Cognitive Policy Works February 21 2013
If I had to pick one word to describe the political culture of the United States, I would call it unwell.
Throughout the last several decades — the entirety of adult political life for most active citizens — we have been plagued with lies and deceit, anger and betrayal, a toxic polarization that has rotted us to the core. Our civic body (metaphorically speaking) has Stage 4 cancer that has spread through our bones and infects all our soft tissues.
An honest doctor would tell us that our lifestyle is killing us. Time is of the essence if we are to intervene and restore health to the Land of the Brave and Home of the Free. Not only must we deal with violent rampages of gun violence, profound levels of money corruption in our governing institutions, and myriad economic woes, but we have to do so in the midst of global-scale climate disruptions, resource scarcity, viral diseases that know no bounds, ongoing threats of terrorist attacks, and all of the other systemic vulnerabilities that come with living in a globalized world.
The question that lurks unasked in America is this: Can we heal our political sickness before it’s too late? Is it even possible to recover from the post traumatic stress that now cripples so many among us?
This is a vital question indeed, for not only must the United States get its house in order for the health and well-being of our people, but we need to step up and fill the global leadership vacuum left empty by decades of short-sighted self-interest and national greed. The world has looked to us for a moral vision and we have delivered to them a nightmare of perpetual war, economic conquest, and financial collapse. Clearly much more is at stake here than our reputation in the world.
So let’s look at this question through the eyes of a family therapist. She would tell us that the foundation for emotional health comes from having strong bonds of support from our caregivers early in life. This attachment theory of psychological resilience is one of the most robust findings in all of 20th Century behavioral research. It tells us that children who receive consistent care and attention will have the core competencies necessary as adults to ride through hardship when it arises.
Perhaps she would employ the highly successful therapeutic technique of cognitive behavioral therapy to help us deconstruct those stories of ourselves that perpetuate harm and focus on goals that enable us to recast ourselves in new identities that build on our natural strengths. This would help us see how the cultural mythologies of rugged individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and self-marginalization only reinforce our stories of victimhood and do little to break the cycle of pain that keeps us mired in harmful relationships.
She would also look for signs of chronic stress to help us deal better with the very real anxiety we carry around with us after a lifetime of bullying, name calling, and social violence that too many of us have been exposed to. This would help us to acknowledge the pain others around us feel and release our anger toward those ghosts that haunt us from our pain-ridden past — a kind of “truth and reconciliation” process of letting go and looking to the future.
But of course, none of this is happening now. Instead we remain mired in a political system that continually denies the basic truth that we are and have always been a nation Governed by the People, of the People, and for the People. This truth is masked in the lies of media pundits who tell us not to trust our representatives. It is hidden by the very real corruption that we allowed to happen on our watch. Yet it is still there for anyone to see, if only we would trust in our collective power to alter our government as we see fit.
I am always struck by the gap in awareness between obvious forms of corruption on the one hand (the Citizens United ruling from the Supreme Court that gives free reign for corporations to influence elections being a clear-cut example), and the legal protections on the other that we have as citizens to introduce amendments to our state and national constitutions. For example, we could cast down corporate personhood with the strike of a pen by mobilizing a national referendum to update our US Constitution. The same could be said for clean elections, universal health care, a price signal for carbon emissions, and any of several other strategic initiatives that would carry the United States fully into the 21st Century.
We have become political “battered wives” who remain in a violent marriage to stories of powerlessness and self-blame. If only we would face our secret fears in order to take a stand for personal dignity, pack our bags, get the kids in the car, and drive to our mother’s house. Acts like this always feel impossible until we do them. The same is true for healing our body politic.
The truth of the matter is that our world IS filled with threats, many of them of our own making. If we fail to act in time our world will become so turbulent and change so quickly that the very fabric of civilization could be torn apart in our lifetimes. That is what global warming is really about… and it is scary as hell.
So let’s begin our walk together down the road of healing and discover those stories that have been kept hidden as whispered dreams of a better tomorrow, give them voice, and sing in a great choir of reunion. The last time our national Union was threatened it was the economic violence of slavery that threatened us and a great Civil War ensued. We came through stronger and better after that trial of moral character than any at the time dared to believe. The same can be said of what we are going through today.
Nothing less than the sacred soul of America is at stake here. Either we dig deep within ourselves and find the resolve to rise above the tides. Or we drown in the misery of our self-loathing.
I for one stand in the light of humanity and step firmly apart from the shadows. What will you do?