I’ve been feeling useless lately, and looking for an explanation. First, I wondered if retirement from a challenging career had caught up with me, but I left my work with the Court ten years ago and this feeling is new, so that was probably not it. Covid isolation was another likely suspect, with its disruption of comfortable patterns and interruption of intimate social intercourse, but wouldn’t that more likely cause feelings of loneliness than of uselessness? It’s not like I’m not still productive in that retiree sort of way—reading and writing, helping friends and neighbors, building and fixing things, etc.–but for some reason that no longer feels like enough. The problem, I’ve decided, is the enormous gap between the problems I see and my ability to help. After a lifetime of problem solving and public service, I no longer feel like part of the solution. I suspect I’m not alone.
In a well functioning society, many or most of us find enough meaning and satisfaction in our work to feel like positive contributors to society. Whether as business owners or bureaucrats, teachers or students, doctors or artists, we are able to reasonably regard our work in the world as contributing to a common social enterprise, building a civilization that offers benefits to everyone. In a well functioning society, people can find Maslow’s self actualization in a well balanced common life. This is the great gift of civilizations. When the stabilizing fundamentals of a society are threatened or missing, however, we can quickly get overwhelmed by the need for psychological and physical safety.
Only the narrowest of minds or the truly deluded would deny we are living today into the collapse of America’s stability. With consequences crashing down around us, and many more as yet unknown but sure to follow, corruption of the nation’s laws and values is occurring to such a degree and at such a rate that public reactions and weakened systems for correction and accountability cannot keep up. Conditions call out for bold and heroic action.
Some are rising to the call. For examples: Black Lives Matter is leading an extraordinary awakening of our national social conscience to racial injustice; the Poor People’s Campaign is convincingly explaining the relationship between economic policy and public health; and Republicans in the Lincoln Project are contributing to reductions in the President’s polling, offering some hope that citizens might turn back from the destructive politics of division and the dismantling of effective, accountable governance. Heroes all, in my book.
My own career work, much less dramatic, involved building and managing processes for collaboration to solve problems. The values and skills of dialogue, negotiation, and consensus building, cultivated over a lifetime, are what I brought to the table in service to my community and country. As long as conflicting parties could agree a problem needed solving, I believed I could help.
Two conditions now are undermining those values and defeating those skills, allowing serious problems to ravage the country unchecked. The first I’ll call national leadership by lies. National Republican leaders have adopted the President’s strategy of insisting that what they want to be true is true even when it demonstrably is not. Until reality catches up, as it has with the pandemic, the bold lie strategy allows them to evade challenging debate and accountability for error. This, along with the power of a Senate majority, has enabled them to have their way while refusing to participate in shared problem solving processes. They simply take what they want and ignore everything else.
The second dialogue-defeating condition is largely a result of the first. Republicans and the President enjoy support for their made-up truth from the country’s largest media organization—Fox News–and an intense social media network of conspiracy theorists. Most conservatives follow these media exclusively and have absorbed constantly repeated self-serving propaganda as facts and truth. Sincere attempts at dialogue now are frustrated immediately by the usual motivated reasoning and bias confirmation now strengthened by presumably credible sources of alternative “facts.”
It seems the rules and processes for democratic governance have been suspended; and the tools for effective participation are unavailing. Maybe this will change, perhaps after the next election we’ll begin to rebuild a government for and by of the people. Until then, the field belongs to the warriors–the protesters and counter protesters, the campaigners and super packs, the spin doctors and ads makers. I and my ilk can only watch, sidelined. Feeling useless.