Ohio, America, and corrupted culture

It feels like our situation is deteriorating rapidly, in America.

Many eyes are on Portland, OR, and the challenging reality that the president of the United States is very explicitly dispatching secret police to beat up political dissenters and “disappear” them. The U.S. Attorney General now characterizes federal agents disappearing people in unmarked vehicles as “standard anti-crime” and “classic crimefighting.” This is really happening and it’s very bad.

Understandable that even my reasonably well-informed mother, three states away, barely heard of what seemed like a Vesuvian eruption within Ohio politics this week. I have already tried summarizing the scandal around Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, elsewhere, and perhaps the most relevant information in the big picture is that arbitrary and even ironic technicalities seem to have transformed massive corruption from business-as-usual into a scandalous crime.

The reality is that anyone paying honest attention knew, all along, that a big utility was using political spending to buy desired state government policy. The well-intentioned suggestions of reformers that “dark money” is the problem and that transparency is the solution miss the forest for the trees, I think. From what I can tell, transparency is in a real sense how Householder landed himself in legal jeopardy. Had he relied more on coded language and implication, he probably could have worked much the same scheme without meeting the absurd standard of a direct plain-language “quid pro quo.”

Reality is, purchasing public policy with money is business-as-usual in America and “transparency” is ineffective as a deterrent, because forces like shame and restraint are crumbling.

Householder has provided a second example of this, in the possibility that he may be able to shut down the Ohio House for an indefinite period. If it turns out that our rules and laws provide no resolution for a House Speaker whose arrest on public corruption charges prevents him from contact with many colleagues—and who refuses either to resign or schedule a House session during which legislators could remove him—the explanation will probably be that no one ever really imagined a politician would do something so grossly offensive.

Surprise, lots of politicians including very powerful ones are committing grossly offensive abuses of power, and it is unclear what can stop them.

We have a system-wide problem with system-wide problems. The use of money to purchase power and policy without public approval is basically legal and ubiquitous. Malapportionment is a significant problem. Voter suppression is a significant problem. In terms of formal rules, fixing any of these is severely hindered by the durability of our political infrastructure’s mechanisms for blocking reform, even as so much of the other machinery fails around it.

Shifting into more cultural factors, our electoral politics are expected by many to be a kind of game in which persistent bad sportsmanship just isn’t supposed to be possible. We nonetheless have a major political party which has effectively thwarted systems designed to require consensus policymaking, by embracing the alternative of sabotage as entirely compatible with its agenda priorities. We have journalism so mired in decadent, ritualized practices that it hesitates still to tell people clearly what’s going on and who’s responsible.

Perhaps most dire of all, however, is that we have a sub-nation sealed off from consensus reality.

This is not a new observation, but it has seemed increasingly relevant in recent days, weeks and months. I asked almost four months ago whether or not anything could break through Trumpers’ convinced belief in the world according to Trump. More recently I proposed that such a tool probably does not exist. Within the past week, others’ assessments of our prospects seem to be getting very explicitly grim.

This seems like a deep and probably enduring problem, perhaps beyond all others. This feels like a long term force, a demographic trend, a folk movement. It has been decades in the making and seems likely that it will be around for decades. I’m not sure this is a force which any system of rules can adequately contain or divert. I am sure that far too many of our existing formal and cultural rules are completely unfit for managing such a force.

This thread about a modern European history professor’s injuries at the hands of Trump’s secret police is an interesting snapshot, in a moment rife with them, but this Tweet may be the most salient:

This educated liberal historian’s dismay that “[her] own government” shot her for expressing political dissent contains so much. For one thing she probably shouldn’t be all that shocked. (For another, it’s worth asking whether an incident of state agents injuring the innocent is made any better or worse based on the nationalities of those involved.) Most important of all, though, is the issue that the government responsible for this violence doesn’t see itself as her government.

That’s what we face, now. This goes even beyond feral government, though it may overlap. Multiple long-term forces are promoting the concept of a nation within a nation, at war with an enemy Other, and obliged by necessity to fight in its own defense; I have seen it coming and adopted a largely reciprocal attitude to be honest because I don’t know what else one can do except denial. I also don’t know that we’re going to see any clearer delineation of the war “turning hot” than the president of (in his perception) that nation within a nation announcing a military invasion of cities which he very frankly characterizes as the other and the enemy.

More and more people gradually seem to be twigging to the improbability that Americans will vote and cross-partisan consensus will declare Joe Biden the president-elect and in January Donald Trump will leave the White House, wave, and quietly board a helicopter bound for Florida. Few seem to have any notion that we can do much about this, except doing what we would normally do and hoping it works out somehow. Fewer still, I’m sure, have any idea what we do about the nation within a nation even if the White House is recaptured from them.

Right about two years ago, I reflected on this remark from David Frum: “Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” At the time, I concluded very simply that if they reject the rules, they must simply be “placed in time out” by the forces of the law. I think now that both the answer and the question were off. The question should not be about “conservatism” but about the nation within a nation, attached to white supremacy, to Carlson, Hannity et al., and to a braindead monster party of antiliberal revanchism. That’s been with us for a generation at least, and will presumably remain with us for at least as long.

“They can only win by cheating, so we’ll pass laws against the cheating and enforce those laws” just doesn’t seem like it will work on the scale of this.

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