Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Our Society in Danger

Recently, two new books that explain the danger the Trump presidency poses to the survival of our democracy have attracted much attention:  Trumped Up: How Criminalization of Political Differences Endangers Democracy, and Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump.  Briefly stated, the first argues that the large polar-opposite groups that have developed in response to Trump have weakened the balanced middle upon which our democracy depends.  The second argues that when a narcissist is in charge, his demands will be mirrored by the people and in part draws on the narcissism already present in the people.  Since narcissism is about demanding acclaim and obedience and refusing to be challenged, while disregarding others, democracy suffers.

Neither book, however, discusses a fundamental change that is occurring in our society that abets both the polarization of increasing numbers of our citizens and the increase in narcissism in the general population.  That change is the evolution from a society that at least preached the ideal of selflessness to one in which self-centeredness is, if not the ideal, certainly the prevalent norm and socially acceptable. 

I would not be so foolish as to claim that at some point in the past the United States, or any country, was one where the concept of selflessness ruled and was the norm in practice.  It is the nature of human development, based is it is on learned insecurity, to provide fertile soil for the self-centeredness of the ego to thrive.  

That said, however, the leadership of this country, both political and religious, has for most of our history sent out a clear message that the ideal was to have concern for our fellow man, to view ourselves as part of a community with citizenship bringing responsibilities as well as rights, to be selfless.  Selfless does not mean to not act for one’s own benefit, but rather to not act solely for one’s own benefit, to be aware of the impact one’s actions have on others.

The Declaration of Independence, our founding document, states that each person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Which means that if you exercise your right in a way which infringes on my right, there’s a problem, and so one must be selfless in the sense I have described.  

The Constitution together with its Amendments in many ways furthers this concept of the rights of all within the context of a community.  Perhaps the most direct expression of responsibility for our fellow citizens is the Income Tax which was authorized by the 16th Amendment.  This Amendment codified the aspect of the American social contract that holds that all citizens are responsible for contributing to the greater good, each according to his/her ability.

Beginning in the early 20th century, during the era of Republican Progressive leadership, government began enacting laws and regulations which basically said that the rich and powerful, namely large corporations, had to include consideration for their workers, their customers, and the general public in the way business was conducted.  It was no longer acceptable to have the sole perspective of making as much money as possible.  Business had a social responsibility; it was part of the American social contract.

One of the most well-known examples of this message of selflessness was JFK’s statement in his Inaugural Address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  This was not, as is sometimes thought, a turning point but a reaffirmation of the highest ideals of our American democracy.

The turning point, however, in the road from selflessness to self-centeredness came with the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  In his campaign, he asked the simple question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago.”  Now people have always, as the saying goes, voted their pocketbook.  But asking this question crystalized all the issues down to one simple thing … how am I doing.

Then came his inaugural pronouncement that “government is not the solution; it is the problem.”  He felt that everyone was quite capable of running their own lives and doing well on their own.

Well, as we know from our past and the past of all civilizations, if you leave it up to the individual, the result will be self-centeredness and a significant proportion of the populace will not do well.  Only the moral authority of religion and government has been able to somewhat curb that tendency and bring people, whether whole-heartedly or begrudgingly, to accept their broader responsibility.

He stated that “we the people” are the solution, not the “elite” who run government.  That, however, was in truth more a criticism of the political parties than the concept of government.  If government is not currently an expression of  “we the people,” or in Lincoln’s terms “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and I totally agree that it is not, the answer is not to tear down government but to reinvigorate it.

In the years since Reagan, the self-centeredness of individuals in our society has only increased.  To a large extent, that increase has been caused by the compulsive use of technology (computers, smartphones, social media) by people and their resulting tendency to not connect with the broader society or even a more immediate one, such as family.

The advent of Donald Trump has brought all these tendencies to a crisis point.  So that the relevant question truly is:  how can our democracy not just survive but thrive again?  The answer is through leadership, political and otherwise, that has moral authority.  The American people are good people, but like all humans their better tendencies need to be fostered rather than their baser instincts.