After the National Democratic Convention was over, Donald Trump called it “horrible” and “depressing,” that it was the most depressing thing he’d ever seen. By now, Trump is well known for his hyperbole, which is one of the outstanding and most obvious symptoms of his binary mindset, lacking an ability to intellectually entertain complexity and paradox in the nature of things – which arguably is the nature of things.
I would call him a “limbic thinker,” one whose reasoning is driven by emotion (processed in the more primitive limbic system of our brain), whose worldview is charged by dualism, conflict, and division.
Soon after Trump took the Whitehouse I made the declaration that capitalism had won a decisive victory over democracy – the twin seedbed traditions wrapped around each other in the double-helix of American DNA. Since its beginnings, the American experiment has been this Yang of individual prosperity, private property, and self-interest, pulling against the Yin of communal wellbeing, equal rights, and engaged altruism – capitalism versus democracy, an economic ideology against a political one. For most of our history their dynamic balance has shifted to one side or the other of center.
But with Trump’s election, capitalism and its associated values wrested executive control from this delicate balance of powers.
If we were to regard America as a corporate individual, then the “What’s in it for me?” of our emotional Inner Child took control from our adult Higher Self which honors the obvious fact that “We are all in this together.” If this self-interested impulse had earlier been managed by the ideals and responsibilities of shared governance, under a president whose Inner Child is in charge the tense yet creative balance of these very different ideologies finally snapped.
America itself collapsed from a more cerebral capacity for holding the paradox of alternative visions, to a limbic intolerance for compromise and an apocalyptic urgency to push “the other” out of the circle.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the consequences. Life in adult community requires mutual respect, dialogue, deep listening, cooperation, and working for solutions that benefit both sides and have the wellbeing of everyone in mind. And when these more mature commitments are put offline, what should we expect? Nested ecosystems that thrive only by virtue of their diversity have been steadily undermined and hijacked by primitive (and childish) cravings for a simpler and presumably safer world of one kind, one color, one creed.
To Trump, Joe Biden’s dream of light, hope, and love is nothing but a nightmare. It’s like putting a child in a room of adults who are sharing different perspectives, challenging each other’s views, digging for common ground, and reaching beyond their respective beliefs for a bigger vision that includes everyone. The child’s this-or-that, either-or, all-or-nothing emotional (limbic) processor would be quickly overwhelmed, prompting either his retreat into private fantasy or a disruptive outburst that might hope to break the unbearable tension and resolve his anxiety.
The long debate between American democracy and American capitalism is a lot like that room of adults where the values of communal life and individual freedom, the greater good and personal happiness, a transgenerational longview and the more nearsighted aspirations of a single lifetime are exchanged over biscuits and tea or glasses of wine. Each side has its convictions and misunderstandings, but their shared responsibility to a peaceful coexistence keeps them open to each other and searching for a balance they can not only live with but also live for.
If there’s a secret to American democracy, it’s that our leaders have been mature enough (with exceptions) to hold as sacred the ideals of a perfect union and the unalienable rights of the individual, of our need for community and our obsessions with identity. These are obviously not just saying the same thing in two different ways, but are rather saying two very different things that can be complementary despite pulling in opposite directions.
American democracy is our commitment to the work of managing their balance.
Instead of conceptualizing democracy and capitalism in absolute terms, as entering the arena (or courtroom) from opposite and independent sides, we should better see them as conceptual abstractions from a shared continuum of interdependence.
The fact is, they don’t – and can’t – work without each other, and their respective visions of life are unrealizable apart from the counterbalance each carries in the conversation. Communal wellbeing and individual properity are the inextricably deep principles whose opposition is the matrix of every ecosystem, in both cultural and natural realms.
Take away the individual’s drive for self-improvement and competitive success, and you will cut the fuse of healthy community. Equally, yet oppositely, if you remove the social constraints and transpersonal ideals of community, those very standards of improvement and success will cease to matter, and the “victorious” individual will sink into a despairing isolation.
It is possible to stand out so far above the rest that you are all alone, just as you can hide inside a relationship and never find your true self.
If there’s a chance for democracy this November, it won’t be by casting aside self-interest – and casting Donald Trump out of the Whitehouse – but by redrawing the boundary that defines our sense of self. When Trump and our Inner Child feel threatened by the otherness of others (i.e., what we don’t identify with and can’t understand), we tend to push them away and put up a wall.
If you happen to be rich and can afford a wall, then good for you. Just know that it won’t be good for you for very long.
As we’ve been challenged to do over and over again in the history of our nation, we also have a more adult option, one that involves expanding our horizon of identity and definition of self so as to include the other – even the otherness of others. We’re not just Americans: Democrats or Republicans, capitalists or communitarians, white, black or brown. We are human beings and siblings of one family. We share this planet in a web of life with countless cousins, suspended together for a brief interval of time between a common ancestor and our own imagined descendents.
So we gave it a shot. For four long years we stepped aside as adults and let the Inner Child take over. Now it’s time to get back in the game, straighten up the place, and restart the dialogue.