The Illusion of Change

During my active years in comic book fandom, somewhere or other I absorbed the concept of “no change, only the illusion of change.” I’m not sure that there’s any firm, verified single origin for it, and in any event its significance is in the clarity of its understanding of America’s biggest long-running superhero properties. From year to year, things seem to happen, but decade to decade, not so much, and over the longer term even less so.

I was reminded of this after spending some time thinking about American politics and governing, at the national level, and what major change has actually happened compared with 10 and 20 years ago.

That probably gives away much of my conclusion, which is that at this time scale so much of the screaming and scrambling and struggling seems to even out. Most of it is equivalent to the illusion of change. Above and beyond that, slow geologic trends seem to be the main story, and it is not really a good one.

The biggest picture look at the past 20 years of America’s national politics might be interpreting it from an international context, something which occurred to me just this afternoon with the latest stride toward authoritarianism within the European Union. Contrary to the post-Cold-War dreams of the 1990s, representative democracy has had a rocky 21st century so far, at best. Even Europe, cherished by much of the American center-left as a model of enlightened liberalism, has seen authoritarianism smothering democracy in various European Union member states without any repercussions.

Considered in this context, and with a healthy skepticism for all notions of “American exceptionalism,” the rest of my conclusions seem so obvious as to verge on mundane.

Not a whole lot has actually happened in American national politics and governance at the large scale this century. Republicans and Democrats play musical chairs in Washington, and Republicans make sure that each time a chair is removed it’s a loss to Democrats. The electorate as a whole has not obviously moved, a lot, in any lasting way—one might say that “the middle” has withered away, but one might say that “the middle” was mostly a phantom anyway—with a small popular lean toward Democrats generally discernible since the 1990s alongside a contrasting Republican lean in who has power.

One trend worth remarking might be that there really are no other players, of note, even as voters eschew party registration in larger and larger numbers. This contrasts with the preceding decades, during which other players erupted as more of a force at times. Compared to those campaigns, the scale of third-party “spoilers” since the turn of the century has not matched the scale of the yelling about them.

National politics has been increasingly reduced to a negative-sum game of red and blue, in which the old power-sharing agreement of “bipartisanship” has been steadily replaced by Republican power-grabs when they have initiative and Republican sabotage when they don’t. America’s response to this has been almost nothing.

The Fourth Estate has not really reformed itself, at all. Same customs, same metaphors, same list of who is a reasonable voice with a guaranteed seat on the Sunday Shows, etc. In contrast to this, Democrats have responded, just always too slowly. They’re always reluctant to do anything drastic. The party’s leading national figures have mostly aged in place for decades. Most of the party is now ready to do something about gerrymandering, voter suppression and dark money, but in the time it took to reach this point their position has deteriorated so much that two big national votes in their favor, in a row, is no longer enough to provide any margin for contrarianism in the U.S. Senate. Making a bare-minimum adjustment to the Senate’s wildly distorted apportionment is still more of a fringe idea. Presumably by the time it, or reversing Republicans’ court-rigging, reaches even the For the People Act’s current near-unanimous support among Democrats, that will be even further from sufficient.

Republicans’ slow oblique-coup, rigging the rules through courts and state governments while sabotaging any Congressional response, continues to succeed. It has been ongoing for some time, furthermore. I note, now and again, that despite three Trump appointees on the Supreme Court, its two most radical partisan hacks still appear to be appointees of Bush I and Bush II. The fond national memory of both men is an indicator of how far America is from any real recognition of this insurrection-from-above.

Meanwhile there’s really no large organized response, at all, besides Democrats. Even the panic and outrage of the Trump presidency produced little in the way of “resistance” besides new efforts to elect Democrats to existing systems of power, and to push on existing buttons of policy advocacy, even as both prove less and less effective.

There’s a lot of noise, a lot. I have a spiral notebook just from 2020, filled with forecasts and analyses and strategies, and in the end the 2020 outcome varied only a little compared with the 2016 outcome. Scandal hasn’t made a difference. Unthinkable destruction of critical services hasn’t made a difference. Criminal abuses of power haven’t made a difference. Pouring time and energy into marches, peer to peer contact, grassroots lobbying, etc., hasn’t made a difference. Dumb bullshit like The Lincoln Project definitely hasn’t made a difference. “LOL nothing matters” is one of the features of US politics which seems to have intensified over 20 years. The coalitions hold, vote totals all come down to turnout, and distribution of power largely comes down to unfair rules; Republicans are busy at work skewing both of the latter two even more in their favor.

The likeliest outcome for the next 10 years seems to be a continued deterioration of what we’ve seen so far this century. A bloodbath for Democrats in 2022 will seem obvious and inevitable, in retrospect. Even if, somehow, Democrats have a remarkably good 2022, I don’t think it will make much difference. Holding what they have now would be remarkably good, compared with the usual Midterm, and what they have now is not enough to change the system. Even if they do somehow manage that, they will still be playing from behind. Republicans’ 2020s maps will already be drawn, and forcing a mid-decade redrawing will be far too radical for Democrats. Republicans, on the other hand, would respond to anything less than a takeover of Congress by cranking up their oblique coup even more, plus probably their overt violence as well.

Meanwhile, more things break, distrust and alienation increase, etc.

I don’t see anything on the way to disrupt this slow shuffle toward awful one-party oligarchy. I cannot place faith in popular rejection arriving on any kind of rational schedule. The 2006 voter revolt seemed and still seems arbitrary to me—to the extent that it can be explained I can’t see an explanation which will help Democrats in 2022—and if randomness offers possibility that isn’t really a reason to be hopeful.

Someone posted yesterday that now the whole world knows which Republicans want to cover up the facts of the Capitol Insurrection; it occurred to me that fewer than two in five people even know the name of their own US House rep. While people continue to be fascinated by speculation about conspiracy and “big reveals,” people are also becoming more cynical that it will ever actually result in consequences even for individuals. I share that cynicism, along with cynicism that this would matter to the big picture either. Republicans were doing fine before Trump, they have done at least as fine since his entry, and in this regard he really seems like a non factor. It’s strange and sort of bleakly amusing that so many frothers can’t see past the White House and recognize that a states-and-courts strategy continues shifting real power to Republicans, even now, but even if they pop off violently again that seems not to matter much either.

American society just has no answer to Republican power-grabs. Which, again, doesn’t seem that wild when we consider that similar haplessness is found in many other societies. Or when we consider most people’s deep inability to imagine things not working the way they expect. One recurring example is the popularity of imaginary challenges by various yahoos, to incumbent Republican members of Congress whom there is no reason to assume will be in the same district as said yahoos for the next election, and whom there is ample reason to assume will either way be drawn into districts so favorable as to be impossible to lose no matter how obnoxious they are. Or look at COVID-19, and the incredible stubbornness of individuals and systems.

Nothing is forever. But there is just no evidence that any kind of catharsis is near. Democrats avoid brinkmanship because it’s how they are. Republican elites prefer gradual escalation which never quite reaches a breaking point. Frothers’ impatience with that may blow things up, again, but even if they go much farther than on January 6 that’s an ugly future. Republican elites may pull off procedural election theft in 2024, and Democrats will fume but probably not do any more than they did in 2000.

The likeliest outcome I can see, for 2031, is that Republicans’ exsanguination of representative democratic government will advance significantly, and the rest of America will be about as far behind the curve in responding as now. News media will continue to report as though the Republican Party is just one interchangeable part in a political system. Activism will continue to do what it has been doing with about as much effect. A new generation of leadership will presumably come to the fore among Democrats, if only out of brute actuarial realities, but in all honesty even the young reformers seem about as prone to la la land distractions as the old fossils.

The world continues to drift toward catastrophe. Political dysfunction’s failed-state costs will mount, and people will grow more distrustful and resentful, but it won’t have political consequences. The coalitions will hold, vote totals will come down to turnout, and distribution of power will come down to Republican-biased system design.

I hate to make predictions. This just seems, right now, the default expectation around which I should make plans.

3 Thoughts on “The Illusion of Change

  1. I don’t believe he originated the idea, but John Byrne frequently talked about the illusion of change back in the ’80s, particularly when people asked about e.g. replacing the Thing with She-Hulk in Fantastic Four.

    One other element that I think is worth mentioning in that corporations largely remain static as well. Whether you’re discussing the endless sequels/franchise reboots at the box office or even technological advancements (how many note-worthy communication advancements have been made since the original iPhone, which itself was really only original in its particular combination of existing technologies) businesses have largely been interested in keeping the status quo. They’ll outwardly claim support for BLM or whatever’s the cause du jour, but continue to funnel funding to the same regressive candidates. On the odd occasion that an independent voice breaks through with a unique business model or an original IP, it quickly gets bought out by Google or Disney or one of the other 800 lb gorillas to be either eliminated or diluted to the point of banality.

    UPS for a while used “moving at the speed of business” as a tag line, which I always found ironic, seeing how long it takes to actually get anything done in business. Scott Adams’ horrendous politics aside, that’s the entire point of his Dilbert comics — how INefficient businesses are.

    The rare instances when a shift occurs — even a temporary one — is when a major disruptor comes out of seeming nowhere. COVID’s a good example. But this whole time, there’s been a strong push from politics and businesses both to return to business-as-usual as quickly as possible, despite a large (majority?) of people saying, “You know, I like working from home more” and “I really don’t feel like busting my ass for minimum wage any more” and such.

    • Yeah, the past year has really deepened my awareness of how much relies on pure inertia and stick with what’s familiar. Now I’m watching with interest how much disruption can come from forced change (stay-at-home enables working from home for which we have long had the technology available, which in turn sends the housing market berzerk), and how relatively puny intentional efforts seem in comparison (pandemic knock-on effects arguably doing more for wages and working conditions than decades of traditional labor organizing).

  2. Pingback: The democratic party that wasn’t there | Matt Kuhns

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