Preparing for an enormous national transition: what will guide us out of this chaos?

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The 2020 Presidential Election is in its home stretch. If Joe Biden wins, January will bring fresh hope for many of us along with a long period of individual and collective discomfort and chaos as we explore this new beginning together with those who voted for the other candidate.

A socially-distant outdoor birthday party took my wife and me to West Virginia and western Pennsylvania last week. The leaves are changing; fall air refreshed. We forgot for just a moment we are in the midst of a pandemic, a fractious election and a radical reexamination of race and power in our country.

The proliferation of Trump signs on the highway quickly interrupted the peace and reminded us we were not in Maryland (a blue state) anymore. The signs flooded my emotions to overflowing. I felt sad, angry and confused all at once.

I was sad that the division in America is so clear. I yearn for easy answers to bridge the chasms that separate one point of view from another. I don’t see the bridge. My sadness turned to anger as I embraced my disbelief that so many people were uniting behind a message that feels, to me, to be based on hate and greed.

After a while, I tried to look at each Trump sign as an individual. I imagined what caused that person to put the sign up. I reached deep for compassion. Perhaps that person grew up in a Republican family just like I grew up in a Democrat family. Maybe they are just loyal. The next sign was in front of an electronics business. Perhaps the owner has struggled to make it for years and feels like Trump understands business people. Maybe he even got a tax break. Another sign was in front of a home in obvious need of repair. Perhaps this family has been out of work for a long time and remains hopeful Trump will restore jobs long lost.

Eventually, I ran out of stories and admitted I didn’t know why so many people had Trump signs in this part of America. I tried to concentrate on the changing leaves and being with my wife.

When I got home, my curiosity caused me to Google data on what causes people to be for Trump. There are the segmentation theories that add up – white evangelists, older voters, those not going to high school and those without a voice.  A 2018 Atlantic article, based on a study reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, argues that anxiety, and not economic fear, motivated many Trump followers.  I was surprised and saddened to see the biggest motivation is fear of losing white control in America.

Sure, I do understand how having our first African American president shined a light on the march from the United States as a country with a white majority to one where people of color are the majority. The protests after George Floyd’s death and the growing armed resistance to change show how pervasively and deeply this coming change is feared by many.

Election day is one week away. I remain hopeful that real change is coming, and we will have a new president. Yet, no matter which candidate wins the election, our national and local civil wars will continue.

We need to pause and think seriously about what will guide us – as individuals and as a collective – through the tumultuous times ahead.  My short answer is I don’t know. Conversations with friends from many backgrounds and my experience encourage me to look for clues in three places. I will dedicate a post to each over the coming weeks:

  1. Clarifying and affirming individual and collective values. We are struggling with a huge “competing values” conflict.  For me, faith is the foundation for my values. That is not true for everyone. Our first step is finding some shared language that allows us to better connect on the values we share.
  2. Learning from the lessons of those who work as interim leaders and guide organizations through transitions and change. Like with the Coronavirus and climate change, there is science that guides organizational change. A key role of practiced interim leaders is to “come to terms with history.” That is a big assignment for this transition. William Bridges, leader of transition practices, says repeatedly that change cannot occur without completing the ending and going through a period of not knowing what is next and facing the accompanying discomfort.
  3. Adopting lessons from the wisdom of Twelve Step programs. For over 80 years, people with very different life experiences and lots of reasons to not get along have found ways to focus on their “common welfare.” These recovering people and their many fellowships around the world have found and are using practices and principles to get past many of the barriers and fears that divide us into camps and impotent coalitions.  

In organizational life, we often view leaders in extremes – either as heroes or scapegoats.  If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected, they will only succeed if we give them a lot of patience and compassion as they, and we, sort out how we pivot as a nation.  That compassion will help us get unstuck from the misunderstanding and fear that has marked the last four years in our country. In the weeks ahead, I will post more on the opportunity this transition can bring.

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Tom AdamsAbout Tom Adams

Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.

6 Comments

  1. Phil Kurata

    I have a number of dear friends who are Trumpers. They are endowed abundantly with the qualities of loyalty and kindness. I deal with my differences with them by avoiding talking about politics. It’s a hopeless endeavor. There is no way one side will change the other.

    Reply
    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Phil, I don’t want to believe you are right for everybody. I am hoping there is some movement that reduces gridlock and ugliness. We will see. We may be in chaos for some time!

      Reply
  2. Shirin McArthur

    Thank you, Tom. I also wonder what causes folks to vote against their own best interests. I look forward to your further reflections.

    Reply
    • Tom Adams

      Great question, Shirin. It is complicated because love and good appears to motivate people from all points of view. More will be revealed!

      Reply
  3. Catherine Bradshaw

    I think there’s a cult quality to trump’s rein in that it seems to be sort of a blind following of a figure – perhaps even a symbol – that fills an emotional need in people. But that leads to the question of what conditions in our society and culture have allowed/promoted this cult to emerge around him? Social media has provided a platform for ideas to spread rapidly and take hold in the psyche of a segment of the population, but it’s bigger than that. So we circle back to the Atlantic article you highlighted, Tom – that it’s probably grounded in anxiety and fear of losing identity and power.

    Reply
    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Catherine, the divide is quite a phenomenon. I was talking with a friend and former CEO of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. He is on the board of National People’s Action for Housing which has merged and now has a new name. Gail Cincotta was the founder. They are now organizing in rural communities to expand support in Trump country. We always have had differences, but you are right there is much of a cult feel to this. Teenagers join gangs I guess for the same reason – identity and power. Thanks for taking time to comment. Stay well in Alaska.

      Reply

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