Home > Uncategorized > Beware what you ask for

Beware what you ask for

from Peter Radford

This has been a long and miserable time. Deluged daily by strange and almost surrealistic gyrations in Washington I decided to sit to one side and simply watch. The spectacle of America rapidly decaying and apparently unable to prevent itself from gnawing away at its institutions is compelling. The regular attempts to undermine the credibility of everything meant to act as a bastion against tyranny is riveting. The subsequent indulgence in endless introspection about how dire our political collapse is equally absorbing.

Why add to the malaise by commenting?

It’s all out there.

A great nation turned against itself, locked in polarized paralysis it drifts buffeted by the incessant whimsy of its current leadership. That denigrates the word leadership, so I refer only to the titular head of state. He is a misogynist, a racist, a child, and an imbecile.

But he is president.

And the right wing side of our political class has gathered itself around him, disregarding his manifest faults and incompetence, in order to eke out a few long-held ideologically driven policy wins. I hope they reflect on the stain they will for ever carry, and that they are able to regard that stain as being worthwhile when set against those policy wins. 

The left wing of our politics has wandered off somewhere. Apart from one of two who try to carry forward the vision of a fair society based upon the elimination of class based privilege, the rest have disappeared into various forms of narrow minded grievance driven advocacy. They have no grand statement to make about America and its aspirations, they are content to stay small and hide behind one identity or another. This, by definition, is an exclusionary approach despite their protestations to the contrary. It is an orgy of blame-laying and recrimination that will, ultimately, simply splinter America even more than it already is.

There is no center of gravity, no central coalition, no recourse for compromise. There is them, there is us, and a chasm in between.

Yes, I am exaggerating, but this is the way it feels.

And, I think, this unraveling was inevitable.

It began decades ago under Reagan when he launched his campaign in the deep south to summon up the latent racist demons that still motivate white voters in those parts. Why did he do that? Cynical vote grabbing. Why would a Republican from California not announce his campaign in his home state? Why provoke by going to the epicenter of segregation and racism?

To win votes. To encourage the tide turned by Nixon with that same exercise to keep on rolling.

We live with the consequence today: the extraordinary homogeneity of the southern states aligned strongly with the Republicans acts as a bulwark against social progress. Indeed it encourages social regression.

Meanwhile the cities and the coasts tilt ever more towards the Democrats. Why? Because the steady social and demographic change taking place there is played to by the identity policies of grievance. Plus, and leftists everywhere need to confront this, globalization and automation have thrown off great benefits to the educated class that now dominates the policy thought of the left. It is little wonder that the Democrats lost ground in the old industrial states, they have no empathy for the decline of industry. They live in the thrall of the wonders of hi-tech. They have become oblivious to the hardships of technological change.

The entire nation appears unable to enter into conversation about how to deal with change. Especially technological change.

I am tired of being told that our workforce suffers from a “skills deficit” and that ever more education is the solution to the apparent bleakness of the substitution of ignorant labor by clever capital. How, pray tell, is a midlife worker with a family, home, and lifestyle to maintain to take time off for, or afford, his or her continuing education? Especially given that our centers of education are so resistant to technological change and productivity improvement that they are increasingly expensive. And, especially given that the dominant stream in policy making nowadays is adamantly opposed to state driven solutions to anything, let alone the provision of adult education.

Those who glibly ply education as the solution to the problem created by the technologists — they are generally technologists also — utterly miss the point. Education is massively time consuming and expensive. Who will pay for it in future, surely not taxpayers?

Which raises the tax reform bill.

It was totally unnecessary. The economy is chugging along well. We do not have an issue of wealth creation. We have an issue of wealth distribution. The answer from the right is to overheat the economy in the hope that some crumbs might fall to the working people integral in the creation of that wealth. The answer from the left is … well apart from the one or two carrying the old fashioned torch for workers, the answer is to indulge in grievance driven identity politics.

Gun control is another sure sign of the weakness of America. The pathetic response to each and every massacre is to offer “prayers”, which by all available empirical evidence are worth absolutely nothing, and then to capitulate to the insane zealotry of the National Rifle Association, whose paranoia is a classic example of extremism run amok. There is no reason to hope that America will solve its gun addiction. It will tinker with a few very peripheral laws and then claim victory. Until the next massacre, whereupon it will offer up copious prayers.

All this malaise, the decline, the polarization, and the ineptitude of the current administration compiles into a single story: the inability of the nation’s elite to identify and keep pace with the social ramifications of its own advocacy of change.

On one side the elite lauds change and the enormous efficiencies we reap from new technologies; on the other it resists building the state driven institutions to mitigate the social costs of that change. Its inability to conceive of and then execute a sensible health care policy is a classic example of this dereliction.

Despite all this I am emerging optimistic.

Our decline could be temporary and simply the result of the current regimes total incapacity.

But there are preconditions for renewal.

One is that the old policy center, the failed suite of ideas that led to the decline, must be replaced.

Second is that new leadership has to emerge on both sides of the political divide.The continued domination of the left by the aging cohort that came of age under Clinton and who thus are to blame for the demise of left wing politics is absurd. And on the right there is a crying need for someone who can advocate conservatism without falling immediately into some dystopian hatred of the state. None of the younger faces who were rolled over by Trump are worthy of future consideration, although I expect them all to be on parade in 2024.

Third is that the ironclad grip on policy of corporations and wealthy individuals must be broken. Until then we cannot have democratic policy making on behalf of most Americans.

This last is the most difficult to imagine coming into being. Contemporary America is a haven for plutocrats. They are over-represented in politics. They are coddled by the Supreme Court. They are pandered to by politicians. Why would they surrender their grip on power?

Perhaps, and this is probably me dreaming, they will realize that self interest requires them to relinquish some power.

Take, for example, the current pressure being heaped on big business to disassociate itself from the NRA. As companies play and ever increasing role in setting the shape and form of society, displacing along the way our moribund government institutions, and as they thus sieze political power, they become targets for democratic feedback. They expose their decisions to public scrutiny and resistance. They can no longer simply hand over large sums of money to buy off politicians. They can no longer simply encourage the debasement and corruption that such money produces. Now they are on the political front lines.

This is an irony of plutocracy and corporatism.

Instead of being background actors, big corporations are now recognized for what they are: policy makers. They cannot be voted out of power, so they are beyond the reach of democratic control. But their profits are vulnerable.  They can be made accountable through the bottom line.

Economists have long misundertood the duality implied by this. They have long argued that consumers are exquisitely rational in their economic actions, but are extraordinarily inept in their political actions — markets are efficient because of the former, governments are inefficient and self-dealing as a result of the latter. Economists thus imagine consumers and voters to be two separate and discrete groups. The one paragons of enlightened calculation, the other steeped in ignorance and backwardness. We all suffer, according to economists, from some peculiar split personality disorder.

Yet the willingness of voters-as-consumers to identify corporations as the center of policy and consequently the targets of democratic pressure belies the split personality argument. Consumers have realized their power. They can vote through consumption patterns. This recognition of the reality of our political center of gravity is a source of encouragement and optimism.

Big business through its corruption of politics, through its money support of politicians, and through its willingness to seize power to bend policy in its self interest, has been recognized for what it is by voters. It has become the de facto responsible party for the shape, tone, and success of society. The successful engulfing of society by the market puts market actors in the political hot seat. Thus the continual struggle between capitalism and democracy has moved out of the old and increasingly irrelevant political forum and back where it started: in the workplace and in the marketplace.

Corporate management was too clever by half. Now it must wonder what it asked for.

  1. Craig
    March 3, 2018 at 10:53 pm

    We’ve become unconsciously stuck in obsessive and contentious duality and are barely conscious of the thirdness-greater oneness that has always been the signature of wisdom, completeness, solutions, social harmony and graciousness. This applies to those stuck in political conflict theory as much as those unwilling to come off the dime of absolutist interpretations of the 2nd amendment and gun “control”. The nation and the world cries out for the integration of truths known as wisdom, but the polarized issues fall in a forest of the deaf, dumb, blind and unconscious.

    We fall for demagogues and their erudite but insightless counselors who only know how to smash ideas together in hopes that some sketchy “fourth turning” will create renewal instead of chaos, and do not realize that fourth turnings are actually just the result of the failure or refusal to integrate the truths of opposing dualistic perspectives. The Martians and those who do not wish us well must be laughing.

  2. March 4, 2018 at 10:26 am

    Peter, the US has never been a democracy. Was not intended to be a democracy, if you believe the words of its “founding fathers.” It came closest during the Progressive Era (1890-1925) and during the Presidency of FDR up to 1970. But even during these periods voting and political participation by racial, ethnic, and class minorities was tightly suppressed, misogyny was viral and destructive, financial and land fraud was the norm, workers of every sort were abused and murdered, plutocracy was customary, gun violence was common, particularly in the cities. Poverty was widespread, particularly among immigrants and in the cities. Police were often corrupt and/or on the payroll of businesses or local criminals. Industrialization and urbanization made all these worse and added even more sexual abuse for women. In this “shit storm” Trump does not really stand out as special. The four Presidents just prior to the Civil War (Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan) are arguably the worst in US history. They were not just inept and corrupt, they were blatant racists who did nothing to prevent a civil war that killed 600,000 soldiers and probably at least that number of civilians. The first three US Presidents (Washington, Adams, and Jefferson) were exceptional in their own ways. But Washington and Jefferson owned slaves and Adams was so focused on defense that he never examined the land and financial fraud rampant in the new nation. Andrew Jackson came very near to destroying the new nation with his “Populism.” But he did at lease manage to clean up some of the land fraud. The administrations of Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson were the most corrupt in US history, until the 20th century with Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. There was not one President from Grant till 1900 who was not owned by some monied interest. Theodore Roosevelt took on business and wealth (“trust buster”) but began US adventures in invading and controlling Central and South America. Hoover (surprising) along with FDR changed the direction of the nation with their responses to the “Great Depression” and Fascism. The US approached democracy. Except for extensive racism, classism, and populism/isolationism. Economically FDR struck the compromises between business and workers that allowed the US to grown exponentially after WWII while reducing economic inequality and opening elections. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson kept the deal in place (sometimes with force) and expanded it in places. These four also began the process of delegitimizing racial discrimination and segregation. Nixon ham-handedly began wiping out the voting and racial progress and attacked the economic compromise directly. Reagan carried out open warfare against the New Deal policies, particularly the economic compromise, and left it for Clinton and the Bushes to destroy. They failed only because they feared popular backlash. Obama, probably the best President since FDR accomplished little, faced with the most hostile Congress since the civil war. Now Trump steps in. Harkens back to Andrew Johnson and Grant in terms of corruption and Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan in ineptitude. A frightening combination. No more economic compromises, racial and class hatred ascendant, threats of a new civil war, and plutocracy (extreme economic inequality) the order of the day. That’s America, in a nutshell. Still not a democracy.

    • March 4, 2018 at 1:59 pm

      Yes — And through all this gory history of US atrocities, the world was somehow convinced that representative democracy is a good idea even though overwhelming evidence indicates it has been skillfully used to govern us directly to the brink of extinction.

      • robert locke
        March 4, 2018 at 5:09 pm

        When was the world ever convinced that “representative democracy is a good idea.” In the nineteenth century Europe was dominated by monarchies, the two great democratic exceptions (the US and France) were thoroughly corrupt politically, and held up as reasons to reject democracy. After WWI all of the European continent succumbed to fascism. The Soviet Union and China became Communist dictatorships. Latin America avoided democracy as a plague. The only really good big nation postwar democracy has been The German Federal Republic.

      • March 5, 2018 at 7:20 am

        Robert is correct. Male, White, and Property Owning. The only residents of the US who could vote and hold political office when the US was founded. And this was satisfactory for the founders of the nation. All male, white, and property owning. The founders feared democracy; equating it with mob rule. In the view of these founders only the educated, cultured, and financially astute should have voice in the government at any level. The mass of citizens was too volatile, capricious, and unscrupulous to secure wealth, prosperity, and peace for the nation. All this is well expressed in the US Constitution. Things have changed since the Constitution was written but not always for the better. Now non-whites and females can vote and hold office. And even the poor are not left out of the process. For some this is progress; for others not. In 1861 the New York Times put important questions about democracy before the public. “The question now is, whether we can ever become a popular unit in reality, or should seek our political salvation in separate development. The hope of such a unit in many States is, frankly, desperate. And it must be borne in mind, from this time forth, that a single Government and a real Republic for those still in the Union can only be purchased at the price of a reform of the most searching and radical nature. Are we great enough for it – are we capable of it? One thing is, at least, certain, face it we must.”

  3. Rob Reno
    March 4, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    Is this the future of America: https://www.netflix.com/title/80156688

  4. Edward Ross
    March 4, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    I may be a bit simple but the concept of democracy including representative democracy relies on the representatives putting their people before their personal ambitions and this can only be achieved if they listen to their people.

  5. Craig
    March 4, 2018 at 8:56 pm

    Not even a republic, let alone a democracy can long survive without a sufficiently broad and well contemplated survival ethic. And we all know what the pinnacle philosophical concept of wisdom is…so let’s go for it.

  6. March 5, 2018 at 2:15 am

    No mention of Bernie Sanders in this essay, Peter?

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