American Self-Endangerment

The past day or so, despite mass shootings and plague and everything else, some journalists and Democrats have tried making a story out of “Trump expressed approval of his supporters chanting ‘hang Mike Pence.’”

This is hapless in multiple ways. There’s really nothing substantive and new, here. All the remotely significant elements, just like the larger picture of the Capitol putsch, have been in front of us since the beginning: violent attack on political leaders’ workplace, carried out by Republican base with the encouragement of Republican leaders, very willing nonetheless to extend violence including hanging to leading Republicans including Pence, and most Republican leaders more concerned with circling the wagons as a party than with anything else. None of that’s new. The basis for this “story” seems to be “The Jan 6 committee has testimony that Meadows told colleagues that Trump said something to the effect that…” Come on, how do you not finish that with “Ferris passed out at 31 flavors.”

But there is perhaps something, here, which fits into an actual meaningful pattern. The elites trying to make this into a story seem, as best I can judge, to perceive something extra alarming in the fact that Republicans are not only comfortable with violence, they’re apparently comfortable with endangerment of themselves. Shouldn’t more of them break ranks, wonder the journalists. Shouldn’t more voters be turned off, wonder the Democrats. Isn’t this attachment to closing ranks, as a greater priority than even self-preservation, disturbing to people besides us, they all ask?

The answer they miss is that such priorities are widespread in our culture, certainly among its elites including journalists and Democrats.

Regarding US journalism, I cannot do any better than quote once more this trenchant observation from Brian Klaas:

Regarding Democrats, it’s harder to choose a particular instance of closing ranks and sustaining elite traditions, even at the cost of their own endangerment. Democratic leadership basically responded to a Republican insurrection attempt by pretending it was a dense enigma, because actually acknowledging the obvious conflicts with their ossified traditions of “bipartisanship” and solidarity with others inside the big club. Democrats are as far as ever from meaningfully resisting an aggressive campaign to rig the political system’s rules against their party. A week after explicit notice of another obvious volley in the assault—from a radical Supreme Court majority which will chainsaw any and everything which could conceivably amount to a Democratic agenda—Senate Democrats unanimously closed ranks to declare that those unelected lifetime appointed judges should feel insulated from even a hint of public pressure.

I write all the time about the rot and decay of American culture, but I think there is something worth noting, here. Yes there is stupidity, senescence, bad faith, bad design, etc., etc. But there’s also a real, and widespread, indifference to endangerment. I don’t just mean a lack of enlightened self-interest; we’re way past that. I mean an indifferent response even to quite direct dangers to them.

Brynn Tannehill wrote a thread the other day which I endorse, but I think her valid criticism of this dysfunctional culture’s “tiny minority of elites running it, who know it doesn’t work but don’t have to care” is becoming partly and meaningfully inaccurate in that last bit. American elites’ definition of things like “existential threat” and “have to care” is getting awfully equivocal. Tannehill is exactly right that they mostly don’t care much about anyone else; neither, in a lot of ways, do many American plebians seem to care consistently about their own safety. But elites are the ones with more to lose, and lack of response to increasingly direct endangerment seems in some ways to cut across the Democrats, Republicans, and journalism elites.

This seems like important evidence of how fundamentally the culture has lost its way. I have been thinking again, lately, of how Jane Jacobs seemed to intuit that process nearly 20 years ago, even though she struggled to map that intuition to more specific things. A couple of decades on and I think we can more easily identify some specifics, including an elite which is no longer responding much even to its own endangerment, never mind societal problems.

I think the related reasons for that unresponsiveness include

  1. senescence;
  2. problems of attribution, i.e. a clueless confusion about the gap which has opened up between symbols and meaning, rituals and effectiveness, how things are expected to work and how they actually work;
  3. entrenched but obsolete cultural structures, like the two-party model (kind of a subset of item two) in which society’s governing class can have a genuine and significant schism, yet still reflexively close ranks with other elites who offer a threat of very serious harm; and
  4. the many disincentives toward renewal effort, which include inertia, bad faith, and loss of hope

I don’t know. Tannehill is probably correct that, “Eventually, there will come a time when the vast majority of the public believes that crises can no longer be addressed by voting, legislation, or the courts.” She is very probably also correct that America is still some considerable ways from that, and by the time such a day may arrive, possibility will have long since passed for relatively peaceful and amicable separation from the oppressive dystopia which the old order is becoming.

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