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The US needs political love that puts its money where its mouth is

A social security net is the state’s expression of care for people. As the trauma of Trump and COVID-19 show, its absence has explosive results

Scott Remer
28 February 2021, 12.00am
Isolation has created a breeding ground for conspiracies
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PA Images. All rights reserved

We’re living in tough times. The COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging communities across the United States and around the world. Stress, fear and heartbreak abound as many mourn the loss of normal life and of loved ones, and the economic outlook is grim.

People need help, but pride and the world’s brutality discourage us from expressing our needs openly. This creates a vicious cycle: the harsher the world appears, the more heartless we become to one another.

Physical pain reduces a person to a body, to her mortal, fragile, vulnerable flesh. It weakens the sense of self, attenuates one’s powers of logic and speech, language and reason – the bases of civilisation itself. Pain prompts withdrawal: it seems to separate us.

Modern psychology recognises that social pain is basically the same as physical pain, although conventional wisdom regards physical pain as graver than social ostracism. Both types of pain are processed in the same body and suffered in the same brain. Psychologically, there’s no such thing as salutary neglect.

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The children’s taunt; “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is wrong. Emotional and social stress can provoke Takotsubo syndrome, which may result in death from a ’broken heart’. Whether the pain one suffers is the pain of exclusion and marginalisation; the pain of powerlessness and voicelessness; the pain of struggling to make ends meet; or the pain of physical abuse; pain is an undeniable factor in politics.

Trauma begets trauma

Human beings need meaningful recognition. Indifference is a psychic attack: being ignored sends us the message that we are worthless. Rejection, whether active or passive, wounds the spirit.

Abuse often causes victims to lash out: trauma begets trauma. Often, we inflict on others the pain we ourselves suffer. When we are starved of attention, recognition and love, the underlying desire for them doesn’t dissipate. Instead, it is often corrupted into bitterness and despair. When you feel deprived of love, others’ good fortune can seem like a slap in the face. Elite hypocrisy becomes unbearable. You lose the ability to direct fury appropriately: anger turns indiscriminate.

Emotional hunger and intense loneliness – like the isolation societies are suffering during COVID-19 – warp the soul. They encourage a loss of proportion: trivial insults are magnified. A mind freed of the reassuring ballast of others’ judgments is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories like QAnon or Trump’s accusations of a “stolen” election.

The more people feel compelled to repress distress, to put on a brave face rather than admit ’weakness’ and the fewer opportunities we have to unburden ourselves, the more explosive these feelings become. They turn venomous when, absent of healthy outlets, they inevitably combust.

As the old saying goes, “misery loves company”: pain can bring out people’s mean-spirited, sadistic streaks. Seeing no way out of their suffering, imprisoned in self-criticism and blame, some sufferers may wish to drag others down with them, to create a kind of community of suffering. They may direct their rage, resentment and pain at scapegoats in a warped sort of psychic levelling.

It’s probably not coincidental that fascism flourished after the First World War, during which millions participated in or suffered violence

People with harsh, disciplinarian parents are far more likely to support authoritarians and visit strict punishments upon their children, while physical and sexual abusers were often abused themselves. It’s probably not coincidental that Nazism and fascism flourished in the aftermath of the First World War: millions of people had participated in violence or suffered it themselves. Fascism takes root in the soil of collective trauma, whether that trauma is war, economic calamity or personal tragedy.

Although pain can catalyse vicious cycles, it can also unite us and encourage a more uplifting politics. Not all sufferers become destructive. To escape the prison of isolation, we seek community and solidarity wherever they can be found. This search results in assertions of identity-based pride.

These assertions can be ugly: consider the Proud Boys’ and Oath Keepers’ chauvinistic paroxysms of white nationalism. But they are often positive: consider egalitarian social movements like Black Lives Matter and ideologies like gay pride and feminism, which elevate wrongfully marginalised people.

Whether you have truly been forgotten is irrelevant in terms of your experience of rejection, at least psychologically speaking. Our lived experiences aren’t relative. All that counts is the perception that you have been spurned: feelings matter more than facts.

A trans woman of colour in a depressed inner-city neighbourhood feels rejected by government and society; a white heterosexual Christian man in a decaying small town feels neglected by an economy that grinds him down. Both justly feel deserted, hurt by a country that fails to hold human beings above inordinate private fortunes. The challenge confronting us is to create a political movement powerful enough to address both people’s sense of abandonment, without compromising one inch on the rights of marginalised groups in a misguided attempt to court cultural conservatives.

Defence against authoritarianism

In 2016, Hillary Clinton declared that “what this country needs is more love and kindness”. Joe Biden has proclaimed that we need “hope and light and love”. Even Donald Trump addressed widespread malaise in his inaugural address, mendaciously claiming that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer”.

Biden and Clinton aren’t wrong, but their rhetoric is empty as long as it evades the fact that political love, not homilies about interpersonal love, is what we need. Political love puts its money where its mouth is, bringing the federal government’s power to bear on the insults that make life miserable for so many: crumbling schools; shoddy infrastructure; pathetic healthcare; food deserts; understocked foodbanks; low social security payments and ludicrous minimum wages.

The social safety net is a political expression of love: it demonstrates that society values its members, recognises their humanity and wants them to be free. Social democracy is the best defence against authoritarianism ever devised. Now, emerging from a trying winter, and a lost year, as the United States reels from the pandemic and the aftermath of Trump’s anni horribiles, it is time to build a true American social democracy.

The stakes are high: with enormous economic insecurity and without an adequate social safety net, we’ve seen the emergence of a dark new proto-fascism. After simmering for years, this proto-fascist current came to a boil briefly on 6 January, and it remains a direct existential threat to democracy, especially amid a tremendously disruptive pandemic.

MLK predicted over fifty years ago in Memphis: “[If] America does not use her resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.” Let’s not put King’s prophetic gifts to the test.

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