Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Wheels of Democracy

The United States is one country, but two songs can define us:
The Star Spangled Banner vs. America the Beautiful.
The Star Spangled Banner has a martial theme-"bombs bursting in air"- and celebrates a symbol of the country, the flag while intoning the values of freedom and bravery.
America the Beautiful celebrates the stunning beauty of the country and the bounty,  "the purple mountains majesties above the fruited plains". "And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea" ends with the only reference even remotely political - "brotherhood" invoking family and loyal cooperation of men in a single word.
The most commonly sung verse in each song is emblematic of two different worldviews, how we think of our country.

Some people cherish symbols. Those who cherish symbols lean toward intuitive ways of thought. Decisions are simple. You just do what needs to be done. The leaders tell you what to do -or you are the leader- and everyone gets in line. Boom! That's the Star Spangled Banner world. No wonder the playing of the national anthem is usually accompanied by a military honor guard. The military is celebrated as an important symbol of the strength and endurance of a great and powerful nation. And the flag itself is protected and honored by a long tradition, rules that are enshrined in law.

Some people cherish ideals. Those who cherish ideals lean toward abstract thinking. It's all about the ideas, the logical train of thought leads to conclusions about the best course of action. The conclusions can and will be replaced in the future upon further analysis using additional information and insight with different conclusions. Results of actions matter. Observe results, try to understand mechanisms, and then adjust policy. The military is the bulwark of the democratic republic, with military officials reporting to the civilian leadership.

We all need to combine intuitive thinking and abstract thinking together to survive. We all do that, but we can not do both in the same instant. More importantly, each person tends toward one end of the spectrum or the other. So we have concrete thinkers and analytical thinkers in large numbers.

The Star Spangled Banner works best for the concrete thinkers. Do as I say (not as I do).
America The Beautiful works best for the abstract thinkers. Let's try this one thing and if it does not work, we will learn from that and then try something different that we think may work better.

For abstract thinkers, the idea is the thing. The more ideas the better to choose from. Hearing other peoples ideas and arguments helps to combine the ideas into more and better conclusions. Getting things done requires tradeoffs between the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action. Compromise with people who disagree comes naturally. If you are already considering a range of ideas and courses of action, you are prepared to hear arguments for alternatives.

For concrete thinkers, the action is the thing. Just do it and shut up. Sounds harsh, but sometimes harshness is necessary to ensure you do the right thing, the only thing, without worrying too much about it. But who decides? The leader decides. You need a good leader. Someone who is intuitive. A concrete thinker. So it is like the military.

We are all, first and foremost, the way that we think. The way we make sense of the world which combines abstract and concrete thought.. You are what you think. Next comes whether you are "conservative" or "liberal", but these concepts, these labels have more to do with the risks we are willing to take. "Conservatism" places emphasis on preserving what already exists over what could be. "Liberalism" places emphasis on openness to new ideas. Conservatism is a belief in simple solutions. Problems are simple and solutions are simple. Liberalism is a belief in complex solutions in a complex world.

Conservatives also place a higher value on winning, on average, than liberals, who place a higher value on cooperation and building consensus, on average. DT is symbolic of this difference. This desire to win at the expense of the underlying institutions of our democratic republic has been the subject of much of this blog throughout this year.

The different ways of thinking, concrete vs. abstract, lend themselves to different ways messages can be crafted and are therefore received by an audience, depending upon how information is processed.

Some of this description is metaphorical, along the lines of the work of George Lakoff,  but it gets at an important point. When we are told people make electoral choices based on the economy, we need to be skeptical because the way people make sense of the world is the most fundamental component of the choices they make.

Conservatives, especially the most conservative, are more susceptible to the tools of propaganda. This is not stupidity. Conservatives have an intuitive heuristic. You hear something that makes sense, that supports your worldview and boom! Yep, that makes sense. No need to think any more about it. "She's crooked". Yep. "Build a wall." Yep. Finally, someone who understands the world is simple. Simple solutions to simple problems.

People who are analytical have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for DT under any circumstances. The man seemed to have many disqualifiers based on his own statements. How could this be?

We did not become a polarized country. We were always polarized. Any pundit who says "We have become so polarized" is mistaken. Anyone who remembers the feeling in the 1960's, which has continued to flare up from time to time in the "culture wars" knows this. What changed is the composition of the teams- the political parties. Any political party will be a coalition, but following the realignment of the parties post-Nixon era the concrete thinkers have moved in large numbers to the Republican party.

How did DT win the Republican party nomination? He won by demonstrating leadership. He controlled the debates throughout the primaries. He knew nothing about policy, but no matter. By bringing the debates down to a complete know-nothing level that he could dominate, his ignorance did not matter. When Jeb Bush said, "Donald, you can not bully your way to the presidency", it sounded lame, like, maybe he can, because if Jeb's claim was true, wouldn't Jeb have been saying whatever else at that precise moment that would have demonstrated you can’t bully your way?

DT was able to win the general election (with help from the electoral college system) due to the same powers of persuasion that won the primaries. But he won most of all due to the complete abdication of responsibility by the pundit class. Mainstream news organizations reported his statements and, thinking that these statements self-evidently disqualified him as a candidate, applied their balanced journalism model to help destroy Hillary Clinton's candidacy. What was clearly a contest between (1) a narcissistic, unqualified man who had spent his hedonistic existence seeking money, fame, and power without regard to others and (2) an exceptionally talented, unusually intelligent and experienced woman who spent her life trying to do good for others, turned into a media exercise to balance off the public image of the two candidates. By the time we reached the final weeks of the campaign, most all the damage to Clinton had been done, but an FBI finger on the scales helped tip toward the FBI’s favored candidate.

And that is the deep tragedy. For a while in the campaign we thought that we would be lucky. At least we had an exceptionally qualified candidate that we could choose. The Republican party had someone uniquely unqualified- a man who had failed to develop emotionally into a mature adult. In the debates, he sounded like an immature eighth grader. With women, again, an immature eighth grader - at best. Ridicule of physical disabilities of others - the same. Maybe the Republicans would fix whatever had gone wrong in their 2016 party primary process to make this mistake never happen again. Maybe candidates who were very conservative, but willing to work on policy with those who disagree, like Kasich and Huntsman, would somehow rise up in future elections.  Tragically, the constant drumbeat of nonsensical propaganda was successful. The candidacy of Hillary Clinton was potentially doomed. As a nation, we had done this to ourselves. A woman who believes in our better selves was defeated. A man who has always believed in himself first, last, and foremost, had won.

As Hillary Clinton told us in the debates, It is not about her, or them -the candidates. It is about us. We have lost and we did not have to lose so much, something so precious, so wonderful. A wonderful, great nation is faced with further degradation and possible destruction. For these are the conservative conservatives in charge. The far end of the spectrum -those wielding power are the most narcissistic. Trump has Giuliani and Christie - for them, only power matters. Like Putin, all political action is an expression of power and personal glory. The goal is to hold power and always to win. That’s why Christie cared more about punishing the mayor of Fort Lee for not crossing parties to back him than he cared about not punishing the good people of Fort Lee in their innocent drive to work that week.  Trump, Giuliani and Christie. Describing the distinction as a difference in political philosophy misses the point. They care most about themselves. If you support them, fine, then you can be on their team. If you do not support them and agree with everything they say, you are not on their team, which makes you their enemy.

From that perspective, Trump in particular is not a leader of anything other than his small team. Anyone who idolizes the narcissist is welcome. All others need not apply. That Giuliani and Christie both ran for President this decade is interesting. They and other candidates have been outdone by DT.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 prompted a feeling of revulsion in many Americans that is difficult for many of us to comprehend. What's not to like? That seems like a more normal reaction. Our mainstream media went on to report the hatred as somehow normal. "Many voters hate President Obama." Huh? Is there a reason? The key phrase after 2008 was that they wanted to "take their country back." Back from whom? The majority who had elected him? Back to what? Hmm. The media sometimes calls it racism. I call it black and white thinking. That seems to cover the bases.

The feeling of hatred fueled feelings of anger. Some pundits have likened that to the feelings of half the country at the current election result, but there is a difference. The feeling of shock will subside, but the intense feelings of pain and anguish run deep and will continue longer. We feel enormous pain because we know we face a process of deep alienation from our federal government that will only grow. This feeling does not resemble any other time in history - not GW Bush, not Reagan, not even Nixon. GHW Bush is not even on that map. There was no pain anything like this at any of those times.

This pain is most like the weeks following 9/11 and the weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy in the level of despair. But in a way, it is deeper. In 9/11 we lost thousands of our fellow citizens to cold blooded murder. In 1963 we lost the leader of our nation to cold blooded murder. In those times there was fear and enormous pain of loss, but sincere hope that we could count on our strengths and ability to work together to pull ourselves up and out of the abyss. In 2016, we feel deeply that we lost a functioning democracy because the leader of the country has no respect and apparently little understanding of the most cherished government institutions - and we are going to have our noses rubbed in it for the next four years. It is almost as if Vladimir Putin himself was just elected President of the United States.  We are going to have the progress made in society over the  past decade taken away and experience a rush backwards like we have never seen.

The machinery of democracy broke this week. The wheels of democracy fell off. That is a statement about process, but the pain is all too real. Like a death of a loved one. The tragedy is enormous. Liberal democracy died a tragic death. We had survived the weakening of the political system in the Congress and downward slide of mainstream political media over recent decades, but this was the nail in the coffin. That is not to say that we can not restore liberal democracy, but in order to do so, we not only need to defeat Trumpism, we need to reverse the process of decline in the “just don’t get it” mainstream media who need to adopt a completely different set of journalistic standards. The “he said/she said” balance needs to die so that we may live and thrive. Of course, mainstream media may not exist much longer. And our democracy may soon experience painful changes in political institutions.

In the four years ahead, we will see a battle continue between the Star Spangled Banner side and the America the Beautiful side. The writing on this blog in 2016 has been mostly pessimistic about Republican strategy in Congress, but optimistic in 2016 about the likelihood of a Democratic presidential victory, buying time for reform. The primary argument has been that we need to act swiftly and decisively to reformulate journalistic standards before it is too late. Otherwise, the political choices will ever be framed for voters in a way that makes no sense, as in 2016. So, if DT had lost the election, the Republican party would go back to the drawing board and party leaders would decide - Okay,  our strategies were working pretty well, but they tore down our party,  and we may need to make changes. Instead, we are faced with a Republican party which, upon a Trump victory, is deciding, okay, we can work with this. We can pack the Supreme Court with our nominees, having stonewalled Merrick Garland. We can stall out government when a Democrat is president, even for two terms. We can restore the functioning of government when a Republican is president. The tone of Republican primaries will be worse than ever, but Republican strategy seems to be - if the mainstream media continues to exist, we can count on them as an unwitting ally, and if the mainstream media disintegrates into multiple smaller outlets, so much the better.

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