What might be a constructive vision for the US?
By Ervin Staub
In difficult times like today, people need a vision or ideology that gives them hope for the future. Unfortunately, groups often adopt destructive visions, which identify other groups as enemies who supposedly stand in the way of creating a better future. A constructive, shared vision, which joins groups, reduces the chance of hostility and violence in a society.
A serious failure of the Obama administration has been not to offer, and help people embrace, such a vision. Policies by themselves, such as health care and limited regulation of the financial system, even if beneficial, don’t necessarily do this. A constructive vision or ideology must combine an inspiring vision of social arrangements, of the relations between individuals and groups and the nature of society, and actions that aim to fulfill the vision. A community that includes all groups, recreating a moral America, and rebuilding connections to the rest of the world could be elements of such a vision.
In difficult times, people need security, connection to each other, a feeling of effectiveness, and an understanding of the world and their place in it. Being part of a community can help fulfill these needs. The work programs of the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression provided people with livelihood. But they also gave them dignity and told them that they were part of the national community.
Community means accepting and embracing differences among us. Especially important among the influences that lead groups of people to turn against each other is drawing a line between us and them, and seeing the other in a negative light. The words and actions of Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln propagated acceptance of the other even after extreme violence. The U.S. is a hugely varied country, and for every one of us, there can be many of “them.” But others’ differentness can enrich us. People travel to distant places just to glimpse at other people and their lives. As much research shows, real contact, deep engagement, working for shared goals across races, religions, classes, and political beliefs helps to overcome prejudice, helps us to see our shared humanity. Engaging with each other’s differentness here at home can connect us to each other–and increase our satisfaction in life.
Creating a vision—and reality—of community also requires addressing the huge financial inequality in America. Research shows that during periods of greater inequality in income, people are less satisfied. This is true of liberals; perhaps surprisingly, to a lesser degree, it is also true of conservatives. Inequality presumably reduces people’s feeling of community. The financial crisis provided an opportunity to begin to address inequality, to use laws, policies, and public opinion to limit compensation in financial institutions and corporations. Roosevelt had to fight for his programs. This time there has not been enough “political will,” that is, commitment and courage, to do this
Good connection to the rest of the world also increases our experience of community—and our security. For many decades, the United States was greatly respected and admired. Now, as I travel around the world in the course of my work on preventing violence between groups and promoting reconciliation, most of the people I talk to are highly critical of us. But my sense is that many yearn to again trust and respect us.
In his Cairo speech, as President Obama reached out to the Muslim world, he offered an image of connection between countries and peoples. But words alone are not enough, and there has been little follow up. He also continued with policies of the Bush administration, such as extraordinary rendition, handing over suspected terrorists to other countries for interrogation using torture. We Americans believe we are a moral people; both for our own sake and for our connections to others, we need a vision of moral community and policies and practices that fulfill this vision. This can recreate our moral leadership in the world in these complex and difficult times.
The visions and practices of community, connection, and morality can create greater unity at home, and better connection to the rest of the world. But they—as well as increasing our security– also require that we deal differently with our wars, and those who threaten us and intend to attack and harm us. I will address that in another blog.
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.