Adapting expectations

My experiences growing to adulthood in the late 20th century did not prepare me for coping with 21st century America. I strongly believe that the same goes for most adults.

The fact that so few people are even close to realizing how far off their baseline expectations are, let alone working through the process of adjustment, is part of the problem. But the major parts are other, much larger and much worse things.

In a post earlier this summer, I summed it up as “we don’t have functioning, even quasi-rational systems of decision-making” at a national level in America. That’s looking at it from one end; the fact that national governance in America has never been a functional system except when hugely exclusionary and injust is the same object viewed from the other end.

These failings function to prevent fixes to themselves, and go right on performing that function even as the consequences get more disastrous. This is the future before us. I have been writing about this for a while, but it’s only beginning to sink in how much I ought to adjust my expectations if I’m to go on.

More paradigm-shifting than all the disasters and atrocities piling up, within the past few years, is how little impact it has had upon our systems. The seemingly irreducible large plurality of support for a poisonous political project, including Trump, is a big example. But it is not near the only one.

What really has changed in response to the shock of Trump’s presidency? I remember the stunned journalists writing at the end of 2016 about the need for self-examination and reforms, and that’s long forgotten; US news media has fallen back into its habits and customs and templates. Democratic Party infrastructure and culture have barely responded—the response has probably been little more extensive than after any ordinary defeat. I have seen grassroots organizing infrastructure spring up and engage people, in 2017, and already whither away to Facebook hangouts.

Our culture is like some kind of zombie: the fact that it keeps shuffling ahead on the same course no matter what is not resilience, it’s brain death. The zombie is easily damaged. It keeps shuffling, nonetheless, but does not really respond to its parts being hacked away or simply falling off.

I don’t see a realistic reform, even for the core dysfunction of government. The dysfunction prevents reform. Matthew Yglesias wrote a deeply depressing item, recently, about what is probably the core problem within the core problem: the US Senate. He makes reasonable enough suggestions for how Democrats should respond, in practice, to the immense over-representation of low-information voters outside the urban mainstream of American life and largely indifferent or even hostile to its difficulties. But what his suggestions really come down to is: Democrats should run exceptionally skilled politicians for US Senate, again and again, and sustain an above-average average as consistently as possible.

That’s not really objectionable as a proposal. But it’s the same answer to most questions of “how to overcome Republicans and all of the systemic biases in their favor”—win anyway, by a lot, repeat. Outside of Lake Woebegone, this is a sound object, perhaps, but not especially helpful advice.

I suppose that things can take odd turns. It was only a dozen years ago that Senate Democrats’ caucus count reached 60. But 1) that really seems to have been a huge fluke, 2) the opportunity presented came and went without any substantive changes to our political system, a result and further example of how 3) the dysfunction and corrosion embedded within the US Senate also extends throughout our culture.

Traditional expectations would probably call our current circumstances very fluke-y, yet as noted, our systems of information and decision-making seem scarcely to have responded.

So how to adjust the old expectations?

Most likely, hopes of major reform led from a national level should be dimmed, a lot. Fact is it has already been nearly 50 years since the last significant amendment to the U.S. Constitution won ratification. Obstruction of legislation has become more and more normal. Congress looks likely to do little in the way of lawmaking, in the foreseeable future.

The expected role of Congress should be completely rethought. Mostly, it’s now a stage for people to perform, advocate, and question, but it doesn’t actually determine policy. Occasionally it tinkers with spending levels, although even budgeting is largely a matter of shutdown-brinkmanship and continuing resolutions. I presume that the abhorrent “filibuster” is not going anywhere any time soon, despite how urgently it needs to. The limits of the “budget reconciliation” kludge will probably be stretched, but not necessarily quickly.

In any event, policy-setting power within national government has moved to the executive and judicial branches. The Trump presidency has demonstrated that there are few practical restraints on the executive, at least for a Republican. Trump has not even bothered much getting his appointees confirmed by the Senate, even with a Republican majority, other than judicial appointees. I can’t help wondering how long that particular seal will remain unbroken, before some future presidency ushers in the first “Acting Circuit Judge.” In any event, I expect the practical power of the executive to go on expanding, even if it does so unevenly as a result of partisan court rulings.

The Supreme Court is hard to predict because there are nine people and, at the moment, so much could depend on a few individuals’ physical health. But, given its current lineup and the heavily pro-Republican bias of the US Senate, one would have to imagine an increasingly Republican Supreme Court over time, even if Democrats were to e.g. “flip Texas blue” and hold the presidency indefinitely.

Meanwhile, our culture as a whole seems on course to become more and more toxic.

Most of the toxicity comes from the right, and there has been no real meaningful check upon it yet, so… Meanwhile, I have no idea how the Democratic coalition follows up even a pretty good 2020. Even if the notion of “electoral mandate” still meant anything, “get rid of Trump” is not a very useful mandate since it ends as soon as you take office. I have deep doubts that executive orders as permitted by Republican judges, combined with maybe squeezing some kind of compromise quasi-legislation through “budget reconciliation,” will really do much for either marginalized communities looking for hope or crossover voters who really just wanted to replace Trump and then go back to their party.

The broader culture will probably get more cynical, frustrated, angry, and whatever happens to aggregate violence, I’m sure that news media will not lack for violent video to run.

Presumably the toxicity will spill beyond “politics,” in fits and starts. COVID-19 is but one example. Other things will break. Physical infrastructure does not look likely to receive a massive reinvestment. Neither our financial nor broader economic systems seem like they rest on sound foundations. The fucking post office is being dismantled from within right now, for fuck’s sake, and Republicans are still quite unmoved to protect it. (Of course, Amazon has come along quite far in building its own package-distribution network.)

None of this seems stable. Failed states have shambled onward at length, in the past, admittedly. But things like palace coups, secession, and civil war also happen, and should no longer seem any more unthinkable here than anywhere else.

There is also, of course, the climate crisis.

This is getting real and real bad. Just within the space of a couple of weeks, the United States alone has experienced: weird derecho flattening entire Iowa counties, literal all-time-record high heat, state of California on fire worse than ever, and two fucking tropical storms headed for land simultaneously for the first time in nearly a century.

Clearly we are not going to avert dangerous climate change. It has begun, much more is locked in, and America’s toxic poisoned politics will sabotage not only American prevention efforts but global efforts as well, given the country’s out-sized position on this issue in particular.

So, that’s bad. But it’s going to happen and while of course we should try to prevent it being any worse than necessary, it’s going to be bad no matter what and we will need to adjust our expectations at some point.

I feel like the 21st century is in a sense going to be like a bleak science-fiction saga, of a populous colony world and a terraforming experiment that goes wrong, and how hugely toxic politics make the problem very difficult to fix. Oh and there’s no spaceship escape to some other world, either.

How actually to process all this, and really adjust, and work out what life means and why one goes on trying and how one constructs a new framework for evaluating everything… I don’t know.

I guess it’s time to start figuring that out, though.

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