America’s Democracy in an Era of Collapse

I worked on a new parable this week, one I think you will like. But not discussing the elephant in the room (you know, the one who should be leaving) felt disingenuous. And yes, I know we still don’t yet know exactly what will happen. When I started writing this earlier in the week I imagined far worse scenarios. That Donald J. Trump would end up winning the Electoral College, either outright, via recounts, a Supreme Court intervention, or even the defection of some Electors. Now, I’m less worried about that, but do still worry that his continuing anger and rejection of long-standing norms. (As of Monday morning he has yet to acknowledge Joe Biden as winner, nor have lead Republicans, and instead retweeted some Fox News clips that suggest he will fight on.) And I worry that Trump will sow such civil unrest (either now or over the next four years) that America’s fracturing democracy is potentially shattered. But the bigger underlying question that I’m grappling with and continues to bother me is Considering how much is at stake, why was this even close?

A liar—or more correctly a bullshitter (that is a philosophical term meaning: one who doesn’t care if the words coming out of his mouth and mind are lies or not)—has served as President of the United States for the past four years. This person holds science and Earth’s laws in utter contempt. He rolled back years of energy rules, advocated for coal, withdrew from the Paris agreement, either not believing in or more likely not caring about the horrific impacts climate change will wreak around the world (including red states like Florida and his own beach-front properties).

Donald Trump also exacerbated the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu. Even while knowing how dangerous COVID-19 is—acknowledging its severity in conversations with journalist Bob Woodward—he downplayed it and politicized the most effective defense against it (the simple mask) and because of this, now has the blood of tens of thousands of Americans on his hands (and possibly hundreds of thousands as the pandemic marches on). 

Notice any similarities in the shading of these two maps?

He has increased income inequality (even before COVID). He has, through his words and his deeds, sparked racism and xenophobia. And he has acted in such deeply corrupt and ignorant ways that he made the United States a laughing stock in the world. Thank goodness that more people voted for Biden than not (though for days it was looking like he might lose anyway because of where people who voted for him vs. Trump lived). But why was this race even close?

The fact that it was close suggests a deep failing of America. What specifically? The election system? The educational system (one that fails to teach the basics of biology and environmental science, let alone civics and moral education)? The media/social media/propaganda system (one that can surround you with information that only reinforces your view and demonizes the other side—including a record $6.6 billion in presidential advertising this year)? Heck, even the food system (one that has fed two generations primarily on corn and sugar and has contributed to our collective cognitive and physical decline)? There’s plenty of blame to be shared.

The easiest course would be to simply blame the madness on the Electoral College. The fact that each state race is decided separately even when the popular vote reflects a different result is a deep failure of our democratic system and if we didn’t have a broken democracy should be the first order of business for Congress to correct. (With the second, perhaps, being to fix the rules of our Congress that make it so dysfunctional.)

But this doesn’t change the fact that nearly half of Americans still chose a man who has no respect for the Earth, for women, for immigrants (or the children his administration detained), for veterans, perhaps for anything but money and power. I don’t want to draw a two-dimensional villain but it’s hard at this point to see him any other way (reinforced even in the way he loses).

A Trump rally in Evansville, Indiana in 2018 (photo by raschau)

Don’t get me wrong. I get that the bold persona of Trump, the rallies, which have been compared to America’s second great Awakening, and his speech-style combined with grandiose promises attracted many. Like the wealthy. And those tired of the ways of Washington. And those who don’t feel heard. And those who fear immigrants and the other. And those who care so deeply about the rights of a fetus that nothing else matters (even if they have less passion for the lives of children after they’re born or their mothers’ health or their communities’ health). But nearly half the country?

And let’s not forget, this wasn’t an election between a socialist and a capitalist (regardless of what the propaganda said). Biden is not going to do anything all that radical—even if he could (which he can’t because the Senate will probably remain with the Republicans or at best closely split). Sure, he’ll re-enter the Paris Agreement (actually, on day one), maybe even pass some watered-down climate bill that the Republicans can milk for a bunch of concessions and bash him with during the next election cycle. Obamacare will live to see another day as will some reinstated environmental rules. But with the pandemic and its fallout a priority (and probably remaining so for most of his presidency), Biden will at best repair some percentage of the damage Trump did (but not to American democracy or America’s standing in the world, as the world now knows that if America can elect this type of person once, they can do so again).

And as Biden will be trying to govern all Americans (instead of just conservative America as Trump did), any of Biden’s policy successes will be moderate. So when the next Republican wins, he (yes, almost surely a male and most likely a “Trumpian”) will unwind that modest progress again. And needless to say, Biden absolutely won’t intentionally move us away from economic growth and start the truth and reconciliation process that all countries need to initiate with Gaia in order to reconcile with the living planet they’ve long abused, the one that supports all people and life.

That means that no matter what reforms are put into place, we’re at an impasse. The Earth warms, our window to proactively lessen this pain slams closed, and the country radicalizes more and turns toward authoritarians as things get more frightening—as fires rage; storms churn; immigrants come, fleeing the disruptions in their own countries; and our economy wobbles as we try to balance preventing the spread of COVID (and other diseases—novel or just neglected) with our ever-prioritized pursuit of growth and profit.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

This is the point in the essay where I’m supposed to say something uplifting and inspiring. But I don’t see much positive on the horizon. I do, however, think the Gaian Way offers some bit of guidance. Disruptions certainly are coming—whether due to the continuing medical, social, and economic fallout of COVID, or on a longer timeline, the sweeping effects of climate change. One can prepare for this now, not just by creating a non-perishable food reserve in your pantry, or by expanding your garden (both of which are good to do), but by building community, cultivating a mutual aid network, and engaging locally in social and environmental efforts.

And one can prepare mentally by cultivating a meditation practice. I recently found a study that explored the downsides of meditation. What was funny was that several of the “adverse effects” the study listed might have actually been positives: reductions in attachment, reductions in motivation (both toward activities previously enjoyed and toward life goals), changes in worldview, and reduced social integration. Those certainly sound disconcerting, but perhaps, in the context of the philosophy they’re rooted in, they are actually positive. If a Buddhist practitioner meditates on non-attachment (and the participants were of that persuasion) it would make sense if these types of mental shifts happen. If meditation can help recondition our minds away from obsessing over our stuff, our social media posts, and keeping up with the Joneses, perhaps that’s what accounts for these ‘adverse effects.’ As one expands awareness and consciousness, perhaps one’s friend cohort—still obsessed with home additions and buying bigger boats—becomes less aligned with one’s new shifted perspective. And I’d add, that as Earth-centric meditations connect us more deeply with Gaia, these even more so might disconnect us from the mainstream consumer culture—while also serving as a healthy way to manage stress in this difficult transition.*

But we also cannot wash our hands of the national mess our country has become. Richard Heinberg wrote an essay a while back mediating the perspectives between Extinction Rebellion and Deep Adaptation. Should we fight tooth and nail to implement a serious response to climate change: reining in fossil fuels, building a modest renewable energy infrastructure, shifting agricultural systems, protecting and replanting forests, and so on. Or should we recognize that the shift to a hot state has already been locked in, and start preparing for the great die off? Yes. And yes. Both. Both need to happen. It doesn’t matter which you choose. As long as you choose something. Protest every Friday for the climate with your children in front of your town hall. Become a nuclear guardian and prepare future generations to avoid the scars that our nuclear age has produced. Blockade bridges and disrupt DC until a real climate bill is passed. Grow a local Gaian Guild, where you come together with others to meditate, do community service activities, develop a local Earth Scouts, draw others into a low consumption resilient way of life, and support each other as you live as reciprocally with Gaia as possible.

We live in a disempowering culture, in a deeply disempowering moment in time: a moment where we’ve already stepped off the cliff and are unsure whether we can spin around and hang on by roots or if we should just try to make the fall survivable (it’s unclear what exactly is below us). But that means you should recognize your own agency. That with the life energy you have, while temporarily differentiated from the Gaian whole, you can do something good, something bad, or nothing at all. Which path will you choose?

*Two asides: First, it’d be interesting if the study, now four years old, did a follow-up with its subjects. Were the negative effects transitory? Did they form new social connections and sources of meaning? Or adapt to being less attached? Second, another great benefit of meditation is that it can have little or even no ecological impact and displace those activities that have impact—whether consuming food (anxiety eating), movies, or other forms of leisure. Group forest meditation will have some impacts, considering most will need to travel to get there. But if you’re simply meditating in your yard or a park within walking distance from your house, meditation is one of the lowest impact things you can do.

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  1. Bart Everson

    The mutual aid network is the piece is where I feel the weakest. Any pointers on that at some point in the future would be most welcome. Gratitude as always for your thoughtful reflections.

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