2010s: a bad decade

Thinking back on 2010-19 this decade has simply been brutal.

Personally it has been rich with experiences, change, and growth (if not with monetary wealth). I’m not ungrateful for that. But all of that has occurred against a near constant background of political, sociocultural and ecological sabotage.

I have watched it all and chronicled much of it in one space or another, and most of the time the trend has been pretty clear. For all that the 2010 elections were catastrophic in many ways, I think I had a valid point when I proposed several weeks after them that the fundamental reality of committed Republican obstructionism in Congress had already been a reality for two years by then.

Having reflected for a while, I conclude that this proved to be the most significant thing to happen in the 2010s, certainly for America: at the beginning of the decade one party in a firmly established two-party political system committed itself completely to sabotage, and at the end of the decade no corrective mechanism has intervened.

Obviously there are a lot of stories even within big-picture political and cultural activity. Today I filled most of a sheet of paper with scribbled concepts crisscrossed by lines of association. But I think this is probably the headline.

With everything else, it’s difficult for me to see why systemic failings should produce a state of perma-crisis now and not at other times, when on balance such failings seem to have been present in America at just about any point in history right back to the beginning. The system has always been vulnerable to abuse, and has generally tolerated and even enabled considerable injustice.

But now the system seems to be failing even the most basic tests of internal integrity.

I support Elizabeth Warren’s identification of corruption as an underlying problem, and her call for reforms to purge this corruption—given the whole realities we face at present this seems like the most practical route toward real solutions. But I think that much corruption, or potential for corruption, has usually been present and so I also have to wonder why it was not accompanied by the whole realities we face at present. What has changed?

My best guess as to the biggest thing which has changed is the successful commitment by a major political party to sabotage.

Within this it’s hard to say how much the timing is more than chance, but I don’t think it is entirely.

This isn’t something which happened overnight. Attempts to raise the flag of sabotage above the Republican Party are evident going back at least into the 1990s. Those can be viewed as part of a continual process which eventually succeeded, but I think the fact that it did not succeed faster may owe something to corrective mechanisms which were more functional 25 years ago than now.

Here, I could suggest a laundry list of things which have changed. But I suspect that the biggest one, which may intersect with multiple others, is party sorting. You can search the web and find plenty of well-researched information about how since the 1980s America’s two major political parties have substantially “sorted out” perspectives and interests which formerly were scattered through both.

Since this is relatively well-researched and documented, I won’t bother with explaining this phenomenon in turn; in a way, it seems intuitive to me that such sorting is probably a natural tendency, and that the interesting questions are more likely about what prevented it in previous eras, than about what “caused” it in this.

Given party sorting, however, it seems like we were almost destined for a wreck sooner or later, since so much of our formal and informal political systems assume two parties which are on some basic level interchangeable parts. This assumption is deeply embedded into the tropes which prevail in our media and larger culture, especially. I have a list of words and phrases which seem like they ought to be discontinued, for being counterproductive, and more than one is evidence of this assumption. Words like “squabbling” assume that the default significance of partisan differences is petty. The extent to which all political journalism resembles sports journalism likewise reflects a surety that politics itself is largely a game.

This assumption is to some extent valid if you have two heterogeneous parties, and any given problem can find good-faith efforts at solving it within each. This was probably true up into the 1990s; despite Newt Gingrich being as eager a dynamiter as any contemporary Republican Congressman, Bill Clinton could find support in the Republican caucus for bipartisan bargains. The very word “bipartisan” is another giveaway of the cultural assumption that for any important issue a policy response exists which can find favor across party lines.

By the beginning of the 2010s this was no longer the case, though, mainly because the Republican party had, especially at the top, transformed from a heterogeneous blob into a fanatical sect bent on sabotage. By contrast, Democrats’ approach was relatively little changed since the 1990s, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s eagerness for e.g. deficit-reduction deals. Republicans refused to deal. Republicans even, as should never be forgotten, refused point blank to offer any cooperation in a healthcare reform policy which had been the signature achievement of the man they god damn nominated for president in 2012.

By that point, of course, even Mitt Romney was at pains to disavow “Obamacare,” and fall in line with the saboteur’s mantra of “repeal!” Yet Romney’s nomination still seems like the last remnant of political heterogeneity as an influential element of the Republican Party. Four years later, the party quite readily coalesced around a nominee who embraced the dynamiters’ approach, and it has remained behind him despite lawlessness, depravity, and even some stinging electoral losses.

This is why I think that what has changed is not entirely rules or formal “guardrails,” so much as the belief that guardrails need be given any consideration. If a highly effective system of accountability for public interest has been implemented by any nation, I don’t think it has yet happened here. The belief that one needed to make some concessions to integrity and responsibility probably mattered as much as any mechanisms which enforced such concession.

It would seem that once a party is “sorted,” at any rate if it sorts into a fairly narrow coalition of existing privilege, it can sustain a commitment to sabotage, and America’s institutions and culture just won’t provide a corrective response. Never mind Fox and social media; even what remains of mainstream journalism seems incapable of telling this story because it violates every assumption on which it relies. Malapportionment and vote suppression play significant roles in insulating Republican saboteurs from negative feedback, but also significant is the disciplined readiness to suffer such losses anyway. Some of those in danger may just be committed fanatics; others, though, just have limited options within a sorted party. The high likelihood that any Congressman who challenges the party line becomes an instant pariah doesn’t excuse the failure to do so, but it explains much of it. Absent dissent from any trusted authority, meanwhile, it turns out that a large portion of the electorate will accept a party as legitimate even after a decade of open sabotage.

Meanwhile, to the extent that a majority opposes this, it is hobbled not only by malapportionment etc. but by being way behind in adapting its own culture to the challenge of a sabotage party. Compared with Republicans, the Democratic Party is still much more of a heterogeneous blob of diverse interests, with too much elderly leadership which has been in place since the days when both parties were more like this, and which seems like it will probably die still fixed in complementary approaches which no longer make sense.

To the extent that some principles unite this blob, let alone the full majority opposed to all-out sabotage, recognizing and articulating them seems beyond the culture so far. The attempts at articulating unity seem stuck at a shallow fixation on Trump, with examination of the more dangerous reality that props up and predates him left dangerously incomplete.

That’s what seems to me like the past decade’s big story in summary: a major political party has completed a reorganizing into a force for sabotage, and the rest of society has not only been far behind in adapting, but in too many cases seems like even attempting adaptation is beyond the abilities of important people and institutions.

The related failure to adapt to an increasingly apocalyptic climate change trajectory is admittedly a valid alternative for “the decade’s big story.”

FML.

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