The Future of Humanistic Psychology Goes Hand-In-Hand with the Future of Democracy
by Elliot Benjamin, Ph.D., Ph.D. March, 2022
The past few years I have published a number of articles in humanistic psychology journals, inclusive of Self & Society, that have described what I view as the combined perspective of humanistic psychology and progressive politics.1 In particular, I have been extremely concerned about the possible destruction of democracy in the United States through the presidency of Donald Trump, as well as the continued and escalated possible destruction of democracy in the United States if there is a 2024 Trump 2 or Trumpian presidency (Benjamin, 2021a, 2022). Consequently, when I think about the future of humanistic psychology, I think about the current dire circumstances in the United States, in between the 4 recent years of President Trump and a very possible occurrence of a 2024 President Trump or President Trumpian (Benjamin, 2022). However, the horrendous nightmare of current events in the Ukraine and Russia highlights the precarious state of affairs of democracy well beyond the United States. Aside from the catastrophic inhuman destruction of lives spearheaded by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, democracy in Russia has essentially been obliterated with the arrest and imprisonment of Russian citizens demonstrating against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the threat of 15 years of imprisonment to journalists who dare to write anything opposing the government’s actions (Jones, 2022; Simmons & Bruell, 2022). So I ask myself the question: what place can humanistic psychology have in the dire set of circumstances that threaten democracy throughout the world?
Undoubtedly the link between the future of humanistic psychology and the future of democracy is strongly connected in a number of countries aside from the United States, but my main focus in this commentary is on the extreme dangers to democracy that are currently taking places in the United States. These dangers have been described in terms of intensive and excessive political polarization, pervasive mis-information regarding the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, the prevalence of political violence and death threats against people who advocate for a particular political position, the passing into law of voting restrictions in a number of states, and the gerrymandering and control of delegates by state governments (Kagan, 2021). But what does this all have to do with the core premises of humanistic psychology in regard to authenticity, empathy, and self-awareness (Rogers, 1969)?
From my perspective, without addressing the enormous political dangers to our democracy that we have recently been living through in the United States, humanistic psychology is essentially operating in a narrow solipsistic world that is very much out of touch with the urgency of advocating for democratic political policies and actions that are inherently “humanistic.” A number of humanistic psychology authors have echoed this perspective,2 and I have emphasized this in the context of the empathic social engagement that is at the core of progressive politics (Benjamin, 2018/2019). However,
there are various ways that humanistic psychology could address these enormous political dangers. One important way has been described by Kirk Schneider (2020) in the context of promoting his experiential democracy project that focuses upon people with adversarial political perspectives listening empathically to each other. Schneider (2015) has suggested that his experiential democracy work could be implemented in the United States legislative arena, which I find to be a very creative and relevant way of potentially merging humanistic psychology and democracy.
But another way, which unfortunately has not gained much traction in humanistic psychology circles, is to engage directly in the political process through progressive politics advocacy work (Benjamin, 2021b). These two ways are certainly not mutually exclusive, as Kirk Schneider and I have dialogued about this and agreed upon the wisdom of a “both and” approach (Benjamin, 2021c; Schneider, 2021). But the bottom line for me is that it is not relevant to ask about the future of humanistic psychology without simultaneously asking about the future of democracy, at least in the current dire political situation in the United States (and especially Russia).
The current prospects of preserving democracy in the United States are tenuous at best, as President Biden’s approval ratings are precariously low,3 and all signs point to the 2024 Republican presidential candidate once again being Trump, or else a Trumpian (Benjamin, 2021b, 2022; Kagan, 2021). And what would happen to the core humanistic psychology value of empathy if we end up with a 2024 President Trump or President Trumpian? It doesn’t take much imagination to view the escalated hatred and violence that would likely overtake the country in this event (Kagan, 2021). I believe we have seen a considerable degree of empathy in our current United States president Joe Biden for the past 14 months, even though we may be disappointed with the extent of his empathy for people in countries other than the United States (Benjamin, 2021b). But if we have a 2024 President Trump or Trumpian then I think we can virtually say goodbye to any kind of empathy whatsoever (Benjamin, 2021b, 2022).
This is why I advocate for the “both and” approach of including progressive politics advocacy as a part of humanistic psychology. I’m not alone in this advocacy, as there was definite interest in the formation of an APA (American Psychological Association) Division 32 (Humanistic Psychology) Psychology/Politics task force that was discussed at a 2021 Division 32 APA workshop facilitated by a number of humanistic psychology leaders, inclusive of Kirk Schneider, Eileen Serlin , Phil Zimbardo, and Ron Boyer (Benjamin, 2021a). But unfortunately there was no follow-up to this interest, and therefore I would like to take this opportunity to invite anyone who may be interested in the formation a humanistic psychology/politics task force to contact me personally.4 This task force could entertain a multitude of ideas to accentuate the merging of humanistic psychology into the current political landscape, but I think what is most important here is that it would be a concrete step in linking the future of humanistic psychology with the future of democracy, as from my perspective, it does not make sense to talk about the future of humanistic psychology without simultaneously talking about the future of democracy. Of course one could go much further and talk about linking humanistic psychology to the future of our whole planet in regard to preventing environmental destruction and nuclear war, but this is a whole other discussion. For now, I think a first step is to focus upon the link between humanistic psychology and democracy, given the dire and dangerous political circumstances that are currently taking place in a number of countries all over the world. This is inclusive of the rise in antisemitism, which affects me personally as a Jew, in various countries in Europe (Greenblatt, 2022).
Thinking once again about the current nightmare debacle in Ukraine, we are currently faced with the possibility that Russia may decide to drop a nuclear bomb on Ukraine, which could lead to a nuclear war, which could become World War III (Haque, 2022; McGee & Calzonetti, 2022). In this unimaginable horrific world disaster, again I ask: what role can humanistic psychology play? And in particular, what role can Kirk Schneider’s experiential democracy framework play? And what I am left with is virtually no answer to this question, other than holding deep down to my humanistic psychology values of empathy for other human beings, and engaging in Martin Luther King’s formulation of creative maladjustment, which has been poignantly described by Arin Reeves (2012) as follows:
“The power of maladjustment. . . the choice to not adjust to what is wrong or broken even if it invites others to call you crazy. . . . It is actually crazy to adjust when you know that what youare adjusting to does not live up to the best of who you are. It is the maladjusted who lead. It is the maladjusted who change the world.” (pp. 2–3)
I feel very moved by the demonstration of creative maladjustment on the part of thousands of Russian citizens who have protested the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in spite of their facing stiff prison sentences for doing so (Jones, 2022). They share Dr. King’s commitment to not adjust to what he experienced as evil forces that were in control of his country (Reeves, 2012). They are experiencing these same evil forces today in their country, multiplied many times over, and I am afraid that these evil forces may very well gain control of our own country with a 2024 President Trump or President Trumpian. However, I don’t need to “adjust” to them. I can choose to be “maladjusted” and write about my maladjustment. And I believe that being maladjusted to these current and possibly far worse future political realities in the United States is part and parcel of everything that humanistic psychology stands for (Benjamin, 2018/2019; Rogers, 1969, 1986; Schneider et al., 2015). And therefore in closing, I will briefly share what humanistic psychology founder Carl Rogers (1986), who in the late 1970s near the end of his life had to say in this regard: “I believe our culture is facing a life and death crisis on many fronts, and that I have an obligation as a citizen to speak out” (p. 24).
1) See Benjamin, 2018/2019, 2021a, and 2021b and the references therein.
2) See Benjamin, 2018/2019 and the references therein.
3) See Joe Biden’s approval ratings at https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/biden-approval-rating/ and https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-BIDEN/POLL/nmopagnqapa/
4) The author can be contacted at his personal e-mail address: email@example.com
Benjamin, E. (2018/2019). The merging of humanistic psychology and progressive politics with an application to the leadership and dangerous rhetoric of President Donald Trump: Part 1. AHPB Magazine for Self & Society, 2, 5–12.
Benjamin, E. (2021a). Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, Asian American Xenophobia, and humanistic psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 61(2), 244–259.
Benjamin, E. (2021b). The United States may currently be living in a pre-Trumpian or pre-Trump 2 time period: A combined progressive politics and humanistic psychology perspective. New Advances in Brain & Critical Care, 1(2), 19–24. Retrieved from https://opastonline.com/open-access/the-united-states-may-currently-be-living-in-a-pre-trumpian-or-pre-trump-2-time-period-a-combined-progressive-politics-and-humanistic-psychology-perspective.pdf
Benjamin, E. (2021c). Extended review essay: Healing and re-imagining the United States in the time of Trump. AHPb Magazine for Self & Society, 6-Winter 2021. Retrieved from https://ahpb.org/index.php/nl-2021-t6-00-contents/
Benjamin, E. (2022). Is the United States currently living in a pre-Trump 2 or pre-Trumpian time period? An updated and extended report; March, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/359449454_IS_THE_UNITED_STATES_CURRENTLY_LIVING_IN_A_PRE-TRUMP_2_OR_PRE-TRUMPIAN_TIME_PERIOD_AN_EXTENDED_AND_UPDATED_REPORT_MARCH_2022
Haque, U. (2022). What does Putin want? A worldwide fascist apocalypse: Will Putin go nuclear? Does he want a world war? The answer is even darker than you think. Retrieved from https://eand.co/what-does-putin-want-a-worldwide-fascist-apocalypse-f54f40362594
Jones, S. (2022). More than 4,300 people arrested at anti-war protests across Russia. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/06/4300-people-arrested-anti-war-protests-across-russia-decounce-vladimir-putin-war-ukraine
Kagan, R. (2021). Opinion: Our constitutional crisis is already here. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/09/23/robert-kagan-constitutional-crisis/
McGee, L., & Calzonetti, C. (2022). Putin spokesman refuses to rule out use of nuclear weapons if Russian faced an “existential threat.” Retrieved from
Reeves, A. N. (2012). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. & creative maladjustment. Retrieved from http://www.nextions.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/dr.-martin-luther-king-jr.-_-creative-maladjustment.pdf
Rogers, C. (1969). On becoming a person. Houghton-Mifflin.
Rogers, C. (1986). Some social issues which concern me. In R. May, C. Rogers, A. Maslow, & others, Politics and Innocence: A Humanistic Debate (pp. 23–32). Saybrook Publishers.
Schneider, K. J. (2015). Rediscovering awe: A new front in humanistic psychology, psychotherapy, and society. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. Pierson, & J. F. T. Bugental (Eds.), The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd Ed.) (pp. 73–81). Sage.
Schneider, K. J. (2020). The depolarizing of America: A guidebook for social healing. University Professors Press.
Schneider, K. J. (2021). A rejoinder to Elliot Benjamin’s review of The Depolarizing of America. Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology, 49(1), pp. 68–69.
Schneider, K. J., Pierson, J. F., & Bugental, J. F. T. (Eds.) (2015). The handbook of humanistic psychology: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Sage.
Simmons, A. M., & Bruell, A. (2022). Russia targets media outlets with “Fake News” law, blocks Facebook. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-targets-media-outlets-with-fake-news-law-blocks-facebook-11646442530