Tag Archives: Dysfunction

Brexit via exhaustion

My interest in “Brexit,” at this point, is mainly entertainment. I suppose it always has been. The points of comparison between British and American politics are interesting—sometimes downright eerie—but mostly I look at Brexit news for a diversion from our domestic dysfunction. A friend and I refer to it as The Daily (Shit) Show.

This week, at last it’s more or less official. Years after the referendum the UK is leaving the European Union, with a replacement trade agreement being rolled through a political system which seems mostly to be reacting with sheer exhausted resignation.

Far more informed people have already analyzed this from countless angles and will go on doing so for years. My primary “take,” as such, is the same one I arrived at two or three years ago: the key word for interpreting all the thrashing and contortions of Brexit is “plus.”

In an earlier season of the show, the word “plus” was an indispensable suffix. What practical model for relations with the EU should follow the egregiously vague 2016 referendum verdict? The answer was always something-plus. Canada-plus. Norway-plus. Etc.

The repeated insistence on some model different and better than any which existed seemed, and seems, to encapsulate the denial which produced years of fumbling to little apparent purpose, which turned the English left inside-out, and which may disunite the UK.

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Ungovernable

I pitch around terms like “failed state” and “ungovernable,” in referring to our crashing nation state, but I imagine that these are just words for nearly all who may chance by.

The dramatic difference between where we already are, though, and how much more functional our political systems were just within my lifetime might offer helpful context.

An approximate and abridged timeline of dysfunction:

  • c. 1980 amending the U.S. Constitution becomes impossible
  • c. 1990 multi-day government shutdowns enter the picture
  • c. 2005 steady growth in filibusters takes hockey-stick upward turn
  • c. 2010 significant reform via legislation becomes impossible
  • 2011 gerrymandering approaches perfection; debt ceiling brinkmanship
  • 2015 total blockade of cross-party judicial appointments
  • 2018 Violence Against Women Act cannot even get renewed
  • 2019 total blockade of cross-party legislation
  • 2020 broad Republican consent for schemes to reject a presidential election defeat

I don’t think this pattern points to “an epiphany” followed by a sudden return to cooperation and responsible good governance.

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Improv pandemi-coup-cession

Political processes and ordered society itself are fundamentally a form of theater which most people agree to take more or less seriously. When that goes it all goes.

This observation, which I made a couple of weeks ago about the significance of even performative cosplay coup attempts, is about as close as I can get to any kind of theme at the moment.

What’s the use, after all? I have been addressing this for a while in various ways; you don’t “organize to fight” faced with a hurricane; if you’re pushing on a rope then “try, try again” is not a virtue. In recent years I have dreamed up increasingly unlikely scenarios for how America might be repaired and renewed from within existing systems, while recognizing the trend away from plausibility with each new corruption of the system.

At this point I think the motion away from plausible repair scenarios has reached escape velocity. What does one do, say, or think amid this? Even believing that intervention still matters, a big picture ongoing cluster-crisis is kind of distracting. So I will try to collect some scattered thoughts in an assortment package, since developing all or even most of them as complete essays may never happen.

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The Beer Hall Putsch

On Sept. 13, I wrote this in my 2020 campaign/election/events diary:

Seems real likelihood that future is either

1. beerhall putsch

2. reichstag fire

My thinking was that Trump appeared to be on the way to rejection by voters, and would plainly attempt to sabotage democracy in some way; it might end up a failed farce(Beer Hall Putsch) like many Trump projects or it might deliver America wholly into authoritarianism (Reichstag fire).

I hesitated to give any public expression to this thought, owing to anxiety about which event was in the making. That hesitation continued after the election, even once it seemed pretty firm that Biden had met the conditions to “win.” The relevant institutional machinery is full of trapdoors, after all, and while Trump’s efforts to reject democracy have been a farce, pratfalls on an unsafe set can still be unsafe.

Eventually, I realized that oh, huh, then this is America’s Beer Hall Putsch, and would be even if somehow it were to “succeed.” The real story is that our situation is that far gone, it wouldn’t take much for even a halfassed-farce coup to succeed.

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The Consortium Calls It

Friday evening a friend wondered “Are they gonna call the election in a Friday news dump?” I laughed, and had been musing on the same question earlier in the day. Though the notion amuses, the alternative carried out today by “they” is much richer.

Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 concludes a week which is a microcosm of contemporary America:

  1. Political debate has conceptually been devoured by a sectarian/race war
  2. Bad rules thwart the majority from doing anything effective about the above, or about the bad rules, or about much of anything
  3. In this dysfunction, power defaults more and more to corporate capital
  4. For ordinary people, conditions get worse, intensified by a dangerous natural phenomenon which could easily be controlled by a functional modern civilization, but which in this case is largely allowed to burn as it will because that’s the option most suited to short-term corporate profits
  5. Meanwhile few people even give much notice to any of this, because our information and conceptual infrastructure is hopelessly misaligned with what’s really going on, owing to a combination of senescence and sabotage
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The long shadow of 1964

I have spent close to four years not only recording the major contemporary events of America’s political collapse, but fitting pieces into a backstory.

Major structural vulnerabilities were there since the ink dried on the Constitution, but the present collapse was really set in motion in the early 1960s.

If I had to choose three events for a summary, I would choose these:

Democratic president Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, setting off an enormous generation-long exodus of racists from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

The same year, according to Kevin Kruse, “NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller tried to win the party back from ‘extremists’ but was heckled and harassed” at the national convention where moderate and liberal Republicans sought to “make a stand.” It proved to be a last stand.

In 1979, “evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.”

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Compulsive Lying & the Republican Party

A Republican operative wrote a recent book about the party titled It Was All a Lie. I haven’t read the book, but that’s certainly an exemplary instance of “getting the headline right.”

Dishonesty almost seems like it’s an out-of-control compulsion for the Republican Party at this point, and this seems worth noting even if it may only be a footnote to the larger picture.

In the larger sense, the Republican Party committed itself to dishonesty decades ago, when a critical mass of influential figures decided that winning over majority support to their priorities was no longer a realistic prospect. David Frum has written that “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” As democracy existed and was rather broadly popular, however, Republicans’ agenda first obliged them to reject honesty about said agenda.

They did that, and have reached a point where they have rigged so many systems of power in their favor that they have done little except abuse power for a dozen years, without any evident corrective which could force them to stop. Yet they continue attempting to sustain frauds which are almost like trying to conceal something behind a plate-glass wall.

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Conceptual infrastructure failures

It’s possible for situation to be both terrible and ridiculous at once. This has indeed been the case almost constantly for America, for at least four years.

My awareness of this phenomenon, confronting us from almost every direction, has become overwhelming.

On one hand, things are absolutely abhorrent. Where to begin? The western U.S. is literally on fire, a pandemic has killed 200,000 Americans and climbing, and the president is an authoritarian raving monster who spends his time flying around the country for organized COVID-19 superspreader events, and encouraging Republicans’ frenzied effort to “get rid of the ballots” that might oblige them to cede power in any kind of functioning democracy; they’re clearly willing to destroy what remains of ours, and are preparing to install another radical partisan operative on the nation’s highest court.

Meanwhile everyone is screaming and e-mailing and deploying every cliché in the book—red alert, all hands on deck, etc.—and it feels equivalent to yelling “pull up, pull up!” when the plane’s engines have exploded and it’s in a tailspin trailing smoke and fire.

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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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