In the past few weeks, things have not gone well for political philosophies based in traditional formulations. Right or Left (but more so on the self-identified Right) there is a kind of flailing, a death throe undulation that looks like grasping for anchors in something that feels historically relevant but in fact turns out to be sunk in air or sand and simply gets torn loose the moment any real strain is put on it. At its most discernable, there are a lot “I know what you mean” moments, but even these are more “I think I know what you mean, maybe” moments that later turn out to be coincidental brushes with familiar syntax and not much in the way of substantive connection.
Take healthcare. Whatever your personal feelings about what we should do, nothing being done is what anyone seems to want. Trump said “We’re gonna fix it!” the GOP nodded sagely, then wrote a bill that would not fix it, but would return the state of American healthcare to some rough semblance of how it was back in 2007, but isn’t, because now no one, not even the insurance industry, wants that. They have redrafted the bill to do less damage, but that’s not what they want to do, nor is it what Trump promised, although he keeps cheering congress on as long as there is some kind of repudiation of the ACA, which is not what the voters want, either. In their case, they never really knew what they wanted other than for things to not cost so much, but as to how to “fix” that, those who voted for the current administration have no idea and distrust every single attempt to do so. In the meantime, the professionals who might have some insight into this are being ignored, congress is pretending it’s serving the People by doing something which can only drive up costs, and Trump is offering zero sense of direction other than “Change something!”
Meanwhile, he has modified his requirements of the propose border wall by asking that it be transparent “so no one on this side will be hit in the head by the packages of drugs being thrown over it.” Which has so many layers of problematic misapprehension of the problems it’s intended to address as to qualify as some form of mystic pabulum handed down from an airless mountaintop.
(He also bragged in an interview how great the G20 meeting was because there were, like, 20 countries represented. Ahem. Two things about that–either he is ignorant enough to think that is useful information or his supporters didn’t know that was what the G20 is. Or, well, he thinks his supporters wouldn’t know this, so….never mind.)
Meanwhile (again) at the state level, the Illinois legislature finally found the spine to tell the governor that they’ve had enough of his party fundamentalism, the state needs a budget, and for it to have even a prayer of being relevant, the state needs revenue, so yes, we’re raising taxes. The fact that this is significant is reflective of the dissociation across the entire political spectrum with regard to taxes. In Missouri we have a strong cadre of very wealthy people who do whatever they can to eliminate any tax that dares raise its head, like some manic game of economic whack-a-mole that serves none of the purposes it is purported to serve. Along this line, our state legislature has decided to repudiate attempts at the city and county level to address minimum wage issues and bar St. Louis—or any other municipality—from raising local minimum wages above the state level, which is a joke. Why? None of the excuses make any sense. Basically there seems to be some attitude at work that poor people need the incentive to become middle class and if we pay them enough that they might be able to feed their families and possibly attend classes to try to better themselves, then they will have been handed an unfair advantage and not properly appreciate it. If there were not evidence at hand that this is a bullshit argument it would still be laughable because it ignores the current economic realities and instead seems to assume the situation is no different than it was in 1964.
And again meanwhile the people who are supposed to understand such things are scratching their heads at the puzzling data that while productivity has been rising steadily for the last seven years, along with job growth, wages have stagnated. The increased profitability of all these companies has not resulted in an increase share of the wealth with workers, as it would have (again) back in 1964, and they don’t understand what’s happening. What’s not to understand? Two things have changed since then that explain it quite well—one is that technology has become significantly more effective, which results in the need for fewer and fewer actual employees (I saw a resent example from, I believe, Kentucky about a steel mill that produces wire, which thirty years ago would have employed a thousand people, but which has been replaced by one which produces the same amount of product but employs fourteen, none of them on the shop floor) and we have seen a gutting of unions, which were always the most effective way to force management to pay an equitable share of profits. But people at the top, charged with analyzing and interpreting this kind of data, are “confused.”
Everyone is confused when no one is willing to face the realities of our new present.
The normally natural affinity for a comforting past has been distorted by the manipulations of identity politics and the toxic overuse of pointless nitpicking combined with an endemic ignorance of context to create a situation in which constructive change is becoming less and less possible, at least on a national level. If every suggestion for change is met with swords drawn and blood oaths taken to resist, all possibilities fail. (A sensible approach to healthcare would be a single payer system, but it requires people to back up, give it some breathing space, and a chance. Instead the immediate response among too many is “No! That will lead to—!” Fill in the blank. Death panels? Rationing? A complete destruction of a healthcare system which is, at the level of public service, is already dysfunctional? None of this is rational, but we have frightened ourselves enough that unless it is something we are completely familiar with we see it as threat. But in the case of health care, no one is familiar with its workings, only its results, and not even then do most people know why the results are as they are.)
In the meantime—once more—we have a widening disparity between rich and poor which has opened a chasm. Such chasms have happened before and they always precede revolutions. The question for us will be, how bloody this time?
All because those who might ordinarily be trusted to supply meaningful context and useful direction are either ignored or just as helplessly clinging to a nostalgic hope of “returning things to the way they used to be”—on both sides.
Which leaves the vast majority of people in an awkward kind of stasis. Waiting. Struggling. Clinging.
Into this moves the impulse to control absolutely. Travel bans, surveillance, behavioral rule-making that does nothing but hobble, identification requirements that do nothing but isolate and segregate, public events that end up defining in-groups and shutting others out, calls for a kind of public piety that serves only to make some people targets while reassuring no one. These are the components of tyranny, the necessary elements of fascism. Both those terms have of late been used too freely and consequently are losing some of their prognostic power. When you have a combination of too much fear and too little sense of sanity, that’s when the power mongers—who never, ever have solutions—have the best chance of seizing power.
As we move forward, it might be a useful habit to start asking of every proposal, “Who does this serve?” If it does not serve you and yet you are inclined to support it, ask why? And if the answer is, “It makes me feel safe from Those People” then it’s a good bet it’s a bad proposal, especially if “those people” are your neighbors. Get in the habit of seeing things this way. Like any rule, it won’t track a hundred percent every time, but we have gotten into the opposite habit of thinking that any proposal that seems to benefit someone we either don’t like at the expense of people we like to pretend are “our people” (the rich, the powerful, the right skin color) or we believe will limit our “rights” in some vague way (and usually rights we either don’t have to begin with or are not really rights but privileges) are automatically bad. Again, sometimes this might be true, but it’s a horribly limiting, fearful way to see the world and will lead ultimately to exactly what we think we’re trying to prevent.
Habits of thought anchored to the sand of a past that no longer pertains. Praising a history more hagiographic and mythic than factual. Preserving symbols that don’t mean what we think they do and believing that by protecting all this we will solve the problems of tomorrow. We’ve been indulging this kind of nostalgic political nonsense for decades now.
Do you like where it’s brought us?