Riane Eisler, President, Center for Partnership Studies
The 2016 election laid bare the urgent need for an integrated progressive agenda. Our challenge is to prevent cyclical regressions that cause so much suffering and hold us back from building a more equitable and caring world. Meeting this challenge is a long-term project based on an in-depth analysis of what lies behind the 2016 election results.
Progressives will respond in the Trump era with an array of campaigns aimed at combatting loss of hard-won gains. However, existing assumptions and institutions are proving incapable of effectively dealing with massive socio-economic and technological shifts, and Trump was able to exploit people’s fears and insecurities. We have been here before, as people vote for easy answers from a dominating figure who promises to make their country great again. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, people are understandably focused on the policy threats. But we must not be just reactive. To be proactive, we must first take a deep look at what underlies the impulse of many people to turn to “strong-man” leaders in times of economic and social upheavals.
A Deeper Look
Economic insecurities, false news, hacking, and voter suppression were important factors in the 2016 election. But the question is why these led so many voters to elect a man who incited scapegoating of immigrants and other minorities, who bragged about his sexual assaults, and debased women? Why did so many Americans vote for someone who painted women as disgusting and untrustworthy, as in his call to “lock her up”? Was that really about the emails or was it about punishing a female candidate for aspiring to powers “rightfully” belonging to men, as indicated by Trump’s announcement of a possible cabinet post for General Petraeus who, unlike Hillary, actually breached email security? What led so many people to elect a man who claimed that he alone had the answers, condoned violence at his rallies, and presented himself as a “strong-man” savior?
To answer these questions, we need new thinking, and new thinking requires new social categories that go beyond the traditional religious vs. secular, right vs. left, capitalist vs. socialist, or Eastern vs. Western. Societies in these conventional categories all fail to take into account findings from psychology and neuroscience showing that what children experience and observe impacts how their brains develop – hence their beliefs and actions, including how they vote.
New Thinking: The Domination/Partnership Social Systems
Analysis of society through the lenses of the domination system and the partnership system reveals connections that are invisible through the lenses of the common right vs. left categories. These new categories show that how a society constructs childhood and gender relations – the relations that children first experience and observe – is integral to what people consider normal, possible, and moral in all relations, from intimate to international.
Be they secular like Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union or religious like Eastern and Western fundamentalist, regressive societies — characterized by political and economic domination, injustice and violence – advance their political agenda on the foundation of domination, injustice, and even violence in gender and parent/child relations. They recognize that the four cornerstones for either partnership or domination systems are 1) family/childhood relations, 2) gender relations, 3) economics, and 4) language/narratives about human nature and human possibilities.
For most progressives however, parent-child and gender relations are peripheral. While progressives understand the importance of economics, they do not recognize the importance of the distribution of resources within families or how undervaluing caring work undermines progressive principles. All too often they buy into the old stories about a flawed human nature where rankings of domination are “just the way things are.”
Our job is to make progressives aware that regressive politics and economics are only the top of a domination pyramid, and that unless we leave behind traditions of domination in the gender and parent-child relations that are cornerstones of the pyramid, domination, political and economics will keep rebuilding themselves on these foundations in different forms.
The Unified Regressive Agenda vs. the Fragmented Progressive Agenda
Regimes like the Nazis or religious fundamentalists like ISIS have a unified social/political agenda that promotes “strongman” rule in both the family and the state. For them, subordinating women and anything considered “feminine”, such as caregiving or nonviolence, is naturally or divinely ordained. They promote controlling children through corporal punishment, so that children learn, before their brains are fully formed, that disobeying orders, no matter how unjust, is very painful.
By contrast, progressive have had a fragmented agenda, lacking understanding of the foundational importance of gender and childrearing. So embedded is this blindness that progressives ignore not only the historical and cross-cultural evidence, they even ignore the statistical evidence.
For example, the Center for Partnership Studies’ pioneering statistical research report, Women, Men, and the Global Quality of Life, shows that the status of women is a powerful predictor of a nation’s general quality of life. Subsequent Gender Gap Reports by the World Economic Forum show that nations like Sweden, Norway, and Finland, which have the lowest gender gaps – and invest heavily in good early childhood and parenting education – are highly economically competitive as well as equitable nations.
In sum, because progressives have lacked an integrated social/political agenda, they have not focused on building a solid foundation for a partnership system. Instead, they have left the foundation for domination systems in place, and it is on this foundation that domination economics and politics keep rebuilding themselves. It is on this foundation that Trump was elected.
First Steps toward an Integrated progressive agenda
Making the Invisible Visible
The first step toward an integrated progressive agenda is making visible the obstacles that make it so hard to see how injustice, repression, and violence in gender and parent-child relations are connected to injustice, repression, and violence in politics and economics.
Investigating why so many people were susceptible to Hitler’s messages of hate, scapegoating, and oppression, studies have shown that growing up in authoritarian families where the normative ideal was male dominance and children were harshly punished, is typical of highly prejudiced people who admire “strong leaders.”
Other studies have shown that people growing up in authoritarian, male-dominated, punitive families tend to vote for “hard” punitive policies, such as funding for weapons and building prisons, while voting against “soft” or caring policies, which they associate with the feminine.
These kinds of findings indicate that families that are highly punitive and male-dominated tend to make people vulnerable to denial, which extends to other areas, such as denial of climate change and human rights violations in families and countries. This denial also leads to deflection of fear and pain into scapegoating and the election of strongman demagogues. The domination system keeps women “in their place” and distorts political choices by privileging “hard” or “masculine” policies over “soft” or “feminine” ones. Moreover, the ranking of male over female is a template children internalize for other in-group vs. out-group thinking – be it of different races, religions, or sexual orientations.
Gender and Values
Another important connection we must make visible is that a rise in the status of women is accompanied by a rise in the value of traits and activities generally associated with women. We see this in more partnership-oriented U.S. subcultures, where fathers are today doing the “women’s work” of feeding and diapering babies. And we see it in nations such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland, where half of national legislators are women and caring for people is a priority.
These more partnership-oriented nations have: 1) more egalitarianism in both family and state; 2) more gender equity; 3) less abuse and violence. Societies oriented to the domination side of the social scale have: 1) strongman rule in both family and state; 2) ranking of men and “masculinity” over women and “femininity”; 3) abuse and violence to maintain rankings of domination – man over man, man over woman, or man over nature.
As detailed in The Real Wealth of Nations, neither capitalism nor socialism can meet our unprecedented economic, social, and environmental challenges. This is not only because both came from early industrial times and we are now in the post-industrial era; it is also because both came from times when the West was still more heavily weighted to the domination side of the social scale.
Neither Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) nor Karl Marx considered the indispensable work of caring for people and caring for our environment “productive work.” This has had terrible consequences for women, who still do most of the care work for free in households and for low pay in the market – a major factor in the disproportionate poverty of women, (and their families), worldwide. It has also had terrible consequences for us all since devaluing the work of caring has led to economic policies guided by the uncaring, “hard” values that are our legacy from more rigid domination times when caring for people, starting in early childhood, and for nature, was deemed only “reproductive” work – a label still perpetuated in economic schools today
Today, when automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence has already replaced millions of jobs, and it is predicted that job loss will escalate exponentially, and when caring for nature is a matter of species survival, we must redefine what is, and is not, productive work. This is our crisis and our opportunity.
The Center for Partnership Study’s Caring Economy Campaign was founded to take advantage of this opportunity. Our work shows that policies that reward care work – like paid parental and sick leave, high quality, well paid early childhood education, and caregiver tax credits – are essential, not only in human terms, but in purely financial ones if we are to have the “high quality human capital” needed for our post-industrial age.
As our Caring Economy Campaign makes visible the economic benefits of the partnership system, it also exposes how the domination system is totally maladaptive economically in our age of rapidly changing technologies
Call to Action
The shock of this election has yielded an outpouring of pleas from progressives asking, “What can we do now?”. We recommend immediate steps in our memo, “What Can We Do Right Now?” and you will hear some on the ground use of support for caring for children and the elderly in homes that, in a district that heavily voted for Trump, elected a progressive state legislator who ran on a platform promising to support this work.
But we must do the long-term work, and I urge the progressive community to work from a systemic perspective and develop , disseminate, and implement an integrated progressive agenda.
Many of Trump’s promises cannot be delivered. Let us be ready for the even more disheartened and angry citizen, with the alternative of a blueprint for a caring democracy and economy. Let us demonstrate that democracy works when we have a partnership system. Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D., & Nevitt Stanford, R. (1964). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: John Wiley & Sons.  Milburn, M. & Conrad, S. (1996). The Politics of Denial. Cambridge: MIT Press.