With a new decade — a new hope? Reasons for optimism in a disordered world

It's darkest before the dawn: Social scientists say our time of crisis holds hope for change, renewal and rebirth

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published December 28, 2019 12:00PM (EST)

The calendar countdown and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)
The calendar countdown and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)

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"Resistance to Trump/ism is an effort to reclaim and reaffirm our higher values from those who are unable and/or unwilling to recognize and respect them."
Elizabeth Mika

"In a dark time, the eye begins to see"
Theodore Roethke

We live in a dark time. In “September 1, 1939,” his poem on the outbreak of World War II, W.H. Auden called the 1930s a “low dishonest decade,” and the same could well be said of the 2010s. As that decade reaches its end, the good news is that so many people around the country and around the world are not just cursing the darkness, but lighting candles. 

We can see this clearly with Greta Thunberg and the worldwide climate strike movement she has ignited. We can see it with the Parkland students who turned devastating tragedy into a watershed change in the gun safety debate, and helped inspire Thunberg as well. We can see it in the #MeToo movement — “It’s hopeful that the world is changing,” says founder Tarana Burke. We can see it in the massive democracy demonstrations around the world, from Hong Kong to Chile to Sudan and beyond. We can see it in the tens of thousands of Americans, disproportionately women, who have become political activists or political candidates since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Candles alone aren’t enough, of course, as all those I just cited would insist. But they’re a start. 

If there’s a reason for optimism in the New Year, and the decade that now begins, it’s in part because recognizing and understanding a problem are the first steps toward solving it. I’m no Pollyanna. We face enormous, even catastrophic problems. I don’t want to minimize them in any way. But I repeatedly interview people whose knowledge can help us make significant progress, can help us "make a way out of no way,” as John Lewis would say. Inspired by the quotation above from therapist Elizabeth Mika — from a tweet, believe it or not — I set out to get commentary on what this could mean.  

I began by reaching out to Mika herself and to Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy," both of whom share a view of tyrannies as “three-legged beasts” —  the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole — a dynamic that Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski described as “pathocracy,” in which a pathological minority comes to dominate a nation. I knew that Hughes and Mike have both thought a great deal about how to fight the rise of such a regime. Since social dysfunction is necessary for pathocracy to take root, I wanted to bring in a wider range of people to address the broader social landscape as well, with a particular focus on the psychological dimension, because that seems so central to the challenges facing us. 

“There is much to be hopeful about in these dark days, even though it may not seem so,” Mika told me. “That is because our difficult times also carry within them a promise of renewal, of a genuine change for the better.” Broadly speaking, the idea of renewal through adversity is anything but new — it’s one of the oldest human stories, encoded in winter holidays, in rites of passage, in countless myths, stories and songs. But as that long history suggests, it’s an idea that evolves and develops over time, incorporating new understanding and at times even undergoing renewal through adversity itself. 

Mika employs a framework called “positive disintegration,” a theory of human personality development, created by another Polish psychiatrist, Kazimierz Dabrowski. Here is how she described it:

Positive disintegration is the dismantling of our old ways of being and our old character structure — more specifically our false self with its fear-based erroneous beliefs and low level values, and the harmful ways of living they produce — and creating a new personality through now conscious choices we make according to higher values once we see the truth about ourselves.

In our pre-disintegration — that is, pre-awakening — life, we believe that we were random, isolated beings whose existence is meaningless and without purpose beyond the satisfaction of our egocentric, lower level needs for power, money, status, hedonistic pleasure and admiration. Our lives revolve around these lower-level priorities, and our relationships with each other, along with our institutions, reflect that. It's no wonder that our rates of anxiety, depression, addictions, relational breakdowns, violence and suicide skyrocket. Those are the stark results of our mistaken beliefs about who we are and the harmful lifestyle we have built on them.

Enter Trump/ism, as timely as ever a manifestation of our collective shadow, meant to confront us with the repressed truth about ourselves. 

Rather than viewing it only as a calamity — which in so many respects it is — we could see it as an evolving act of grace. By unveiling the truth about ourselves, individually and collectively, as a nation, Trumpism has led us to the awakening to the existence and importance of higher values in our lives. 

It would be premature to claim such a sweeping awakening has already happened. But there are signs, at least, of some stirring democratic renewal — as noted by Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of political rhetoric at Texas A&M and author of the forthcoming book, Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”

She cited two encouraging trends: increased political engagement and increased interest in how political communication works. “These twin facts signal to me that Americans are both concerned about the health of their democracy and, in response, are performing their watchdog function,” Mercieca said. “These are good things.” 

For his part, Hughes spoke more broadly, citing three causes for hope: First, “the courage and humanity of ordinary people in the face of the crassness and cruelty of the powerful,” second, the foresight of the architects of democracy, and third, the enormous Trump-era growth in understanding of how much the mental health of political leaders matters for society. These represent three crucial components of a healthy democracy: the people themselves, the protecting institutions and the growth of knowledge.

First, regarding the role of courage, Hughes discussed the recent Showtime documentary “The Kingmaker,” about the notorious regime headed by Imelda Marcos and her family in the Philippines. “It is a story of malignant narcissism empowered by obscene wealth,” he said, a story repeated all across the globe. “Narcissism empowered by wealth is the dominant narrative of our age.” But the film portrays a counter-narrative as well:

In the movie, one of the pro-democracy activists recounts how, after she had been tortured by Marcos’ security agents during the martial law years, she felt a sense of power and pride surge through her abused body. She felt she had been tested, more severely than most of us will ever be, and had passed the test. She had had the courage of spirit to stand up to the bullies, to face down their inhumanity, and to assert her own profound humanity in its place. Her testimony gives me hope that it will be upon her solidness of character, rather than on the sham vulgarity of today’s character-disordered leaders, that our future can be built.

Second, Hughes takes hope in the foresight of democracy’s architects, “who had the incredible sagacity to create institutions that would ensure that their hard-fought victories over the myopic violence of bullies-in-power would endure.” He cited a number of examples, currently being tested:

This applies to the founding fathers in the U.S., of course, but it also applies to the extraordinary architects of India’s secular democracy, whose legacy is currently being threatened, but will hold. It applies to the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose defenders are legion and span the planet. And it applies to the founders of the European Union, whose freedoms I enjoy and whose legacy will endure after Brexit, because their idea of a shared European identity has become embedded, particularly in the minds of young people, across the European continent.

Of course we cannot be sure that all these will hold, at least not by themselves. As Hughes notes, they may well hold because the institutions they created have legions of defenders, who in turn bring their courage and humanity to bear in standing up to the threats of would-be tyrants.

Third, Hughes said, “I take hope from the fact that our understanding of how profoundly the mental health of political leaders matters for society has been growing enormously under Trump.” For those of us who caught on early, this progress may seem maddeningly slow. But Hughes, who was just a young boy when the Irish “troubles” began in the 1960s, deserves to be heard as he spells out what he means: 

Trump’s malignant narcissism is openly acknowledged, terms like “pathocracy” are entering the public arena, and an understanding is emerging of how social conditions enable toxic leaders to rise to power. We are becoming acutely aware, once again, that democracy is our primary defense against the pathology of toxic leaders. I think this emerging body of knowledge has enormous historical and global significance, precisely because the scourge of toxic leadership is itself global and reaches far back into history. 

As a scientist my worldview is based on the hope that knowledge can change the world. As a teenager I had the hope that the recognition of our tiny place in the cosmos could move us from our profound delusion of being masters of the universe to a more profound and productive humility. Disordered leaders are incapable of such humility, of course, and they have built an international order based on their inhumanity. They are powerful and they are wealthy, but they are a minority. A more powerful international movement, based on the humanity of the majority, is already emerging that will defeat them.

Mercieca sees similarly hopeful signs. There’s a real threat of democratic erosion, she said, adding, “Within this crisis of democracy people are attempting to uphold democratic norms”: 

They are acting as watchdogs over the government by engaging in the political process, actively consuming political news, protesting actions of the government, and planning to vote in the next election. Relatedly, people are very interested in or concerned about the way that our public sphere functions. This is crucial in this moment because one of the causes of our current age of catastrophe is our broken public sphere.

Indeed, as the media have faltered as watchdogs, Mercieca continued, people have taken up that role themselves:

I'm encouraged by the fact that people want to know more about how platforms and algorithms shape our experience of the world; about how rhetoric, propaganda and public relations can be abused to control reality; and about how traditional and non-traditional media profit motives and news values affect the possibility of democratic stability. 

I'm also encouraged that people still have enough faith in the system to enact their watchdog function. The people still believe in American democracy; they still believe that their vote matters. They believe that they have the power to resist authoritarianism and defend democracy. That belief, shared by so many, is crucial. Without it democracy is already lost.

The issue of expertise and knowledge caught the attention of another communications expert, Dr. Dannagal Young, author of Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States” (Salon interview: Part 1/Part 2). “Truth still exists, and there are those working to study it, report on it, and illuminate it,” Young said. “We are still here. And we will be here, regardless of the economics of digital and social media that prioritize and reward spin and partisan mis- and disinformation over tedious truth”: 

From historians on Twitter (Princeton's Kevin Kruse is a must-follow, who issues a steady and tireless drumbeat of "Yes, the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, but let's talk about the party realignment of the 1960s rooted in race, shall we?") to climate scientists desperate to translate evidence into legislative action — as industry-fueled elite discourse is beset on undermining their credibility and their science — researchers, scientists, sociologists, historians, and political scientists will be fighting all the way through 2020.

Chrissy Stroop, co-editor of the new anthology, "Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church," was perhaps the most pessimistic respondent. She was deeply disturbed by the rise of a budding theocracy under Trump, and how few in the media take it seriously as a threat to democracy. 

It feels like all of America is turning into the kinds of authoritarian Christian schools I attended as a child and graduated from,” Stroop said. She is “deeply disappointed in America's pundit class, which, as a whole, has failed to understand why the support of white evangelicals and other mostly white, right-wing Christians for an authoritarian strongman like Donald Trump was entirely predictable. In my view, only if we can get the gatekeepers of our major news outlets to take seriously the theocratic threat to democracy and human rights do we have a shot at saving American democracy.” 

Yet she bristles with ideas about how to be effective. “Individually, some evangelicals and Trump supporters are reachable,” Stroop said, “so of course we should all be talking to those we have pre-existing relationships with, if it's possible and safe to do so.” But mass outreach to white evangelicals, she believes, is misguided.

“Democratic efforts at ‘faith outreach’ and other projects directed at peeling off some of these voters are for the most part a waste of resources that would be better spent on get-out-the-vote initiatives," Stroop continued. "My public work is engaged not toward reaching authoritarian evangelicals, but rather toward exposing them." Hence the rationale behind “Empty the Pews,” which Stoop calledan intervention aimed ... at elevating the voices of those of us who know toxic Christianity from the inside and are now trying to sound the alarm.” 

Despite Stroop’s dire warnings, I couldn’t help but feel implicit optimism in the tremendous time and energy she  has devoted to getting “ex-vangelical” voices heard. Those voices, like the tortured pro-democracy activist Hughes cited in “The Kingmaker,” seem more likely to save American democracy than major media gatekeepers are. 

Turning to the realm of mass attitudes, a recent paper published in Nature, “The Cultural Foundations of Modern Democracies,” provides a sweeping overview of values and institutions with data from almost 500,000 individuals in 109 nations over the past century. Lead author Damian Ruck, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, told me the data holds “good news for the future of democracy.”  

My research has revealed that stable democracies tend to rest upon two cultural foundations: openness to diversity and civic confidence,” Ruck said. “Stable democracies emerge in countries where people are open and tolerant towards minority groups and where civic institutions, including government and the media, command the confidence of the people.”

Our increasingly connected world means openness to diversity has surged around the world, laying an important democratic foundation. Though institutional confidence has seen a worrying decline in recent decades — particularly among Western nations — we now have another reason to maintain the integrity of our government and media institutions.

In the field of moral psychology, I spoke to Kurt Gray, director of the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding at the University of North Carolina, who had a good-news/bad-news story to share. On one hand, he said, “Liberals and conservatives distrust each other more than ever,” which is likely not breaking news to most readers as 2020 dawns. On the other hand, “Much of this distrust stems from collective delusions about the immorality of the ‘other side.’”

He went on to cite three main bodies of evidence, the first of them relating to misperceived motivations:

People assume that the “other side” is driven by misanthropy, but all people are motivated more by “in-group love” than by “out-group hate.” Studies find that when people are faced with decisions in conflicts — how to vote or what to fund — we act primarily to protect those we trust, rather than to harm those we distrust.

Second, about shared values:

A survey by the organization More in Common finds that we share more values with the “other side” than we assume. Conservatives wrongly assume that liberals aren’t patriotic; in reality, four out of five liberals are proud to be American. Liberals wrongly assume that conservatives are willfully “colorblind”; in reality, four out of five conservatives acknowledge the existence of racism. 

And third, perhaps most fundamentally, about shared moral foundations:

A dozen studies find that, despite divisive moral rhetoric (conservatives calling for “freedom” vs. liberals calling for “fairness”), everyone’s morality is grounded in a common concern: protecting people from harm. 

Specifically, Gray said that his own team’s work establishes “that we all understand morality through the same lens”: 

Morality is about safeguarding our children from harm. By recognizing that apparently different moral values are all grounded in the same universal motivation — loving our children — we can look beyond the partisan bickering and start the New Year with a bit more hope.

This helps explain, for example, the remarkably positive evaluations I reported on from “America in One Room.” That real-life microcosm of the American electorate didn’t produce civil war. Instead, “‘By the end of their time there, they referred to each other as friends,’ one facilitator, Amy Carl, said of her group of 14 people.” 

As Gray concluded, “People clearly disagree about abortion, guns and parenting styles, but they all earnestly believe that their stance best helps to safeguard the vulnerable from suffering.”

The challenge, then, is how to overcome the misperceptions. It is no small task, to be sure, but it’s much easier than reconciling the irreconcilable. One plausible takeaway is that rival elites are much more divided than ordinary people are. This view is roughly congruent with the biggest-picture overview I’ve encountered in decades, the perspective of structural demographic theory (SDT), which explains the cyclic rise and fall of political instability in multiple civilizations around the globe. I reached out to University of Connecticut professor Peter Turchin, the biologist and social scientist who refined and generalized the original SDT model, to get his commentw on our present state. 

It is clear to most observers that our society is in deep crisis," Turchin said. “The technical term in structural-demographic theory is a ‘revolutionary situation’: when the established elites are still holding the levers of power, but the social pressures for crisis have built up to the point where something has to give.” 

This situation is not surprising, he said:

What I find remarkable is how precisely we today are following the trajectory into crisis that my colleagues and I saw in the historical societies we have studied (see my prediction of the impending crisis published in Nature in 2010). The explanation, probably, is that the three major mechanisms driving up social pressure for crisis — popular immiseration, intra-elite conflict and weakening of the state — work in mutually reinforcing ways. We see all those mechanisms operating in our current crisis.

Turchin felt greater optimism in the past, he told me, but now perceives a mixed and troubling picture:  

Initially I thought that we collectively have a decent chance of avoiding this crisis, but now this hope is receding. A major reason for my pessimism is the resolute refusal by our ruling class, including both its liberal and conservative wings, to see the real causes of the crisis. Instead, they are consumed by internecine battles.

Thus, my position can be called half-optimistic, because we are acquiring the tools that could enable us to avoid the worst, and half-pessimistic, because I don’t see the willingness of our elites to use these tools.  

Turchin’s half-optimism is a big deal, but his half-pessimism is deeply troubling, largely because of the urgent need for climate action. We really don’t have time for a civil war right now, not even a little one. The historical evidence he marshals is frightening. Is it possible that his forecast is too dark? 

I believe it is, because of a potentially unique set of circumstances, starting with the historical trajectory of popular activism combined with the mobilization potential of social media and the potential to mobilize tens of millions of young people to action. Mass movements, as opposed to episodic uprisings, are historically recent phenomena, epitomized by the abolitionist movement, starting in the 18th century, and by the rise of Chartism and feminism in the 19th.

The speed with which the Climate Strike movement has spread, for instance, is unprecedented, as are the leadership roles now being seized by young people. If all of us — “progressive” or “conservative” — view morality through the lens of safeguarding our children from harm, how can we ignore them now? America’s elites have failed, that much is true. The world’s adults have failed. The existing structures have failed. If ever there was a time for “positive disintegration” on a mass scale, that time is now.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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