Corrosion, Dysfunction and Pushing on a Rope

Just about every day, now, I watch what’s going on in America with a kind of horrified fascination.

I definitely do not mean popular protests to insist that Black Lives Matter. That’s very good.

Not much else is. America completely mismanaged, is still mismanaging, a deadly pandemic. A recession is spreading throughout the economy, applying pressure to the enormous dominoes of state and local government budgets. Many cities’ police departments are pretty clearly feral. Industry is turning Earth’s climate toxic. Etc.

Beneath all of this, there’s a pretty glaring lack of effective solutions being implemented. I think a growing number of people sense this, to some extent. But I also think that very few are fully capable of conceiving how far we are, at this point, from even a fundamental degree of societal functioning which seems to be an unquestioned, popular assumption.

A lot of people seem like Captain Willard on the Do Long Bridge—demanding a response from whoever is in authority—before the penny dropped and he realized that the expected responsive system of authority simply didn’t exist.

In recent days I’ve seen some kvetching “why aren’t the Democrats doing something to stop these outrages, right now?”

In detail, I’m torn about this, but in the big picture I guess that I challenge anyone to do better, indeed I encourage anyone to do better. We need to do better.

Unfortunately, I believe that a lot of people are fixed to this underlying assumption that the system is just jammed up, that the solution is simply greater will, greater pressure, that if enough of this is applied it will have to work. Like hitting an engine in a movie to make it start.

In reality, I fear that a lot of pressure simply ends up pushing on a rope, at this point.

The “Schoolhouse Rock” theory of representative government seems to be unlike the actual function of our political process, to differing extents, at all levels of government. Lots of major cities, I suspect, are basically in the hands of an oligarchy which has pretty effectively proofed itself against the formal reins of government falling into the hands of those who would serve the popular interest. Cleveland and Columbus both seem like this, certainly. Many state governments are probably near the point of no longer even qualifying as any form of democracy (a status reached by North Carolina a couple of years ago).

Nationally… we are basically in a state of civil war. I reached this conclusion years ago, despite which, I must disagree with Michael Lee’s recent comment that “Everybody understands this is a war.”

Most people don’t seem close to understanding that, or its significance. Most people seem convinced that the traditional buttons have to work, if pressed hard enough. Most people seem unshakeable in their expectation that human beings—or at least fellow Americans—all have some inherent duty to responsible behavior for the common good and that public servants have to serve the public if they are simply reminded of it sufficiently often and loudly.

They do not. We are in a society in which one of two major political parties has basically normalized the avoidance of any such duty, moreover, and instead organized itself toward fighting a war for control. The chosen battlefield is vote totals, and you can call it “Constitutional hardball” or “debased democracy,” but ultimately Republicans launched a war for control and that is something very different from functioning, representative democratic politics.

But because most adult human beings have limited ability to manage abstract concepts and very limited ability to process unfamiliar abstract concepts, those not party to that war effort are mostly kind of adrift.

Within this context, I wonder how much it would really matter if Democratic leadership had Elizabeth Warren level perceptiveness and intellectual agility. Social organization is hard to build, and despite the fact that “let’s sort out our differences in November with the election” is woefully inadequate for the corrosion of our systems—corrosion which includes election systems—it’s unclear what more effective alternative system exists or could be built before then.

I can’t find the source, but more than three years ago, early in 2017 when “the resistance” was giddily organizing a new march almost every week, someone wrote that marches and demonstrations were ultimately going to be only an intermediate step toward solving our crises.

In the end, either “we march to the ballot box, or we march to the battlefield.”

I suspected this was true, at the time, and I’m more confident of its accuracy now. America is in a cold civil war. We won’t end that any time soon, except by its turning hot, or by organizing for overwhelming electoral victory then taking away Republicans’ power to continue waging the war.

Given the patterns of aggression in American society going back to the Civil War and before, even that might achieve no more than an extended cease-fire.

Unfortunately, the message of Lord of the Flies was correct. There are no completely dependable authorities, only imaginary ones which multiple people have agreed to accept as real. In practice, a minority withdrawing its consent from that agreement seems to be enough by itself to begin unraveling the whole system; worse still, it seems that the first mover in such a scenario can expect an advantage if the initial attempt works out.

“Do you know who’s in command here?”

“… yeah.”

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