A marriage counselor friend once told me that he almost always knows by the end of the very first session whether he’s being hired to guide a damaged couple back to health, or to help them work toward a divorce — even when the couple doesn’t know the answer to this question themselves.
It’s easy to see, he explained. The relationship’s future success or failure all hinges on one simple thing: How much goodwill and trust they have left. Even if they’ve hurt each other badly, the couples who make it are the ones that still retain a few shreds of faith in each other’s basic good intentions. She didn’t mean to hurt me. He’s not always a bastard. Deep down, she still loves me. Deep down, he really wants things to be better.
These couples are still seeing same future together, and still cling to the tattered memories of why they first fell in love. Just a few frayed threads of trust are all that’s needed — if they’ve got that, the odds are high that with time and work, they can re-weave the fabric of the marriage into something that’s once again strong and good.
On the other hand, the tell-tale sign of a zombie marriage — one that’s already dead, even if the parties involved haven’t yet confronted that fact — is that one or both partners have already given up and checked out. The trust is broken, the dream shattered, the damage just too much to ever repair. Things have been said and done that can’t ever be unsaid or undone. There’s so much bad history that there’s no way a mere human heart can ever forgive it all. It’s so far gone that pain and rage are all that remain — and the longer they stay together, the more brutal it’s likely to get.
If, as George Lakoff says, we tend to think of the nation as a family, then my friend’s approach for identifying salvageable marriages may apply just as well to salvaging our democracy. Because, like all marriages, all democratic governments are founded — first and foremost, above all else — on an essential bedrock of trust and shared vision. We need to trust that our fellow citizens are decent people with good intentions. If we don’t have even that much basic confidence in each other, there’s no way that we can work together to build a society that works. In fact, there’s not really even a reason to try.
Seen this way, “America” is the family name for the 310 million of us bonded together in a covenant that’s very much like the commitment that forms a family. We have come together to build our common wealth, create opportunities for each other that will secure our shared future, raise our children, care for our elderly, protect our assets, look after each other in sickness and in health, and wisely tend our national house and manage our gathered resources so we can hand the increase proudly off to the next generation.
And, like a family, this is a commitment that is entirely grounded in mutual trust — a bone-deep knowledge that we will keep faith and be there for each other; that we will look out for each others’ rights, property, and kids; that we will generously give the family our best whenever possible; and that we also rely on it to be there for us when we need help. For better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness or health, we promise to be there for each other. The true strength and wealth of the country begins with the strength of that commitment.
We cannot do this kind of mutual self-governance well — indeed, we cannot do it at all — unless we fundamentally trust each other’s good intentions and devotion to our shared enterprise. We may disagree on the means, but we share the same vision about what the ends should be. And just like in a marriage, when that trust is damaged, our future viability as a nation becomes a wide-open question.
This is a scary thought, because right now, America is riven by two very different visions of the future, held by two partners who obviously have radically different visions about where we should be going.
On one hand, you’ve got most of the country — center-right, center, center-left, and progressive — which sees us as a family in trouble, but which also believes that if we return to our bedrock agreements, focus on solving our shared problems and fall back on our basic goodwill and common sense, we should be able to sort things out. This is the two-thirds of America that poll after poll shows is ready to move forward on issues like economic transformation, inequality, corruption and corporate overreach, climate change and energy policy, and remaking our infrastructure. There’s a sense that, even though the challenges are big, we can solve them if we can come together, treat each other decently, reaffirm our commitment to the future, and force the democratic process to work again.
On the other hand, there’s another group that has entirely checked out on us, and turned ugly and abusive. The conservative minority is acting like Lakoff’s canonical Strict Father scorned: When the family rejects his leadership and his attempts at authoritarian contol, he sinks into a punitive, bullying rage, lashing out at the rest of us for what he’s come to believe is irredeemable broken faith because we won’t let him be the boss. By his behavior, he is telling us in no uncertain terms that he wants a scorched-earth divorce — the kind that leaves the rest of us broke, ruined, miserable, and utterly at his mercy. He has gone so far as to hire batteries of lawyers and lobbyists to accomplish this, and is taking a bully’s evident glee in his success.
What Democracy Abuse Looks Like
Here are a few broad-brush examples of how this screw-you attitude toward the idea of a balanced, strong, cooperative American family is playing out right now:
Most conservatives now openly reject the very idea of democracy. Whether it’s corporatists seeking to own every branch of government and privatize every public institution, security and intelligence types cracking down on our civil liberties, or Christian nationalists out to turn the country into a theocracy, conservatives are increasingly united by the conviction that Americans cannot be trusted to govern ourselves.
According to Dave Johnson, if you really want to understand just how hostile conservatives are to the very idea of democracy, and how debased their discourse has become on the subject, just take some of their favorite sayings and substitute the word “government” with either “democracy” or “we, the people.”
So: “government is the problem, not the solution” becomes “democracy is the problem” — or, perhaps worse: “we, the people are the problem.” Likewise: “smaller government” becomes “smaller democracy” and a smaller role for we, the people. The idea that “government destroys liberty” is clearly code for “democracy destroys liberty.” And so on. (It’s a great game you can play at home — fun for the whole family!)
Along these same lines — and despite the conspicuous way the Tea Party fetishizes the Constitution — it’s increasingly evident that the future they have in mind very explicitly does not include the Bill of Rights, a people’s Congress, the ability to petition our government, or the right to appeal to the courts for redress. I don’t have to enumerate the violations on this front, but I do encourage progressives to start seeing these assaults on our rights as clear evidence that our opponents fundamentally do not trust democracy, and are very deliberately out to destroy the constitutional rules that ours runs on.
They also don’t trust diversity in any form. They’re actively hostile to the idea of E pluribus unum — out of the many, one. Anybody who’s not white, straight, Christian, conservative, and male is inherently not-American. And the only acceptable function of government is to keep those Others — both here, and abroad — firmly in their place. The nightly news is full of fresh assaults on the rights of those who don’t fit their narrow definition of Real Americans.
They have embraced bullying as a political strategy and an acceptable cultural norm, which has in turn coarsened our civil discourse to the point of democratic breakdown. Rush Limbaugh and his throng of hate-talking imitators have given their listeners wide-open social permission to say ugly things in public that would most assuredly get them fired if they said them at work (check your company handbook, which no doubt has firm guidance on this point), and would probably precipitate an immediate divorce if they said them at home. The tone alone says it all: this is not the way you talk to people you intend to have any kind of future with.
Conservative lawyers and courts are actively carving out a First Amendment right to bully racial and religious minorities, immigrants, gays, and women who won’t stay in their place. Almost every family (including mine, unfortunately) and every workplace has a FOX-trained bully who makes it almost impossible to have simply collegial conversations. Democracy is literally not possible where such bullies exist, because the give-and-take and nuanced discussions that lead to good decision-making simply can’t happen. Instead, all the power goes to the person who’s willing and able to throw the biggest tantrum. That’s not democracy, in any sense of the word.
Our founders understood this all too well, which is why so many of our basic rules of government were explicitly designed to keep bullies in check.
They are systematically destroying Americans’ ability to trust almost every civil institution on the American landscape. The list goes on and on, but here’s a starter collection:
They are strategically undermining our schools by deliberately destroying community trust in them. Like a controlling father, they want the kids at home where they can keep a constant eye on them.
They are attempting to privatize Social Security, prisons, the military, and our infrastructure — all to prove their argument that we are no longer competent to do anything for ourselves through our government. Like an abusive spouse, they want us to feel too demoralized about ourselves to do anything effective to improve our lives, let alone find the courage and resolve to free ourselves from the abuse.
They are bastardizing science and bowdlerizing history — the two fields of academia most essential to developing foresight and understanding the implications of our future choices. And, in the process, they are keeping us from solving problems that threaten the continued existence of the entire human family.
They have demonized and harassed the mainstream media to the point where they can no longer be truly neutral about anything, for fear of exhibiting “liberal bias.”
They repealed the Fairness Doctrine, and took over local radio.
They are infringing on our religious freedoms in the name of extending their own.
They are defunding government (“democracy”) at all levels because they don’t believe that We, the People, can spend the money right. (Again: this is the logic of an abusively controlling spouse.)
They have destroyed our economy to benefit the top .10 percent, which effectively robs the rest of us of much of our cultural, economic and political power as well. And they have done this by telling us that “there is no such thing as society” — a claim that justifies bleeding off the vast and very real mountain of public wealth that this fictitious American society has carefully amassed over the course of its entire history.
All of these efforts, and many more, are rooted in one core fact: America’s conservatives ultimately do not trust other Americans to run their own lives as individuals — let alone govern ourselves as a group. And I’d argue that this mistrust runs so deep that no healing is possible for them. They have reached the point where they very clearly no longer want to be in this family together with us.
The seething, simmering rage and pain are running so deep now that the only thing that will satisfy them is total destruction of everything that puts the “us” in US. In their minds, breaking America as we’ve known it for the past 80 years is the only way they’ll ever be able to adequately punish us, and the only hope they have of someday seizing enough control of the shambles to finally salve their fury and fear.
To Stop A Bully: How to Restore Trust
This kind of dogged will to destroy is inherently pathological, whether it’s happening within a marriage or a nation. There’s no way it can ever be construed as healthy. My friend the marriage counselor would have looked at this situation — one spouse overwhelmed by irrational, abusive, controlling rage and constantly imputing unspeakable motives to the other — and written the marriage off.
But we can’t do that. We are still, for better or for worse, the biggest, richest family on the planet. On one hand, there’s no way for them to leave, because there’s nowhere for them to go, and no legal divorce is possible. On the other, letting them destroy the great house of America, built through generations and centuries to its present stature, is simply not an option.
So what do we do? If these people really don’t want to be in the marriage — if they are, in fact, trying to destroy it by any means possible — how on earth can we continue to function as a family?
We may have to do what families have always done with members who have lost their way, but cannot be abandoned. We need to close ranks around them, building alliances and strategies that will enable us to protect ourselves and each other from their depredations. We cannot change them, but it helps to realize that the faithful and decent members of this family still vastly outnumber those who wish us harm. If we work together closely, we can leverage our numbers and our sanity to arrange things in ways that will minimize the damage our rageaholic members can do.
The most important and critical thing we need to do is to restore trust; trust in each other, and in the idea of ourselves as a good and worthy family. We deserve so much better; and we are capable of so much more than our abusers tell us is possible.
We can refuse to buy into divide-and-conquer strategies, realizing that in this situation, the only distinction that matters at all is the one between those who are rooting for this country to succeed, and those who are out to destroy it. You are either on the side of democracy and the great American family, or you are not.
We can resolve to trust and respect each others’ perceptions and interpretations of events, even when they don’t entirely agree with our own. We can decide that we’re going to stay sane in the face of the craziness — and stand with anybody, regardless of their politics, who is also acting in good faith to stand against the bullies.
We can work to create a consensus vision of the next America we want to become, and form trusting relationships with others to make that happen.
We can refuse to reward bullying behavior with success. (Or, for that matter, with any more attention than it takes to get the bullies out of the room.)
We can stand up before each other and the world and say: “Those people do not speak for us, and their squalid, angry vision is not our vision. We are a better nation than that.”
And we can, simply, continue to come together and govern. Because the specter of citizens civilly and peacefully exercising power is, above everything else, the one thing they fear the most, the biggest threat to the radical anti-democracy agenda.