The bamboozle captures itself

After thinking about it at length, I have concluded that in the really big picture, America’s deepest problem is that national governance has never “worked” as a pluralistic system. Over centuries, national politics in America has involved two choices: 1) purchase peace by accepting a brutal social hierarchy based on race and sex, or, face ceaseless warfare.

This feels like a more or less finished theory. Rapacious greed also has a major, almost inseparable role, going back to the very beginning. I think bigotry is still, for what it’s worth, the deeper story. History seems to show that the reactionary desire for social hierarchy based on race and sex is a bigger and more enduring force. It’s easily exploited by plutocrats for their own ends, for that very reason; I’m skeptical that a substantial number of bigots, however materially poor, are simply waiting for a sufficiently aggressive platform of redistribution to lure away their vote. The bigotry is a deeply held if horrible value system, remaining embedded in the culture generation after generation. New Deal Democrats won a decades long peace which was relatively redistributionist, but they did it by accommodating the values of bigotry.

It feels like I have already suggested “purchasing peace” is no longer even a practical option. This seems kind of like a minor point, anyway, because such a “peace” is abhorrent. The most obvious practical obstacle—that the Democratic coalition is now so inclusive of women and minorities that such a deal simply wouldn’t be viable—is a credit to the direction the Democratic Party has taken.

There’s also an entirely different obstacle within the opposing faction, however, which has been on my mind in recent days. Aside from the fact that America’s relatively liberal coalition is no longer likely to accept a political settlement with reactionary America, based on selling out women and minorities, a big portion of reactionary America seems to have sealed itself within conspiracy fantasies which compel unceasing warfare, anyway.

Two recent tweets speak to this, very well. Catherynne Valente captures (in this and a thread which follows) how reactionary-America’s virtual reality has come to define the very identity of many within it.

I was actively working to fit these pieces together several years ago, but Valente’s excellent summary makes complete sense. Back in the mid-1990s I was actually watching as Rush Limbaugh told his audience every day for two years—and I mean literally every day, repetition, repetition, repetition—that America was “held hostage” because Democrats held power in Washington. During the 2010s I gradually sketched out a theory that, after decades hearing that all Democrats were an inherently dangerous alien “other,” this partisan tribalism had kind of fused with resentful white nationalism.

Of course it has been really obvious for years, to anyone paying attention, that the schism in American politics is not about tax policy or governing philosophy. The complete rejection by Republicans of their own health care policy was conclusive evidence for all time. Trump’s successful upending of so many Republican orthodoxies, since, simply bordered this phenomenon with big flashing lights. A later tweet in Valente’s thread spells out how Trump basically just stepped into the huge gap which had opened between the right’s popular alternate reality (conspiracy, race war, all political opponents are Satan incarnate) and the party elites who mostly still saw this as the outer fringe of a fiction used for keeping the base in line while the elites pursued upward redistribution.

Said party elites do not get any excuses or sympathy, here. But I can easily believe that few directly intended that the useful machinery of right wing media would ever mutate into “a fascist fantasy treasure hunt in which [millions] seek out indications that Trump’s opponents are being rounded up and will soon be killed,” i.e. “QAnon.” But here we are.

After Trump’s election, someone wrote that the political machinery, which the right had created to sustain mass political support for toxic economic policy, was like a killer robot which had stopped responding to commands.

Well, duh. Stepping back again to the big picture, this doesn’t really seem like a surprise. There’s always an element of fraud in politics, but I’ve gotten the impression from studying history that Republican elites began 60 years ago to resign themselves to a fundamental disparity between their vision for society and something which could ever win popular support on its own merits. Obviously, they appealed to racism and sexism to help, but they also began intentionally creating new myths and their own parallel media to sustain belief in those myths.

It seems like a pretty direct and straight line from a cynical effort to mainstream a previously niche belief that abortion is capital-M Murder, through decades of for-profit rightwing media competing for attention, to a QAnon president and candidates for Congress.

Carl Sagan warned, 25 years ago, of people being bamboozled for so long that they turn hostile toward any challenge by reality; they are “captured by the bamboozle.” With Trump and QAnon, it seems that the bamboozle has now captured itself.

The consequences of this are dismally bad. The extent of Republican dismissal of reality, and the consequent ability for incompetent serial failures like Jared Kushner to gain power and influence, does at times impair their efforts to hold onto power. But not that much.

Republicans have been a party of sabotage for more than a decade. They fell into line behind a ranting cartoon ogre four years ago. They did nothing positive with two years of complete power, their mismanagement of a pandemic has killed getting on toward 200,000 and damaged lives throughout the country, and they are now dismantling the fucking postal service… and for many millions lol none of it matters.

Sure, on the whole it has been politically toxic in the sense that overall support for electing Democrats is well ahead, and a lot of the potential for Republicans to retain power next year depends on malapportionment and voter suppression. But it isn’t like support for Republicans has collapsed. About 45% of the voting population at bedrock minimum is apparently permanently beyond reach, at all times. Even if this faction needed 51% support to take power (it doesn’t in practice) it wouldn’t take much to get there.

As it is, with our system of government which was (in large part thanks to the influence of bigots and plutocrats) designed to make significant action nearly impossible without broad consensus support, well, yeah.

The consequence is that there’s no convincing way out of a cold civil war, which does more and more damage, other than into something even worse. I have written about this at some length already. What if any practical difference there is between bigotry driving this dynamic, versus bigotry fused with conspiracy delusion, I’m not really sure. Worth noting at least, I suppose, from the perspective of trying to keep contact with reality. Perhaps it is a reminder of the incredible, even frightening, power of stories.

Otherwise, well, I’m moving on to how coping with the 21st century is going to call for substantially revising expectations, for all of us who reached adulthood in The Before Time.

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