Tag Archives: Dysfunction

Failed state, culture, civilization?

It feels like I am running out of genuinely new things to add about the corrosive storm engulfing us. Eric Sandy and I seem, largely independently, to be getting a stronger and stronger sense that “The brakes are cut, everybody. There is no exit ramp.”

At a guess, it seems to be staring us all in the face that the President of the United States already fully intends to pursue some kind of power play which might turn out like the beer hall putsch, or might turn out like the Reichstag fire, but is quite openly his intent.

But our systems don’t really seem to know how to handle that so mostly it’s all proceeding as it would anyway.

It’s better than nothing, certainly, that people like Greg Sargent and James Fallows have recently made clear, powerful statements that US journalism is still allowing Trump to exploit its failings as effectively as four years ago. But, realistically, the accuracy of the critique is, at this point, also a convincing argument against expecting that failure to change suddenly within the next couple of months.

I don’t think journalism is really unique in this regard, either. I’m reminded of Robert X. Cringely‘s proposal years ago that in a crisis, institutions do the same thing they do at other times, just more so.

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Adapting expectations

My experiences growing to adulthood in the late 20th century did not prepare me for coping with 21st century America. I strongly believe that the same goes for most adults.

The fact that so few people are even close to realizing how far off their baseline expectations are, let alone working through the process of adjustment, is part of the problem. But the major parts are other, much larger and much worse things.

In a post earlier this summer, I summed it up as “we don’t have functioning, even quasi-rational systems of decision-making” at a national level in America. That’s looking at it from one end; the fact that national governance in America has never been a functional system except when hugely exclusionary and injust is the same object viewed from the other end.

These failings function to prevent fixes to themselves, and go right on performing that function even as the consequences get more disastrous. This is the future before us. I have been writing about this for a while, but it’s only beginning to sink in how much I ought to adjust my expectations if I’m to go on.

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Democracy vs Tribalism

Picking up from where my previous post left off, in the big picture it does not seem like American governance which is inclusive of a diverse population is going to work any time soon, because it does not seem like it has ever worked in America’s whole history.

America only recognized women’s right to vote 100 years ago. It was another couple of generations, after that, before substantial, practical assertion of equality for women and minorities. That coincided with a reactionary backlash which has continued up to the present day. Realistically, then, dominant culture in America was united against acceptance and inclusion of diversity until the 20th century, and the end of that internal unity was the beginning of a cold civil war of 50+ years which is still intensifying.

Instances of broad political unity in America have, repeatedly, resulted from relatively liberal whites betraying marginalized communities, to throw in with patriarchal, white supremacist oligarchy for a while. The abandonment of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The segregation-driven Reagan landslides. George W. Bush’s “coalition of the frightened” circa 2002. Even the New Deal coalition, which sponsored massive egalitarian reforms, actively preserved white privilege from disruption by those reforms, in exchange for the support of racist “Dixiecrats.” As soon as Lyndon Johnson signed basic civil rights protections into law, the racists began organizing the Republican Party into a white supremacy alternative:

When the Civil Rights Act passed, it did so with Republican votes, even as it was signed by a Democrat. The compromises of that era saved the country, but they ended that political system.

Ezra Klein at Vox

Johnson’s much quoted remark about “losing the South for a generation,” perhaps once a model of dour pessimism, now seems like riotously rose-colored optimism.

None of this is new analysis, but, I simply have to wonder what anyone is going to do about it in the foreseeable future.

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What if: President HRC’s America

Not that I need hypothetical demonstrations of how disastrously, deeply wrecked is America’s culture. There are real demonstrations all around us.

Yet over the past few years, I have asked myself numerous times whether these deep problems would be any less entrenched had Hillary Clinton won enough close-call states in the rust belt to carry the Electoral College in 2016. Not because I think Trump’s presidency has been any kind of “blessing in disguise,” as it has obviously in fact been a nightmare.

It just keeps feeling like a powerful way to check how much has really been ruined already, to ask “what if the entire Trump presidency had never been?” That seems like quite an incredible improvement compared with where we are now.

Yet, in terms of the deep and stubborn problems and what’s likely in store for us over the next decade, even this thought experiment doesn’t convincingly offer more hope.

Various examples I could find from other authors tend to reach similar conclusions as my own, in terms of “what if Hillary had become president.” Basically she would have become promptly mired in the same political cold war which has been ongoing constantly since at least 2009, with even worse prospects for reversing the losing trend.

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Ohio, America, and corrupted culture

It feels like our situation is deteriorating rapidly, in America.

Many eyes are on Portland, OR, and the challenging reality that the president of the United States is very explicitly dispatching secret police to beat up political dissenters and “disappear” them. The U.S. Attorney General now characterizes federal agents disappearing people in unmarked vehicles as “standard anti-crime” and “classic crimefighting.” This is really happening and it’s very bad.

Understandable that even my reasonably well-informed mother, three states away, barely heard of what seemed like a Vesuvian eruption within Ohio politics this week. I have already tried summarizing the scandal around Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, elsewhere, and perhaps the most relevant information in the big picture is that arbitrary and even ironic technicalities seem to have transformed massive corruption from business-as-usual into a scandalous crime.

The reality is that anyone paying honest attention knew, all along, that a big utility was using political spending to buy desired state government policy. The well-intentioned suggestions of reformers that “dark money” is the problem and that transparency is the solution miss the forest for the trees, I think. From what I can tell, transparency is in a real sense how Householder landed himself in legal jeopardy. Had he relied more on coded language and implication, he probably could have worked much the same scheme without meeting the absurd standard of a direct plain-language “quid pro quo.”

Reality is, purchasing public policy with money is business-as-usual in America and “transparency” is ineffective as a deterrent, because forces like shame and restraint are crumbling.

Householder has provided a second example of this, in the possibility that he may be able to shut down the Ohio House for an indefinite period. If it turns out that our rules and laws provide no resolution for a House Speaker whose arrest on public corruption charges prevents him from contact with many colleagues—and who refuses either to resign or schedule a House session during which legislators could remove him—the explanation will probably be that no one ever really imagined a politician would do something so grossly offensive.

Surprise, lots of politicians including very powerful ones are committing grossly offensive abuses of power, and it is unclear what can stop them.

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The Failed State of America

At some point here I would like to write about something besides the corrosive storm, rotting away the entire notion of a functioning United States of America.

But, what else would I write about.* This is a big thing, even if it’s ongoing. Meanwhile I’m not, e.g., traveling much beyond my daily hikes around western Lakewood.

On the other hand, it seems like there is little genuinely new to say about the corrosion and dysfunction of America, and even less which answers this fundamental summation: “Sometimes there is no tactical approach that will address the immediate problem—all you can do is focus on strategy and hope to survive long enough for your long-term strategic actions to bear fruit.”

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Corrosion, Dysfunction and Pushing on a Rope

Just about every day, now, I watch what’s going on in America with a kind of horrified fascination.

I definitely do not mean popular protests to insist that Black Lives Matter. That’s very good.

Not much else is. America completely mismanaged, is still mismanaging, a deadly pandemic. A recession is spreading throughout the economy, applying pressure to the enormous dominoes of state and local government budgets. Many cities’ police departments are pretty clearly feral. Industry is turning Earth’s climate toxic. Etc.

Beneath all of this, there’s a pretty glaring lack of effective solutions being implemented. I think a growing number of people sense this, to some extent. But I also think that very few are fully capable of conceiving how far we are, at this point, from even a fundamental degree of societal functioning which seems to be an unquestioned, popular assumption.

A lot of people seem like Captain Willard on the Do Long Bridge—demanding a response from whoever is in authority—before the penny dropped and he realized that the expected responsive system of authority simply didn’t exist.

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Social change and chaos

It’s definitely good that a lot of people seem to have, just about, woken up one day in late May 2020 and decided that racism, racists, and racial disparities—particularly in violent injury by police—are not okay and that these things need kicked to the curb promptly.

That is certainly good and an improvement.

We clearly have systems which suppress demands for change (issuing from below), however, and suppress it, and when eventually something gives, our systems are a disordered mess.

That’s a modest price to get real, material gains in justice and inclusion.

I just have to believe that some better way is possible. Someday. It’s true that few if any complaints, demands or proposals now enjoying new energy are entirely new. It would be good if we had a process—e.g. a functioning political process—where merit and effort could make headway without having to wait until the system resistance breaks up, then try to grab what gains are possible during a melee which could end as seemingly arbitrarily as it began.

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