Random Ideas For Interesting Times

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The Democrats

How does democracy work in a country where great inequalities exist? There are relatively few rich people, owning large amouts of property that gives them substantial power over the lives of their much more numerous employees, customers, and tenants. Obviously the much greater number of the non-wealthy people gives this lower class many more votes with which to limit the power of the wealthy in democratic elections. The main project for the wealthy must therefore be to influence the political system in such a way as to leave their power intact. They must preserve their wealth by investing some part of it in efforts to suppress democracy.

Our experience of human nature suggests no alternative to this. Other highly unequal nations use death squads and the blatant destruction of democratic institutions to preserve the privileges of their upper classes. But if a country has stable institutions and a well-behaved electorate - i.e., a public that believes that the costs of protesting the order of things are likely to exceed the benefits - it can easily use the cost of political campaigns as a filter to keep out candidates who might upend the system. This is a matter of design rather than an inevitable fact: if the process of choosing a country's leaders were considered important enough for elections to be run at public expense, making all serious candidates' qualifications and ideas known to all voters, attempts to filter out dangerous candidates would be noted and protested. But by forcing candidates to raise money to make themselves known to voters, an implicit filter is created. Candidates must have wealthy or at least affluent backers to succeed, and such donors will not be available to radical candidates.

We know that the Republican Party serves the ruling class, but whom do the Democrats serve? The answer, of course, is that they also serve the ruling class - but they do so in a different way. The role of the Republicans is to move policy in the directions preferred by the ruling class. The role of the Democrats is to enforce limits on the degree to which policy can inconvenience the ruling class. If we view the spectrum of "acceptable" political ideas on a scale going from left to right, we can describe the Republicans' role as moving the right edge farther to the right, and the Democrats' task as moving the left edge to the right. Republicans cut taxes and regulations, and while Democrats also frequently do so, their role is often to keep such actions within sustainable limits. In the era of perpetual tax cuts, Democrats have frequently taken the lead in warning of the menace of the Federal budget deficit. Republicans have become dependent on a base of hardcore nationalists and religious fundamentalists as their most avid foot soldiers; the Democrats must offer a safe choice to more urban and better-educated voters, and to ethnic groups that the Republicans may find it useful to antagonize.

If the political system is tolerant of private exploitation of past, present, or future public office, candidates will have many opportunities to acquire wealth by serving wealth. An egregious example of this is provided by Hillary Clinton's phenomenally well-paid speaking engagements, in the period between her departure from the Secretary of State's office and the start of her campaign for the 2016 presidential election. Believing that her rise to the Presidency was inevitable, scores of organizations having business with the US government found it advisable to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a private audience with the not-yet-candidate.

The unexpected competitiveness of independent and self-proclaimed "socialist" Bernie Sanders in the contest for the Democrats 2016 nomination has raised hopes for a new role for the Democratic Party. Other non-traditional candidates rejecting corporate funding are seeking and sometimes getting places on Democratic tickets. It is too early to say where this will go, but the dynamics are obvious as the Clintons and others with vested interests in the status quo use the tools at their disposal to push the new intruders to the margins.

The current political situation in the United States depends upon one of the quirks in Americans' understanding of their country. The structure of all American institutions depends on the power of one class and the "good" behavior of the others. But Americans, since the Second World War, are largely unwilling to see class in anything. Perhaps the shared sacrifices of the war, followed by incessant Cold War propaganda and real postwar prosperity, purged class from the American vocabulary. The Sixties and Seventies forged a link between race and poverty: for many Americans, the underclass was urban and black, and therefore of no importance. Income redistribution in its mildest forms was often understood as transfer of a voter's hard-earned income to undeserving and ungrateful black people. Democrats now consider it very important to signal respect and acceptance to blacks and other minority communities, but since Bill Clinton they've been unwilling to look at any bigger picture of the effects of the widening class divide.

Big Truths and Little Truths

What makes a big truth big is its status within its believers' system of beliefs. It isn't a mere fact; it provides the context that gives meaning to other facts. Its truth is different from the truths of little facts, because if it turned out not to be true then nothing would make sense any longer and the world would be shattered.

The twentieth century was a bad time for big truths. What scientists had enshrined as Laws of Nature turned out to be hypotheses that were approximations to better hypotheses. The concise and seemingly all-encompassing equations of Newton and Maxwell didn't apply in the domains of quantum mechanics and relativity theory. The attempts by Marx and Freud to describe human life with novel theories rapidly fell apart. The old certainties of patriotism and the new certainties of totalitarian theory were discredited in the worst wars in human history. Clinging to religious dogma meant remaining blind to everything the modern world was creating and discovering. Skepticism and irony conquered all.

Western Marxists, having absorbed the Big Truth of the inevitability of Communism's ultimate triumph, struggled against reality as they fought to keep the ugly facts about actually existing Communist nations beyond their conscious awareness. If one lost faith in Comrade Stalin, the promised future might never materialize. To save the vision, the Big Truth of Stalin's wisdom and benevolence had to be true. The messy little truths - the purges, concentration camps, and mass slaughters - could not be true for committed Communists. Religious fundamentalists, whose Big Truths exist in invisible realms, may never be worn down by visible little truths, but the old Marxists finally had to abandon their sacred certainties to live in the real post-Marxist world.

Nationalism is a natural space in which to encounter Big Truths. People are people everywhere, and cultures in an increasingly connected world borrow from each other constantly, but nationalists must continue to believe in the sacred uniqueness of their People, their tribal or ethnic identity. For nations on the losing side in the Second World War, such doctrines were made abhorrent by reality. British and French opinion began to turn against those country's histories of vainglorious militarism. The United States, however, having been the big winner in twentieth-century warfare, saw many of its exceptionalists become even more certain of their exceptional status.

American nationalism isn't like other nationalisms, for which the People existed prior to the Nation that embodies it. The American people are American simply by aggregation. Only a small fraction of residents of the United States are descended from the land's indigenous peoples. Most are descendents of the English, French, and Spanish colonizers who took the land from its original inhabitants, descendents of Africans brought over as slaves of the colonists, descendents of earlier waves of immigrants, or members of the continuing stream of new immigrants. But American nationalists' Big Truth proposes the existence of an American national identity that is more than an aggregate of the peoples in the Melting Pot. Those who embrace this identity are frequently observed using the term "un-American" to describe American people, behavior, and ideas that don't fit their idea of the real America. Everything that is labeled un-American is a little truth that must be pushed aside in defense of the big truth of American nationalism.

It has always been un-American to discuss unflattering parts of American history, especially parts dealing with the American military. Pointless and criminal wars, fought for global hegemony and having nothing to do with the defense of the American people, are seen as sacred defenses of the Flag and the Nation and our Freedom, because - well, because they just are, dammit! In such situations as the NFL anthem protests, it becomes clear that the flag, the anthem and the presumed glorious history of the American military have combined in the nationalist mind to form a unity that must never be challenged or belittled in any way. Some believers in American nationalism go so far as to define the true nation as white and Christian, or white and heterosexual and Protestant, but this is not universal or even a majority view. On the other hand, the NFL protests reveal the complexity of the relationship between American nationalism and ethnicity. Being black is un-American only for a racist minority, but being black and talking about American racism is much more widely treated as un-American.

I have described the content of American nationalism as being almost entirely fictional. I don't think this is an exaggeration. I believe that the Trump presidency is best explained by the American nationalists' long individual histories of treating unwelcome facts as "fake news." Trump offers his followers the reality they want, making no compromises with the messy facts of a complex world. In return, they're happy to ignore his obvious failings, to which they certainly aren't blind.

I continue to resist the idea that there is no point in trying to communicate with Trump supporters. There are many of them, and they're not necessarily bad people or even unusually ignorant people in most areas of their lives. But there is simply no room in any attempt at rational discourse for the big mind-erasing idea of American nationalism.

Outside the Cities

People who live outside the cities can cut trees, build fires, and shoot guns more or less whenever they want to. People in the cities can't even park a car without the approval of city government and property owners. Because of this, city people and country people develop very different intuitions about freedom and personal responsibility.

Different attitudes toward politics follow from this. In the country, the nation is an abstract thing like religion; the flag and the anthem are mythologized, while the actual government is resented whenever it shows up to outlaw something or to collect taxes. In the city, where government at some level is involved in negotiations about everything that gets done, there's no natural tendency to romanticize any government entity or process. Property rights are unquestioned in the country, because to each landowner they mean MY property rights - what other people do with their property is their business. Personal responsibility seems obvious: if you do something stupid with your gun or your chain saw, well, you did it...

But for city people, especially renters, life is thoroughly entangled with other people's assertions of their property rights. Asserting their own right to exist means pushing back against property rights. "Personal responsibility" means something different in a city shared by hundreds of thousands of people, divided among different classes and communities that expect wildly different levels of privilege and opportunity.

We can argue about which way of life we prefer or which set of values is "better," but we can't argue about which runs the world. To the people who run things, rural land, like an urban slum, is simply a resource that isn't currently profitable to develop any further. Companies like Perdue Farms and Walmart will move in whenever they find it profitable, displacing whatever is in their way. City-based media companies have little connection to rural life, which therefore becomes almost invisible in popular culture except for a few stereotypes.

The city-country split, in various forms, has been a constant feature in American politics. However, as urbanization has advanced, the economic and cultural position of rural America has been in decline. The resentment this fact creates in the countryside has become a resource that can be exploited in national politics. No political movement exists to de-urbanize America, and no economic theory exists to support such a thing. But rural values, which make sense within their original context, are being employed by modern politicians to distort the political debate about situations to which they don't apply at all. In particular, by bringing the ideas of unlimited property rights and absolute personal responsibility into complex situations that involve the interests of many people and institutions, the intended result is to tear away the government's power to provide some balance among those interests, leaving only the most powerful in control.

We now have what has to be the ultimate cynical example of this exploitation and distortion. The current champion of the common-sense values of rural America is a New York real estate developer and reality TV star, who is standing up for his own right to make any deal he feels like making, regardless of its consequences for his customers, his employees, and everyone else - and of course for his right to pay no taxes on any profits he obtains from this.

If we can't learn from this, we're finished.