Here’s the note a friend sent me on Facebook late last night:
Arlene, now that the midterm results are in, how can the dreams/predictions that you make in your recent books The Wave and The Culture of Possibility come to fruition? How can Citzens United be overturned and democracy be given back to the people?
My dear friend, what a good question! I am sorry for the suffering it reveals, suffering that is widely shared this morning. I woke up with five possible answers jostling their ways out of my brain. I hope one or two of them may help.
1. I never make predictions, but I do write and speak about possibilities. As sad as many of the election results turned out to be, no single phenomenon (such as a seven-seat gain in a midterm election) forecloses possibility. Indeed, the very same information can be given two opposing meanings, depending on what else happens. We know that when a paradigm shifts—when an outdated worldview begins to be edged offstage by a new and more powerful understanding—those who benefit most from the old order tighten their grip. How many times in history have we seen such darkness before something new dawns?
A friend who works closely with elections told me last night that given which seats are up for re-election in 2016, it’s almost a certainty that Democrats will regain the Senate them. That’s his prediction (I don’t make them, remember?). But if two years down the road everyone who is crying this morning wakes up in a celebratory mood, will the nature of reality have shifted? Or just our ideas about it?
2. That’s why it’s essential to avoid grasshopper vision, to avoid attaching to the interpretation that diminishes our power and possibility. Since you know the Hebrew bible so well, I’ll use a passage to make this point. One enduring question is why the escaped slaves from Egypt wandered so many years in the wilderness before being permitted to enter the land of milk and honey. A common moral to the story is that the generations born into slavery had to die out before they could live as free human beings, which seems very wise to me. But there’s a choice-point in the story, a place where everything could have gone differently. Numbers:13-14 recounts how spies were sent to scope out the land. They return terrified, reporting that the land was occupied by giants, Nephilim. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they report, “and so we must have looked to them.”
This is internalization of the oppressor, the process whereby we inflate others’ power, take into our own hearts and minds their diminished view of ourselves, receding into voluntary powerlessness. The possibilities you and I embrace rely on our seeing ourselves truly through our own eyes and not the eyes of those who want us small, compliant, and demoralized.
3. Elections are important, but not determinative. Cognitive scientists reliably tell us that the harm we anticipate from bad turns—and just the same, the boost we anticipate from good luck—almost always turns out to be less in reality than in our own imaginations. In the run-up to an election in this country, we are inundated—the body politic is nearly water-boarded—with information and propaganda. This creates what they call an “availability cascade,” a self-reinforcing cycle in which sheer repetitions makes something loom larger and larger in belief. The feeling ends up being that if Mitch McConnell is re-elected, democracy is over.
But in truth, almost everything significant that elected officials do is in response to other inputs. Some of these are repugnant, to be sure: when the Koch brothers attempt to buy a victory, way too many public servants open their hands to do their bidding. But many are not even remotely the result of special pleading by entrenched interests: our freedoms, our social protections may be under attack, but legions of us are fighting hard to preserve and extend them, just as our forbears fought to establish them. Members of Congress didn’t wake up one day and say, “I think it’s about time to extend voting rights to women.” We the people did that, and when enough of us made our voices heard, laws changed.
4. This means that the challenges we face aren’t so much in the statehouses as in the streets. I haven’t yet seen final figures, but many early accounts of turnout have reported record lows. I’m part of a discussion group involving people who work on voter turnout and campaigning: the subject lines of their emails this morning tend to be things like “Arrrrgh!” Why was turnout so low when so many activists believed they had convincing arguments about why young people, women, people of color should vote? Someone pointed out this morning that there were 32 uncontested races in the House of Representatives. In some state legislatures, the proportion was much higher. Incumbents were almost always re-elected, and often by very substantial margins.
When I was young in the sixties, many of my peers felt government was a scam, that the system was so clogged and corrupted by money and indifference that even taking part was a form of complicity. Today, I often hear versions of the same argument. To assert that elections matter isn’t going to land all that hard without addressing the reality that if they matter so much, why are people content in so many places to leave them—fully or virtually—uncontested?
This is not my viewpoint. I believe we must exercise all of our rights or accept that we will lose them: speech, assembly, voting, and more. But what needs fixing is not so much convincing people that this system works as nurturing opportunities for real citizenship, including cultural citizenship, in which we can see that our actions matter to outcomes. What does the widespread refusal to heed exhortations to vote really mean? It can’t just be that advocates haven’t get hit on the right slogans and memes. It has something deep to say about the illusions and realities of power in this country. That’s a line of inquiry I’d like to follow as far as it goes.
5. A paradigm shift is not a political program. The possibilities I have been writing and speaking about gather slowly. As the protagonist of my novel The Wave says in 2024, the image that arose in her mind to symbolize the way things have changed is a Hokusai wave. “I have this overwhelming image of energy gathering force and taking shape,” she says. “No one masterminds a wave, ordering all the drops of water into line. Many independent forces operate simultaneously—wind, gravity, disturbances of all kinds—and somehow, the wave mounts. I think that’s how it happened.”
Which brings me back to where I started. I like the word “synecdoche.” It means a figure of speech in which the part is made to stand in for the whole. But to me, it also names a pitfall to which our minds are prey. If The Wave is mounting, it is more like the “thematic universe” the great Paulo Freire described, writing that all eras are characterized by “a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites….” It’s not the midterm election results—or any single phenomenon—that symbolizes or determines whether the American people will overturn Citizens United and the other policies that support corporate domination, refusing to adjust to the absurdity of a social order in which organized money rules. It’s whether we will together draw a picture of possibility vivid enough to overcome grasshopper vision.
I have no doubt we can. I hope and pray we will.
I love second acts. Here’s Randy Crawford and the late Joe Sample, “Angel.” “Here in the arms of the angel, may you find some comfort here.”