Reposted from Medium
What Democracy Needs to Be Nourished With, and How America Didn’t Do It
One of the things I find myself thinking a lot about these days is why American democracy’s dying. “It’s not dead yet! It’s still alive!”, you cry. You’re right. Yet if it’s not dead, it’s not exactly in good health, either. It’s in something like intensive care, surrounded by frantic doctors and nurses — running out of options. Crash cart, anyone? American democracy is being kept alive only with increasingly desperate and strained last resorts. And that won’t last forever.
So how did America get here? The lesson — and it’s for everyone, not just American — I think is both simple and hard, nuanced and straightforward, difficult and unforgiving. Democracy is something like a tree, as a wise person once said. Like a tree, it needs nourishment. And the three things that nourish democracy are reason, sanity, and decency.
But do we remember that? And yet without those — without a society really tangibly investing in those three things — what chance does a democracy have to endure? Not a very good one, my friends. Bang! American implosion. (Think about the Prez — and all his flunkies — for a moment. Aren’t they the living personifications of the precise opposites of reason, sanity, and decency? Maybe you see my point.)
Let me begin with the first one, reason. You’ve often heard the idea that “a democracy needs educated people.” It’s true. Why? To make reasoned, considered choices. And yet in America, it seems, reason has gone out the window. Large numbers of Americans seem incapable of even elementary forms of reasoning anymore. No, I’m not kidding. There are the small, bizarre, yet powerfully meaningful examples: anti-vaxxers, truthers, conspiracy theorists, flat-earthers, alt-righters, climate change denialists. Ancient Aliens on TV every night doesn’t help.
But larger forms of unreason have come to dominate American life. It’s often observed by baffled observers that “Americans vote against their own interests” — and that’s precisely one definition of unreason, irrationality. Think about the Trump voter who ended up losing that factory job…that was his last chance for a decent life…thanks to Trump’s tariffs…but still is unwavering in his support of Trump. Think about a middle class that’s voted, bewilderingly, against its own healthcare, retirement, and childcare, forever. Think about the person who doesn’t vaccinate their own kids — or “believe” in climate change. Unreason upon unreason characterizes American life — and that tells us that Americans don’t seem to know how to reason anymore.
Let me put that more sharply. Americans — enough of them — can’t seem to separate what’s good for them, versus what’s good for the coterie of predatory capitalists, plutocrats, authoritarians, and kleptocrats that have risen to power. They appear to have literally no idea what their interests even really are anymore (hello, don’t you want healthcare, dummy? Don’t you want your kids to go to college?) But that’s exactly how the bad guys rose to power. And that suggests a deep, weird, kind of psychological identification at work — as if Americans think they are the people who are preying on them (I’ll come back to that shortly.)
Why don’t Americans know how to reason anymore? To think well and clearly? Well, it’s hardly a mystery. They’re bombarded by disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda every day. And I don’t mean Trump’s tweets. I mean cable news. I mean a steady diet of reality TV. I mean endless movies about comic book superheroes — instead of anything, say, about what history might teach us about societies collapsing. I mean Facebook and Twitter and so on.
American culture has degenerated into something even the Romans would probably find grotesque. They had one Caligula — but American culture tells every American to care about nothing, and I mean nothing, but artifice and superficiality: money, sex, fame, and status. Anything else? What are you, weak? A dummy? Why bother thinking? What is there to think about anyways — we know the point of life, and it’s what capitalism says it is! But when your mind is so preoccupied with utterly superficial, nonsensical, meaningless things that they consume your every waking and sleeping moment — what room is there left for reason, for thought, for meaning? When you’re surrounded by all the above, junk culture, when tempting, seductive, narcissistic bullshit is being machine-gunned into your cortex every nanosecond 24/7, with laser precision — what chance do you really have to be a thinking person?
That brings me to my second form of nourishment that democracy needs: sanity. A democracy can’t endure if the people in it aren’t mentally healthy anymore. Sanity takes us past reason or rationality. It means that if everyone’s depressed, anxious, afraid, traumatized — or at least if enough people are — democracy isn’t going to make it. Why not?
People who feel deeply insecure psychologically will seek safety, over and over again, in more and more extreme and self-destructive ways, instead of ever addressing their insecurities and their deeper causes. I mean “insecurity” in the true way: not just “I don’t have enough Instagram followers!”, but “how will I make ends meet? How will I give my kids a decent life? Who’ll pay for their healthcare? How will I ever retire? Lord, what happens if I get sick?”
I mean true insecurity, a lack of stability, meaning, purpose, place, worth. Insecurity of the kind that now characterizes American life. Profound, deep, enduring psychological insecurity carries with it pain and distress so sharp that it traumatizes. Why don’t we ever talk about that? If you’re constantly thinking about death — which is what all the above is — you, my friend, are traumatized, whether you know it or not. And most Americans don’t, but they are.
Now, you can see the trend of mounting insecurity at work in American life for decades. I don’t feel good about myself! That’s because you’re not pretty enough, handsome enough, thin enough, rich enough, famous enough. You’re nobody. In the not-so-distant past, American insecurity — and American life was always insecure — was met with status competition, trying to outdo the next person with toys and acquisitions and prizes. But then already insecure life took a turn for the worse. The middle class imploded. Upward mobility vanished. The future fell apart. Americans couldn’t afford the very things they once sought as an answer to their insecurities anymore. What was left? What could they turn to instead? What do you do when you can’t afford the only medicine that was around for your psychological pain and distress?
Americans turned to what desperate people always turn to: a strongman. It happened in Athens, it happened in Rome, it happened in Weimar Germany turning into Nazi Germany. And it happened in America, too. Americans, traumatized by overwhelming, omnipresent insecurity, with no answer, no solution, unable to even afford the cars and homes and possessions they’d self-medicated insecurity away with once, only had one choice left: to turn to their very own demagogue, tyrant, strongman: Trump. The one who promised them safety again — even if it was through violence. Even if it was through hate. Even if it was through, in the end, the end of democracy.
It was obvious from day one that Trump wasn’t worthy of being a decent person’s garbageman, let alone a President. “Grab em by the pussy!” And yet the media fell for “but her emails!” By this point, 2015 or so, a very large number of Americans were not quite sane anymore. They had literally been traumatized into losing their minds. They couldn’t think straight anymore — they would allow anything, as long as they felt safe again, like they mattered again. They were willing to be harmed, they were willing to see their country torn apart, to let their democracy crumble — if it meant having the basic psychological security every person needs to go on functioning.
Please understand. I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Everyone needs those feelings to function — feelings of safety, feelings of mattering, feelings of counting. If you don’t have them, my friends, you’ll do anything to get them. They are the most basic motivators we have as human beings — yes, really — we’ll go without food and water for them, even, if we must. So when I say “many Americans weren’t sane by this point.” But I mean it in an empathetic way — not a judgmental one. And I mean it in a technical one, too. To be sane is to have overcome one’s traumas, not to be motivated solely by fear, not to only be able to express rage, anger, scorn. To be sane, in the ultimate analysis, is to be able to love. But by now, many Americans were only capable of anger, fury, and spite. Their insecurities had overwhelmed. Their traumas had left them broken. The only solution possible — short of a national mental healthcare intervention — was a demagogue.
Let me sharpen that, because I know it’s not the kind of idea you’re used to hearing. You’re not used to hearing it because in America, one of the central ideas is that we should all suck it up. We should hide our pain. We should pretend we are infinitely strong. We should always put on a brave face. But it doesn’t work when everyone is being traumatized at the same time. Then someone has to stop the cycle and say: “Hey! We’re all being hurt. This has to end!” But in America, nobody did. A tyrant, a demagogue, did what such figures always do: they turned a wounded nations’ profound and very real insecurities into rage, hate, and spite of lesser beings, subhumans, and thus made them feel powerful, strong, even “real”, again.
Do you see a little bit by what I mean when I say democracy needs to be nourished by sanity? If Americans had cared about each others’ psychological wounds — if they’d turned to one another and said: “we’re all being hurt by predatory systems and institutions, and yet we’re all asked to be part of them too — this has to change!” — then maybe enough people wouldn’t have been so psychically fragile as to be such easy prey for the world’s dumbest demagogue. But they were — and that Americans fell for Donald Trump, of all people, tells us just how badly psychologically shattered they must have been. You must be genuinely and totally broken inside by your insecurities if you believe what a Donald Trump is selling you.
And that brings me to the third form of nourishment democracy needs: decency. Decency in America had been fraying for many, many decades by the point Donald and his comedy crew bumbling fascist-authoritarians of arrived. In the 80s, it was made legal to offer “jobs” with no benefits or protections. In the 90s, it was made legal to “raid” pension funds — in plain English, to steal people’s life savings. In the 2000s, banks got the biggest bailout in history — while the middle class, stuck with the bill, imploded. Decency? Do you see it anywhere in the above? I don’t. America’s been on a downward spiral of moral degeneration for decade now — decency imploded from the top down, one scandal, one billionaire, one lie, at a time.
As decency evaporated from the top down in America, so did any norms, expectations, or ideals left for average people to cling to about it. Sure, you might have tried to be a good person — and everyone you know, too. But on a social scale, what happened in America was more like this. If those banks and hedge funds get away with being predatory — why shouldn’t I? If the super rich became the ultra rich by being predatory — why shouldn’t I? If only the strong survive, and “strong” means amoral, cunning, ruthless, selfish, greedy to the point of absurdity — while the weak perish — then why would I want to be anything but one of the strong?
American attitudes changed. In the 60s and 70s, America was a pretty progressive place. Civil rights happened. Wars were protested. Equality for woman and minorities became partial realities. But from the 80s, through the 90s, well into the 2000s, decency imploded. By the 2010s, the average American — feeling hopeless, powerless, and traumatized, remember — was at the end of his or her rope. Even if he or she wanted to be a good person — what was the point? All it did was leave you broke, alone, and ruined. Following the rules was for suckers. The predators always won. Bang! Implosion.
That attitude — if the predators always win, why not be a predator — is the fundamental shift in mindset, in emotions, in thinking, that always accompanies fascist-authoritarian collapses. America’s was no different. Let me put that more simply.
A democracy can hardly endure when enough people say to themselves, in scorn, in disgust, in rage, in fury, “The predators always win! The strong survive, and the weak perish! I’m sick of being a loser, a nobody! But what can I do? Ah — I know — I must become a predator, too. I must be one of the strong — the ones who are willing to hurt and harm and do violence. Then I might be someone! I might be worth something!”
That is exactly what happened in America. The wave of Trumpism is stark evidence of how American attitudes shifted in response to a fatally broken economy, a downwardly mobile society, and a culture of individualist materialism. All these left people severely wounded psychically. Unable to think — even if they still knew how, reared on a diet of lowest-common-denominator trash TV and junk culture. And they offered no salves for people’s pain — they only rubbed their distress and trauma in their very own faces. What was the inevitable outcome going to be? Wham! The descent into the abyss of demagoguery, as democracy died.
American collapse holds many lessons. But to my mind one of the most crucial is this. Democracy is a living, breathing thing — and all living things needs nourishment. Just like a tree, democracy must be watered, if it is to stand, grow, endure, reach for the sky. What waters democracy? Decency, reason, sanity. But these things do not come easy, they don’t come cheap, they don’t happen by themselves. A society must invest in them.
In concrete, tangible ways. With good education. With good culture. With mental healthcare. With laws and rules and codes, free and fair, to prevent real and lasting harm. With institutions which respect people as beings of inherent worth. By keeping a firm lid on inequality and injustice — so the attitude of predation doesn’t prevail. In many, many ways is the tree democracy watered with decency, reason, and sanity.
But America didn’t water its democracy. It didn’t invest in reason, sanity, and decency. It didn’t, for example, give everyone a free world-class college education, build better schools, make sure everyone had mental healthcare (let alone any healthcare), treat its own people with respect and dignity, build public media instead of Faux News, and so on. America’s sanity, reason, and decency dwindled — until today, when the world looks on, staggered, laughing, wondering: do they exist at all anymore? And thus it let the waters that should have nourished democracy become something like a billionaire’s fountain — pointless, useless, a decoration that signals who won, and who lost…a futile game. The tree of democracy withered. It shrank. It dried up in the desert sun.
Does it have life left in it yet? Perhaps, perhaps. But to resuscitate it, my friends, let us remember the lesson. Democracy is nourished by reason, sanity, and decency. And if we are to renew American democracy, then it’s those things we must invest in — like we’ve never invested before. And that, my friends, simply means giving them to one another.
May 1 2019