Illustration by Daniela Yankova, @shadowschaser
When it comes to thinking about the future of our country, the prevailing mood is pessimism. If the recent past is prologue, it’s hard to blame people for that stance. The challenges of the past few years hang together like a collection of bleakest hits: the suffering wrought by the pandemic, assaults on our democracy, a reckoning across racial and ideological lines (and the backlash to it), an uptick in mass shootings, and mounting weather and climate disasters.
A feeling of anxiety looms large in the public consciousness, and it doesn’t help that journalism often emphasizes what’s broken, dire, and disappointing. “Negativity is by now so deeply ingrained in American media culture,” writes David Brooks in a new Atlantic essay, “that it’s become the default frame imposed on reality.” The actual reality, Brooks argues, is more hopeful, but the damage done by prevailing headlines is clear. A pair of recent Gallup surveys reveal that many Americans are not only downbeat about the year ahead but also about the prospects of today’s youth having a better life than their parents. With stories of crisis and decline the norm, it’s not surprising that news avoidance is up sharply.
The level of pessimism we are seeing today is also fueled by distrust. A 2021 report by More In Common found that both ideological distrust and social distrust are deep and widespread among Americans, undermining a sense of shared fate. Without a foundation of generalized trust, defined as “an open sort of trust that encompasses many others in society, even and especially people who one may consider as from the out-group,” it’s hard to rally people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs around a positive vision for the future.
The distrust that pervades is not just a product of this divisive moment. It is also reinforced by age-old narratives that reflect a grim – and flawed – view of how human beings are wired. In his book Humankind, Rutger Bregman explains why this is harmful: “If we believe most people can’t be trusted, that’s how we’ll treat each other, to everyone’s detriment. Few ideas have as much power to shape the world as our view of other people. Because ultimately, you get what you expect to get. If we want to tackle the greatest challenges of our times… then I think the place we need to start is our view of human nature.”
A gloomy outlook on the country combined with a cynical view of humanity conspire to stifle our collective imagination. Yet that capacity to envision and work toward better futures is most needed in times of major upheaval and rapid change; that is, now. Against this backdrop, the publication of Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy is a welcome jolt.
Written by Suzette Brooks Masters (with support from Ruby Hernandez under the auspices of Democracy Funders Network), Imagining Better Futures is a primer on futurism and futures thinking, a collection of compelling examples, and a call to action all in one.
The report is anchored in a profound and urgent question: How might we unlock humanity’s superpower – “our ability to imagine the future and to organize others around that vision” – to create a stronger, more vibrant, truly pluralistic democracy?
Suzette had already been on the lookout for illustrations of positive visions for American democracy and had a hunch that there was more to uncover. She embarked on a learning journey to explore this landscape further by conducting 60+ interviews with a mix of futurists, storytellers, artists, activists, journalists, scholars, social entrepreneurs, and funders. Suzette also gathered examples of futurism in action, not just about democracy but across other movements and issue areas. The result, a 73-page report, explains why imagining better futures matters, distills key insights, points to inspiring case studies, and offers concrete recommendations for how to strengthen this work.
A few findings and ideas I find thought-provoking and that we are bringing into our own work at Einhorn Collaborative:
- In the absence of positive visioning about the future, crisis framing, critique, and dystopian ideas win out, fueling despair and squelching people’s sense of agency and possibility.
- In thinking creatively about the future, we ought to lengthen the time horizon – decades or even generations out – to stretch beyond current constraints and close-at-hand ideas.
- Adopting an abundance mindset can unlock inspiring, inclusive visions of the future, yet a scarcity mindset looms large in our current narrative surround sound.
- A culture of pluralism is a galvanizing frame for future-focused thinkers of different ideological stripes, yet it’s unclear if there is a unifying vision for what pluralism is and enables.
- While futures thinking invites us to dust off our imaginations, positive visioning can, and should, also be sparked by bright spots in our midst.
- While there is growing energy and activity around positive visioning, it is a fragmented and early-stage ecosystem – with the potential for greater coherence and connectivity.
Suzette offers three overarching strategies funders could pursue to strengthen positive visioning about the future:
- Investing in infrastructure and relationship-building across this emerging field.
- Funding innovations that bring future-focused thinking into problem-solving efforts and policy conversations.
- Developing strategies – and multiple kinds of content – that amplify narratives of abundance, interdependence, and mutuality.
Einhorn Collaborative is excited to be among the supporters of this project in pursuit of our goal to help create and amplify narratives that foster a culture of empathy, trust, collaboration, and belonging. If we are to inspire people around the power of human connection and motivate them to embrace our differences while also seeing our shared humanity, we must transcend the limiting beliefs about who we are and what’s possible. We need to cast a vision for a much more hopeful and achievable future.
Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy is a resource to keep handy and return to for insight and inspiration. Having joined Suzette for conversations about the report with curious audiences, it’s exciting to see people light up when engaging with the content. It’s as if the invitation alone to think expansively about the future is itself an antidote to pessimism. The imperative is to take up the invitation not only to envision better futures but also to do the work to make them real.