Thursday, January 5, 2017

2016: A Most Radical Year

Dig up the oldest stone tablet from the oldest ruins of the oldest known civilization, and chances are it will be inscribed with the name of a king, and a reference to his victories in battle. These are the universal markers by which human societies define themselves and reckon time. Granted, there are other cataclysmic events – floods, famines, earthquakes, and the like – that merit occasional reference, but the basic stuff of history is always and everywhere rulers and wars.

And our own history as a nation differs from this not a whit. We have self-defining (as opposed to necessary) wars, and we have kings – you know, the ones who are elected or re-elected every four years. We don't call them kings, but that's what they are, i.e. that is the purpose they serve – as figureheads, exemplars, idols, “most admired”, “man of the year”, and so on... and their administrations are provided with terms like “era”, “age of”, and – most shamelessly -- “Camelot”. Whether their actual powers rise to the level of kings and tyrants of old is debatable, but in terms of the sheer numbers of people impacted by virtually everything they say or do they are clearly superior to any known rulers up to the 20th Century. Chairman Mao was the greatest tyrant of all not only because he was a tyrant, but because of the mind-boggling number of people he had life-and-death power over. Look on, ye minor, forgettable, and occasionally pathetic “kings” of the British Isles of old, and despair!

But what would history be, after all, without eras... periods... dividing lines? Just an endless stream of mind-numbing facts, and we surely can't have that! The Old Testament provides a good example. Yes, it is structured in terms of rulers and wars, but there is plenty else going on as well – and those other events, of the types that always risk being “under the radar” for historians, are often, in the long run, more important. More people recite King David's Psalms on a daily basis than remember all of his wars, battles, triumphs, mishaps, and failings.

So American history, on the topmost, surface level, is, basically, a chronicle of presidents and wars, with a few market crashes and depressions thrown in for good measure. Take every statue and every memorial in every park and public square in the nation, add them all up, and the overwhelming majority will have to do with warriors, battles, and wars – with occasional references to things like exploration, invention, technology... but you can pretty much forget about “peace”. Peace didn't make good press in 1000 BC, and it doesn't make good press now. It's not that peace is opposed to human nature; it is, arguably, one of our many ideals and values, but it's so readily trumped by war and strife that one wonders that it survives at all – anywhere. And yet, from a Darwinian point of view, war may be an expression of a natural human drive expressed in large numbers, but periods of peace are also necessary, if for no other reason than to provide rest and gather up resources for the next war. Not only that, but warring and invading tribes have a tendency to, sooner or later, settle down and start farming. If they didn't, they might vanish altogether. Yesterday's fierce warriors become today's peacemakers; look no further than Scandinavia, or Japan.

We see this so clearly in our own history: No sooner is a war won, or somehow ended, or just peters out, than we enjoy a brief period of peace then start getting restless and looking around for the next opportunity to make the world safe for democracy, or some other delusional meme. If you take the history of this country and subtract all the wars (including wars connected to westward expansion, “police actions” and all undeclared wars, as well as those fought on the sly, e.g. by CIA mercenaries) there's not a whole lot left. Economic trends and many social trends have been war-driven, not to mention technological advances. Without war, we would have quickly devolved into a tribe of lotus-eating proto-hippies, lounging on the greensward until some barbarian tribe rode over the hill and put us all to a quick but still unpleasant death. It has been said that “war is the health of the state”, which is true if one defines health as accretion of power. But it may also be true that lack of war is, in the long run, the death of the state – if we only envision part of the world as being peaceful and pacifistic. It may well, be, for example, that nations in our time that are lauded for being peaceable are only able to be so as long as others are at war. The peace and stability of Scandinavia, for example, may well depend, at least partially, on the perpetual stand-off between the U.S. and Russia.

So if the history of the U.S. is, above all, a history of wars and presidents, then it also has to be a history of how wars start and how presidents are elected. Wars can start for pretty much any reason, or for no reason – and they can end the same way. And the amazing thing is that things are no clearer when we witness them first-hand – i.e. when they are “current events” -- than when they are confined to dusty tomes in the history section of the library. Quick, now, class – who can tell me how, and why, we got involved in Vietnam? And who can tell me how, and why, we got out? It sure as hell wasn't because we won. See? This is in living memory, but it is no less an enigma wrapped in a conundrum than it was in 1975. So how can we expect to do any better with the current events of our time? How did Donald Trump get elected? How did Hillary Clinton lose? Is there any agreement on these questions? Not that I'm aware. The Trump camp is attributing his victory to a number of political, social, and economic factors, and the Clinton camp is attributing her loss to, basically, Trump – and his supporters and facilitators in the FBI, on talk radio, on Fox News, and in Russia. (And please note that we're talking about the same FBI that is part of the Obama administration, and the talk radio that, allegedly, no one listens to because all it is is racism, sexism, and homophobia aimed at “deplorables”.) (And by the way, the voting machines that the Democrats, before the election, declared to be absolutely, positively, immune to hacking and meddling turn out, in retrospect, to be highly fallible and suspect.) Heaven forbid the Democrats/liberals' loss should be the fault of the Democrats/liberals or their candidate! Theory forbids it!

Oh, and let's not forget the Electoral College, which, it turns out, is the enemy of the people. I hate to rain on anyone's parade on this issue, but that is precisely what it was designed as – the “enemy” of pure democracy, where delusion, hysteria, and mob rule would carry the day (as they would have done if the Electoral College could have, somehow, been persuaded to reverse the results of the most recent election).  It was also designed to protect state sovereignty, a subject which has about as much salience in our time as the economic impact of buggy whips.  

Another factor which seems to be built into our system, although one is hard pressed to find it in the founding documents, is the perennial “pendulum swing” between liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, communist and fascist (well, that's what they call each other, so who am I to argue?), tradition vs. reform or “progressive”, and so on – to which we can add populist vs. establishment, which crosses the other dimensions. A lot of this may simply be an artifact of the two-party system – also not at all envisioned by the Founding Fathers and to be found nowhere in the founding documents. It's also an inevitable effect of an ideational system combined with the natural human tendency to see things in either/or, black-and-white, in- vs. out-group, friend vs. enemy, etc. terms. Take a look at any public school playground (or prison exercise yard), and witness the natural human tendency to form gangs, societies, clubs, in-groups, cliques. But our system, again because of its ideational nature, tends to limit this natural process in a binary fashion – there can only be two parties allowed, and anything else is beyond the pale. This is why there's a perennial opposition, not only by the established parties, but also by the media, academics, economists, political theoreticians, etc. to “third parties” (which may be great in number, but which are all considered “third”). Maybe it's all about left- vs. right-brain, who knows? The fact remains that there is always a ruling party and an acceptable opposition – and which is which can change fairly suddenly as the result of an election. But they are, at the same time, united in their belief in the two-party system. That, somehow, matches up with their basic premises about reality – about the way things ought to be. Politics is pretty much a game, with opposing teams, but every election is a Super Bowl because there are no other serious contenders – and this is the way they like it. Third parties may be amusing at times, or annoying, but they are hardly a threat unless they act as “spoilers” in an election – but there is always a debate as to who wound up getting “spoiled” and why.

What's less tolerable to either party is an uprising within its own ranks, and in our time that has taken the form of populism on both left and right – Bernie Sanders on the one hand and Donald Trump on the other. And what's amusing about this is that each populist uprising represented a rebuke to the party mainstream; Sanders was a better, and more authentic Democrat than Hillary, and Trump was at least as authentic a Republican as any of the other contenders. But that doesn't matter, because according to the conventional wisdom, populism is an idea whose time has come and gone. It was new and fresh and charming prior to World War I, but since then saner heads have prevailed, and the grown-ups are in charge, and we don't need any more children's crusades or idealists or any other sorts of nonsense. (Consider the fate of third-party populists and other upstarts, like George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Gene McCarthy – a veritable parade of Don Quixotes.)

I should also add that any Democratic candidate will attempt to project an aura of populism to some extent; after all, they are “the party of the people”, right? But if that's true, why do they ever lose elections, since there are always more of “the people” than of the elite. Oh, but wait, I forgot – some of “the people” keep getting fooled by capitalists into voting against their own interests. Either that or they are “self-hating”, or delusional, i.e. casting their lot with the elite even though they are bourgeois at best. The truth, of course, is that the Democratic establishment is as elite an outfit as you'll find anywhere, and they are no more interested in the plight of the “working stiff” than anyone else. This is why it's possible to have a populist uprising within the Democratic Party; it's not a contradiction or a redundancy, any more than Gene McCarthy's campaign was.

The extent to which the mainstream Republicans and the mainstream Democrats have been reading off, basically, the same sheet of music for decades might not have been revealed in such an obvious fashion if Trump had been left in the dust by the nomination process, or been soundly defeated in the election. But things turned out otherwise, and the caterwauling from all quarters is a marvel to behold. Add to this that we have apparently turned out an entire generation of hysterics and paranoiacs, who have now taken to the streets and the airwaves to express their near-suicidal despair over Trump's victory. Seriously, now, did you know there were that many people of this type in this country? It's like a negligent homeowner who one day discovers that the sheer biomass of rats, mice, and cockroaches he's sharing his dwelling with outweighs him by many times. It's kind of creepy, frankly. It turns out that we're surrounded by pod people. But if anyone else on the Republican roster had been nominated, and had won, none of this would be happening. Traditionally, the winners revel in their victory and the losers retire to lick their wounds and make plans to fight another day – but half the populace does not engage in a collective meltdown. And it's not because anything Trump has said or done is all that radical, really – it's just that he's not in the club. He came out of left field, and opposed not only the Democrats and the mainstream Republicans, but also the basic political premises of both. So in that sense, he's radical, and his election victory is not just another mile marker but a radical event.

How radical is it, Johnny? Well, let's think back to 1964 with Johnson vs. Goldwater – both total establishment insiders, and Goldwater's brand of conservatism had a populist flavor, as did Reagan's brand, as opposed to the elitist version represented by William F. Buckley. It was, if you will, an idea whose time had not yet come – or, more precisely, come back from exile. Recall, if you will, that Reagan was considered more radically conservative than Goldwater, and yet he managed to win – but 16 years had gone by, and liberalism had had many more opportunities to demonstrate its bankruptcy in the meantime.

On the other hand, it can also be argued than the Carter campaign of 1976 had a populist flavor – I mean, what could be more “down home” than a peanut farmer from Georgia? But I attribute his victory more to the residual anti-Nixon forces than to Carter's merits (assuming he had any, which is still debatable). Gerald Ford had Nixon cooties clinging to him the way Humphrey had LBJ cooties, and the way Mondale still had Carter cooties in 1984.

In any case, Carter turned out to be a pretty poor example of a populist; it took him about five minutes to become co-opted by the power structure, and five more minutes to be ignored while they went on their merry way. And if Goldwater had won in 1964, would we have seen the mass mourning we are witnessing today? It's hard so say, but again, Goldwater was an insider, albeit on one end of the political spectrum. I don't think the reaction would have been any more extreme than the reaction against Reagan in 1980, although that was extreme enough, at least for its time.

So while Trump was nowhere near the most “radical” candidate in the post-World War II period in terms of his actual platform, he was certainly the most “outsider” candidate who actually won – more than Carter and more than Reagan, even though he also had his own brand of populism. The point is, even though populism is, paradoxically, a minority movement in our time, it's not the most radical position. Even libertarianism and strict constitutionalism are things people can understand, even as they disagree and look down on anyone who “believes that stuff”. But being a true outsider – this cannot be allowed, since it threatens the entire system. It's not radical within the form, as Goldwater and Reagan were; it's radical outside the form, and in fact radical because it's outside the form. Imagine, a rich businessman taking over one of the major political parties and winning the presidency! Is there any precedent for this in our entire history? Not that I'm aware. It's like the difference between rooting for one's team in the NFL and wishing that someone would take over the NFL and do away with it. The world would shatter! And that's just what has happened to so many of these – in many cases, remarkably young – political types. The world they grew up (so to speak) in has apparently been smashed to atoms, and they are totally set adrift, with no anchor and no umbilical cord. How did they acquire this fragile a world view in so few years, I wonder? I suspect the public schools had something to do with it – only to be reinforced by what they encountered in college, while at the same time hearing, seeing, and reading nothing in serious opposition in any media. Their skulls are like the proverbial glass house – and Donald Trump has been only too happy to start lobbing stones.

What's in store for these people? Do they stay miserable and helpless for 4 or 8 years? Do they become depressed and go underground, and start a revolution? I don't think they have it in them. But to think of such a large portion of the population given over to instant despair and resignation – that is depressing in its own right. Perhaps when reality overcomes Trump and Co. starting on Jan. 20, these people will see that nothing all that terrible will happen because nothing all that terrible can happen – or, to be more precise, the baseline upon which we act out our history is not about to change. We've been here too long. There are too many layers of delusion, habit, bureaucracy, custom, expectation, ossification, and petrification preventing things from being a whole different tomorrow than they are today. Besides which, someone out there has things well in hand, and no mere businessman-turned-politician is going to be able to budge what has become a monolith. If, as has been said, progress is an illusion, then it may be that change is an illusion as well – change for the worse as well as change for the better, except in tiny increments that don't impress anybody, and that constitute an endless source of frustration for idealists and revolutionaries.


JustMe said...

200+ years is not that long. I would not bet on the survival of the United States.

Dave Witter said...

Well, no civilization lasts forever, no matter how "advanced" or meritorious, and in our case we have pretty much used up any positive karma we might have started with or accumulated over the years. We are still a nation of "ideas", but those ideas have been reduced to mere idols to which lip service is occasionally given, but our actions are not significantly different from other Western nations. So we are already on the road to ruin, but it's a very long road, and what's at least as likely as literal ruin and extinction is some kind of "morphing" into something completely different and unrecognizable (as if things as they are now would be recognizable to anyone of our parents' generation or earlier). In short, I would say that the American Experiment, as noble as it was, was flawed from the start, and those flaws have, over time, expanded and pretty much taken over. We are, in other words, being conquered by the sheer banality of normalcy and becoming non-exceptional.