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Looking Ahead to 2022: Thoughts on the State of Our Democracy

Looking Ahead to 2022: Thoughts on the State of Our Democracy
By Dr. Karyne Messina  • Issue #10 • View online
I hope this newsletter finds you healthy and safe while embracing the New Year with optimism despite the multiple profound challenges we face.
As individuals and as a collective, we are worn down by relentless surges in the pandemic, extreme and unsettling weather that keeps climate crisis and injustice at the forefront of our minds, and last but not least, a very real threat to American democracy. Assumptions we once took for granted: the relative health of our fellow citizens, even though we have so far to go to eliminate inequities; our seasonal weather with survivable storms; and our American rights and freedoms—particularly at the intersection of gender and racial identities—as I write, all are under threat.
If you or members of your family feel at times overwhelmed by the anxiety and grief that are quite rational responses to the situation, you are not crazy–you are paying attention. And you are definitely not alone. As recently reported in The New York Times, members of my own profession are struggling with burnout: “Social workers, psychologists, and counselors … say they can’t keep up with an unrelenting demand for their services, and many must turn away patients–including children–who are desperate for support.”

Wounds remain raw a year after violence at the U.S. Capitol
I wrote my 2020 book Aftermath with the awareness that former President Trump had, over his campaign and four years of his administration, created a national environment of corruption, distrust, and polarization from which we desperately needed to heal. I identified and described his pathology and outlined ways to confront and recover from his narcissistic blame-shifting. There was no way at the time that I could have predicted that his abhorrent disregard for the norms of democracy would lead him to provoke an insurrection at our Capitol as well as an undying stranglehold on one of our two major political parties. 
Although President Biden and his administration have restored normalcy to governance, supporters of the former president are now advancing strategies to destabilize future elections and shamelessly demolish 200-plus years of election integrity and the rule of law. As a result, we had no time to process the trauma of the Trump years, while our psyches continue to be as battered as were the bodies of the Capitol and Washington D.C. Metropolitan police on January 6, 2021. 
It is exhausting, but we cannot look away. Democracy at its best is a work in progress; it needs our support now as much as we need support from one another. Just as we would not ignore a friend or family member in need of bolstering, neither can we neglect the system that enables us to live as free-thinking citizens of an imperfect but aspirational union. Yet we must also protect our mental health while answering what our times demand. 
Remember to honor yourself with self care. It is healing to spend time in nature (“nature bathing”!), with loved ones, in meditation, and with our tribes–those who agree with our political views and share our anxieties about the future. 
However, as those suffering from eco-anxiety have learned, taking action is also therapeutic. it provides us a rowboat of agency in what can feel like a flood of helplessness. Joanna Macy writes in Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In without Going Crazy that we would do well to “broaden our definition of activism.” When it comes to politics, just establishing connection with those on the other side of the divide is activism: it can begin a healing process. Conversing amicably and compassionately with those who think differently can accomplish more than it might appear on the surface.
Communities defy the divide: Better Angels, Braver Angels
We are not enemies, but friends … Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. – President Abraham Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address 
For meaningful, productive dialogue about issues, try participating in a group that provides scaffolding. Trained facilitators keep the experience not only safe but also enriching. I joined a group called Braver Angels–originally called “Better Angels”–to work toward common ground with those holding opposing political views. I chronicled my initiation experience for the Baltimore Sun this summer.
A few of Better Angels’s statements that help in their mission include: 
  • We state our views freely and fully, without fear.
  • We welcome opportunities to engage with those with whom we disagree.
  • We treat people who disagree with us with honesty and respect.
  • We seek to disagree accurately, avoiding exaggeration and stereotypes.
  • We look for common ground where it exists, and if possible, find ways to work together.
  • We believe that all of us have blind spots and none of us is not worth talking to.
  • We believe that, in disagreements, both sides share and learn. In Braver Angels, neither side is teaching the other or giving feedback on how to think or say things differently.
On the individual, quotidian level, in our neighborhoods and in our extended families, one of the best approaches is a proven practice in business management: ask good questions. Rather than avoiding tough issues, inquire authentically about the other’s point of view and reasoning for arriving at it. Pass no judgment, but ask, as a true reporter would, “What? How? Why?” Then listen actively. It’s a natural human desire to be seen and heard. Whereas a positive outcome is not guaranteed, you will have achieved something extraordinary. As author of Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World David Gershon states, “Whenever we bring the desire for the world’s healing out into the open … we help others do this, too. The power of example is contagious.”
We need our communities, and they need us. In addition, resilient communities are key to living in times of climate emergencies, so building them is proactive on multiple fronts. Indeed, bravely and compassionately establishing “bonds of affection” is a true act of patriotism about which you can feel pride–a gratifying emotion and one that is a valuable commodity in these hypercritical times.
The below is a passage from the conclusion of my book Aftermath, and despite a year of ongoing propaganda in the right-wing media and political warfare by Republican malefactors, I stand by these words: 
[T]he country has a lot of work to do going forward. Not just in saving democracy, but also in saving our children, our planet, and ourselves, for it is impossible to flourish in the state of anxiety and distrust that has prevailed over the last four years, and which was simmering earlier than that. 
Things may seem irrecoverable. But this is not necessarily how the future needs to unfold. If we can learn to work together in more productive ways without recklessly casting aspersions on others with whom we have disagreements, a different and better American can emerge.
What is of paramount importance is the idea that we must not give up. As psychologist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wrote, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
And on January 6, 2022, although President Biden finally called out Trump for provoking the insurrection and subsequent efforts to undermine democracy, he also urged Americans to come together to defend it, “to keep the promise of America alive.” 
Biden concluded by emphasizing his conviction that regardless of differences, any two people can connect, as well as his faith that, “we’re one nation, under God, indivisible.” No matter how you feel about the word “God,” I too have faith that if we commit to building community with patience and grace, we can both secure Biden’s vision and work toward progress in the existential crisis every one of us cares about: preserving a livable climate for the next generations. 
And Speaking of Troubled Democracies...
As a political phenomenon, populism defies easy definition because the concept encompasses various political movements throughout the world that appear to have few similarities. Though populism in some form or another has existed since ancient Greece was a thriving country, the term as it is now employed hails from the nineteenth century. Today, strongmen capitalize on a long-standing sentiment of exclusion—the “sovereign people” against duly elected government officials and the so-called elite.
Some populist leaders attempt and sometimes succeed in deconstructing democracies, forming a new power structure based on paranoid authoritarianism.
Populism is potent and in recent years has become an ever-greater threat to our democracy and to governments abroad. I believe that the most virulent–some might argue the most successful–populists employ splitting and projective identification to achieve their goals.
As such, this summer, Routledge is publishing my book entitled Resurgence of Global Populism: A Psychoanalytic Study of Blame-Shifting (or PI) and the Corruption of Democracy. In this book I examine countries where a new brand of populism fuses the time-tested dictum of the people against the elite with contributions from Trumpian populism. Additionally, one of my concerns with this project was answering the question of whether global democracy is in crisis. The answer, sadly, is yes. Democracies, especially fragile ones—Tunisia comes readily to mind—are teetering, and my thesis that charismatic, democratically elected leaders use projective identification to manipulate their citizens and consolidate power is often a breath away from becoming authoritarian. I hope that the examples in this book serve as a kind of warning to those who may be tempted to take their democratic freedoms as absolutes. 
“Ich Lebe Mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen” (I live in widening circles)
by Rainer Maria Rilke (Austrian, 1875-1926), in Book of Hours. Translated by Joanna Macy.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song? 
Green Briefs
No One is Coming to Save Us From the “Dagger at the Throat of America,” Richard L. Hasan, author of several books about elections and democracy. In 2020, Hasan proposed a 28th Amendment to the Constitution to defend and expand voting rights.
“We must not succumb to despair or indifference. It won’t be easy, but there is a path forward if we begin acting now, together, to shore up our fragile election ecosystem.”
Warmth, Daniel Sherrell, 2021 New Yorker Best Books of 2021, Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2021.
Daniel Sherrell is a climate movement organizer who has led successful campaigns to phase out coal-fired power plants, divest millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry, and pass a Green New Deal bill for New York State. He is currently Campaign Director for the Climate Jobs National Resource Center. 
The Work that Reconnects, workshops (and reading) from Joanna Macy, PhD. Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking, and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with learnings from six decades of activism. In her work, she explores the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and postmodern science. As the root teacher of The Work That Reconnects, Joanna has created a ground-breaking framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.
All We Can Save circles, created by Dr. Katharine Wilkinson. “Are you hungry for deeper dialogue about the climate crisis and building community around solutions? We are too. That’s why we created All We Can Save Circles — like a book club, but a cooler, deeper, extended version. Let’s strengthen the ‘we’ in All We Can Save.
Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops, five short films narrated by Richard Gere. “I highly recommend you to [sic] watch these five very educational short films on feedback loops.” – Greta Thunberg 
For a bit of star-studded dark humor and climate allegory that set records this month on Netflix: Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay, 2022. Reviewed in The New Yorker here.
Podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett, “Shelter for Heart and Mind,” Interview with Sharon Salzberg, Meditation teacher and author
Did you enjoy this issue?
Dr. Karyne Messina

This newsletter will explore theories based on psychoanalysis and promote the development of the mind and human relationships while also advancing scholarly and social progress.

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