Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fighting the Civil War, Over And Over Again

Reflections on the election.

There- we have had our election, and the rednecks (and orange haired) won. Why the bitterness? Why the perpetual lack of understanding of what the other side values and thinks? Why the deep differences of values in the first place? Coalitions may have always been fluid in the US, but the divides between North and South, and between rural and urban, have been relatively durable. There are differences of interest, of upbringing, of tone, and education reflected in this geographic segregation. It is a typical path for any promising young person to leave the country, go to college, and make a new life in the urban, elite centers, forsaking and perhaps even repudiating the culture she or he sprang from.

On top of that rural/urban, or heartland/bicoastal split is the North-South split, which is more cultural in origin: the culture of slavery, to be specific. The many poisons of slavery- its devaluing of humans and casual terrorism, its terror of disruption of a hierarchical social order, its lazy economics of privilege and stasis, its pathetic, patriarchal, and false romances of militarism, chivalry, and the lost cause, seeped so deeply that we continue to fight the Civil War, over and over and over again.

Many cultures have drawn durable victimization narratives from traumatic loss, such as the Muslim Shia's defeat in the battle of Karbala in 680, or the Serb defeat in the battle of Kosovo in 1389, or the Jewish episodes of slavery in Egypt, exile in Babylonia, and final loss of Jerusalem. Such narratives tend to be pathetic, racist, romantic, unrealistic, and for all those reasons, highly effective.

It is evident that politics is conducted in narratives, not policy. Hillary may have had her 23 point plans, and they surely would have served Trump's voters better than Trump's own policies, which as far as we can tell, consist of giving lots of money to rich people like himself, (no wonder he isn't taking the salary!). But the media decided that the email controversy was a better hook with which to explore her personal narratives of secretiveness and control. How they squared this with a bemused attitude towards Donald Trump, who was actually in court for fraud, among a countless other number of obvious scandals, is hard to understand. The media clearly did not understand the nature of Trump's methods or message. This, after two decades of FOX news.

In the absence of narratives on the scale of world wars, which did so much to unify the country in the 20th century, the US political system is structured in a particularly bad way for a politics of emotional narratives. Our two-party, winner-take all system amplifies very small differences into momentous swings in power, focuses campaigns on only a few swing states and small populations, and sets the two parties as a duopoly that excludes new ideas / narratives and rheifies a binary tribal split in the electorate.

So, the perpetually disgruntled South makes a reliable partner in the modern Republican party for the CEO and financial class, united only in their fear of progress- social or regulatory, respectively- towards a modern state that would foster a fairer, more equitable nation by ameliorating the ravages and inequities of the free market, and the inherited social and economic disabilities that keep the class and racial structure so entrenched.

Barack Obama almost sank his first presidential campaign when he was recorded as saying that the rural folks cling to their guns and religion. It was a classic gaffe- as impolitic as it was true. The divide is real. Is the distain deserved? As a liberal atheist in favor of gun control, my natural inclination is yes, it is deserved. This election proves it yet again, that a tasteless, racist, and shallow blowhard could propose a set of policies almost totally at odds with the interests of his voters, not to mention the country and the world, yet win on narratives of hate and revanchism.

Is the distain from the other side deserved- that the US has become a feckless, feminized country of politically correct pansies? Are the elites incompetent? Yes, that has its truth as well. Just looking at the state of public management, where public employees get over-generous pay and pensions, as though the last forty years had never happened, yet accomplish so little, which is apparent as sclerotic breakdowns of public institutions and infrastructure, and the impossibility (or astronomical expense) of building anything new. It is an easy, perhaps lazy critique, but our infrastructure is symptomatic of a nation whose public policy is not keeping up with public needs, or an optimistic, future- and growth-oriented outlook.

All of which does not justify this step into a political abyss, however. Does progress in reason-, law- and process-based public policy necessarily end up in gridlock, as an excess of process and attention to every possible stakeholder, including corrupt interests and non-human species, extends decision times to infinity? No, it is the political gridlock that is far more damaging, since where there is a coherent will, there is a way. With the (white) South firmly in its pocket due to a hermetic social and media atmosphere, and supporting regressive policies in general, the Republican party has now spent decades as the party of shameless, regressive, and especially, destructive politics. It is an inheritance from Newt Gingrich, and from Roger Ailes at FOX. The refusal to consider Obama's last Supreme Court nominee was the epitome of partisan depravity. The Bengazi investigations were a witch hunt in the purest sense, and have now at long last paid their final dividend.

It is worth noting that during and after the Civil War, the Republican party (what a different party, then!) led a surge of progressive public policy, from land grant colleges and banking to railroads. The nation was suddenly unshackled from the political weight of the South, and though the necessities of war had their dramatic effects, the philosophy of the Republican (prior Whig) party were also an important ingredient. One wonders what might have happened had the South succeeded in its secession. We might have become a spectrum of Americas from the progressive and industrial Canada and Union nations to the more feudalistic Confederacy and Mexican nations.


  • We are now a banana republic.
  • Krugman, horrified.
  • A little history.
  • Globalization needs a rethink.
  • It has been harder to find a job and switch jobs, as companies have more power in the labor market.
  • Even Japanese workers have little bargaining power, despite a tight labor market.
  • Who needs banks? The next economic institution of security: blockchain.

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