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Works of Radical Imagination

Betsy Hartmann on How Progressives can Resist Apocalyptic Thinking

July 11

by Seven Stories Press

From Wier Harman's Town Hall Seattle Interview with The America Syndrome author Betsy Hartmann:

Originally posted at Town Hall Seattle

Have you ever had a “Last Question” you wish you’d had a chance to pose at a program? Town Hall Executive Director Wier Harman recently had that experience when he moderated a question and answer session with Betsy Hartmann, author of The America Syndrome. So he dropped her a line the next day and asked the following:

Elizabeth Warren recently said "The progressive agenda is America’s agenda. It’s not like we’re trying to sell stuff that people don’t want—it’s that we haven’t… been as clear about our values as we should be or as clear and concrete about how we’re going to get there.” Considering your diagnosis of an America Syndrome—a national propensity for apocalyptic, fatalistic thinking that “constricts the collective imagination and precludes social change”—is the problem for progressives one of explaining the vision, or of forming it coherently in the first place?

Betsy Hartmann responded:

“Progressives face both these problems, and they are inter-related. In order to articulate a compelling vision that can win widespread political support, a coherent program needs to be developed.  What exactly do we want and how do we get there? Take health care, for example. The idea of a single payer system is gaining traction, and the more progressives can speak clearly and concretely about what the transition from Obamacare (assuming it survives the Republican attack) to single payer would entail, the more convincing the argument. In a sense we need to take the wind out of the sails of fake news and rhetorical hyperbole by charting a practical course toward social democratic/democratic socialist policies on health, education, immigration, environment, economy, labor, social justice and foreign policy. For sure, the challenges are immense, but the message should be that we are capable of problem-solving.

Apocalyptic, fatalistic thinking is not helpful in this process. Reading climate change as the end of the world, for instance, can sink people into despair, when there needs to be informed political debate and action on what kinds of climate policies are most effective in speedily reducing carbon emissions, adapting infrastructure, and protecting the most vulnerable communities.  The America Syndrome also tends to lock us into a U.S.-centric vision when successful climate policies in other countries have a lot to teach us.

The bright side of apocalyptic thinking—that history unfolds along providential lines, leading toward a golden millennium—is problematic, too, encouraging false expectations of perfection. In his inaugural address, Trump proclaimed, “We stand at the birth of a new millennium,” but it’s not just the right wing that makes such claims. Parts of the left also appeal to a kind of moral purist, utopian brand of identity politics that often gets in the way of crossing bridges and building real political solidarities.

The Trump era demands a sort of progressive multi-tasking. While fighting against his retrograde policies, we simultaneously need to develop a multi-issue political program that is inspirational precisely because people understand that it is achievable.”

We’re told to “be the change we want to see”—but what if we can’t see it? Tracing our nation’s fixation with doomsday from the Puritans to the present, author and Hampshire College professor Betsy Hartmann argues that fatalism and apocalyptic thinking is a curse on the American mindset that restricts our capacity to imagine social change. Her latest work, The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness, presents an optimistic perspective that feels custom made for many of us in the current cultural moment: we have more control over the future than we think. Instead of imagining our doom, Hartmann helps us envision a better tomorrow.


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