Six questions for a world that seems to be losing interest in democracy

How do we shape a democratic future living in a zeitgeist that is tightening its grip across the globe?


What do we know, and what can we support about the following?

1. The Psychology of the Scarcity Experience

Humans across all evolutionary forms have faced scarcity—from the impact of weather on the food supply to competition with nonhuman animals for food and shelter.

The experience of material scarcity of this scale generated an individual psychological dynamic and societal reflex of fear and loss. The perennial uncertainty of survival was also magnified by interhuman aggression, conflict, and hierarchy.

2. Historical and Transhistorical Trauma

What we call trauma—emergency response, risk, and loss—follows and has a multigenerational impact on individuals, families, social groups, and nations that is carried into all lives through the imposition of extreme fight-or-flight-response-triggered behaviors.

These dynamics inform the tendency in humans to impose a “scarcity experience” on nonmaterial scarcity situations. The scarcity experience has permeated across history into our institutions, conventions, expectations, and beliefs.

3. Variety Within the Human Population

Add to the uneven distribution of inherited trauma (and social responses to the scarcity experience) the genetic differences of human populations, which are combinations of distinct groups of human ancestors, and we can be sure that just as there are demonstrated physical markers of difference among populations with regard to biological systems, there are also key behavioral markers.

Understanding these behavioral markers may help unpack the crisis of legitimacy facing democratic nations in which extreme partisanship regarding values and politics has produced culture wars. Legitimacy and illegitimacy are essentially about the conflict between bonding nests of insular common sense, fear, blame, belief, and expectation.

4. The Uneven ‘Fight-or-Flight’ Response

These traumatic experiences have been unevenly distributed over populations and individuals over time and geography. This might be a part of the explanation for the fight-or-flight polarity of behaviors seen in the human population in response to fear, risk, and danger. The responses can produce a wide range of social environments, from calm and cooperative to conflictual and antagonistic.

5. Negative/Positive Human Bonding

“Good enough” bonding is key to cooperative and considerate social relations, and an overall society based on goodwill.

We know that when life is uncertain—when birthing and infancy are high-risk and death is so common that the naming of children was often delayed—blame for loss is rampant, and, as a result, multiple complex patterns of bonding fractures replace bonding with longing (selfishness, greed, violence, blame, hoarding) in likely individual and group behavior.

All this is processed through personal and cultural temperaments, and so a fairly wide range of action, values, and empathy exists and can be exaggerated in one or another direction—a sense of kin, widely or narrowly shared.

6. The Uneven History of Human Collaboration

There is widespread evidence stretching over centuries in different parts of the planet of goodwill and visions of shared well-being, of cooperative discourse and reparative ideals that might be called on with new vigor. These have long aimed to counter the dominance of extreme fight-or-flight/scarcity panic psychology, blaming and maiming communication and political engagement in the long and ongoing story of human society.

Making Use of It

Perhaps this perspective on scarcity and bonding can help us see ourselves differently and find our way.

Currently, we are witnessing the failure of the historic progressive agenda, and a dramatic decline in the legitimacy of democracy as a governing ideal.

At the same time, the right wing has, for over 50 years, rooted itself in key political positions and popularized regressive ideas and ideals through coercion, shaming, and exclusivity.

The power of the right is based on having gained the trust of people. As the public has lost its sense of higher purpose, the progressive agenda has become delegitimized. Ironically, rich people are lionized by working people—despite the damage to their own lives because wealth stands for strength and prospect.

The damaging philosophy of neoliberalism has morphed into something more sinister. We are witnessing the capture of the public sphere by dangerous politicians promoting destructive ideologies often built on lies and disinformation. These ideologies have led to a worldwide spread of authoritarianism, which some argue is a zeitgeist more capable than democracy for handling economic, environmental, and social crises. How do we shape a democratic future living in a zeitgeist that is tightening its grip across the globe?

This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


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