Tag Archives: America

System design matters

Early this morning I came across a twitter thread summarizing the “theory of now” of Professor Jason Stanley, who endorses the summary. While not exactly my own phrasing or choice emphases, it seems generally accurate to me also.

The main difference in my own “theory of now” may be that I think system design—omitted from Stanley’s theory or at least from a 20-tweet summary he just promoted—plays a critical role.

My own “theory of now” might in fact be summarized in six words that I scribbled down earlier this year:

  • rabid right
  • flabby left
  • bad rules

The summarized Stanley addresses effectively the first two, which are both important. I believe that the third is also essential to understanding the sabotage of America.

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Post-democracy America

As I watch corrupt sham democracy eat each big new hole in the remaining shell of representative democracy, I always feel a tension any more between dismay at how fast it seems to be happening and the lessons of experience about how long zombie systems can shamble along anyway.

Aside from the lessons of America itself over the past couple of decades, I think again on re-reading Gibbon recently, and on how long the Roman Senate existed after the Roman republic ended. This notoriously pathetic zombie institution (the use of which by America’s framers as an explicit model for our government was really Asking For It from the very start) lingered on for centuries after it had surrendered all power to autocratic emperors. The Roman Senate outlasted the republic, its own purpose, and even the Roman religion, by centuries.

That’s a powerful corrective to any expectation of a near-term catharsis, of any kind.

So I’m stuck, usually, with the expectation that things will get worse and worse, but, while some kind of explosion(s) are probably somewhere ahead, even they may not really alter America’s zombie-shuffle very much.

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Bipartisanship Deal Infrastructure

Friday morning I began writing a blog post about the absurdities in and around the “bipartisan infrastructure deal” announced the day before. Then I stepped away from keyboard for a while, and before I resumed writing, parts of the Jenga tower had already begun caving in.

There’s a small life satisfaction, there, although people are scurrying around trying to patch up this dumb thing, and I don’t presume the effort is at and end.

I do believe that the most important point is the same, regardless. Republicans’ shiny-object obsession with bugaboos, conspiracies, and other made-up bullshit, has a counterpart among too many Democrats as well as the culture at large. This center-left obsession is with, perhaps fittingly, obsolete conceptual infrastructure.

Customs, norms, rhetorical clichés, mental clichés, bipartisanship, filibuster, reconciliation; it’s an obsession with the score of a game which no longer serves any purpose at all, in large part because only one of the participating teams is trying to play said game. Despite which, this ridiculous scrum continues of spectators and one team ferociously debating tactics and points, while the other team (and an increasing number of referees who have joined their team) simply play Calvinball.

From this starting point, it seems like a pattern of over-complicated and inherently dishonest “deals”—Obama’s 2016 attempt to waltz the Trans-Pacific Partnernship through Congress, Republicans’ 2017 game of hot-potato over healthcare repeal, and now the “two track” infrastructure scheme—is not a coincidence but basically inevitable.

The old is dying. The new cannot yet be born until more people pull their heads out and confront reality. Here, meanwhile, are some of the morbid symptoms.

1,317 Days

It is difficult for most people genuinely to believe and adapt to a belief that the system doesn’t work, and not surprisingly, elites are generally more prone to this than average people. For this reason as much as any, I just can’t believe that American renewal is close.

It feels as though we are a society simply marking time, now. I made a counter of the days until Inauguration Day 2025, currently 1,317 days out. This date seems important because, until then, various limited but significant abuses of power will probably be on pause. That seems like nearly the only major reassurance available for American governance right now. Manifesting efforts aside, it seems very unlikely that Republicans can seize back the presidency’s terrible powers before then. This matters, given that their last presidency delivered not just vast corruption but e.g. concentration camps (even if they denied this term), an Attorney General publicly supporting a program to disappear dissidents off the street into unmarked vans, and Lafayette Square.

It’s a symptom of how complete the rot is that no one seems likely to be penalized for any of these things; on the last item, indeed, Biden’s Attorney General is defending Trump against a related lawsuit and media has recently picked up an attempt to gaslight the events’ reality out of history entirely.

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The democratic party that wasn’t there

America, I have realized, doesn’t really have an institution for the protection and promotion of representative democracy, or at least not a remotely adequate institution. If there is a way to make a large multiethnic democracy work, I suspect that it would have to include such an institution.

We don’t have that. There is no formal department, or program with this responsibility. In Congress, there are committees on veterans, small business, Indian affairs, aging, printing… There is no committee with clear responsibility to work on issues of democracy.

It so happens that America does have a Democratic Party, which has been one of the country’s two major political parties essentially forever. There are a number of reasons why the Democratic Party has been ineffective at stopping the sabotage of democracy, but the main reason is probably that “the Democratic Party” is really just a loose concept, not an organization.

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Nonbinary Generation

I’m 42 years old and not really with-it, or hip, or anything like that. Yet it does seem like a grassroots conceptual revolution has gotten underway in a relatively short time, when it comes to sex and gender. The rise of nonbinary identification seems like it is gathering pace especially rapidly.

Personally I can definitely describe myself as gendernonconforming, which is a pretty broad category given what rigid expectations of gender norms still prevail in our culture. There is no obvious reason why nail polish, my most public demonstration of this, is so much associated with a specific sex only, but it is. (The only comments on my nails to date have all been positive, but not everywhere is Lakewood.) Nonbinary might also be applicable, but the term feels so new that I wonder if I understand properly.

Recently I caught up with a Generation X friend who has two gendernonconforming children, the older of whom identifies as nonbinary and has adopted they/them pronouns. It was only during our conversation that I realized how recently I have had any real awareness of nonbinary status as more than an abstract concept. I heard another acquaintance mention one of his children identifying as nonbinary, some time in 2018 or 2019. So, maybe three years. A lot has happened during the past three years, but that’s still not a long time compared with four decades.

A few thoughts about this for whatever they’re worth.

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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.

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The Enduring Faith in Secrets

People have a habit of responding to upsetting things, happening right out in the open, with a belief that there exists some secret information which, when revealed, will reaffirm their idea of a just universe. The belief is often fantasy.

This is on my mind, this week, as members of Congress stage the usual kabuki performance around a “January 6 Commission.” I think the fixation on digging up secrets behind the Capitol Insurrection is one very good example of this error. Probably there are secrets, but what real significance can they have beyond what happened right in the open for all to see?

The belief in secrets as a source of hope amid upsetting events is a pattern that has been coming into focus for me for a while. I wrote about it last summer without quite seeing a completely sharp picture. I began to recognize it years ago as the local battle over Lakewood Hospital dragged on, and multiple people became much more fixated on secret details than on the completely obvious. Looking back, I think there’s a common tendency toward this but that it’s mainly driven by a desire to restore faith in a just universe. It was unthinkable that public servants—local people, your own neighbors—were conspiring and lying and even breaking rules to liquidate a publicly owned charity hospital and getting away with it. Some secret somewhere had to exist which would unlock the doors of that nightmare and offer a way out.

That was not the case and I don’t think it’s the case with the larger nightmare of contemporary American politics.

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A Union of Consent

I read about British politics primarily as a hobby, but it’s also a source of useful perspective. One example of the latter is the recurring and explicit reference to the United Kingdom as “a union of consent,” in discussions of internal political fractures.

It’s a vague principle, but an important one: that political unions are not shackles for eternity, and societies which profess respect for fairness and self-determination need to allow some form of peaceful divorce.

I recently wrote my federal elected officials to advise that our own country (re)establish this principle in some explicit way, now, because I think that in future we will wish we had done so during relatively amicable and orderly times.

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Policy vs. Tribalization

The past week has brought out a language of real alarm from a variety of elite voices, on the subject of Republicans’ rejection of democracy. Yesterday, retired general McCaffrey wrote this, which might have been cribbed from any number of my own posts:

Wild as this is to witness, a few things make me skeptical about its possible import. First, I cannot assume that this alarm will have any impact at all on either the larger population or the people with power to choose national policy. Second, perhaps a minor point, but it is such a demonstration of elite decadence that the demotion of far-right Republican Liz Cheney seems to be the main prompt for this alarm. Good grief.

Third, I’m forced to question the potential at this point for any policies or rules to contain what is a kind of cultural folk migration.

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