FeatureLiberal Democracy in QuestionThe Psyche

Time for Resolution

This Year We Save Democracy

New Year’s resolutions are a curious ritual. Each year we promise to change, even as we can’t help but recall last year’s resolutions and measure how far we’ve fallen short. Human beings are by and large procrastinators. We typically postpone any significant change until it’s almost too late — until we’re teetering on the brink, until the fire we’re playing with verges on conflagration. Must we stand face-to-face with disaster before we have an undeniable motive to take forceful, decisive action?

In my practice as a psychoanalyst I confront these questions all the time. After much work together, my patients, who often came to me at the brink, gain enough comfort and health to not live in precarity. But they also perpetually postpone claiming still greater psychic freedom. But compromise can take its toll. Losses accumulate as people delay making much longed for, if also feared, change. Lives remain stifled, burdened by symptoms. Further change will require a return to the brink. Uncertainty and fear must again be faced head-on, only this time with greater emotional resilience and with the assurance of a therapeutic partner dedicated to a shared mission.

Even in this best case the going can be very rough. I’m often baffled and profoundly humbled by the sheer power of my patients’ resistance — of our shared short-circuiting of the path — to truly transformative change. Their frustration, and mine, mount. Desire for a more radical break from the status quo gains urgency. Desperate thrashing. A willingness to take risks. The old paradigm reaches its tipping point, unsustainable.

I think something of this movement is what we are witnessing on a domestic and even global political level. It’s not an accident that we’ve sustained our comfort zones and hypocritical, pseudo-democratic alliances until now. But political stress and potential global disaster have brought us to a new brink. Retreat no longer seems a viable option, transformative change seems essential. But what would further change require?

Certainly my patients, as the rest of us try to, make significant incremental changes that seem to promise greater fulfillment and freedom. They take measures to fracture old patterns, to better bear losses and shame, to relinquish grudges, to harness anger in building momentum toward desired hopes and dreams. These many incremental changes plant the seeds for their own democratizing action, to fight for liberation from the repressive, tyrannical power of their symptoms. In our work along this path, it is important to face our resentments and to assert our right to, and need for, the fury trapped within them.

But fury, even when it’s goal-directed, isn’t enough. Grieving our losses, letting go of the battles that aren’t worth fighting, distinguishing what is fundamental to our integrity and thus unshirkable, is also essential. And this requires a courageous encounter with our values and our desires, a concession that while we can’t control what lies beyond us, we bear responsibility for contributing to the public sphere in some way that aligns with our core values and singular abilities. Such surrender, along with acceptance and grief, are all required for effective therapeutic — and ethical — action.

In most cases this winning combination is elusive. Time and again, in disparate ways, we undercut ourselves; we arrive at muddled solutions, sustainable perhaps in the short term but ever subject to reversal. Despite ourselves we cling to the familiar and the known, even as we’re swept to the brink of disaster, in the company of enemies within and without whom we can’t bear to really fight or fully repudiate.

And there we stand today. We’ve endured together an unusually vicious election cycle. We’ve discussed to death the prices both of political business as usual and of radical threats to the established checks and balances. In this case, as things change far more than we expected them to, will they still proverbially stay the same?

Some placed their vote for Hillary as a vote for real change, at very least because of her gender. But for better and for worse, Clinton promised familiarity: familiar cautions, the familiar political deadlocks, the continual marching in place. True, nothing much would change, but then again we wouldn’t have to change much either.

But events showed that for many of us — red and blue, left and right, lovers and haters — stasis and compromise could no longer be borne. We were sick and tired of them. We wanted bold transformation. (That Hillary would be the first female president apparently counted for little, even to many women.) We were together inspired by the revolutionary impulses that fueled both Sanders and Trump. We longed for someone to finally take us to the brink wither we could not lead ourselves. But while we longed together, we did not long as a community. Some placed their hope in the further evolution of our society by way of Sanders-style socialism, egalitarian and inclusive. But others hoped to blow up the system not so that we might finally break our shackles, but to tighten their grip, to reestablish the old and familiar — what was “remembered” (or nostalgically invented) as the good old America. America would be great again.

It is odd, obviously, that the prevailing desire seems to have been for both destruction and restoration. We blithely push the planet to the limit of survival as we delay measures vital to slowing if not halting global warming. We dally with an alleged sexual predator and former reality TV show host, believing that we can make America First by degrading our First Amendment, and walking back the incremental steps we’ve taken toward a more authentic and robust Constitutional democracy.

Compromise is no longer a solution, nor is retreat into a perverse distribution of political agency in which a “democratic” masochism and “republican” sadism operate collusively. Not for my patients, who have traveled so far but remain locked in persistent symptoms. And not for Red or Blue America. It is time to honor our nation’s true ethical and democratic calling, to practice the eternal vigilance that Andrew Jackson recognized democracy demands. We must not be half-hearted. We must stop turning back to old American identities; rather, we must let them go, mourn them if necessary, and discover the authentic potential of participatory democracy in what is as yet potential, in what is unfamiliar.

For some of Trump’s supporters, the hunger for change was joined to a reckless thirst for payback — that is, for the dismantling of structures we’ve painstakingly built but which they view as cages. Protecting women’s rights, climate safeguards, leveling the money-soaked field of democratic discourse: these were seen by many Trump voters as part of a sociocultural shift that was at best unintentionally antagonistic and job-destroying. So they said “fuck you.” Supporters of true radical democratic change cannot. We must exert force from a solid fixed point, not from a deeply fractured abyss. (Even Trump, the real estate builder, surely must respect stable foundations).

So at this juncture we must safeguard the democratic inroads we have made over these past 200-some years, while refusing enervating compromise solutions. We must sustain a singular focus on expanding global human rights and recognizing that our survival is both interdependent and premised on the shared vitality of our planet. America cannot shirk its role as a beacon of democratic inspiration and real partnership with the world. Along with mourning, our future requires a fury that will fuel genuine democratic agency. But it will also require desire rooted in the ethics of inclusiveness and egalitarianism. We waited and now we stand on the brink of democratic collapse. Which also is to say that we stand at the brink of a more dramatic vision of democratic possibility than previously realized. The stakes are just too great, the possibilities too awesome to keep procrastinating.

  • Steve Botticelli

    Like Jill, I’m wanting to see the possibility in this dire political moment. So much quiescence over the last 8 years (with the important exceptions of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the excitement around Sanders’ candidacy), as we left it to Obama basically to manage the status quo. The horror of what we’re up against, uncertain as it may be in its particulars at this point, seems to be activating many of us to prepare to fight whatever it is that is coming our way. In feeling our collective power in the marches, demonstrations and struggles to come, may we again begin to imagine possibilities beyond the constricted realities of our current neoliberal era.
    Steve Botticelli

  • Joseph T. Cohn, M.D.

    Brava, Dr. Gentile! Well formulated and well written. I am, unfortunately, paralyzed by the vastness, complexity, and inter-connectedness of it all. You seem pessimistic about the effectiveness of tiny, incremental steps. Tiny changes are, surely, not gut-satisfying. Unfortunately, revolutions fail to leave anything other than death and destruction, and a warm feeling of camaraderie in the survivors. The unanticipated consequences of any change vastly exceed the anticipated or intended consequences, even of the smallest changes. Large changes invariably lead to messy problems.

    I have read all 925 pages of the Affordable Care Act several times through. I have read, at over 1,000 pages, a fraction of a fraction of the 250,000 pages promulgated by the ACA. I do not understand it adequately to even guess at the intended consequences, let alone the unintended. I speak to colleagues and well educated peers and find widely divergent opinions. I suspect no one who opines on the ACA has read it through, most surely, not the president-elect or those who will repeal it and replace it. Also, none of the proponents have done so. My point is: the world has gotten much too big as it has become much too small. Information is instantaneously available, but unfiltered and likely erroneous. The wisest people I know have difficulty thinking adequately critically about the situations extant.

    We must have a paradigm shift in what it is to be us We need a paradigm shift in what it takes to govern or lead us.

    The world of the first half of the 20th century is gone forever. The country is not 100 million, it is 350 million strong. The world is not 1 or 2 billion it is almost 8 billion! If we are going to effect change we need tools for the billions. The Law of Unanticipated Consequences can be re-written: as the number of components effected by the change increases, the scope (complexity) of the change must diminish to achieve the same degree of predictability. We need wisdom and baby steps.

  • Jill Gentile

    Thanks Steve Botticelli and Joe Cohn for your comments here. Both sets of comments resonate with me. It’s not that I’m pessimistic about incremental or baby steps. In fact, part of my critique of the Trump et al approach is they’re willingness to knock out many incremental steps (think in terms of reproductive rights, or First Amendment gains, or the actual accumulation of valid scientific knowledge) that are essential for us to now use as building blocks for taking more dramatic, decisive action. True, some of what is required is the simplification or shedding of the kind that Joe imagines. But won’t that require a fundamental change to some basic recipe? We need wisdom, but baby steps alone will not do the trick. Nor —despite their huge appeal and awakening impact—did BLM or Occupy do enough. this has always been the problem of revolutionary movements. How to sustain their viability and actual relevance, how to move beyond the status quo and inertia that Steve describes. A far more dramatic paradigm change, call it revolutionary, that is based on what we already know about reality and human needs, but that takes a risk to enter unchartered territory is essential. In a world of now 8 billion people, the inequality we’ve created is unsustainable.. Any emancipatory vision of human agency and democracy requires genuinely global and inclusive sharing of resources and of human rights and human recognition. A lot of concessions to life as we know it must be made to get anywhere near this. And even our most committed progressive thinkers may reveal an hypocrisy when we look very close to home, to their relationship to privilege. This is a big problem of human nature.

  • Lama Khouri

    Jill,

    Thank you for this beautifully written, deeply thought, heartfelt, and much-needed essay. As always, your writing reverberates on several registers—your words touched me as a mother, a fellow citizen, a psychotherapist, and another human being trudging her way through the ashes of our self-destructiveness.

    Since November 9, I have been wishing for a glimmer of hope, or a word that we will be OK. Perhaps somewhere there is a promise that the North Pole will not melt and drown us all; that Trump’s wall will not be built; that America has always been great; and that the Palestinians will not be annihilated. Your essay felt like a breath of fresh air. I read it and reread it.

    It is poignant that you brought to the discussion our tendency to procrastinate and make promises of self-betterment of which we often fall short. Yet, as you eloquently put it, “We must sustain a singular focus on expanding global human rights and recognizing that our survival is both interdependent and premised on the shared vitality of our planet.”

    When the thought of the coming four years hits me, I sooth myself by thinking that “it is darkest before the dawn.” I would recall the commitment of my friends and colleagues to social action and change. But now, just a little more than two months following the election, my fury is not as intense, and just like my New Year’s resolution to start an exercise regiment on January 1, 1998, it seems that my promise for social action has been postponed till after I do the laundry.

    What actions could we as psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, and social activists take to bring light to this dark period of American history? Can we sustain each other and move forward? Can we help each other fulfill our New Year’s resolutions?

    Jill, thank you for shedding light on a way out of the darkness, and bringing back the hope that all will not be lost.

    Yes, you are right “[t]he stakes are just too great, the possibilities too awesome to keep procrastinating”

    • Jill Gentile

      thank you for this powerful response Lama! How easily lulled we get, yes, i get what you say so simply and powerfully here: “it seems that my promise for social action has been postponed till after I do the laundry.” We want to believe that this time things are, will be different. Let’s help each other fulfill this resolution & stay the course, We will, we do, need one another.

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