Diversifying a patriarchal leadership
As he recovered from COVID-19, President Trump tweeted out to Americans “Don’t let it dominate you.” For him — and too many other macho leaders in the world today — you either dominate or are dominated.
From Trump’s worldview, getting sick seems to be a sign of weakness rather than a cause for compassionate concern. The attempt by the White House to conceal the fact that several people in Vice President Mike Pence’s inner circle tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend shows the perceived need to hide this weakness.
As the pandemic is flaring with no end in sight, we are all suffering. We are suffering not only the devastating losses from COVID-19, but also from a patriarchal leadership that has failed to acknowledge systemic racism. This is proving to be very bad for our health. The United States is leading the world in the total number of cases — over 8.4 million Americans have contracted the virus — and we also have the highest death toll, which is projected to grow to 410,000 by the end of 2020.
Despite these horrific numbers, the Trump administration continues to embrace a politics of denial. To sustain their concentration of wealth and power, they are steadfast in their determination to resist any policy that prioritizes the public good.
In the latest presidential debate, Trump reiterated the claim he has made many times that the virus is “going away.” Not only do Trump and his supporters deny the risks of the coronavirus, they also deny the worsening climate crisis, structural racism and the dangers of fossil fuel energy. The narratives of denial are accepted because of the cultural impact of decades of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by fossil fuel company executives and other members of the polluter elite who have enlarged their profits by strategically investing in misinformation campaigns to deny society’s biggest challenges.
Also during the last presidential debate, Trump was asked what he would say to people in communities of color living near oil refineries and chemical plants who are worried that pollution is making them sick. His response was revealing. Rather than recognizing the communities’ health concerns, he said, “The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily and they are making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made.”
The complete disconnect between this first-of-its-kind debate question about environmental injustice and Trump’s response, which suggested some kind of financial benefits to those communities, demonstrates why our collective suffering continues to worsen. The systemic dismissing and devaluing of the lives, wisdom and experiences of people of color, women and Indigenous Peoples is the intentional exclusion required to perpetuate the denial.
To end our collective suffering, we need to diversify power. We need to end an overwhelming patriarchal, and too-often intolerant, leadership and embrace new leaders who are committed to social, racial and economic justice.
Research on risk perceptions shows that white American men see all kinds of threats — from climate change to automobile accidents to cancer — as less risky than non-white American men and women. When women, people of color and Indigenous leaders join leadership spaces where they have been historically excluded from, they bring different perceptions of risk and a different capacity to center social justice. Therefore, diversifying leadership is essential to effectively balance risk perceptions and center social justice in our policies.
The complex problems of the world today require collaborative, compassionate leadership that can integrate different forms of knowledge, perspectives and experiences. Such leadership can offer more choices than “dominate or be dominated.”
To get the leadership we need in this moment, we must vote out those who rely on denial and exclusion to stay in power. Instead we must support those who recognize our interconnected crises — the pandemic, climate change and systemic racism — and fight for a more just, equitable and prosperous future for all.
Jennie C. Stephens is a professor and director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs and Director for Strategic Research Collaborations at Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute. Her new book is “Diversifying Power: Why we Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy”