On the Republic, and If We Can Keep It

This post was originally composed back in March.  I’m unsure why I didn’t publish it then.  I’ve done some minimal editing, mostly to recast the tense of the discussion.  I’m now treating this as the first part of a discussion of Trump – and how his disgusting displays reflect all too clearly many of the problems with American culture.  In the second part I plan to address the sexual and social angle, but I think this groundwork or recognizing the lack – often embraced – of American political involvement is necessary too.

I had previously issued a general critique of Sanders, and discussed some of the reasons for Trump’s incredible, not to say fanatical and worrying, popular support.  I am now going on to state a more general concern.  The 2008 campaign of President Obama has become a model for executive campaigns.  An energetic, media-savvy candidate; a couple parts conjuring trick about some noble (or not so noble) cause, and a dose of hero-worship: this is the new model for success.  I mentioned the current President’s campaign; McCain probably got more support (almost certainly more attention) from his selection of a running mate than his policies; Romney was dismissed, sometimes explicitly, far more for not being interesting than for his policies – he didn’t excite people.  And this time around, Cruz and Clinton, running tight, generally well-managed campaigns, were unable to pull away from Trump and Sanders respectively.  Cruz eventually capitulated: Clinton won but in a race close enough to generate ill feeling and conspiracy theories until swallowed up by the threat of Trump.  This is particularly notable for Cruz, who – unless you oppose his policies, which most of his party does not – is most substantially criticized by the claim that Washington insiders (that is to say, his coworkers) don’t like him: and for many Republicans, given the general level of trust in the politicos, that is practically an endorsement.  The more or less complete lack of traction for the best-credentialed Republican candidate, Kasich, is perhaps even more telling.

It is evident from all of this that the American people, as a citizenry, do not take their government particularly seriously.  As we are allegedly a democracy, and constitutionally a republic governed by representation, we can further say that we are not particularly interested in self-government.  And this is born out in practically every other sense the phrase can be taken.  Our habits are libertine, and we celebrate it.  Our social involvement, especially with neighbors outside our particular groups, is limited.  And quite often our actual participation in government might as well not exist.  I speak here as a guilty party, for the record: I am less than diligent about things like cleaning the apartment; I have put in few appearances and less effort at local social or municipal functions; and I would have to look up the name of my mayor, let alone state delegates or congressmen.  I could probably pick my 2014 ballot out of a lineup if the alternatives were not too similar, but I could not recreate it from memory.

Heinlein wrote a story, published as part of the novel Time Enough for Love referencing the “man who was too lazy to fail”.  In Cheaper by the Dozen, the loosely biographical novelization of Frank Gilbreth, Jr.’s childhood, his father (the efficiency expert) is mentioned to have looked for the laziest worker in a plant to figure out the best way to achieve efficiency.  Similarly, when I was in high school and college, there seemed to me to be a sort of unspoken challenge: who could achieve the most while appearing to work the least?  At times it seemed much more important to meet this challenge than it did to actually learn anything, which no doubt explains why I never did learn – or have forgotten – quite a bit that I was and am supposed to know.  The aphorism attributed to Brander Matthews, that a gentleman does not need to know Latin, but should at least have forgotten it (after previous study) is small comfort; and I am at any rate duly punished for my sins by the humorous karma of trying to persuade current high school students to actually learn their mathematics.

This juvenile approach to work is quite alive and well among theoretical adults.  If you spend much time poking around the internet, you will quickly discover vast numbers of people cheerfully admitting to wasting time on the web while they are supposed to be working.  Sometimes this is justified with a, “Well, my boss hasn’t given me anything to do so…”; more often, it’s implied or claimed that the work is done already.  While there may be a legitimate question of what working hours are really necessary, the general tenor of such comments is not particularly concerned with it, except as an excuse.

The same determination to make the minimal necessary exertion extends to politics, in several alarming ways.  The most obvious is what passes for our public political debates.  A reasonably nuanced introductory explanation of a plausible policy position, including the goal, its relation to current reality, and what would be necessary to change things would, on virtually any political topic, take a good fifteen minutes.  A plausible debate between two candidates – let alone several – on one topic – let alone several – could therefore hardly begin with less than a pair of speeches, taking at least (what with applause, the commercial break between, and so forth) forty minutes; an attempt to ask thoughtful questions, and answer them reasonably, much longer.  And while the total time allotted might not be too different from reality, the format certainly would be.

As for the persons included in the debates, much is made of the “two party system”, but very few have pointed out that this is due far more to the media than to any constitutional requirements.  (Though both state and federal regulations quite often have been crafted to maintain the imposition of this system.)  The so-called “election cycle” is stretched out by inordinate attention to party primaries – and cast as a two-party race from the initial stages by ignoring the other parties.  It’s not like it’s particularly difficult to talk about narratives with more than two parties: there are these things called sports which media similarly obsesses over, and even when the Yankees and the Cardinals (say) get most of the attention, the Nationals, Red Sox, and so on are hardly out of the public eye.  Yet the same attention to detail is noticeably lacking in political coverage.

Part of the difficulty is that few people are particularly interested in nuanced evaluations, political compromise, or even understanding other citizen’s concerns.  I have been appalled this election cycle at the number of people I have talked to who have expressed their distaste for the caucus system practiced in some states: who, they seem to say, would ever want to go talk to other people, especially all those unwashed masses, about political opinions?  Many people’s only real concern seems to be electing someone who, more or less, will enforce their own desired political program.

And I do mean enforce.  Whether we are talking about the projection of military and legal force implied by Trump, or the expansion of governmental programs of Sanders (or the precursory programs such as the “Patriot” or “Affordable Care” – it’s an open question which was less accurately named – acts under Bush or Obama), the prevailing opinion on all sides seems to be that governmental power is something to be wielded as a big stick against those culturally or socially recalcitrant.  The metaphors applied by politicians are as frequently as not violent ones; so and so will “fight for” your putative rights; such and such a policy is a “violation of” liberty, as though liberty were a peace treaty; and so on.  And so, while the media – allegedly run by responsible persons and charged with telling the truth – is responsible in some sense, it is not really surprising that two large camps should form when the rhetoric is that of conflict.  Political success in a democracy, especially when “government” is reduced to the application of force in demanded directions, is on the side of the big battalions.

So far I have hardly said anything new, that you cannot find lamented somewhere else.  And, if I were merely repeating the complaints, I would go on to talk about all the usual remedies, “tolerance”, “bipartisan action”, “reform”, and so on.  It does not take a very attentive mind to notice that all of these tend to mean, “enact the speaker’s preferred policies” – and the process of doing that brings us right back to the problems noted above.

So what are the causes of this political immaturity?  What are the solutions?  The causes are harder to identify in detail, but there are a few things which seem obvious.  The first is recent history: the United States has been for some hundred years now in the midst of one crisis after another, many of them military.  The habit of looking for an enemy is one easy to ingrain, and hard to eradicate – to paraphrase Lewis, the great majority of moral teachers have repeated the same basic truths, because they need to be repeated.  It is not hard to fall into the habit of regarding a political opponent with the same distrust as one would a foreign enemy in time of war: friendship between such opponents is rather more notable.

The second is, I think, a side-effect of the first.  Because it made dealing with crises easier, by self-deception or perhaps for some honest conviction, the restraints of government have been largely discarded or dismissed.  Some of these restraints have been removed honestly and by due process – I am thinking particularly of the expansion of voting rights and the change in senatorial elections – but others have been swept away by government usurpations, the products of which we are now accustomed to and objections to which are ignored, or dismissed (by those who benefit) as old-fashioned or by appealing to an alleged impossibility of retrieval, or excused by the (fallacious) reasoning that, since change happens, changes which have happen must be justified (as long as the speaker agrees with them).

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