Introduction to Developing Democratic Leadership with Jamie Raskin’s Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy
Stress can have both positive and negative effects. Since stress is one of the most potent triggers for neuroplasticity, stressful times are fertile ground for either growth or maladaptation. Optimal stress can drive people to acquire new skills, whereas extreme chronic stress can lead to persistent emotional problems. Since grief and loss can’t be avoided, how can we manage stress to increase our potential for growth and reduce the risk of maladaptation?–Lisa M. Shulman (Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain, 100)
Welcome to “Developing Democratic Leadership with Jamie Raskin’s Unthinkable.” We are going to study this literary and political masterpiece about two causally-unrelated but thematically-intertwined traumas that happened one week apart in December 2020 and January 2021, all for the purpose of developing our own democratic leadership. We will be able to monitor our development in five(5) different ways:
- growth in our appreciation of democratic leadership, specifically our ability to understand, talk about, and write what democratic leadership is and how it works using dozens of key terms
- an increase in the frequency and quality of the behaviors of democratic leadership (see below)
- improvements in our collaborative relationships with others
- the short-term and long-term decisions we make in furthering our democratic leadership, including additional books to read, courses to take, careers to pursue, or skills to cultivate
- improvements to our reputation for democratic leadership
We will focus on cultivating five (5) broad democratic leadership behaviors. Arguably, anyone who leads shows these behaviors in some form or other, but we will be interested in how to exhibit these behaviors democratically as opposed to autocratically or tyrannically:
- figuring out what needs to be done and how to do it. This includes activities like thinking with many different people of diverse backgrounds, being deferential to expertise, and being open to changing your mind. We may contrast this behavior with thinking that you are supremely intelligent, gifted, or blessed with insights that no one else has or can have.
- teaching others what they need to know. This includes cultivating expertise, sharing your passion for the subject, sharing your own intellectual growth about a subject (no matter how uncomfortable), patiently explaining information with interesting stories and figures of speech, and assuming that everyone has the capacity to comprehend all the subjects necessary to perform well as a citizen in a democracy (e.g., the law, history, philosophy, literature). Teaching here is contrasted with dictating and presenting an air of infallibility.
- getting people to do what they need to do (or not do). This includes persuasion, showing empathy, being encouraging and hopeful, and listening carefully. The contrast here is with using violence, intimidation, humiliation, or some form of bribery to get others to do things.
- building the teams and organizations needed to solve complex problems. This includes seeing everyone’s potential as individuals and creating opportunities for everyone to shine on a turn-taking basis. This is contrasted with teams where one person is presented as the dominant figure in all of the group activity.
- being the person you need to be. This includes cultivating self-awareness, maintaining integrity, having the humility to change, and surrounding yourself with people who will both question your behavior, lift you up, and mentor you with their own example. This is contrasted with a lack of self-awareness and a practice of surrounding yourself with people who will only affirm your need to feel exceptional.
Before we delve deeper into Unthinkable, it will be important to clarify three terms at the outset: democracy, leadership, and trauma. We will conclude with the core question that Unthinkable forces us all to grapple with, namely, how do we rebuild in an “Age of Trauma”?
leadership. We will use as our definition of leadership the one used for the mission of Kallion Leadership, Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to translating the study of the humanities into leadership:
Leadership is the art of meeting the needs of others and empowering them to realize their potential, in individual, collective, and institutional settings.
You will see this emphasis on leadership as “addressing the needs of others” contained in the five leadership behaviors above.
democracy: Democracy is a form of government in which the people (the dēmos, in ancient Greek) have the sovereignty (kratos) or “say” in collective action for the commonwealth or republic, a word that means commonwealth in Latin. Democracy is recognized in the various documents, instruments, and institutions that seek to express this popular sovereignty in the wisest and most effective way possible, such as, a constitution that guarantees the rule of law is applied to everyone; free and fair elections; representation in the offices of government by anyone and everyone; a separation and balance of powers between judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government; public education; and media outlets independent of government and political parties. Democracy is traditionally contrasted with other forms of sovereignty such as monarchy (the sovereignty of one), tyranny (the unconstitutional sovereignty of one), and oligarchy (the sovereignty of the few). Many ancient Greek historians and philosophers in the fifth-century BCE and beyond debated and discussed the relative merits of these different forms, including Herodotus, Isocrates, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, whose (ultimately inaccurate) characterization of the Roman Republic as a “mixed” constitution held in check by different forms of sovereignty heavily influenced the Framers of the US Constitution. One early and succinct example of a debate about the best form of government is the so-called “Constitutional Debate” among the Persian nobles in Herodotus’ History of the Persian Wars (Book Three, Sections 80-82).
Jamie Raskin Taking a Break from Writing Unthinkable in House E on the Grounds of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC (May 3, 2021). Photo Courtesy of Norman Sandridge.
trauma: Raskin begins the Preface to Unthinkable with the two traumas he experienced within a single week: the death of his son, Tommy, and the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6:
In the week between December 31, 2020, and January 6, 2021, my family suffered two impossible traumas: the shattering death by suicide of my beloved twenty-five-year-old son, Tommy, and the violent mob insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that left several people dead, more than 140 Capitol and Metropolitan Police officers wounded and injured, hundreds of people (including several in our family) fleeing for their lives, and the nation shaken to its core. Although Tommy’s death and the January 6 insurrection were cosmically distinct and independent events, they were thoroughly intertwined in my experience and my psyche. I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to disentangle and understand them to restore coherence to the world they ravaged (Unthinkable xi).
Later, in Prologue, he defines his trauma thusly:
In a clinical sense, traumatized means I have experienced a violent and comprehensive shock to the foundations of my existence, a rupture in my most basic assumptions and beliefs about life—like the assumption that I would have my son with me forever (6).
The book’s title, Unthinkable, is thus a shorthand way of referencing these two traumas. Yet, as we see in the concluding Epilogue, “unthinkable” can also refer to pathways of hope that may be unlocked by “unthinkable” trauma. By framing the story in terms of unthinkable scenarios of despair and hope Raskin sets us up for an odyssey through all of the dark, disorienting, disillusioning paths that trauma may take us on, and he also prepares us for the growth, wisdom, and deeper connection to our fellow humans that can come from trauma.
trauma, clinically defined: Richard Tedeschi, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and coiner of the term “post-traumatic growth (PTG)”, defines trauma as a “set of circumstances that significantly challenge or invalidate important components of the individual’s assumptive world (Posttraumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications, 2018).
Imagine what an “invalidation of someone’s assumptive world” might look and feel like in the minds of others in the following scenarios:
- For a soldier in the military: “those in command know what they’re doing and have my best interests at heart; my cause is just; my comrades have strong bodies and souls and they will always be by my side to support me.”
- For a young child: “those closest to me can be trusted to look out for and take care of me.”
- For someone facing a natural disaster: “my home is built on a strong foundation, that police, fire, and EMT forces are well supplied and know how to take care of me.”
- For a subordinate member of a race-based caste system: “My fellow citizens regard me as an equal member of this country, socially and politically. They see my intellectual and emotional complexity. I have the same opportunities to succeed based on my talents and energies.”
In all of these cases a challenge to or invalidation of these assumptions could be described as traumatic. A person may experience trauma from grief or other circumstances in a number of ways, e.g., as isolation, darkness, helplessness, despair, confusion. For the traumatized person memories and feelings may come flooding back for seemingly no reason and with no control, as if time is no longer linear but on a loop. Probably the most salient metaphor that people use to describe their experience is that of destabilization or detachment (from time, space, and any foundation), some sense of being unmoored, untethered, disoriented, ungrounded, dislocated, lost, or disconnected. As Raskin says, “Never before had I felt so equidistant, so vacillating, between the increasingly unrecognizable place called life and the suddenly intimate and expanding jurisdiction called death” (3).
Depending on their own experience with trauma readers will likely experience Unthinkable differently. Nevertheless, I want to make the case that all, or at least most of us, are living through what I would describe as an “Age of Trauma”, and therefore we are all in a somewhat similar boat with Raskin on the “sea of troubles” in that we must ask ourselves, “how do we rebuild our ‘assumptive world’ in an Age of Trauma?”
On the one hand, you might think that referring to the past several years and those to come as an “Age of Trauma” is inaccurate and overblown. You could argue that all prior ages have had their fair share of trauma and some of it far more traumatic than our own, which is true. Moreover, you could argue that many significant aspects of our assumptive world seem more stable than they have ever been: we can summon transportation at a moment’s notice–a car, a train, a boat a plane–and predict the time of our arrival sometimes within seconds of accuracy; packages–including food from all over the world–arrive at our doorstep with astonishing swiftness and traceability; security systems give us video recordings over everyone who comes to our homes and lots of people who just walk down the street; polling and surveying allow us to predict the voting habits and purchasing habits of our fellow humans in astonishing ways; the weather days, weeks, and sometimes months in advance; we can partner–intellectually, socially, or romantically–with people all over the world who share our interests in politics, religion, and the arts with whatever degree of similarity we like. We should be the envy of hunters and gatherers throughout time, for we can “track” and “collect” everything and everyone with unparalleled success and without ever having to master a weapon more sophisticated than a smartphone. We also survive many things that easily killed off or permanently disabled our ancestors. In human history until the 20th century about half of all people died before the age of fifteen. Now that number is 4.6%. We can reasonably look forward to self-driving cars, colonies on Mars, and revolutions in healthcare through DNA and nanotechnology. Perhaps Ray Kurzweil is right that by 2042 we will be functionally immortal. What do any of us–or at least most of us–have to feel traumatized about? Are we just blindly conditioned to expect too much out of life, such that we are constantly disappointed?
And yet consider all the ways that it does feel like we are living through an Age of Trauma. Perhaps we would not agree that all of the following important pieces of our assumptive world are being threatened (or are that alarming), but ask yourself whether you think it is safe to assume any of the following things about the world of politics, education, the environment, the economy, and the environment:
- in politics
- that our democracy will enjoy peaceful transitions of power in future elections
- that our seats of power and offices of leadership will remain inviolate to mobs and coups
- that those in office will be constrained and guided by reason, curiosity, empathy, humility, and a worldview informed by science and facts
- that members of the opposite political party do not pose an existential threat to us
- that politicians will forbear from exploiting weaknesses in our Constitution or violating the Constitution for partisan advantage
- in education
- that the majority of citizens in our democracy will be informed by a trusted set of professional experts and media outlets, all of whom are civic-minded and share core values and a general consensus of how the world works
- that American history will be studied and referenced by citizens using the same sources and methodology, such that we plan for our future using common reference points
- that our tools and tactics for sharing accurate information will overcome the tools and tactics for sharing misinformation and disinformation
- that people may gather in schools and other public spaces free from random and horrific gun violence
- in society
- that the old have taken sufficient thought for what they will leave behind for the next generation
- that the young will take an interest in caring for the old
- that people can rely on and trust each other to help out in a crisis
- that Americans will work together to understand and eradicate the roots and branches of our race-based caste system and persistent prejudices, including the past race-based traumas that are still with us
- that we are free to determine our own fate–and imagine new realities–for better or worse, and that no one will impose our fate upon us
- in the economy
- that wealth and resources will be distributed in such a way that people have roughly equal levels of comfort, dignity, and control over their lives
- that there will be reliable access to healthcare, mental health treatment, education, and fulfilling career opportunities for all
- that our technological advancements will solve more problems than they create
- in the environment
- that the global climate will remain stable enough for future generations to plan how to live in safety and comfort, free from horrific natural disasters, forced migration, and the random resource shortages that can lead to continual warfare
- that corporations and governments can acknowledge, anticipate, and address global disasters like COVID-19
Even if we do not agree that all of these assumptions are threatened, likely most of us would want to live, plan, and think in a world that is built on these foundations. Moreover, whereas prior generations might have found it possible to “tune out” of these threats to their assumptive world (because there were scarcely as many mechanisms for “tuning in”), now it would take the most deliberate and strong-willed ostrich to ignore what’s going on. As much as we fear floods from natural disasters, the flood of information we receive from around the world can be its own psychic disaster. And note how much of the threat to our assumptive world hinges on one of the most basic human needs, namely, the need to trust one another.
How, then, do we rebuild trust in a traumatized world? Raskin’s answer in Unthinkable is one word, maybe, two: democracy, built on a foundation of truth. How does democracy rebuild after trauma? And how does democracy play a role in the search for its own foundation, i.e., truth? These will be our questions as we progress through Unthinkable and this companion content. Our key will be to try to understand how trauma can be transformed.
For all its horrors, trauma has for many people led to unexpected forms of growth and connection. Richard Tedeschi has identified five forms that we may use to think about Raskin’s own growth from trauma in Unthinkable:
- New Possibilities/Opportunities, often a new job/career or identity (e.g., going from a soldier to an artist). One very common example is to start a foundation to address the problem that caused the trauma.
- Discovering Personal Strength, often thought of as “waking a sleeping giant”.
- Improved relationships with Others, e.g. becoming closer to loved ones, getting to know people and communities that had previously been strange or unfamiliar.
- Deeper Appreciation for Life, i.e., aspects of that had previously gone unnoticed. This is often associated with a feeling of gratitude for what remains.
- Spiritual or Existential Change, a new take on “the meaning of life”
(See Tedeschi, R. and B. Moore, Transformed by Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth, 2020)
How can we, as aspiring agents of democratic leadership, enact some of these scenarios out of the dislocation and detachment of trauma?
Getting Started: the Structure of the Course
The content of this course is organized around studying Unthinkable in dialogue with each other and with the aid of the companion materials that correspond to each chapter, beginning with the Preface and concluding with the Epilogue. Each module contains four sections:
- a Summary of the corresponding chapter
- a Sketching Leadership exercise in which you will cultivate your ability to write about various forms of leadership in creative and descriptive ways,
- Featured Aspects of Leadership Development,
- a Plotting Your Leadership Development exercise. It will be in this last exercise that you dedicate your thought and energy to transforming all of your study and reflection into behavioral, relational, and reputational improvements that you can monitor.
I look forward to working with you on this course, to seeing your leadership grow, and to improving my own democratic leadership based on what I learn from you!