Friday, January 27, 2017

Wheel of Crisis

I think that you could write similarly angry screeds about "How Obama Happened" or "How Bush Happened," and while they would resonate with people emotionally, they would still likely be inaccurate in the end, because of that focus on emotionality.

There is, I think, something cathartic about rubbing the other side's face in the idea that it was minor skirmishes in the Culture Wars that lead to whatever the result of some or another recent election. But I think that it goes a little deeper than that. The Culture Wars are, at the same time, an expression of both the understanding of affluence and a feeling of poverty. For people in the middle ground, they're not well enough off to turn their attention to ways of imposing their worldviews on their fellow citizens, and they're not poor enough to feel that the imposition of someone else's views on them is a form of adding insult to injury. But the thing about the Culture Wars is that the public tends to be more motivated to fight them when they're on the defensive, yet victories are commonly only realized on the attack.

For the past sixteen years, we've conflated the task of governing the country with fighting the Culture Wars. During the Obama Administration, Democratic voters and supporters failed to make a commitment to their Republican countrymen that "We will make this work for you, with you," just as Republican voters failed to do so during the Bush Administration. Because in the face of opposition from the other side, it's easier to look for gains that will bolster one's standing in the eyes of one's own supporters. And the side that's running the show tends to see themselves as having a mandate to ignore the hopes and fears of people who didn't vote for them.

Anyone who thinks that politicians, of any political party, are above treating politics as "something done to [people], for their own good," hasn't been paying attention. Because this is what the Culture Wars are about. The central premise of Culture War politics is that certain policies are not only good for both geese and ganders, but they are self-evidently so. And that understanding, that the Correct Policies are self-evident, leads to an understanding that opposition is not born of principle or a differing worldview, but from factors such as ignorance, stupidity and/or willful perversity. And once one understands the idea that the other side is made up of the blind lead by the malicious, then we do things to them not for just their own good, but for everyone's good. After all, we care for the disabled to help them, and we punish the wicked to help ourselves - and we do not ask them if this is what they want from us.

A couple years back, I had a discussion with an advocate of Social Justice War, who made the following point:
Telling other people what to do and "talking down to them" creates environments in which people are threatened with shame for not [obeying]. It's dirty, but it gets the job done. [...A]s a change consultant, I can tell you that people typically don't change without the impetus of a crisis -- Our job [...] is ultimately, in the very long scheme of things, providing that crisis.
But the thing about it is, this is how a certain group of people in all camps perceive the world. A Conservative who feels that the undeserving should have their unemployment benefits cut isn't looking to watch them starve in the streets. But rather to create a crisis of insolvency that drives those people to do as they have been told - to go out and find the work that someone, somewhere is assumed to be providing. Doing something to people for their own good. Is it better than doing the work that it takes to ensure that working is better than collecting unemployment? Maybe not. But if you presume that people are perverse, and that only the impetus of a crisis will impel them to change then the answer is instead "most definitely."

And it's this drive, on all sides, to create crises, that creates the pushback. Of all of the reasons for "How Trump Happened," perhaps the most relevant, the statement about finding people jobs, only tells half the story. A voter in Pennsylvania made the very insightful statement that "People want what they had." People who have worked their way up the ladder for 20 years don't want to be retrained into the entry-level jobs of the future. They want the positions (or, perhaps more accurately, the money and the standing) they earned in the past, regardless of how unrealistic or unsustainable in the long run that might be. Their response to a possible crisis that demands that they change - and come out the poorer for it - is to seek out someone who will tell them that the crisis is not real - that it was created at the behest of a change consultant who decided that, out of perversity masquerading as the "national interest," that a crisis must be "provided."

If Democrats had spent the past 8 years making sure that their policies actually worked for people who didn't vote for them to those people's satisfaction (more or less), people wouldn't care about bathrooms, smoking and taxes on pop. There wouldn't be a President Trump, in the same way that if Republicans had done the same between 2000 and 2008, there wouldn't have been a President Obama. Jonah Goldberg noted that Donald Trump is the third consecutive President to promise to unite the country, and that he's going to be the third consecutive President to fail. And I think that this is because he's not going to be able to direct Republican energy away from consolidating Culture War "victory" at the expense of more Liberal/Progressive elements of society in the same way that President Obama was unable to direct Democratic energy. Because while "unity" is an easy thing to say, it's a harder thing to accomplish, because the fact of the matter is that the parties depend on a certain amount of partisan support to advance themselves and their policies. And policies that benefit the opposition as well as the partisan are hard sells. The opposition don't trust the motives and the partisan feel betrayed. The result is that, partisan energy is channeled into partisan solutions that become crises to the opposition. So what will happen is that the Trump Administration will provide enough crises that the Left will eventually end up in Crisis Mode, while the Right will think that they've earned the gratitude and loyalty of the fickle and the pendulum will swing back the other way, to yet another round of Republican recriminations. And the cycle will continue.

I suspect that someone's already writing their angry screed.

H/T: Adam Bragg.

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