A day or two ago, a sympathetic yet anxious friend from overseas asked me to explain the dynamics around why the fallout from Super Tuesday was coming down the way it was. Between that and others’ interpretations of the race and my own analysis, I’ve come up with a fairly unified theory, based in my study and teaching of stress, trauma, and conflict communication, as to what’s going on. This present blog post will unwrap a few of the dimensions I see based in those studies as combined with the studies of leadership to talk about the 2020 Democratic Primary as a search for stable emergent leaders.
In short, it boils down to how everyone’s diverse experiences of stress, or felt threat, and what kind of leadership would make them feel more stable. In my view, the present divisions in the US generally and also in the Democratic Primary are best explained by these things. And if you hang in with me, I’ll explain how we can all work together as emergent leaders to both restore the stability of the current system where it’s healthy and tear down the unhealthy parts toward a healthier world for us all.
Disclaimers and Such
Let me explain. No wait, we have no time. Let me sum up. (Sorry—couldn’t resist a Princess Bride reference there. But it felt apt—I’m sort of late in writing this and while it did end up being the shortest summary I had time to write, it’s also a bit lengthy. Please hang in there for the end—it gets all encouraging and sh*t after sitting with and hopefully casting new light on the current situation with the election.)
Looking at the 2020 Election in Light of Leadership Terms
So here’s the long and short of what often happens when we feel individually or collectively that we are not enough and not worthy (in other words, when we feel shame): we hand off responsibility to others, especially to perceived leaders.
And when we have designated leaders—that is, leaders in official elected or named positions—that we deem unstable or unhealthy, we tend to take away the legitimate (earned) power we give them.
Looking for a Savior?
And in those situations we look for other emergent leaders to arise—leaders without designated positions—at least not as yet—but which their followers may see as better, more stable choices in a wide variety of ways.
This is what elections are all about. Emergent leaders seeking to gain enough legitimate power to win a designated leadership position.
The danger, of course, is expecting that person will contain all the stability inside of themselves. (Which is when we need to rise up again as emergent leaders whether we prefer to or not. It’s tiring, but as I’ll explain, really important!)
But We Have a System that Expects Collective Power, Ironically
As I’ve discussed before, in the US, the system is set up with checks and balances because of the Founders’ fears of power consolidated too much around a single individual.
This system sets up formally, in a series of designated roles, what modern leadership theory calls distributed leadership, which means that every person is perceived to enact leadership when they do their part.
In the US, this distribution of leadership includes every citizen’s right to protest, free speech, etc. and to vote for new leaders, as well as a split between various levels of leadership (city, state, and federal governments) as well as different branches of government.
Shared Leadership and Democracy
This system provides periodic possibilities for people to remove any leaders that are perceived to be unstable from office and to put new ones into place.
When We All Feel Unsafe for Different Reasons, We Want Different Emergent Leaders
The problem, of course, is that there are naturally a wide range of different types of people in this country, and especially right now, there’s a wide range of opinions—and, importantly, underlying those opinions are visceral stress responses to felt threat—about what is safe and unsafe to have in an emergent leader.
Speaking of Unhealthy Consolidation of Power—Let’s Talk about “Strong Men” Figures
And now the primary designated leader is seen as (with much evidence backing that view up) to be a corrupt unstable leader, or the ironically termed “strong man.” In a representative democracy, a strong man leader with such power is the most feared outcome, as I’ve discussed in different terms in a previous article.
However much the message from the current administration comes out trying to project the blame anyone else for the instability, the current occupant of the Oval Office is the source. It’s intensely ironic, considering this fact, that he was hired by the party that claims to be the ones that will provide the most stability to the nation.
But then again, that’s what “strong men” leaders do—create crises and then shift the blame to others and look like they’re swooping in to save the day, when behind the scenes they’re still fanning the flames.
Not an Easy Situation to Deal With, for ANY Emergent Leader
In such a situation it’s really natural for everyone who is opposing such an unhealthy leader, who is seeking to and has already consolidated a lot of the power that is supposed to be distributed to those who are supposed to be able to disagree with him, to feel that they and any individual leader they are putting up against that person is unlikely to be enough on their own to defeat that person.
Let’s Not Accept the Strong Man’s Fallacious Logic
That is to say that it’s easy to get caught up in the poor logic—which is being communicated outward from the current administration—that because the power has been consolidated, that the current unhealthy power is not vulnerable to be disbanded with something better to be put in its place.
Ironically, some of that could and should involve putting us back to where we have been—in that it will help us move back to the founders’ vision for power that is decentralized and a little messy.
If We Accept the Strong Man’s Logic, We’ll Think Only the Presidential Election Matters
But the president is not supposed to be a king, and those other parts of the system are still ways to undermine the consolidation of power.
We will need to focus on the presidency, of course. But also the Senate, for instance, has a bunch of vulnerable seats coming up, and those of us who have trouble supporting the two current candidates can focus some attention there and more locally now so we can keep doing what we can while we process our feels and get our feet under us.
And There Are Valid Feels to Stop and Process
There are rightful fears that those who put their faith in the perceived legitimate power of those candidates who dropped out this week may feel unheard by either the candidates or their followers.
Take Warren supporters who are progressive women, for instance. After this week, those who have experienced any sort of sexual assault or harassment by toxic masculinity would feel rightfully alienated and concerned that two older white and white-passing men are on the ticket.
And those who felt stability in Warren and her very reasonable plans as a “middle way” between Biden and Sanders to potentially unite the factions, will be feeling concern that two people who represent such different forms of stability are on the ticket.
Supporters of Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete may be feeling similar things in different ways.
Because these candidates have dropped out, these supporters are likely feeling grief and instability of trust in the other possibilities.
And if we stop and process them as we’re able, the thing is that our whole team will ultimately be more stable. Let’s make room for that, eh?
It Was Always a Mix of Stabilities and Instabilities
Everyone who had hopes in their candidate likely saw other candidates as at least somewhat stable and unstable for different reasons. Furthermore, many Democrats liked some things about multiple candidates, and yet really didn’t like others very much.
The Case for Biden as More Stable
Reflecting on this Twitter thread a friend shared about why black female author Lisa Sharon Harper saw a lot of matriarchal black women voted for the more seemingly establishment candidate, Joe Biden, explains one side of the equation. Many people, in times of trauma, are okay with going to the person who represents the Obama presidency to them. They flee to what is comfortable and feels stable in tumultuous times.
Because they are voting this way, and perceiving stability in this way, and/or thinking that the bulk of the country will feel the same way, this group sees Biden to be the most electable.
The Case for Sanders as More Stable
The problem, though, is that many others on the more progressive side see exactly the opposite. Those who support Sanders famously often are so staunch behind their support of him that they fear any other candidate, and claim to be ready to not vote at all if their candidate doesn’t get the designated power of the candidacy.
To these people, they find a candidate who is seen to fit in with the establishment as exactly the least safe thing for them. In other words, they see an establishment candidate as a threat, which is why they are claiming to run away from voting for them (that’s a stress response—flight).
The Fears about Sanders Supporters
In other words, many Sanders supporters feel loyalty to Sanders precisely because of the thing others find unstable—his populism and hopes of rebuilding the system. They feel so unstable about the existing system, and not just in its current form with the current administration but with its overall issues—that they feel a sort of moral disgust about voting for Biden. (I’ve talked about moral disgusts in a series starting here.)
The Truth: We Need Both Things
In reality, whoever’s the candidate, we need both things to happen. We need to go back and preserve the checks and balances of our current system from the time of the founders—keeping the good ideas for decentralized power—and we need to burn to the ground the parts of the Founders’ intent that has kept us from truly giving all citizens a role and a voice and a proper hearing in the process from the founding on.
So yeah, we need to both conserve and tear down our representative democracy. (Sigh—full disclosure—that’s why I was and am a Warren fan—I do think we need her kind of mixed and very thoughtful approach!)
But First Things First, and the Importance of Broadening Our Focus
Here’s the thing: any presidential candidate that wins the nomination on the blue side (or would have won!) will be less of a power consolidator than the current administration. That’s an important point that I hope whoever is the candidate will emphasize, because it’s actually a selling point.
Because here’s the thing: when the current administration is trying to keep power consolidated, individual nominations for positions far below that of president matter really strongly too. The candidate—whoever they are—will hopefully be willing to not only collect people from “their side” of the party to support down ticket, but anyone who has more legitimate power than those who are currently enabling the current consolidation of power.
And I very much hope that those who are supporting specific candidates will recognize the importance of helping support such down ticket races and snap out of any tendencies they may have to bow out of the political process entirely.
Fighting Back by Showing and Creating Cracks in the Consolidation of Power
This is the reality: This system isn’t designed to have one person who takes on the burden of perfectly leading the country for everyone. We honestly don’t need that, especially not right now.
That means that whoever is ends up being or would have been the Democratic nominee, they will need our support and disagreement and that of other emergent leaders like the other candidates.
All We Need Is a Strong/Loose Coalition
What we do need is a coalition of people working together to support the emergent leadership of those they do deem more ethical and stable than those currently in power.
And we need that same coalition to be willing to hold those who are nominated, as well as those currently in power, accountable for ethics and what’s right.
We need to work together to rebuild trust in the good parts of the system, and we need to tear down the parts that aren’t meeting the common good.
The Stability of the System IS Still There, at Least in Part
As I’ve said before, we really need to work to take advantage of the systems we were given. We need to look to the helpers who are still standing up, and we need to continue to be those people as we’re able.
Let’s Keep Fighting the Existing Instability Too
I know this much is true: the current situation is unstable in threatening ways. I also know that however tempting it is to rely on a single leader, or even a single leader with their followers, to get us to victory in everything all at once, that’s actually not the healthiest mindset for us to have.
Working Together Toward Another Blue Wave
What we really need is to repeat what we did in the 2018 midterms. We need to do what I’m always urging us to do—do what we can where we are with what we’ve got.
We need, honestly, to recognize that none of us alone, including whoever the Democratic presidential candidate is, will be able to be fully stable on their own.
All Those Ethical Folks in Government and Working in the Fight Will Need Us
They will need us working to elect others who can help them.
They will need us and those people reminding them how to meet the needs of more than their immediate constituencies.
And they will need us and others to keep working to make the world a better place.
Let’s face it: for those of us that are exhausted from the current instability, that’s an unpleasant thought.
We Need Others in This Joint Effort
And for those who need time to grieve candidates who dropped out that felt safer for us, we need those who feel safer to take the baton for a little while until we’re able to get ourselves together and adjust to the situation.
Even when we get back in the race, we’re all going to need some time to stop from time to time, and we’re all going to need each other’s support, to be each other’s stability while we get our feet back under us.
It’s Going to Keep Being a Relay Marathon
This isn’t, after all, a sprint, as I’ve said for a long time. It’s a relay marathon.
And however annoying it is, it’s going to continue to be. No one person is going to step in to run the whole marathon for us (and lord knows, if they did, some of us would rightfully mistrust that!). We’re going to keep needing each other, and needing to be there for each other and the world as we’re able.
And you know what? That both sucks and is okay and even good. Because the time we put in as emergent leaders will ultimately bear fruit, hopefully now and for us, but also for the common good. And the time we put in now will bear fruit for now, but also for future generations.
But What If…?
And if for some terrible reason our worst fears come true, it will still have been good and right for us to take up that baton and do our part. It would have been important for us to have tried to be emergent leaders.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! I know it’s hard, but let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We need to not just look for but to be the emergent leaders. We can do this thing.
Resources to Support You on Your Journey
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