Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.
As I write this (Jan 2nd), there are still some hanging uncertainties surrounding the departure of Donald Trump. Will January 6th produce any massive civil unrest? Will Trump supporters take to the streets in DC and try to physically impede Congress from certifying Biden’s victory? Will Mike Pence just do his job unceremoniously and then fade into the background for a while? Or will he grandstand and give his boss one last ego-stroke? Will Trump actually leave on his own on January 20th (or sooner), or will he create a media spectacle by forcing the Secret Service to take him out by a firmly-gripped arm, so that he can cement his image as the persecuted victim of Deep State thuggery? Might he even try to stage a military coup with his staunch loyalists, something that would also result in his forceful removal and perhaps even martyrdom?
For the purposes of this piece, we’ll assume that Trump goes relatively peacefully, albeit not quietly. After Trump, what can actually be done to start repairing the damage that his administration has done to the country, to our sense of national unity, and to our perception of reality itself? Joe Biden has positioned himself as a transitional healer, a bridge to normalcy that will get us (back?) to some version of a cooperative and hopefully boring federal government again. The incoming administration is sending signals that stability, competence, and steadiness are the watchwords for the next few years, a revival of grown-up people in charge, good folks with dormant Twitter accounts and well-worn reading glasses.
But is that realistic? Can radical political polarization just be transcended by the return of a functionary-driven executive branch? The short answer is: no. And here’s why:
First of all, the Republican Party has been fully captured by Trump. Or more specifically, Trumpism. Fintan O’Toole put it perfectly, in his staggeringly important post-election piece, “Democracy’s Afterlife:“
“Trumpism now is the GOP’s death warmed over. Like a political remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it has fully assimilated the outward appearances and forms of the dead Republican Party to a new body, a duplicate that looks the same but that has in fact been hollowed out. Trump’s White House speech on election night made explicit that what has been excised in this process is the most basic assumption of electoral democracy: that the majority wins and the minority, however disappointed, accepts the legitimacy of its victory and its right to govern….What Trump stumbled on was that the solution to the party’s chronic inability to win a majority of voters in presidential elections was to stop trying and instead to embrace and enforce minority rule.“
Trump’s baseless assertions of a stolen election are not just some novel, wacky, last-ditch attempt to stay in power. Let’s remember that Trump still insists that he won the popular vote in 2016 as well, since millions of people voted illegally back then too. This is the key illusion for a party that has turned to minority rule as a strategy, as O’Toole explains. Since the GOP is not choosing to confront changing American demographics by becoming more inclusive and welcoming in its rhetoric, it must turn to flat-out denial that there could actually be millions more people who legitimately prefer Democrats to Republicans, or even liberalism to conservatism. Instead, electoral losses have to be explained away as fraudulent, as fundamentally not real.
Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. There are two ways to respond to that beatdown: expand your appeal to the people that are not voting for you, or do everything in your power to stop those people from voting in the first place. With the growing popularity of Trump’s Stop the Steal bullshit, especially amongst sitting Republican politicians, it is obvious which path the GOP has taken. Their project has been, and will continue to be, to do everything possible to make voting difficult for traditionally Democratic communities. Despite the conservative rhetoric of wanting to reduce illegitimate voting, there will be no actual effort from them to expand and secure the voting process. If the veracity of mail-in voting is such a concern, one would expect the GOP to call for expanded in-person voting, by funding more polling places in urban areas, by updating voting machines to have full, unambiguous paper-trails, and by ensuring early voting periods in all states (especially weekend voting). But that is not what we’ll get from Republicans. Instead, there will be all kinds of new hurdles and complexities put in place in GOP-controlled states, things tailored to ensure that Democratic areas are underserved and undercounted. Cutting the Census off as early as possible in 2020 was another tactic to undercount and underrepresent the minority populations that are gaining demographic momentum.
In short, Trumpism ensures that that the major political project for the Republicans for the next several years (at least) will be to peddle a narrative that millions of Americans are not legitimate Americans at all, and thus not deserving of the vote or really anything else. After all, their concern is not really that there are millions of fraudulent votes being cast for Democrats. There is no evidence of that at all, and a massive conspiracy is not possible when each state is responsible for securing and running its own elections. No, fraudulent votes are not their concern. It’s fraudulent, illegitimate people. That’s what Trumpism is about: identifying and repressing people who are just not ‘American’ enough in their looks, their color, their religion, their living arrangements, their lovers, or their languages. Cities and coastal areas are just corrupt by nature, because they’re filled with subhuman people, or at least people who are not American enough.
A Trumpist GOP will not be interested in dialogue, or cooperation, or reaching across the aisle. There will be no consensus around a common sense middle ground, because that old-school framing is obsolete. The name of the game today is ideological warfare, and the GOP will continue to battle the enemy: Democrats and liberals. Trumpism is here to stay, and what that means is that loyalty to the cause is paramount. Right now, that polestar is Donald Trump himself. But after Trump is gone, the deeper cause will remain: eternal battle against liberalism, no matter who happens to be carrying the banner.
It is very difficult to engage in constructive dialogue with a group of people that views anyone on the other side of the political spectrum as enemies of the United States. So I am highly skeptical of any approach that counsels finding common ground on specific issues, or establishing safe places for people of different ideologies to engage in supportive, healthy conversation. The trope that we can find mutual places of agreement because we’re all basically the same, and want the same things, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that national political parties play in the United States today.
The United States is the third largest country in the world, in both population and physical area, and it has the largest economy in the history of civilization. The US is a huge, sprawling, complex society, containing thousands of different ethnicities, languages, religions, cultures, and lifestyles. We churn out a dizzying array of institutions, products, organizations, philosophies, and arts. Basically, you can find anything under the sun in America.
So how is it that in our politics, we have been neatly split into two camps, with each side increasingly seeing the other through the lenses of hatred, dismissal and disdain? How have we been crammed into information silos, where tens of millions of people literally never read or hear one word that is not pre-filtered through a discrete set of traditional media outlets and social media algorithms? How did the most dynamic, diverse society in history become trapped so completely in an ideological death match?
It’s all about identity formation. Ezra Klein details this beautifully in his 2020 book, Why We’re Polarized. The split between liberals and conservatives has very little to do with policy positions or philosophical beliefs. Rather, it is about belonging to a group that validates your existence and makes you feel at home. As traditional identity-forming institutions decline, setting people adrift in a confusing world, the national political parties step into the void, creating entire cultural universes that help people anchor their lives to something solid again. The acceleration of capitalism in the last 50 years has wiped out most of the traditional cultural and economic underpinnings of the United States. Churches, labor unions, local retail, farming co-ops, social clubs – what Tocqueville called our intermediate institutions – these have all been radically reshaped and degraded by the rapid evolution of technology-driven corporate capitalism. Things that seemed solid and timeless a couple decades ago (lifetime employment, pensions, upward social mobility,…..shopping malls) have melted into thin air, leaving us adrift in an uncertain and frightening sea.
For the select few at the top, and the fortunate but small cadre of technical support staff, American capitalism has been a bonanza of riches. But for the rest of us, anxiety, stress, and existential terror at facing a fragile, fracturing future are the defining emotions. The familiar has been so quickly erased and transformed that we cannot make the appropriate adjustments in the real-time pace of our normal human lives. As such, there is a roiling ocean of dread, despair, and rage that now constitutes much of the American infrastructure (this is the true ‘liquidity’ of the masses). We don’t know where to turn to for help in defining who we are any more, and the national political ideologies step in to fill that need.
Unfortunately, uniting tens of millions of people into a cohesive identity cannot be done in a positive, constructive fashion, because there is too much diversity to make decisions on what we are for. Positive identity formation is tough, and can really only be accomplished in small, local settings, generally hovering around the magic, perennial size of prehuman primate groups and prehistoric human tribes (50-500). What comes much easier is negative identity formation: uniting around a common enemy. By coming together to fight against a common foe, all of the meaningful substance gets pushed onto the battle itself, the dramatic confrontation that makes for great theater but poor society-building. This is why Trump is endlessly dwelling on his amazing, historic victory in 2016, rehashing his dramatic upset, and even going on post-election victory rallies. Like Al Bundy forever bragging about his four-touchdown game in high school, the excitement only comes with the contest itself. Negative identity formation is all about the fight, and not about the tougher work that comes after the microphones are off and the cameras are gone.
So as our local institutions crumble, the polarized national political parties step in, using negative identity-formation to mobilize people into groups for battle. The parties and their professional cultural arms are very good at what they do, producing compelling and stirring content, usually micro-targeted to the exact audiences needed to maximize voter turnout, the uber-optics of street marches, and, above all, campaign contributions. But the problem is that huge, sprawling, national political identities, coiled around negative themes of battle against the enemy, are just not conducive to substantive, real change for regular people’s lives. And considering the unlimited access that the wealthy and the powerful have to the political process, the whole culture war thing for the rest of us should be generally understood as a laundering mechanism, one that keeps us distracted with our enemies while the real power-players continue their looting and plundering.
At this point, I don’t want to get into the exact details of the liberal vs. conservative national identities. I am definitely not saying that each side is equally to blame, or the same, or whatever. I am a liberal myself, and I do think that partisan hatred is somewhat asymmetrical, mostly due to the target audiences and the mechanics of the different coalitions that the national parties are trying to put together. Generally, I think that conservatives have more disdain for liberal rank-and-file peeps, whereas liberals reserve more ire for conservative leadership. Since Democrats have traditionally had to pull together a bunch of different racial and ethnic groups to form their political base, they are less comfortable with exclusionary rhetoric of any kind. And the legacy of racism, with its relocation from the Democratic party to the GOP after the Civil Rights Movement, is not in dispute, which makes Republicans generally more tolerant of race-based exclusionary rhetoric. Again, I’m not concerned with moral litigation here. I just wanted to point out the similar negative identity-formation strategies of both major national parties. It is a matter of organizational and structural necessity, and not a reflection of cosmic or metaphysical righteousness.
So where does that leave us? If our national political affiliations are fundamentally about identity and not policy, then how can we find common ground? Is there any? Can there be any?
The key is found in the function that our political identities serve, in the need that is fed. Our political tribes are filling the need for belonging, community, and local stability, the very things that corporate capitalism has so mercilessly wiped out. So it is not enough to find common ideological or cultural space to have ‘discussion’ and ‘dialogue.’ What has to be built, and quickly, is a new social form, one that provides a different type of domestic space for people to use as a home base. And they need the money to do that, also very quickly. Because we do not have much time. The background doomsday clock is ecological, and it has little relation to the political and cultural battles we’re waging right now.
In short, Universal Basic Income has to be passed now, and a brand new social form must be crashed into our society as soon as possible. People need to live in larger domestic units, geared towards maximizing internal self-sufficiency and minimizing ecological damage. And realistically, we’re going to need to start relocating and resettling to areas that will be less exposed to the damage that will continue to rain down from global warming and other ecological collapses.
More on that next time.