On Imagination, Trust and Democratic Governance

The Institute’s Community Voices (CV) graduate student group recently co-hosted with the Moss Arts Center a screening of the documentary, Born to Fly, profiling the life and work of choreographer Elizabeth Streb. Following the film, the MacArthur award-winning artist and her company joined the audience for questions and answers led by CV students. Streb has long sought to work with her dancers to take risks related to gravity in ways that allow those bearing them to address their fears associated with that force. Her work combines dance, circus and gymnastics in daring ways that invite anxiety and that seek to demonstrate that such emotions and the challenges they represent can be overcome. The Community Voices students, concerned as they are with social change processes and leadership, found these themes resonated broadly as a metaphor in a U.S. culture in which many are now filled with anxiety and fear for the future. Many Americans dread the growing racial and ethnic heterogeneity of the nation’s population, for example, while others are concerned about their economic standing amidst continuing globalization and what appears to be unfathomable political complexity. What these individuals do know is that their wages are stagnant or declining in real terms and that their employment, benefits and sense of security seem more parlous with each passing day. Millions of people live paycheck-to-paycheck and worry that small changes will mean the end of their lives as they have come to know them. And they sense (and fear) they possess little control over such possibilities. Meanwhile, relentless consumerism and an accompanying public philosophy celebrating capitalism and privatized individualism has for some decades bred a group of leaders declaiming against community and the commons and declaring politics to be the nation’s greatest problem, to be replaced by the market. In this view, all elements of society should be subsumed by the privatizing force characteristic of capitalism, whose effects should be unregulated and unbounded. All that matters, in this vision, is the realization of personal desires and the unleashing of an unencumbered market whose denizens should be supported so they may produce consumables for those who can afford to purchase them.

This dark vision of a society of individuals consumed by their personal desires and involved with no one beyond themselves has left many citizens increasingly alone with their “unchained” liberty amidst their deepening fears for the future. That is, this perspective has asked individuals to climb into an epistemic box that leaves them utterly unprotected from the vagaries and excesses of the market in the name of their “liberty to choose” as consumers. Put differently, public choices and policies have done little to ameliorate Americans’ fears about their social and economic predicament, even as those proselytizing for those decisions have asked that citizens accept less and less public protection against their vagaries.

Examples of the direction and consequences of this view of public policy are legion: a crumbling infrastructure because lawmakers have elected not to raise the funds to address its maintenance, a decaying education system because elected leaders have chosen to privatize major shares of it and to imagine that one may simply test for those capacities that will ensure adequate citizens and professionals, hollowed out governments at all scales asked to do more and more through intermediaries with inadequate resources while just as often pilloried for doing anything at all. Overall, too, these decades have seen a procession of Republican “leaders” and would-be leaders especially, although Democrats have hardly been immune from this impulse, whose principal aim has been to remove obstacles to the control of the nation’s political economy by capitalists and capitalism. These efforts have included a campaign to eliminate any independent voice for labor in society that might push back against capitalist influence as well as continuing initiatives aimed at reducing or removing such publicly provided citizen protections as social security and unemployment benefits.

In this dessicated vision of a cultural landscape increasingly devoid of a shared view of a society beyond the concerns of the privatized self, and in an empirical situation in which many find themselves worried about the character and pace of economic and social change resulting from continuing globalization and demographic shifts, many Americans now view the future with fear, if not alarm. In addition, they have been shaken by their own choice of public philosophy. This situation, a current scenario for millions, is ripe for demagogues willing to provide citizens a narrative that “explains” their situation by scapegoating “others,” whether the “other” is a group or institution. Thus, nearly all of the current GOP presidential candidates have been willing to condemn “immigrants” for Americans’ economic and social anxieties and to offer simple answers for the nation’s complex foreign and domestic policy challenges. All of these blame governance and the country’s public institutions for Americans’ fearfulness. Deeply anxious people are more open to such democratically dangerous claims and the current electoral cycle appears to demonstrate that well-worn rule.

What is lacking in this ugly situation is imagination and trust. That is, few core Republican Party supporters question the arid ideology that keeps them so anxious and so willing to “other” their own governance. The Party’s strongest supporters appear content to criticize self-governance and targeted groups for their fears, for which their leaders repeatedly tell them they need not accept any responsibility. They are asked to support public policies that continue to deepen economic and social inequality and to make their status still more perilous in the name of assuring economic growth and ensuring a continued assault on public institutions, whose very existence, these citizens are constantly informed by many of their leaders, constitutes an affront to their personal liberty.

This long-lived public ideology and its accompanying rhetoric has left a substantial share of the citizenry believing that self-governance is the source of their perceived woes and that this situation can be remedied by substituting the market for the work of democracy. Unfortunately, no such alternative exists outside of dogmatic fantasy. But to conceive of other options that actually involve self-governance requires the imagination to test the assumptions that presently animate understanding, and that many continue to believe will ultimately assuage their fears and concerns (despite the fact that they are actually exacerbating these). And it is just such a facility that Streb and her company embody. She and her dancers persistently push the envelope of possibility in their art form by deliberately testing their assumptions and seeking to discern what more may be possible. They candidly acknowledge they are often afraid to open the metaphorical next door and to view new and previously unimagined paths, but they have learned to trust one another deeply and have come to realize that remaining where they are in their awareness and understanding will spell the decay of their artistry and, more deeply, of their very opportunity for continued discovery together. Innovation and vitality depend on their willingness to trust themselves and the common claim their work together represents. Each new step both tests and deepens that shared bond and vision.

As it is with artistry, so it is with self-governance. The present assault on government has many cowering in a room behind a door bolted by their collective lack of trust in one another and skepticism of the need for a common governance enterprise. These forces together have kept many citizens from striking out to imagine new possibilities and to realize that any democratic future lies in a shared claim in the need to trust and to journey together. Streb and her company embody deep lessons for our nation’s citizens and politics. Their willingness to take risks and to imagine together that new possibilities will yield additional paths for collective exploration are a superb metaphor for the capacities necessary for rediscovering the potential and requisites for self-governance in our polity. One may hope that this nation’s citizens soon will shake loose their self-imposed bonds and once again believe it relevant and possible to imagine what a free and democratic society might look like. It will take courage and imagination and trust in one another to do so and someone must call for a start. Without these steps, we may expect continued demagogic claims, the prizing of privatized consumerism in lieu of freedom and a citizenry ever more fearful for its individual and collective future.