Vicious partisanship is blocking democratic progress. We must step up as political animals, and assert our rights as citizens.
We are in a difficult time.
Partisanship is sharp, and the parties will not work with one another on much of anything. There is hypocrisy on both sides, and political parties view one another as little more than labels, objectifying those who disagree, and abandoning them as unworthy of further consideration. And through it all, obstruction is more important than progress. It has become an ugly us vs them situation.
Emotions flair, people get angry. This isn’t entirely accidental. Anger motivates people. Angry, they lose some of their rational functions. This lessening of critical thought is good for getting us to buy whatever the mountebank is selling. We end up with drive-by journalism, which gives us a distorted view of our situation and ourselves, and doesn’t help us understand our problems in depth.
It does, however, make the publishers wealthy.
In the middle of all the anger, enter Donald Trump. He is the anger-monger extraordinaire. He is the inheritor — or the usurper — of the outrage of outrage media. Under his influence, our divisiveness has increased, and racism has emerged at levels not seen for some decades.
The Authoritarian Personality
The real puzzle is why we follow such outrageous people. I started this blog in support of my recent book (at left). The fact is, for 10,000 years, disagreeing with the narcissistic king resulted in horrific punishment. Needless to say, our ancestors who survived quickly learned to agree with the king’s craziness.
One of the problems that results from this long bondage is that our ability to see the reality around us is blunted. We live with idealizations and fairy tales. We imagine we belong to a nation, and a party, who all share our ideals. And part and parcel of all of this is the , it’s just that the evil, misguided people outside of our group want to sabotage our efforts.
Democracy has rid of us of most of the outward trappings of imperial control, but the people who pretend to royal power are still all around us. They wield great wealth and power, and have found that by pitting us against one another that they can obtain even more power.
One of the first victims of this approach are the fundamental ideas of democracy. If ideological conformity is demanded, if one group decides that they should decide for everyone, then what has happened to representational government? What has happened to our fundamental freedom to speak our minds, and disagree in civil discourse?
Because those fundamental freedoms, despite what some may argue, are not benefits in and of themselves. They allow us to create progress. All of our expressive rights allow for feedback, which allows us to correct our actions, and improve.
This is not an abstract good, but a pressing problem. It is not enough to be strong, we must be smart, and creative. Military might is losing ground to economic might, and economic might depends, more and more, on innovation. In the past, taking risks was dangerous; we didn’t want to be reinventing the wheel. Today risks are crucial to innovation.
Of course, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time we start the car. For most of life, we need to be conservative. But it shouldn’t be a closed-minded conservatism and we don’t want to be pigeon-hole thinkers.
Our educational paradigms haven’t changed significantly since the Medieval, and that doesn’t us help deal with new ideas. The result of these ideas from the time of kings & conquerors is much education is one of intellectual abuse. And so we give our kids training, but not much education; we teach our children what to think, but not how to think.
The problem we have, is that sometimes the crazy people aren’t crazy. Sometimes they’re pointing the way to the future. Analyzing the present means that we have to recognize the multifaceted aspect of our problems. Exploring the future means dealing with some nebulous ideas and unknowable outcomes.
All of this goes back to our ideas about liberal and conservative. We need both of them, we need to look at our problems from multiple viewpoints. Liberals need to recognize that most of life is conservative. Conservatives need to realize that they don’t really want to return to the past.
There is no one-size-fits-all. Conservatives need to recognize that at times, there is value in liberal strategies, even radical, heretical strategies. Liberals need to realize that sometimes we need hard-line, conservative approaches.
And we need to ensure that our universities remain places for dreamers and free thinkers; how else will we design our dreams, and harvest the progress of innovative thought? And we must also realize the original meaning of conservatism, which was not a call for stagnation, nor revolution, but prudent evolution.
To design a new future and insure democratic pogress, we need a diversity of ideas and viewpoints. Everyone on a team should not have the same talents. Conservatives can’t undermine people and groups who pursue new or different ideas. Neither can liberals. It is not one viewpoint or the other, it is both, or all. The ideal is not one side, it is a balance among all sides, what in ecology is called a balanced polymorphism. We simply cannot tolerate intolerance.
In all of this, we need to be aware of how interrelated we are. There are those who believe it is possible to succeed entirely by personal effort, in a vacuum. Equally, we cannot treat those who are failing, or even cheating, and treat them as if they also appeared de novo. All people come from somewhere; if we want different people, we need to design different ‘somewheres’.
Our social programs should not be meaningless give-aways. But just because attempts to dress social ills, address the ‘somewheres’, often become public freebies, does not mean we should ignore where we need to go. We are all of us tied up in the results of our society, so it is not enough to have a robust economy inside of a social wasteland. A strong social program should help people — not beat them, but really help them — off of welfare, and into full and productive lives. Most of all, we need to insure people are educated. Because we either help them out, or they slide further into poverty and crime, where, just as in medicine, the social diseases cost us more than intervention would. A real social program will have a positive ROI, we should get out more money than we put in.
We need to step back, look at how all of this, and all of us, interrelate. We need to realize how a decision over there quickly affects us over here. Rather than argue about what should or shouldn’t happen, we need to talk about what works or doesn’t work.
Unfortunately we tend to talk, and think, in bumper-stickers and catch phrases. We argue for religious fundamentalism, scientific fundamentalism, and constitutional fundamentalism. Unfortunately, when we start with fundamentalism, when we start with a conclusion, we are unable to reconsider what we believe, and so we miss what’s right in front of us.
One of the problems we end up with is the idea that we America and Americans are ‘special’, simply because we declare we are special. This contradicts on of our most precious and important ideas, that the United States is meritocracy. Given that essential principal, we can only be superior, because we work to earn and maintain it. Giving us an interesting question about democratic progress: If another country copies our democracy and our ideas, and implements them better than we have, does that mean we are a failure?
Or does it mean we are success?
So we are boxed in by outmoded ideas, by reactionary customs, and by conmen and mountebanks who sell us angry snake oil. What is the solution?
We need to understand that our country, and our advantages, are not guaranteed. We have to apply ourselves to the hard work of citizenship, we have to stop ignoring the problems in our government. We must become the political animals that we have always claimed to be, and assert our power as citizens.
Fortunately, just as our governmental problems are growing, our tools for asserting public will are expanding. We need to use tools that will increase our power and which will force the powerful to stop meddling in government. We need to force Congress back into a moderate stance by requiring that the two Houses abide by our fundamental concepts.
And we need to stop looking backwards with fundamentalist approaches. The American Founders are dead. If we are to continue with democratic progress, we must stop waiting for Arthur to reappear, and each generation must step up to be the new U.S. Founders.
Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Ship of Fools’ courtesy of Wikimedia.