I confess that I find it difficult to avert my gaze from the phenomenon known as Donald Trump. I suspect I’m not alone. Yet, as I’ve been saying in these pages for years, to focus on an individual actor—even one as powerful and dangerous as Donald Trump or a murderous police officer—is to move away from an understanding of systems.
Activists the world over are calling for systemic change. Yet the dominant thought system in the West—and especially in the US—continually steers us toward an individualistic “understanding” of the various crises that are facing us. Without knowing how systems work and how change happens, how can we consolidate a movement for systemic change?
This issue of Nygaard Notes is the first in a three-part series that looks at recent news through a systems lens. I hope to show how such systems thinking can make it easier to understand the nature of systems and how they change. I’m calling this series The Big Crisis series.
Here’s a bit of a conundrum that offers a hint of the point I’m trying to make: Getting rid of Donald Trump is not systemic change. However, a change in systems will get rid of Donald Trump.
Unexpected bonus: I have discovered on many occasions over the years that “thinking systems” leaves me feeling optimistic about the future. And so it does again in July of 2020. My hope is that The Big Crisis series will have a similar effect on you.
As always, if you want to download a printable PDF version of this issue of Nygaard Notes, just click HERE.
The news website Axios published an article on April 29th headlined “America’s Majority Minority Future,” the opening three sentences of which are this week’s “Quote” of the Week:
By 2045, the U.S. as a whole is projected to become majority minority. And the changes are already underway: non-white Americans are now the majority of the population in four states, as well as in the most prosperous and powerful U.S. cities. Why it matters: The U.S. faces two possible futures: a thriving nation that embraces its new demographic makeup, or an escalation of fighting, racism and xenophobia.
An NBC/Wall St. Journal poll conducted in early June found that “80 percent of registered voters say they feel that things are generally out of control in the country, versus 15 percent who believe that things are under control. That includes 92 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and even 66 percent of Republicans who think things are out of control.”
This is not a new phenomenon. Surveys have been asking United Statesians similar questions for many years, and for many years strong majorities have been saying that the country is “off on the wrong track,” that they are “somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied” with “the way things are going in the nation today,” or that things in general are going “pretty badly or very badly.”
So why does the year 2020 feel so different? It has to do with systems.
In the current moment it is common to hear calls for “systemic change.” In order to make any sense of these calls, we have to employ “systems thinking.” Systems thinking can help us understand the out-of-control moment in which we are living.
Before the pandemic, it was common to see the upcoming presidential election referred to as a contest between the right-wing cult of Trump and a “return to normal” represented by Joe Biden. But, as the rogue journalist Caitlin Johnstone said in a recent (highly-recommended) essay, “Wanting America to go back to how it was before Trump is wanting the conditions which gave rise to Trump.”
Looking at conditions rather than looking at individuals—or perhaps looking at conditions in order to understand the actions of individuals—is the essence of systems thinking.
During the explosive protests in Minneapolis triggered by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police last month, a man named Desmond Carthron was arrested. Speaking to a reporter after his release, he offered some advice: “Don’t look at the people in the situation,” he said. “Look at the situation the people is in.”
Wise words. He’s talking about systems.
The daily news comes to most of us in graphic form, via photos and, increasingly, video. Unfortunately, by focusing on what can be seen we are encouraged to individualize everything we take in via the screen. But the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests are not really about the individual named George Floyd. Rather, these protests are focused on the systems that result in the deaths of people like George Floyd. The killing of one man is not enough to bring millions of people around the world into the streets. It’s the system of white supremacy and the Othering that defines white people as “us” and everyone else as the less-than-human “them” that is the context that gives a terrible and infuriating meaning to the death of George Floyd.
What is going on in the United States in 2020 is bigger than the election, bigger than the unfolding pandemic, bigger than the worldwide uprising against white supremacy, and bigger than the massive suffering accompanying the deep, worldwide recession that is but the latest storm in the sea that we know as capitalism.
We are living in a time that I call The Big Crisis, a time in which long-established structures, institutions, and ways of thinking are weakening or failing. As The Big Crisis deepens and increasingly makes real change inevitable, the currently-dominant ideas and ways of thinking will yield to new ideas. Familiar structures and institutions will die and new ones will be born. The nature of the changes that The Big Crisis is breeding is not settled. Who gets to settle it? That’s what we are fighting about.
What is the nature of these crises that together make up The Big Crisis? We’ll start with fear. That is, the fear on the part of many white people of what might happen when, somewhere around the year 2045, people of color will come to outnumber white people in the United States. I call this fear Demographobia.
The generation of United Statesians born after 1996 has been called the Post-Millennial generation. Some call it Generation Z. Whatever they are called, a 2018 analysis of Census data by the Pew Research Center titled “Early Benchmarks Show ‘Post-Millennials’ on Track to Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated Generation Yet” tells us that fully 48 percent of this generation are “racial or ethnic minorities.”
Pew reports that “Minority representation among post-Millennials is lowest in the Midwest, where roughly a third (32%) of 6- to 21-year-olds are racial or ethnic minorities.” Not surprisingly—given that their parents presumably live with these young people—the whiter-than-average Midwest vote in 2016 went strongly for Trump.
Pew adds that, “Even with the diminished flow of immigrants into the U.S., the racial and ethnic diversity of the post-Millennial generation is expected to increase in future years as new immigrants join their numbers. Today’s 6- to 21-year-olds are projected to become majority nonwhite in 2026 (when they will be ages 14 to 29), according to Census Bureau projections.”
And not long after that—somewhere around the year 2045—white people as a group will cease to be the majority in the United States, making this a “majority-minority” country for the first time in history.
A 2018 scholarly paper called “Racial and Political Dynamics of an Approaching “Majority-Minority” United States” made this point:
“Although research on this topic is still quite young, this growing body of work finds clear evidence that White Americans (i.e., the current racial majority) experience the impending ‘majority-minority’ shift as a threat to their dominant (social, economic, political, & cultural) status.”
Understatement of the year? I think it might be. I call this fear Demographobia. And it is the glue that holds together the base of the Republican Party, which has for better or worse become the Party of Trump.
Scholar and activist john a. powell says that “When societies experience big and rapid change, a frequent response is for people to narrowly define who qualifies as a full member of society.” Faced with huge changes in systems that have shaped our society for centuries, Trumpists long for a return to the days when full membership in society was reserved for white men of property.
There is no going back, though, as the currents of change already underway will soon sweep away Trumpism and the racist and xenophobic systems upon which it rests.
On July 4th the Washington Post published an article headlined “Trump’s Push to Amplify Racism Unnerves Republicans Who Have Long Enabled Him.” It included this line: “On Capitol Hill, some Republicans fret — mostly privately, to avoid his wrath — that Trump’s fixation on racial and other cultural issues leaves their party running against the currents of change.”
It’s not just race and “other cultural issues.” In fact, a general rejection of the currents of change is the essence of what unites the social forces unleashed by the rise of Trump. My name for these social forces is “Trumpism,” the use of which I hope reminds people that these social forces, while focused and strengthened by the election of Donald Trump, were not created by him. What animates the Trumpist “base” goes beyond the Trump nostalgia for 1950s-style racism. And, while demographics assures that such nostalgic efforts will become increasingly futile, the futility doesn’t start or end with demographics.
The Big Crisis
In the year 2020, several major systems are in crisis, with each crisis of a magnitude sufficient to reshape life in the United States. They’re all connected and, taken together, they amount to what may be called The Big Crisis. The racism crisis and the coronavirus crisis are at the top of the list, of course, but there are other, equally earth-shaking crises that we would do well to consider.
The Crisis of Climate Disruption surely tops the list, as the earth’s capacity to support human life itself is threatened.
The Crisis of Inequality and Resource Allocation—Who Gets What, and How Much—is destabilizing democratic structures and economic systems around the world as the have-nots demand to be heard.
The Crisis of a Declining U.S. Empire threatens the ability of the U.S. to dominate global trade and finance, upon which American wealth depends.
The Crisis of U.S. Democracy exposes the systems of privilege and domination that have, up to now, reserved political power for white men of property.
The Crisis of Capitalism offers hope for—or fear of, depending on where one sits—the birth of a new global order based on sustainable cooperation rather than greed and competition.
The Crisis of Social Health is exposing millions of people to the idea that the American Dream—to the extent that it was ever achievable—was based on the twin myths of equal opportunity and endless growth, a vision that is receding into the distance as living standards decline for the 99 percent.
Systems and Possibilities
Systems theory says that “A system is the unavoidable outcome of organized intentions.” What this means is that the people who set up systems set them up because they want them to do certain things. If those systems fail to do what they want—that is, if the systems don’t reflect their “organized intentions”—then they will set up different systems if they are able.
For centuries the only people who were able to do this were white men of property. The Big Crisis may be changing this! Increasingly-visible instability in so many major systems—Climate Disruption, Inequality, a waning Empire, a weak Democracy, fading Capitalism, declining Social Health—is causing long-dormant seeds of hope to sprout as people begin to believe that these seemingly-eternal systems may not be eternal after all. Maybe another world IS possible.
These are the Currents of Change facing the Trumpists and their reactionary allies. In this light, things like the “surge” of federal troops into our cities, the building of The Wall, and the heavy-handed attempts to suppress voting can be seen as merely the rearguard actions of the flag-bearers of a failing social order.
Calls for justice for George Floyd and for the defeat of Donald Trump have brought people into the streets. What will keep them there is hope. This visionary, system-changing hope is captured in the words of activist and author Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
In the next couple of Nygaard Notes (coming your way very soon!): Parts 2 and 3 of The Big Crisis series, in which I briefly discuss each of the earth-shaking crises mentioned above.