Failure of imagination

It seems like our society is somehow drowning in nonsense, while at the same time ailing badly from a drought of imagination.

The nonsense is simply endemic, as are the variants of dishonesty and disinformation. These themes are familiar here on this blog, and recorded almost every single day in my chronicle of news and events any more.

It seems more and more, though, like the fixation on relatively familiar nonsense is connected with a dismal failure of real imagination.

Most people, I am forced to conclude, may be very eager consumers of conspiracies and myths and fantasy stories of all kinds, but are never much good at really envisioning the world familiar to them becoming significantly better or worse. Doing that is really a specialist role.

I suppose we might say that illiberal specialists are meeting the challenge to seize popular imagination relatively well, while liberalism’s imagination seems largely seized-up.

America’s political elites and institutions, and the “fourth estate” of journalism, are basically bankrupt on this score. For all that Biden’s policy proposals represent substantial evolution, he is the perfect figurehead for a liberal democratic politics hopelessly stuck in obsolete clichés. Meanwhile “useless horse race reporting and both sides-ism remain a central feature of DC journalism, even though reporters literally texted the White House to save their lives from violent thugs who were sent to the Capitol…by the White House.”

A niche among specialists does seem very capable of imagining an America worse than current dysfunction. But, not only do the alarms and warnings seem unavailing upon anyone else, even most of this niche group seems stuck for imagining anything really better.

Ezra Klein, over the years, has made a number of observations which were so profound that they took me a long time really to appreciate. Last month he published an op-ed, very reasonably asserting that “democracy needs a Plan B.” I fully agree, although I think the reason is less that legislative reforms are prisoner in a Senate of oligarchs, and more than they would not really contain what is now in motion anyway. But, Klein seems to identify part of what’s in motion and simply propose “let’s try copying that.” Yesterday, Amanda Litman emailed the Run For Something list to second the idea that the solution to Republicans rigging democracy is to run a lot more successful campaigns for little local offices, because something something, Steve Bannon local election machinery, this doesn’t at all address most of the factors corrupting democracy.

These persons are far from alone in circling back to “we just have to take on the unfair system and win by a lot, anyway.” Earlier this month I observed that we did so, already, and even those who recognize this seem stuck at “just keep doing it, forever.”

Teri Kanefield maintains her utterly dispiriting vision of just “constantly working to turn out the voters who want democracy to survive,” forever. (I don’t think that’s even valid as theoretical tactics, but let’s continue.) She frequently combines this with the slightly interesting observation that most people just don’t notice or imagine how much even a frustrating, pitiful, dysfunctional liberal democratic government improves their lives compared with an entirely unrestrained autocracy. I’m sure that such is the case. Guess what? “Be more appreciative that you even have porridge and that there’s only dirt in it not rat poop and broken glass” is not going to seize the popular imagination.

Meanwhile I noted today how rapidly even optimists’ hopes are dimming. One such acquaintance shared a Prospect essay by Robert Kuttner, written just about two months after he defiantly urged calm and confidence, and rejected defeatism. By December, Kuttner sounded much more like Kanefield, explicitly likening political efforts to improve society with Sisyphus, and simply insisting that we must make ourselves satisfied with that.

This is, I just don’t even know. The embrace of demoralization? Instead of “we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas,” this is like “what we can think of doesn’t work, so we should just reconcile ourselves to a permanent struggle which we know is futile.”

I suppose that in a way I find myself in the strange role of doubting that it’s quite entirely as bad as that.

Granted that the world is not super-encouraging, though I do believe that the picture from within the United States is quantitatively more hopeless even if not qualitatively so. It’s bizarre to watch support for the seemingly unsinkable Boris Johnson crater, for reasons which seem entirely arbitrary. Yet one could conclude that even our seeming political twin is managing a bit more of a sense of possibility than America. It seems stupid to me that years of maladministration and dishonesty seemed not to matter while some relatively trivial scandal of manners now has Johnson engulfed in a firestorm, but none of those things seem capable of really driving support away from Trump or Republicans.

Meanwhile, much of the liberal democratic world let’s be honest has largely built itself in imitation of Anglo-American models, so I’m also unsure that global disappointment with these systems has to mean that democracy as a whole category is a bust.

I can likewise look at the fact that big business is successfully fooling so many people into trusting it, and the fact that Americans’ support for unions is scraping a high not seen since the mid-1960s, and see possibility as well as vexation. It is not hopeless even in America to earn majority support and trust; in fact you can even do so if you don’t deserve to, but, you also can if you do. Maybe our liberal democratic political system’s problem is not that democracy can never offer anything better than frustrating futility; maybe the problem is that this particular system is absurdly garbage, and something else might inspire people but it won’t be “work around the garbage.”

It strikes me that vision for democracy has been mostly missing from American politics for quite some time. As a child of the 1980s and 90s, thinking back on George H.W. Bush and his awkward remark about “the vision thing” it seems like an early caricature of how hollow any form of liberal democratic politics was becoming in this country, opening the door to an era of futility and rot.

In the 1960s, major figures existed with vision; attempting to take America away from basically an apartheid state was vision. The backlash which has lasted since is also a kind of vision, albeit one debased and haunted by dishonesty at every step. In contrast it’s tough to see much grand vision for democracy in America since the 1960s. Liberal democracy’s elites seem far more attached to the familiar than critical of it, let alone really exercised to develop something better than frustrating dumb games which are no longer even credible attempts at government of/for/by the people. Even would-be socialist revolutionary Bernie Sanders insisted through his second campaign for the presidency that he would not want to tamper with one of the most anti-democratic rules of a fundamentally elite and anti-democratic Senate.

I’m still very uncertain about how much support any movement for political transformation can attain in distrustful, poisoned America. But it seems to me like there’s little to lose, and if each of us can advocate whatever alternative to corrupt autocracy which we want, I don’t know why one would choose—when every option seems unpromising—to rally people for fighting permanent rearguards on behalf of a crummy and permanently vulnerable system justified with a lot of nonsense and fibbing.

We really can’t do much better than this?


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