By Ervin Staub
In difficult times people need a vision of a better future to give them hope. The U.S. is experiencing difficult times. The majority of people are poorer and many are out of work, the political system is frozen and corrupted by lobbyists and institutions that have gone awry, and there are constant changes in the world that create uncertainty. We are also at war, and face the danger of attack. While pluralism – the openness and public space to express varied ideas, and for all groups in society to have access to the public domain – is important for a free society, the cacophony of shrill voices creates confusion and makes it difficult for constructive visions and policies to emerge.
In times like these, subgroups of a society – racial, ethnic, religious or political – often turn against other groups. Members of one group, often the largest or dominant group, blame others for the difficulties of life. Often, their ideology is destructive. Instead of addressing the source of societal problems, such visions frequently focus on enhanced national power, racial superiority, or a utopian degree of social equality in the society or in the world. They identify enemies that supposedly stand in the way of the fulfillment of the vision. The group turns against and engages in increasingly harmful, and eventually violent, actions against this enemy.
In response to intensely difficult conditions, destructive ideologies and movements have shaped life in many nations. In Germany the ideology stressed racial superiority, expansion, and submission to a leader. Jews and gypsies were regarded as racially inferior, Slavs both inferior and in the way of expansion. In Cambodia the vision was of total social equality, with everyone judged incapable of contributing to or living in such a society, whether the former elite, educated people or minorities as enemies. In the former Yugoslavia, for the Serbs, it was renewed nationalism, with other groups, especially Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo as enemies. In Argentina, people stood against communism and in defense of faith and order. Everyone considered left-leaning – even people working to improve the lives of poor people – became enemies. In Rwanda “Hutu power” over the Tutsi minority, became the guiding ideology. While significant societal change is usually shaped by a number of influences, such ideologies had important roles in creating hostility and violence, ending in mass killing or genocide.
In the U.S. so far, in spite of our increasingly dysfunctional political life and shrill political rhetoric, there is no comparable destructive ideology. While we have many divisions, and ignore the harm to civilians outside the country in the wars we fight, the rights of different groups inside the country have increasingly come to be respected, especially in the last half century. However, many have turned against the current administration, and to some extent, against government in general. They affirm core American values of freedom and individuality, but in the service of tearing down, without a vision of what to create. This is one half of an ideology, the against part, without a clear aim, a for part.
Such rebellion seems to be supported, and perhaps instigated, by people in the background who finance it, and by politicized media. It thrives on people’s genuine and understandable distress, the result of the frustration of material needs, but even more, the frustration of a variety of psychological needs, uncertainty, and fear. Joining ideological groups and movements helps fulfill needs for security, community, and a feeling of effectiveness at a time when people feel powerless.
We need a constructive vision, words joined with actions that embrace all groups in society. A grave failure of the Obama administration has been not to offer such a vision. While the laws passed and policies pursued in the last two years seem mostly constructive, – I will note exceptions and limitations in my next blog post – people don’t see them as part of a larger vision that can give them hope in their continuing difficulties. The administration ought to develop a vision and accompanying policies that can unite and inspire people, for the sake of the country and its own political future. While others can come forward with such a vision, it will only take hold if it comes from those who have the power to turn it into reality.
Ervin Staub is Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Founding Director of the Ph.D. concentration in the Psychology of Peace and the Prevention of Violence, Emeritus. He is the author of Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism.