Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Societal Regression and Donald Trump

July 31, 2017 Blog 0 comments

Like many, I have spent time pondering and discussing Donald Trumps unexpected success in American politics. While my knowledge of American culture, economics and politics is limited, I became interested in exploring America’s current political and cultural climate in the context of Bowen theory and the 2016 presidential election that led to Donald Trump becoming leader of the free world. In doing so I have tried to make sense of recent events within the framework of Bowen’s concept of societal emotional process. While there are obviously many questions and possibilities left unexplored, my aim was to provide some interesting observations that may be worthy of further discussion and investigation.

Bowen’s concept of the emotional system provides a basis for establishing the link between the human and other animals and involves mechanisms such as those involved in finding and obtaining food, reproducing, fleeing enemies, rearing young and other aspects of social relationships. Guided by the emotional system, organisms appear to respond sometimes based on self-interest and sometimes based on interests of the group. 

Societal emotional process is one of Bowen’s most recently developed concepts and describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, promoting both progressive and regressive periods in a society.

Bowen’s interest in the concept of societal emotional process began around 1955 when society appeared more restless, more selfish and more immature than in previous years. Yet he could not be sure about this. While cultural forces went some way to explain how a society functions, they appeared insufficient for explaining the ebb and flow in how well societies adapt to the challenges that face them.

Bowen identifies striking analogies between regression in a family and regression in larger social groups and society. Regression occurs in response to chronic sustained anxiety, and not in response to acute anxiety. Regression occurs when the family, or society, begins to make important decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment. Bowen’s first clue about parallels between familial and societal emotional functioning came from treating families with juvenile delinquents. The parents in such families give the message, “We love you no matter what you do.” Despite impassioned lectures about responsibility and sometimes harsh punishments, the parents give in to the child more than they hold the line. The child rebels against the parents and is adept at sensing the uncertainty of their positions. The child feels controlled and lies to get around the parents. He is indifferent to their punishments. The parents try to control the child but are largely ineffectual.

Bowen discovered that during the 1960s the courts became more like the parents of delinquents. Many in the juvenile court system considered the delinquent as a victim of bad parents. They tried to understand him and often reduced the consequences of his actions in the hope of effecting a change in his behavior. If the delinquent became a frequent offender, the legal system, much like the parents, expressed its disappointment and imposed harsh penalties. This recognition of a change in one societal institution led Bowen to notice that similar changes were occurring in other institutions, such as in schools and governments. The downward spiral in families dealing with delinquency is an anxiety-driven regression in functioning. In a regression, people act to relieve the anxiety of the moment rather than act on principle and a long-term view.

What Bowen found from his research of human societies was that evidence indicated there is such a thing as social progression and regression and that fluctuations in social adaptation are cyclical, and that they have been present through the centuries.

A critical index of the functioning of an emotional system is the level of differentiation or the balance of the togetherness and individuality forces. The two forces exactly balance eachother. In a period of calm, the two forces operate as a friendly team. The togetherness forces are derived from the universal need for love, approval, emotional closeness and agreement. The individuality force is derived from the drive to be a productive, autonomous individual, as define by self rather than the dictates of the group. These two forces are in such sensitive balance that a small increase in either results in deep emotional rumblings as the two forces work toward a new balance. The presence of the rumblings can provide a clue that a shift is in progress even before overt symptoms are present. The balance is sensitive to anxiety.

Emotional process in society represents the broadest possible tensions between individuation and togetherness, tensions that Bowen had already described and conceptualized in the context of individual family units. This concept expands Bowen’s theoretical system through its accounting for the impact of social influences on family processes and for the impact of family processes on wider society.

Bowen suggests that in certain periods in history, there have been tendencies for society to move in the direction of either differentiation or togetherness, and these tendencies are likely to continue. When differentiation predominates, social improvements and constructive developments follow. Adaptation is successful, the related emotional processes are more flexible and more conducive to growth. These processes generate constructive social changes in the wider society. Although particular sections of society may manifest different qualities and rates of change at any given point in time, there is an overall trend toward adaptation.

When fusion predominates, a society is considered stagnant, manifesting destructive forms of change. When togetherness or fusion forces predominate in society, they impede the differentiation of individuals and groups. Growth and development are stunted in the conditions of fusion, as individuals and groups are unable to function effectively in such an intense and restrictive emotional climate. In times of high anxiety fusion predominates and people are pressured to make short-term tension-ridden decisions rather than more deliberate, long-range decisions. Responsible decision-making is more apparent in societies where differentiation forces are more prevalent than togetherness forces. High crime rates, violence, arbitrary political leadership, and high rates of divorce can be considered indicators of the potency and dysfunctional consequences of togetherness forces in a societal regression.

The quality or intensity of emotional process in society is an important influence on the level of functioning of individual families. Although family systems are significant emotional units in themselves, they are generally sufficiently open that they can be strongly influenced by broader societal forces. When the emotional process in society is intense, individuals frequently try to avoid responsibility for self both in the context of their own families and in other social groups.

Many people are asking, ‘What’s happened to America?” People from other countries have historically viewed America as the land of opportunity. Families in need have travelled from afar and go through rigorous journeys in order to reach freedom from persecution, freedom of speech, and freedom to work. Of course that is exaggerated, however America was once a super power country. They produced more than enough for themselves; they had rich cities that were home to massive auto companies like Chrysler. They had an abundance of real jobs at factories and had job opportunities for almost anyone. Student loan debt wasn’t as big of an issue because people were finding jobs upon graduation. Good paying jobs that allowed them to pay their debt back. Flash forward to today: fifty million Americans are reportedly suffering from hunger.

Is the current emotional process indicative of societal regression? According to Bowen, a regressive process is made up of such a complex group of forces it is difficult to know which is first or most important. Regression occurs in response to chronic sustained anxiety, and not in response to acute anxiety, and when the family, or society, begins to make important decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment.

By all accounts, many Americans have been exposed to both acute and chronic anxiety over the last few decades. They lived through the Sept 11 terrorist attacks and continue to experience the threat of terrorism. There have been significant natural disasters, mass murders committed by young people that make headlines around the world, and the GFC. While America is currently recording low unemployment levels, the percentage of Americans working between 25 – 55 years of age is more than 3 points lower than the pre-crisis peak, with many people giving up looking for work.

How have Americans adapted to this stress? According to Bowen, the lower a person’s, or societies, level of differentiation, the less their ability to adapt to stress. The higher the level of chronic anxiety in the relationship system, the greater the strain on their adaptive capabilities.

One might propose the rise of Donald Trump in American politics as an indicator of American societies ability to adapt to chronic stress. How is it that an American businessman and real estate celebrity with policy elements across the political spectrum became the 45th President of the United States and why now?

Several forces that have been in play for years and have contributed to chronic stress among many Americans have been proposed. Wages for working-class Americans have long been stagnant, and the collapse of job opportunities for workers without a college degree was apparent in the 1990s, long before the Great Recession. Furthermore, economic and social decline—as well as frustration with foreign competition, which Trump channeled in his campaign—isn’t unique to white Americans. Millions of Americans—blacks and Latinos in particular—have faced declining economic prospects and social disintegration for years without turning to a demagogue like Trump.

According to research, it is race that played a large part in each of these analyses. Not only does Trump lead a movement of almost exclusively disaffected whites, but also wins his strongest support in states and counties with the greatest amounts of racial polarization. Among white voters, higher levels of racial resentment have been shown to be associated with greater support for Trump.

A Gallup poll of 87,000 interviews found that Trump supporters don’t face abnormally high economic stress but are identified more easily by measures of racial isolation and cultural anxiety. Four findings were identified with Trump supporters. Firstly, they tend to be older, with higher household income, and more likely white non-Hispanic men. They are less likely to identify with LGBTQ or be University educated, and more likely to veterans or related to veterans, blue collar, and Christian. Secondly, they are people living in regions with poorer health outcomes who are taken by extreme political views when their health status and the well being of their children fail to meet their expectations. Thirdly, they live in communities with higher mortality rates for white middle-aged men, and in regions with higher obesity rates and poorer health outcomes. Finally, they are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated communities in white communities and more segregated. And while they experience economic anxiety, it is primarily cultural angst that is blamed for falling attitudes of social well being in these communities.

An article titled, Donald Trump and the twilight of white America, reported on a recent Census. This landmark Census study on the demographics of US children under 5 years found that a minority of this group was white, and that a majority of American babies are now minorities – meaning a majority may no longer exist. There has also been a prediction that the various forces challenging the core American culture and creed could generate a move by native white America to revive the discarded racial and ethnic concepts of American Identity and to create an America that would exclude, expel, and suppress people of other racial, ethnic and cultural groups. This is a highly probable reaction from a once dominant ethnic-racial group that feels threatened by the rise of other groups, possibly resulting in a racially intolerant country with high levels of intergroup conflict.

Trump has been described as the ‘product’ rather than the ‘shaper’ of his times, with his strength in having identified and harnessed an undercurrent of deep hostility and anxiety toward establishment politics that are perceived as having failed them.

So in the presence of chronic anxiety in response to changing demographics and economic hardship, there appears to be a strong movement by a large percentage of Americans toward togetherness or fusion, which is overriding individuality and being spearheaded by Trump. As Bowen noted, the anxiety that starts the regression appears to be related more to a disharmony between man and nature than to disharmony between man and his fellow man, such as war. This is evident in Americans economic anxiety, which is amplifying racial threat effects by leading a large percentage of Americans to fear losing scarce resources to the rising minority. Prejudice is blooming where voters are most pessimistic and afraid.

The fusion that is apparent in a large percentage of American society is manifested in Trump’s arbitrary leadership, an increase in decisions and campaigning designed to allay the anxiety of the moment (for example, Trumps plea to keep them safe and fix it during their moment of crisis), an increase in cause and effect thinking (for example, the belief that putting a stop to illegal immigration once and for all, will bring jobs back to the US), a focus on “rights” to the exclusion of “responsibility” (for example, a focus on the rights of white Americans to the exclusion of immigrants and other ethnicities), and a decrease in the overall level of responsibility as seen in a drive to focus on problems at home and away from their role as a global leader.  According to Bowen, the more a person focuses on rights for themselves, the less aware they are of the rights of others, and the more he becomes irresponsible in violating the rights of others.

Now that Trump has achieved victory in the US, the question other nations are asking is Are Americans just acting out? Or is this the start of something really big, as President Trump would say? Is the Trump phenomenon the latest U.S. export?

Many countries, including those in Europe, were reportedly telling themselves that Trump’s election was an aberration, a uniquely American response that can’t happen anywhere else. That’s one scenario. Or just maybe Trump is right and Brexit was the first salvo. In that case, the fear is that the 2016 U.S. presidential election was not an isolated American event. Instead, a sweeping anti-establishment and anxiety driven wave may be about to roll around the globe and change political landscapes everywhere.

In Holland, the anti-Islam leader of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, was at one point on course to win the most seats at the general election in March. While Geert Wilders was beaten, it was at the cost of fuelling racism in the Netherlands. Wilders has pledged to close the Netherlands’ borders, shut down mosques and leave the euro and EU if he gets into power. 

Over in France, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front Party may have been defeated but France’s far-right is far from finished. Le Pen might have been squarely beaten in the presidential runoff by the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron – as voters from the right and left joined forces to block her – but she was still projected to have won up to 11 million votes. Le Pen immediately vowed that she would radically overhaul and reinvent her political movement, leaving open the possibility the Front National could be renamed.

This was a staggering, historic high for the anti-European, anti-immigration party that during the campaign was slammed by political opponents as racist, xenophobic, antisemitic and anti-Muslim despite Le Pen’s public relations efforts to detoxify its image in recent years.

At home in Australia we are also witnessing the rise of right wing politics. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is now a major force in Australian politics, having secured four Senate seats in an independent crossbench that has swelled to 11. Not only does One Nation propose to stop immigration based on religion, but to mandate surveillance of all Mosques and Muslim schools. While the ultra right wing Australia First Party is unlikely to gain too much ground in the current environment, their goal is to also give a voice to the disenfranchised and anxious Australians through policies such as reinstating the White Australia policy, abolishing multiculturalism and reducing or limiting immigration. 

According to Bowen, a regression stops when anxiety subsides or when the complications of the regression are greater than the anxiety that feeds the regression. Human beings are not willing to give up the easy life as long as there is a way to ‘have his cake and eat it too … The type of person who survives that will be one who can live in better harmony with nature. Bowen’s prediction is based on knowledge about the nature of human beings as instinctual beings, and on stretching existing thinking as far as it can go. 

Americans and many other nations might modify their future course if they can gain some control over their reaction to anxiety and their instinctual emotional reactiveness, and begin taking constructive action based on their fund of knowledge and on logical thinking.

By Dr Jane De Matteis

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