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No Ordinary Election Year: Crisis, Collapse, and Public Imagination

By Kay Whitlock

Day After Tomorrow“Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act. Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.”

—Howard Zinn, “The Optimism of Uncertainty”


Have you, like me, noticed how, in this bizarre and unsettling presidential primary season, everybody is getting on everyone else’s last nerve?

Many of us are worried about Donald Trump as political arsonist. We don’t have to tear each other apart over whether he, his campaign, his devotees, and his tactics do or don’t mesh with various academic understandings of fascism. Most of us know damn well that the growing wave of virulent and violent racism, white nativist populism, economic rage, authoritarianism, and American exceptionalism he’s riding is not only volatile but flat out dangerous.

It’s also partly the Bernie/Hillary factor. Divisions are so charged that some friendships and family relationships (mine with a particular relative, for instance) are held together only by the slenderest threads or already fatally frayed.

But let’s face it. This growing anxiety isn’t just a replay of the highly charged 2008 primary that pit Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton, or about Super Tuesday results and which candidate is more “electable.” It’s not even just about whether the Democratic Party is going to nominate a democratic socialist or a neoliberal corporate ally.

It’s about something so much bigger.

Even when we can’t clearly name it, many of us feel its powerful undercurrents rumbling and flowing beneath the surface of “business as usual.”

Enormous amounts of anxiety, anger, and fear—conscious and unconscious—are spilling out in all directions, in countless ways. I’d guess that most people are feeling so uncertain and frightened about their own futures that it’s increasingly hard to think about our collective future.

All bets are off. The Republicans are feverishly looking for ways to ditch Trump. And does anyone really believe that the leadership of the Democratic Party will find the courage to campaign on anything more than “We’re Not the Republicans?” or “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid?” Does anyone truly think that a third party vote could send a meaningful message? To whom? What is there, besides fear, to overcome the impacts of congressional district gerrymandering and voter suppression while simultaneously enticing discouraged, disenchanted voters to the polls?

This, as Doris Kearns Goodwin once noted in another period of sustained crisis, is “no ordinary time.” No ordinary political assumptions, campaigns, and maneuvers will save us.

New Possibilities Amid Systemic Chaos and Rupture

Multiple systems that determine the health and wellbeing of our individual and collective lives—or the life-threatening lack of same—are in accelerating stages of crisis, chaos, and collapse. That’s what’s producing the subterranean rumblings that have so many of us on edge. None of this is new; these crises have been a very long time in the making. But we’re not all feeling it immediately in precisely the same ways. A lot of that depends on the dynamic interrelationships of race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, religion, and disability.

What’s especially significant now is the rapidity with which crises are accelerating and ways in which the origins and effects of systemic chaos, crisis, and breakdown overlap and are mutually reinforcing, interdependent, and synergistic. That’s why single issue politics-as-usual will never create sustainable structural change.

That’s why it’s impossible to separate environmental devastation, the disruption and collapse of ecological systems, and mass extinction from the monocultures, genetic modifications, chemical contaminations, and exploitative, abusive practices characteristic of Big Agriculture or the extractive violence and pollution of Big Energy. Neither of these can be separated from the chaos and crisis engendered by the oppressive and corrupting practices of “too big to fail” financial institutions and capitalism.

Big money and corporations, always influential in politics, now have constitutional “personhood” status. That can’t be separated from the rupturing of political systems in the United States and other countries, where xenophobia and blatant appeals to fear and racism are in ascendance but few are talking seriously and compassionately about the forces and conditions that produce massive global migrations.

Privatization and corporate influence are wreaking havoc in the realms of good jobs, commitment to public education, governance of a growing number of public universities, affordable housing, and virtually every other form of civic infrastructure, ranging from water systems and access to other utilities to roads and public transportation.

The major themes in our current political climate are permanent war, austerity for the many, more wealth for the few, the transfer of public resources and spheres to private hands, and increased production and servicing of (white supremacist) fear, rage, and resentment. Processes that criminalize people of color, poor and homeless people, gender nonconforming people, people with disabilities, and people who are not U.S. citizens are not being weakened; they are evolving into new, profit-producing forms.

Think we can stave off the interdependent effects of all this chaos and collapse with our usual political discourse? Think that once the Bernie/Hillary thing is decided, we can just bond to defeat Trump (or whoever carries the Republican torch) and life can go on as usual?

Think again. Better yet: think differently.

The same signs and portents that foretell catastrophic breakdown and collapse also indicate that something new is struggling to come into existence. The same undercurrents that unsettle us now augur radical new possibilities in the realms of racial, gender, economic, and ecological justice.

A Contest of Imaginations 

Considering HateImagination isn’t impractical; without it, nothing is possible.

In our book Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics, Michael Bronski and I discuss the importance of contests of public imagination. The same dominant American imagination has largely held sway for hundreds of years. This imagination thinks about violence and justice in four primary ways:

  • Enemy orientation. Society and culture are structured to identify, contain, and eliminate designated enemies and troublemakers. Fear and suspicion serve to rationalize violence and oppression. Policing and militarization extend into every facet of public life.
  • Supremacist assumptions. Society and culture are structured to reinforce white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other assumptions about the superiority of some categories of people and the inferiority of others. These assumptions are not static but dynamically interrelated.
  • Unregulated markets and consumer commodification. Capitalism, markets, and the acquisition of things are institutionalized as the primary means for fostering freedom. All aspects of life—including entire ecologies as well as individual forms of plant and animal life—are reduced to commodities; to things that can be bought and sold for any reason by private entities.
  • Individualism. The delusional idea that “we make it on our own” quashes the principles of the interdependence of all things, shared, responsibility, and public accountability. Its collective iteration is American Exceptionalism.

This vision encourages us to stick with the status quo, within known (and oppressive) boundaries, unless we want to risk annihilation. It is fear-based; it hoards control and resources and triages all forms of life.

As a society, we’re still trapped in this imagination. That’s why we feel the rumbles and flow of undercurrents so strongly. Ultimately, this vision produces only variations and tweaks of supremacist ideology, greed, violence, exploitation, and destruction.

By contrast, imagine public discourse infused by such principles as these:

  • Radical and compassionate embrace of the Neighbor, including repudiation of supremacist ideology in all of its specific manifestations.
  • Adherence to an ethic of interdependence and accountability for our words, policies, and actions.
  • Expansion of public spaces, resources, and an unshakeable, new commitment to ecological health and wholeness.

Imagine how contemporary narratives and debates might be transformed in light of a new public vision of accountabilities to the wellbeing of one another. Our efforts are bound to be imperfect, but each step forward out of the old framework will energize us and help us take the next strategic step.

Out of the wreckage of the past and present, something new and more hopeful is trying to emerge. It’s my job to pay attention and help it come into being. I hope you decide that it’s your job, too. Politicians can help or hurt; they won’t save us.

But they’d better feel our heat. All of them. Because only through sustained mass movements insisting on a new vision of community and justice is it even remotely possible for us to save one another.


About the Author 

Kay WhitlockKay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.