We have entered a watershed moment not only here in America, but also globally. It’s a moment that could help us wake up to a deeper level of collective awareness and renewal—or a moment when we could spiral down into chaos, violence, and fascism-like conditions. Whether it’s one or the other depends on our capacity to become aware of our collective blind spot.
Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States has sent shock waves across the planet. In a replay of Brexit, a coalition of white, working- (and middle-) class men (and women) from mostly rural areas swept an anti-establishment candidate into office. But the election of Trump is hardly an outlier: just look at the global rise of strongmen such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, Viktor Orban, and Rodrigo Duterte and the surge of other right-wing populists.
Why has the richest and most prosperous country in the world now elected a climate denier who used racist, sexist, misogynistic, and xenophobic language throughout his campaign? What makes us put someone like him in the White House? Why did we create a presidential election between two of the most disliked candidates of all time, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Why did Trump, who lied and attacked minorities, journalists, women, and the disabled, only become stronger and stronger throughout his campaign? What is the blind spot that has kept us from seeing and shifting the deeper forces at play? Why, again and again, do we collectively create results that most people don’t want?
The Blind Spot
Trump and Clinton, from the viewpoint of the millennial generation, represent everything that’s wrong with America. Trump embodies everything that is wrong with our culture. Clinton embodies everything that’s wrong with our politics. And both of them embody everything that’s wrong with our economy.
Our collective blind spot reflects paradigms of thought that legitimize all three major divides: the economic divide, the political divide, and the cultural-spiritual divide. I’ve talked about these divides before, but now they seem more stark than ever.
The Economic Divide
There is a logical line from the Trump and Brexit votes back to the economic crisis of 2008, and from there to the deregulation of the Clinton and the Reagan years in the 1990s and 1980s. U.S. workers’ share of national income has been shrinking since the late 1990s, with the gains going to the top 1 percent. The average annual income growth in the United States for the bottom 90 percent has been negative for the past two decades.
Millennials have good sensors for this kind of disconnect. In the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders won significantly more votes among those under age 30 than Clinton and Trump combined. In a recent Harvard University survey that polled young adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent of respondents said they do not support capitalism. Just 42 percent said they do support it. Equally interesting is that only 33 percent said they support socialism.
What these responses suggest is that most young people may be looking for a different way to run our economy. They don’t want the failed system of Soviet socialism. Or the failed system of casino capitalism. Many young people wish to refocus the economy on justice, fairness, equality, and the deeper sources of meaning in life – what I call generating well-being for all.
This skepticism of young people towards the current economic system is not that surprising if you consider the bigger economic picture today: The United States is the most unequal of all high-income OECD countries, has the highest poverty rate of any advanced economy (17%), the highest obesity rate (36%), the highest incarceration rate, and student debt of $1.2 trillion.
Social mobility—the capacity to work your way up and realize your dreams—is weaker in America today than it is in Europe. As they say: if you want to realize the American dream, go to Denmark. These structural economic factors and forces of exclusion are the real drivers that elevated Trump to the presidency. Yet, instead of addressing these structural issues, the Clinton campaign chose to focus the conversation almost entirely on Trump’s personal flaws.
Why do so many people take these structural issues for granted? It’s the neoliberal economic ideology that Ronald Reagan and his team brought into the White House, that remained during the Clinton years, that continued to flourish during the Bush years, and that, in spite of 2008, continued to shape White House politics even after Barack Obama took office. The neoliberal economic paradigm continues to shape the Washington economic consensus. Our inability to replace that failed paradigm of “ego-system” economics with a more holistic and inclusive framework of “eco-system” economics has created an intellectual and moral void that allowed Donald Trump to connect with the “forgotten common man.” Which brings us to divide number two.
The Political Divide
The political system is rigged. Donald Trump is also right on this one, but for different reasons than he thinks. Hillary Clinton is the face of the current system. Yes, she has more experience and was better prepared for the job than any other candidate. But as Donald Trump reminded her, she had the “wrong experience” (translation: she embodies the status quo). As many polls over the past year indicated, Bernie Sanders would have won easily against Trump, even though his solutions were a work-in-progress at best. Elizabeth Warren probably would have won by a landslide if the party leadership could have persuaded her to run. But what did the Democratic Party leadership do instead? Manipulate the primary process so that Bernie lost and Hillary won. If the Democratic Party were democratic in its processes, the name of our new president-elect would be Bernie Sanders.
Yet the real political divide of our time is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between the insiders of the Washington system that is driven by lobbying and special interest-driven decision-making on the one hand and the forgotten communities without a voice on the other. Elected officials in Washington, regardless of their party affiliation, spend roughly 50% of their time fundraising and have almost no time left to talk to the less powerful real stakeholders that are affected by policymaking. That is the structural problem we face: too many groups are excluded and have no voice in the process of governance and decision-making. So, the second force that put Donald Trump in the White House is the enormous disconnect between voiceless communities and the Washington system of special interest group driven decision-making.
The Spiritual Divide
The biggest divide, however, is neither economic nor political. It’s a cultural-spiritual divide that is ripping our communities, our country, our culture, and our world apart.
The economic and political divides result from massive institutional failures. As the rate of institutional and systemic failure increases, we see citizens and leaders respond in one of the following three ways:
1. Muddling through: same old, same old.
2. Moving back: let’s build a wall between us and them.
3. Moving forward: lean in to what wants to emerge—empathize and build architectures of collaboration rather than architectures of separation.
What was the problem in this election? Hillary was the muddler; Donald was the wall builder. But there was no one in the third category.
It was interesting to watch the entire American media establishment try to take down Donald Trump (after creating him)—only to realize that all their attacks only made him stronger. The only effective voice against him was Michelle Obama’s. She was the one who could take the air out of him. And she did, even to the degree that the Trump camp decided to stop attacking her. What made the First Lady, who has high approval ratings among Democrats as well as Republicans, so much more effective in dealing with the Trump phenomenon?
When you watch her speeches in New Hampshire and Phoenix you see the answer: she responded to him not with hate and fear. Instead, she spoke with empathy, authentic reflection, and compassion. She courageously exposed her own vulnerability showing up as a human being. Michelle Obama also does not primarily focus on the “opponent,” but rather on her own experience, her own opening process, and on the positive future that she feels is wanting to emerge. That’s what it takes to be a warrior of the third category, a warrior of the open heart: as you engage the current moment, your eye is on the future that is seeking to emerge—not on the past that you try to fight against.
Someone who fits that third category would blend the compassion and presence of a Michelle Obama with the systems change focus of an Elizabeth Warren. Such a person (or combined 2020 ticket) would need to connect with a powerful global movement of changemakers who collaborate around new forms of economic, political, and cultural renewal.
Figure 1 shows how the three responses to systemic disruption give rise to three conflicting cultures:
1. Downloading: same old, same old.
2. The cycle of absencing: denying, de-sensing, blaming, and destroying (closing the mind, heart, will).
3. The cycle of presencing: seeing, sensing, crystallizing, and co-creating (opening the mind, heart, will).
Figure 1: The Social Fields of Presencing and Absencing
So what is it that is ripping our communities apart? It’s that the social field of absencing, that is, the closing of the mind, heart, and will, keeps ampliying prejudice, hate, and fear because it’s supercharged by business (its a billion dollar media industry) and technology (with Facebook and Google keeping us well inside our echo chambers or filter bubbles). Moreover, nearly one-fifth of election-related tweets came from bots, from robots, according to a new study by University of Southern California researchers. Our social media is designed to systemically spread and amplify negativity, its not designed around an intention to build community and generative cross-boundary dialogue.
What We Are Called to Do Now
Will President Trump act like candidate Trump? Or will he evolve and grow with the demands of the job (like others did before him)? We don’t know. Most likely his biggest contribution will be that he helps us recognize the other (downside) part of our culture that needs loving attention, compassion and transformation. As the German poet Goethe put it so eloquently when making Mephistopheles—the embodiment of the “evil”—say: “I am part of that force which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”
What is the “good” that President Trump could work for us? Here is a short list:
Letting go of any illusion that the necessary changes of our time will originate from the White House or any other top-down structure. It will come instead from a new global movement of local and multi-local change makers that apply the mindset of Michelle Obama (open mind, heart, will) onto the transformation of the collective.
As we begin responding to the disruption of this week, we have an opportunity to organize in new ways that go beyond the usual responses to disruption:
1. Personal rage: taking it out on something outside ourselves,
2. Personal change: using that energy to transform oneself, or
3. Movements that react against the symptoms of the social and ecological divides.
Figure 2: Four types of response to disruptive change
What is called for today is a massive response that reaches into the upper right quadrant (figure 2): focusing on evolving and transforming the collective. What’s missing most is an enabling infrastructure that supports initiatives to move into the top right quadrant of co-creating change.
The good news is, that the future is already here – many initiatives already exist in which cross-sector groups work from seeing the whole (eco-system awareness) rather than from a silo-view (ego-system awareness).
Summing up, the blind spot at issue here concerns the dominant paradigms of thought that have legitimized the economic, political, and spiritual divides which—in conjunction with the mindless use of social media and technology—gave rise to the Trump movement and presidency. To overcome or bridge these divides calls for nothing less than regenerating the foundations of our civilization by updating the key operating codes on which our societies operate:
- Economy 4.0: evolving our economy from ego-system economics to eco-system economics by refocusing the economic activity (and the use intentional use of money) toward generating well-being for all
- Democracy 4.0: evolving our democracies toward engaging people in ways that are more direct, distributed, democratic, and dialogic and that ban the toxic and corrupting influence through (unrestricted) money
- Education 4.0: evolving our educational systems toward freely accessible infrastructures that help individuals, communities and multi-stakeholder groups to activate the deep human capacity to co-sense, co-shape and co-create the emerging future in their own context any place and any time.
To advance such an agenda of profound societal renewal will require
· New collaborative platforms, online-to-offline, that allow pioneering change makers from across sectors to directly engage with each other
· A constitution for the global digital space that makes the Facebooks and Googles accountable to citizens, communities and civil rights worldwide.
· Massive free capacity building mechanisms that build the deeper innovation capacities at scale (curiosity, compassion, courage)
· And new concepts like basic income grants for all that would replace our current system of organized irresponsibility through an ecology of entrepreneurship that is driven by passion and purpose rather than profit – in other words, enabling people to activate their greatest gifts, and pursue the work they are truly passionate about.
MITx u.lab is a small prototype and platform that we started last year with the intention to help change makers who want to move their work into the fourth quadrant. What started as a MOOC is now a platform for 75,000 change makers from 180 countries that collaborate across 600 hubs. In 2017 we intend to move this platform to its next stage of catalyzing change at the scale of the whole system.
It’s one of several initiatives that helps us remember what matters most: that as warriors of the third category, we need to fully engage the present moment whilst keeping our eye on the future that is seeking to emerge. Our old civilizational forms are much more fragile than anyone might have thought. But our capacity to regenerate them from the deepest source of our humanity is also more present and available than ever—now.
Thanks to Adam Yukelson for helpful comments and to Kelvy Bird for the figures.