Thirty years of mediating civil litigation taught me two important truths about conflict. First, if collective problem solving is the goal, name calling and bullying are usually counterproductive; minds can best, and maybe only be changed in a context of friendship, or at least low animosity, and voluntary concessions are rarely given under threat. Working within this paradigm calls for trust building and dialogue. But, when domination or destruction is one party’s goal, when relationship and shared interests hold no sway, force can become the only alternative to capitulation or annihilation. Win or lose, the target of such aggression has little choice but to prepare for a fight to the finish. Identifying intentions correctly is critical to choosing which truth to follow.
How do these truths apply to current American politics?
Democratic governance involves sharing power. It must accommodate a diverse range of interests and values. It calls for negotiation and compromise, and sometimes deferring our priorities for the good of the whole. Government of, by, and for the people has always been an ideal, an aspiration. It’s not unlike a family in which the strong protect the weak and resources are shared with love that ensures the strength and well being of all.
Sharing power does not come easily or naturally to everyone, especially the powerful. U.S. democracy is constructed around a constitution cleverly built on checks and balances and the rule of law. The architecture is wise and sound, but when push comes to shove, it depends on citizens’ voluntary submission to its rules.
Today, it seems push is coming to shove. A corporate controlled global economy is reducing the resources and the flexibility of national and local governments to meet the needs of all their citizens, and changing demographics and migration are changing the face of national families. With social cohesion and respect for government both diminished, powerful populist and nativist forces are aggressively challenging and upending established democratic norms and institutions and bitterly dividing societies. Ours is no exception.
Where all this is heading may be a question only history can answer, but a question I am asking myself, and pose to all who value liberty, is: if we cannot collectively govern ourselves, how and by whom will we be governed?
This is not an idle question. We know that power abhors a vacuum, and with the breakdown of Congress’s ability to govern for a unified nation, the prospect of authoritarian control of government is squarely before us. In historically classic form, President Trump, with GOP support, promises he’ll restore the status of the white working class and take care of the middle and upper classes if we yield our social and political rules and norms and give him the authority to do what needs to be done. Already he has installed and demanded loyalty—not loyalty to the presidency or to the country, but to him personally– from cabinet heads who are deconstructing professional government agencies; he has undermined well-informed independent institutions, like the national intelligence agencies, certain he knows more than they do; denied the legitimacy of independent investigations, from inspectors general to the Attorney General, claiming he’s above the law, and that he has the power to pardon himself; eliminated State Department leadership so he can construct foreign policy alone; purged scientists from federal agencies and research from government websites that challenge conservative ideologies; cut ties and abrogated treaties with democratic countries and their leaders, while publicly admiring and forming alliances with historical enemies of democracy and with world class dictators who he respects for “knowing how to control their populations;” berates journalists and the free press as the “enemy of the people;” dehumanizes immigrants as an “infestation” of criminals and economic parasites not entitled to human or Constitutional rights, to name a few examples. To students of history and psychology, these patterns are unmistakable and disturbing. That many people might choose to accept them is also historically familiar…and frightening.
The risks of emerging totalitarianism here are neither imagined nor exaggerated, and strong reactions to them should be expected and welcomed.
Those not enthralled or cowed by President Trump’s authoritarian narcissism are finding his passion to dominate and humiliate, his insistence on fealty to consolidate his power, and his frequent threats of force, both political and military, worrisome. Even more unnerving is the reluctance of those personally and constitutionally responsible for addressing those risks, primarily those controlling the legislative branch of government, to even acknowledge them.
These fears are adding an edge of hysteria to the complaints of people already outraged by the President’s lack of respect for…well, for anything. The transparency of his moral vacuity and political nihilism arouses deep resentment among those who are watching, and animosity toward those who are not, or who refuse to acknowledge it if they are. Steadfast support for Mr. Trump by Republicans who before the election saw and rejected him for what he was, but now admire or cater to him for his power, is a treacherous loyalty.
On the one hand, the threat to our democracy is not one enemy, but a conglomeration of diversely motivated and often misinformed people, corrupted and energized by Donald Trump’s extraordinary ability to activate the shadow side of human nature—fear, selfishness, and tribalism. That so many people support him, including 95% of Republicans, makes clear that the problem is not just Trump.
Under this truth, the task is to re-align our people, politics and public policies with the better angels of our nature. Presumably that will require an acknowledgement of the challenges of immigration and an earnest offer to work together to manage them; an authentic openness to the hopes and values of everyone in the country; and a vision, with offers of programs, that truly benefits us all, presumably encompassing education, health care, and middle income jobs.
On the other hand, it would be foolish if not irresponsible for concerned citizens to see a threat of the magnitude discussed above and not plan for worst case scenarios. With no indication that those whose responsibility it is to oppose those threats either acknowledge or plan to do anything about them, and with uncertainty as to whether constitutional safeguards, like balanced powers and the rule of law, will survive sustained attacks and be able to right our listing ship of state, the unimaginable must be imagined.
Under this truth, extraordinary actions to deprive autocrats of the ability to impose his/their will may be necessary, and people loyal to democracy should think concretely about what they are willing to sacrifice to participate. The costs and consequences could be significant.
I don’t know if it’s possible to fully engage with both truths, both realities, simultaneously—to keep reaching out for peace while girding for war—or even if it’s wise to try, though my love of both democracy and people still compels my effort to do so. At some point, however, the work of understanding motives must yield to behaviors that necessitate acceptance of a Truth 2 reality. When huns are sacking the city there’s little point in asking why!