not. It’s war now. The good side could indeed lose, but is it possible for it to win? Yes. So everyone please get armed. For academics this should mean, at the moment: learn everything about climate change and energy policy that you can.

    Brian’s response: Thanks, Don, for your comment which I (mostly) find persuasive. Indeed, I am persuaded that climate change is an excellent entry point for taking on the DT agenda – both substantively, and as a platform for re-invigorating discourse. One can envisage a powerful campaign FOR….
    – FOR our planet;
    – FOR future generations;
    – FOR science and (as per my piece) evidence-based decision-making.
    As you suggest, it could bring together a powerful coalition indeed. Million people marches in DC (and similar gatherings across the planet), with leaders including scientists and clergy, and with the marchers overwhelmingly under 35 will be hugely powerful.
    This need not be framed as being against the ‘struggling middle’ subset of DTs support. One can make the point that coal mining jobs won’t be coming back regardless. Insofar as there is an explicit ‘them’ (beyond the key policymakers in DTs administration),it would be those who don’t care about the planet, about future generations, and who reject science/evidence. High ground, indeed.

    And here are three relevant links:
    Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
    Why coal mining jobs are not coming back. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-coal-idUSKBN13524Y
    Solar jobs http://www.thesolarfoundation.org/national/

  2. First and foremost Brian, wishing you and your family a happy and healthy 2017.

    I enjoyed reading your article and the response by Don Ross. Some excellent and very thoughtful points were raised and set me off in a direction I had not explored seriously before.

    The first thought that struck me was whether or not your title should have been “Government, governance and the narcissistic personality.” We are moving into uncharted waters in modern times in dealing with this type of democratically elected leader. It is not unique to just the United States but can also be seen in such places as the Philippines. The unique status of the USA is that its President wields power unlike any other democracy in the world.

    In attempting to assess the current and future effectiveness (or its ability to destroy) of any government and its governance, the personality of its leader is an important part of the equation. Narcissistic personality (NP) disorders as you are aware, are extremely difficult to treat and do not have a very high success rate. The primary treatment, psychotherapy, is predicated on the assumption that the individual has some insight into his/her issues and wishes to seek treatment. There is also the need for those living, or in close relationship to the NP to develop strategies to either live or successfully interact with these people. While this may have been studied with individual relationships this has not, to my knowledge, been looked at or dealt with at a political or global level.

    Thus, I would argue, whilst there may be a need to identify what ideas or ideals we wish to support, the more pressing need is to re-evaluate our thinking and approaches to interactions both at a government level and a governance perspective. This is something new and unexplored. Failure to move our planning and coping processes to a different level will ultimately doom most of our attempts to change/modify the NP’s intentions. This, to me, is the urgency of 2017.

    I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. My reading on the subject, at this stage, is somewhat rudimentary. Most of it is based on general principles of strategies used by individuals living with an NP. How much of this translatable to governments and governance when run by an NP is not clear. I have distilled those that I see have possible merit and put them out as a starting point for discussion (In no particular order). These are over and above any principles that are currently in place when dealing with organisations with different philosophies.

    a) Maintain a positive outlook: This would seem to suggest that continued forward planning, irrespective of the current government should continue.
    b) Maintain your independence
    c) Learn what is and what is not negotiable
    d) Establish goal oriented interactions
    e) Know when you are being gaslighted (i.e. receiving bullsh*t)
    f) Don’t allow yourself to get derailed
    g) Don’t tolerate degrading behavior and acknowledge annoyance at this behavior
    h) Avoid confrontation: In the one-to-one relationship this includes walking away from temper tantrums andnot getting into aggressive counter arguments.

    Developing strategies such as these or something similar will allow one to move forward when attempting to deal with an NP. These need to be embedded in a generic process usable in a multiple of projects. Without a basis such as this, planning and talk will not be successful in achieving results to this apparent new dark order.

    From a political and philosophical neophyte

    • Thanks, Neil — yes to the psychological diagnosis. Perhaps ADHD, too………….???? Engaging skillfully individually with such personalities is, I’m sure, very, very hard; orchestrating such engagement from a large, dispersed, unruly polity strikes me to be impossible. So, in my thinking, I’m looking towards the broader political institutions — state and local government elections (in 2018); and, en route and after, how Republican legislators will respond over time (both to DT, and to initiatives from elsewhere………). An immediate goal is to make it to 2020 with institutions, the USA, and the planet broadly intact…..

  3. Comment by Nigel Twose (on Facebook) which I have reposted here, for the record. “I’m not angry about the election results any more. I still ask myself how not to be overwhelmed by despair, and how to avoid the temptation to simply withdraw for the coming four years – if that’s who they voted for, let them suffer the consequences. But less than half the US population voted for Trump, and the reality is that his actions will impact people all over the world, as well as impact the planet itself. So, how to engage? Inspired by your post, Brian, here are a few additional thoughts, neatly wrapped in a four point plan to create an illusion of coherence.

    A pastor, Rev. Andy Hoover, recently argued online: “I take solace in knowing that more than 50 million Americans embraced the message of moving forward together, seeing the importance of equality and fairness. More people voted for that message than voted for Trump’s message of fear and division.” He is right, but it cannot be correct for any of us to conclude that we now just cry, mourn and hang out with those who voted against Trump. One of Dr King’s oft-repeated observations is that “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope”. We must have confidence in the power of goodness over time, but in the context of what Brian summarizes as the accelerating dualism of American society, with major gains at the top and stagnation for everyone else.

    So step #1 is to grieve for a while, to hug, to hold each others’ hands. But then we must get back to work.

    Anger at Trump will not help. Anger doesn’t help much of anything, in my experience. Nor will anger tinged with derision at those who voted for him help either. Jennifer Haigh has written three novels about Pennsylvania coal country; she says: ”I take issue with the portrait of these people as gullible rubes who’ve been taken in by a slick salesman. … These are not gullible people; they’re, in fact, deeply cynical people who have been through generational hardship.”

    Which brings us to step #2: we must accept that we weren’t listening to the cries of other Americans as we needed to, with what Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara describes as “ears of wisdom and determination. … Even amongst those who hate, we (must) live with love in our hearts. Even amongst those who are blinded by greed and confusion, we (must) practice generosity, kindness and clear seeing.” Suggestions that media organizations open more bureaux in small towns are good examples of the practical steps that will help us all listen better.

    Step #3 is systematically to think through the consequences of specific policy changes when they are proposed, consequences not just for those who voted for Trump but for those who didn’t, all over the world. How? The Buddha said:
    “Conquer anger with non-anger;
    Conquer wickedness with goodness;
    Conquer stinginess with giving,
    And a liar with truth.”

    So here is some truth. 5.6m US manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 – 2010; those jobs are not coming back. Here’s more truth: training courses that last a few weeks are not going to turn former miners into software programmers. These job market shifts may be generational changes that require a longer term approach to thinking about the transition, like the discussion about universal basic income. We weren’t honest with ourselves, let alone those whose jobs were disappearing.

    Which leads us to step #4, islands of documented effectiveness. In what I think was the most important section of his article, Brian makes a convincing case that “in politically contested environments, developmental actors can achieve valuable victories by focusing on specific initiatives, acting collectively, and building coalitions capable of fending off destructive, predatory influences. … In a generally dispiriting time, showing what is possible continues to matter – both as an antidote to despair and as inspiration, pointing the way towards a more hopeful future.”
    Could this work? Consider the President-Elect’s favorability rating. Trump is historically unpopular for an incoming president – an average favorability rating of 43% compared, say, to George W’s 50% when he entered office. This, coupled with his substantial loss in the national popular vote, is a potent vulnerability. Democrats can credibly say that Trump lacks the “will of the people.” But I fear that saying so, even saying it repeatedly, will change nothing without some variant of this plan and without better documented evidence of what works and could be scaleable.”

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