Basket of Deplorables: Crisis in American Federalism

by E. John Winner

___

The presidency of Donald Trump has revealed two truths, not merely inconvenient but tragic.

These truths are only hinted at by pundits on the contemporary political scene, for they violate long inculcated beliefs and assumed norms that allow us to communicate and share living space – however uncomfortably – with others in our assumed communities. Their solutions are uncertain, but such problems are now surfacing, whether we confront their underlying truths or not. So perhaps it would be better to admit these truths and begin discussing them in a real way and hope that some good solutions present themselves before the worse make themselves necessary.

We begin with a quick glance back at two historic phenomena. The first of these is a dilemma that European intellectuals found themselves in after the First World War, which continues to have consequences today. This doesn’t immediately impact our problems in America, but it does foreshadow them. Little realized in the US, every European state entering the first World War was by definition a liberal state. This doesn’t register here, because all of those states but France were headed by a monarch. But they were some form or other parliamentary monarchies. The parliament could enjoy considerable power, as in England, or virtually none, as in Russia. But they were representative liberal states as defined (indeed prescribed) by Hegel, the most influential philosopher of the preceding 19th Century. And indeed, as the “Guns of August” began their devastation in Belgium in 1914, it was quite obvious that they were representative of a general popular will to war. Following the horrors of WWI and the revolutionary changes and economic collapses that marked its aftermath, the crisis European intellectuals invested in politics faced could be simply put: The “liberal state” had failed. Representative government was suspect, and the will of the people needed strenuous guidance or abandonment. In America and to some extent England, it has become common to shake one’s head in baffled disapproval at the political thoughts that sometimes surface among intellectuals on the Continent. But for those who flirted with Communism, as for those who embraced Fascism, the problem seemed – and for some, still seems – obvious: the liberal state doesn’t work.

But surely, look to the United States! That beacon of democracy, of liberty and of freedom for all! It not only survived the First World War, but the Second as well, coming out stronger, wealthier, more influential than ever. It even survived a Civil War, and came out of that much improved, with increasing opportunities and liberties for more and more of its recognized citizens.

Well, not quite. Although the insurrectionist governments and their armies were brought low in 1865, the social conflicts that engendered the Civil War were only tenuously resolved (and certainly not to everyone’s benefit) in the Compromise of 1877 that finally, after considerable contention, settled the election of 1876 and in effect ended the Reconstruction. In the Compromise, Southern Democrats ceded their contested electoral College votes to Republican Rutherford Hayes, with the understanding that there would be no further interference by the Federal government in the re-establishment of the “Southern way of life.” Let’s be explicit about what this meant. Economic and legal issues aside, the war had been fought over one important question: what to do with millions of descendants of those brought to America as slaves? The Southern answer was simple: keep them as slaves, work them ’til death. Southern intellectuals doubted they were even human. The Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision, ruled that (according to the Bible) God had so predetermined them slaves, that they couldn’t even be measured as citizens (three-fifths or otherwise), whatever the Constitution or individual “Free States” decreed. But in the North, beyond an increasingly violent propagation of an alternative religious view (that slaves were Christian brethren of the White Man, however incapacitated by inferior intellect), political, social, and economic leaders came to recognize that “the Negro” (as they were then generously termed) represented a potentially enormous market of “Free Labor,” which was actually Abraham Lincoln’s primary argument against slavery in the debates leading up to his election.

The Reconstruction, hampered from the beginning by the Southern-sympathizer Andrew Johnson, should have been far more drastic than it was. The Southern states should have been treated as conquered territories. Their borders should have been re-drawn, military governments set up, and re-education programs such as those seen in the “De-Nazification” of Germany after 1945 should have been deployed. Of course that wasn’t going to happen. Lincoln communicated his own hopes for reconstruction in the Gettysburg Address: the Confederacy would be recognized as a failed experiment with the same democratic goals as the North; one that could only be realized through a return to the union. Grant indicated much the same in his release of Lee’s Army at Appomattox. The opportunity for radical change in the South was never even recognized, the victorious Federal government choosing instead temporary sanctions and maintenance of the peace through what were essentially police actions. Eleven years of intransigent resistance, occasional guerilla warfare, backroom and backwoods political shenanigans, voter suppression and racial terrorism and murder ultimately led to the 1877 Compromise, effectively the establishment of two Americas: one developing the linear history of the Constitutional state as it had unfolded through the war, the other preserving, maintaining and propagating Confederate values and ideology, including both its entrenched racism and its recalcitrant, feudalistic form of fundamentalist Christianity.

At this point, the anticipated retorts are obvious: “Northerners can be equally racist”; “these are political and social issues, why drag religion into it?” The fact, however, is that conservative Protestantism is integral to the “Southern way of life,” and always has been, and until the 1960’s it was racist to the core. This has been somewhat repaired over the past few decades, but Southern conservative Protestantism, which ferociously proselytizes, remains politically active today at the national level, and it is the source of many of the troubles we face today. For American, fundamentalist Protestantism, technology may have its uses, but science counts for nothing. This, of course, implies that certain forms of reasoning are either worthless or downright suspect, but of what? Of leading people away from the Word, which must be believed regardless of evidence or argument. If it is there in the Bible, none may say otherwise without lapsing into evil. Of course, science can be made useful if it can be made to support belief in the Bible; but this is really “by-the-way.” The technology developed scientifically may be useful, but its logical underpinnings – the actual science that produces it – is not. It’s great that medicines that can relieve pain or indigestion, or even impotence, are discovered, but the physiological and biochemical science that grounds such discoveries? Nah, it’s all the will of God.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist Protestant Christian to be fixed in this mindset, which we might call “belief-centered willful ignorance.” I focus on fundamentalist Protestantism for two reasons: first it had a major cultural impact in the South before and after the Civil War (and partly motivated that conflict), and has driven large sectors of the political Right nationally in consequence; and second, because it is a system of expressed ideology, and thus can reveal some of how such a mindset directs thinking even among those entirely non-religious. The mindset is clear: “If I believe in something strongly enough, nothing in the world can contradict it. If there is any evidence to the contrary, that can be either explained away or ignored. If there is any argument contrary to it, my belief itself is a negation of that argument.”

As democracy is perfected, the office [of President] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.  – H. L. Mencken

In comment on Robert Gressis’ The New Abnormal, I remarked:

The Germans who supported Hitler were not monsters. Even though they were anti-Semitic, they were only casually so, in the sense that anti-Semitism had worked itself into the fabric of German society. Their primary concerns were economic, and a continuing bitterness over the German defeat in World War I. There was a general sense of instability and displacement – not quite a sense that they had lost some sort of German identity during the war, but the anxiety that the war had somehow revealed that there really hadn’t been any such identity to begin with. (And they weren’t wrong; “Germany” was really the invention of intellectuals at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.) Hitler encouraged and strengthened their identity as German. He gave them something to believe, a cause that would undo all defeats of the past. He assured them that their economic problems were due to foreign impositions, which when undone would release a mighty nation into a new prosperity, with jobs and wealth for all. He stoked their fears while promising to deliver them from whatever threatened them, which he made a point of identifying precisely with certain ethnicities and certain politics. And emphasizing that note, he essentially promised that a newly united, Nazified Germany would at last rise above all politics. A single leader of a single party with a single vision would lead them into a future of collective contentment within a strong community, with no threats, no challenges, no possible further changes or crises. Of course, this would require world war and wholescale slaughter, but he didn’t lie about that, it’s there in Mein Kampf. He simply convinced them to work together, to make the effort, to trust Party leadership, to trust Adolf Hitler. And when he and the Party asked them to do terrible things, that was just part of the effort needed to secure that future. They weren’t monsters; but monstrous acts were what the future seemed to require of them. There isn’t real difference between these Germans and the Americans who form the cult of Trump. There is not a question in my mind that such Americans would willingly partake in massacres, willingly stand guard at concentration camps and even death camps if the situation ever opened the door to these. Some would have doubts, troubled consciences; but others would engage in this gleefully. Most would simply ‘go along to get along;’ others do it, why not they?”

It is necessary to emphasize that this was not written in a moment of panic. It is not intended as hyperbolic fear-mongering nor as expression of contempt. I think the evidence is quite clear that the Trump Cult – which may include as much as 40% of America’s population, but certainly not much less than 30% – is composed of those committed to belief-centered willful ignorance. They can only be appealed to by those who affirm their beliefs. Argument and evidence are useless with them. They are, strictly speaking, uneducable. And they vote. Worse still, they have guns; lots of guns. Their only sources of information are conspiracy sites on the Internet, Fox News, and right-wing talk-radio to which they listen endlessly, day and night. Everything they see and hear assures them that Donald Trump is a genius avatar of their beliefs, persecuted by conspiracies foreign and domestic (and possibly satanic or interstellar as well).

And they vote; and they carry guns.

___

Americans have lavished enormous powers on the presidency. They have also sought to bind those powers by law. Yet the Founders of the republic understood that law alone could never eliminate the risks inherent in the power of the presidency. They worried ceaselessly about the prospect of a truly bad man in the office—a Caesar or a Cromwell, as Alexander Hamilton fretted in ‘Federalist No. 21.’ They built restraints: a complicated system for choosing the president, a Congress to constrain him, impeachment to remove him. Their solutions worked for two and a half centuries. In our time, the system failed. [1]

Railing about the Trump Cult and having to face the fact that – since uneducable and willfully ignorant – there is nothing to be done with them is problem enough. Calming them with appropriate entertainments, allowing them ample space to practice their beliefs without impairing the rights of others, providing them just enough relatively harmless choices that would meet their approval while furthering projects truly for the greater good, should keep their arrogance and potential for violence in check. Since the Reagan era, however, they have gradually increased their influence on the Republican Party and are now poised to dominate politics and reconstruct the mainstream to reflect their values and beliefs. They want a strong leader to accomplish this, and Donald Trump, right now, is it, something that has revealed an even more unpleasant truth of American politics.

The American Constitution is hopelessly out of date. While Amendments, legislation, and judicial decisions have tweaked the Constitution, removing some of its more egregious elements (such as its pro-slavery wording), while constructing new rights out of the old language of the text (such as the right to privacy), and thus moving America in the general direction of social progress and greater equity and opportunity for larger and larger numbers of citizens, this long history has created loop-holes for transgression at the highest levels of government, while allowing parties at the state level to engage in all kinds of chicanery. Often this has been engaged as undeniable corruption; but almost as often, the Constitution and its application to the States easily allows this legally.

The first major problem is the Electoral College. It was born of two well-meaning motives. The first was to establish an agency that would act as final check on Presidential elections, making sure, after due deliberation, that the President-Elect was truly qualified for office. This function of the College is simply superfluous, and, as far as I know, has never been enacted in any election. The second motivation was to make sure that a President could not win the office by winning only in the most highly populated states, but needed to appeal across regions of differing populations, enjoying differing values. The Civil War demonstrates one way this Electoral College function could simply fail: i.e., when a sizable minority committed to violent defense of their cause simply refuses to agree to the Electoral College result.

But there’s another way the Electoral College structure can fail: Namely, when an entrenched minority with political power and savvy learns to manipulate the election process in such a way that the Electoral College only reflects the will of that minority. Which is what the Republican Party has been working toward for the past thirty or more years and which they seem to have accomplished almost completely with the “election” of Donald Trump. Had it been any other Republican in 2016, it’s probable that most of us leaning liberal or Democratic would simply have sucked it up, as we ultimately did in 2000. But George W. Bush, for all his faults, really did believe that he had been elected President of all Americans, regardless of whether they voted for him or not, and that really has been the case for all Presidents since Washington. Until Donald Trump. Trump has made it quite clear that he is President of those who have voted for him – those who “love” him (his word) – and all others be damned.

The Constitutional government of the United States was never intended to be a minority government. It was supposed to be a government of the will of the majority of the people, but with the rights of minorities protected; with various levers of government and oversight (including for instance the tripartite branches of government, and the two differently structured houses of Congress), assuring that changes in the will of the majority would lead to changes in law only gradually over time, following substantial discussion and through various elections. But a minority-rule government led by an authoritarian can move very swiftly, since it is no longer concerned with changing hearts and minds. Such a government would be tolerable if it truly acted for the common good, but “the common good” has almost always been interpreted by such governments as affirming the beliefs of that minority.

Obviously, the Electoral College affects only one position in the government directly, the presidency. Far more difficult to recognize is that the very form of federalism embodied in the Constitution is now dangerously outmoded, because it has been crippled by a long history of abuse and legalized corruption. The Founders developed that particular form of federalism in the context of thirteen states, which had developed organically – that is, without much thought or planning – out of the colonies settled by Great Britain, largely along differing religious lines. This is why they wanted no religion to dominate the national government. And it was hoped that the various states would learn to live together peaceably under the Constitution, as they hadn’t under the Articles of Confederation, with a strong national government, but one that did not interfere in state affairs. Expanding territorial dominion, expanding numbers of states, social and economic interests beyond the mere localism and religious concerns of the original thirteen states apparently did not occur to them until the Constitution was signed and in effect. By then it was too late.

Only approaching the Constitution as a “living document” (i.e., open to re-interpretation according to changing circumstances over time) has kept it viable as a blueprint for government. But there are embedded flaws in this form of federalism that can’t be resolved through re-interpretation. Most important of this, for our present purpose, is the delegation of election laws and their enforcement primarily to the states. For decades now, some have been complaining of the most obvious abuse of this: gerrymandering. Occasionally such complaints take legal form and even wind up in the Supreme Court. But there’s no doubt that whichever party engages in the practice, it is a violation of the will of the majority in the state gerrymandered. It assures over-representation of the party engaged in the practice, regardless of the actual popular vote.

But the coming election reveals that there are more dangerous problems with control of elections in the individual states. We are again reminded that a state legislature can make it extremely difficult to vote, by limiting access to voting apparatus, or using legal technicalities to disenfranchise whole populations. We are also made aware of state laws, long dormant, but Constitutionally allowed, that make it possible for state legislatures to discard the electoral ballots as untrustworthy, and thus choose their own electors. (We are aware of this because Republicans dominating the state legislature in Pennsylvania have apparently been discussing this with the Trump campaign.) Without such flaws in our particular system of federalism, a minority-rule government would have been much more difficult for the Republicans to achieve.

____

The future doesn’t look good at all. Trump, losing, may spend the next couple of years holding rallies and encouraging violence, until indictments force him to flee the country. Alas, this dark future is actually the best-case scenario. The worst is Trump remaining in the White House with a Republican-controlled senate, unchecked in his devastation of American institutions and American relations abroad.

And even given a possible (but unlikely) rewrite of the Constitution, I honestly don’t know what we can do with that third of the electorate that listens to Hannity and Limbaugh; that denies science, refuses evidence, laughs at argument, and cannot be persuaded. It was long the hope of inheritors of the Enlightenment that education could at last reach such people and train them to be civic-minded rational agents of their own self-interest; i.e. an “informed electorate.” But such hope is vain. Individually, one deals with them easily enough; but collectively they are an eruption waiting to happen. The past four years have been miserable; but history records far worse, and far worse is still possible.

Notes

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/11/last-exit-trump-autocracy/616466/

32 comments

  1. Biden is a practising Catholic and so is the new Supreme court justice. So do not despair, things can only get better.

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  2. The UK government is following Trump in gaming the system: side-lining the civil service in favour of ‘special advisors’; proroguing parliament (ending the parliamentary session) so that there is no parliamentary oversight [https://www.theguardian.com/law/2019/sep/24/boris-johnsons-suspension-of-parliament-unlawful-supreme-court-rules-prorogue]; attacking judges if the government doesn’t like a ruling, and failing to defend judges (and the rule of law) when these are attacked in the press [https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/daily-mail-nazi-propaganda-front-page-ipso-complaints-brexit-eu-enemies-people-a7409836.html], etc. Once the consensus about political culture is lost, it will be difficult to restore it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. While I share your concerns about the Trump electorate, I have to say:

    “”every European state entering the first World War was by definition a liberal state… the crisis European intellectuals invested in politics faced could be simply put: The “liberal state” had failed. ”

    This makes no sense. The instigator state in WWI was a profoundly illiberal hierarchical monarchy which enacted various forms of totalitarianism to support its war efforts. And far and away the most powerful and effective lesson taken by most people from that war was that the ancient aristocracy had failed, not that the liberal state had failed. Do you have evidence to support your claim that a crisis of liberalism was the major crisis identified by European intellectuals, given that almost everyone on the continent was busily blaming and demonizing an illiberal state (Germany)?

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    1. I was puzzled by that statement too.
      The UK, France and Belgium were relatively or very liberal states in 1914 (Belgium had one of the most liberal constitutions in the world), but Russia and the Ottoman Empire could hardly be called liberal. There was a move toward liberalism in the German empire in the second half of the 19th century, but it became more conservative after Bismarck was removed. Austria-Hungary, I’m not certain. Is there anyone who understands Austria-Hungary in that period?

      I think the disillusionment started to grow *after* WW I, certainly in Weimar Germany, when many states in western Europe were confronted with communism, the economic crash of the 1920s etc.

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      1. EJ is using ‘liberal’ in a somewhat atypical sense, relating it back to Hegel rather than Locke/Mill. That said, with regard to the Continent this may be apt. The liberal tradition there has been very different than in the Anglosphere.

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        1. OK, but my point stands: I think the disillusionment after WW I was much more related to the – perceived or real – threat of communism, economic problems, the extension of the right to vote and the drastic changes in many countries in the aftermath of WW I (Hungary lost the majority of the territory of the Hungarian Kingdom, the German empire lost Alsace-Lorraine etc.).
          There certainly was disillusionment with liberalism between WW I and II but I’m not aware of a link with the idea that the participants in WW I were “liberal” in the Hegelian sense.

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          1. couvent2104,
            see my more general reply for extended context, at least as I understand it. But one important note: “I think the disillusionment after WW I was much more related to the – perceived or real – threat of communism(etc.)’ the rise of communism itself was a response to the disillusionment both during as well as after WWI – there would not have been a Russian Revolution otherwise; nor would there have been the kinds of social upheavals realized in Italy and Germany in the 20s and early ’30s.

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      2. Dan reads me correctly here. A few remarks:

        First, WWI was immensely popular across Europe when it first began – everyone thought it would be over by Christmas ’14, and that it was a wonderful opportunity to act gloriously and patriotically. Germany was not totalitarian, it was more ‘liberal’ – in our current usage – than the Czarist Russia that opposed it. Eventually, as the trenches drained resources and brutalized thousands, popular enthusiasm waned, and all of the governments involved used harsh measures (to various degrees) to repress political opposition – including the United States, after its entry in ’17, where Debs was jailed, and five Amish boys were executed in the mid-West, for pacifist objection to the war.

        Secondly, once again I have to note here how profoundly influential Hegel’s philosophy was in the 19th century. This was never as strong in England and the United States as it was on the European continent, and Anglophone interest in Hegel was pretty much done by 1920 (WWI actually had something to do with that), but Continental interest in his ideas continued strong up until WWII and remained important long after the war – not only among philosophers, but among artists, teachers, politicians, legal theorists, economists, etc. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is basically The Phenomenology of Spirit without ‘knowledge’ – Consciousness acting without any certainty except its own existence. Post-Structuralism is an anti-Hegelian intellectual movement.

        Hegel was aware of the English philosophers, Locke and Hobbes; but he also saw himself as child of the French Revolution, which ended somewhat badly, and of the age of Napoleon, whom Hegel once remarked as “the world Spirit on horseback,” so thought it necessary to re-trench to a more conservative acceptance of the state-as-given – which meant for him the so called “Junker” state of a pre-Bismark Prussia, largely run by its bureaucracy. I seem to remember that he somewhat admired the British governmental structure, but it was largely that of the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution – both effectively conservative retrenchments established by negotiation between the monarch and the Parliament. Consequently, although Philosophy of Right is actually more descriptive than prescriptive, there’s little doubt that Hegel’s political ideal was a strong monarch, a corrective parliament, with daily details of government operated by a pervasive bureaucracy.

        We should also remember that by the 1820s “liberal” was largely used in opposition to a “conservativism” that was what we would call socialist, and which was dominated by state-church interests (Anglicism; Catholicism; Lutheranism in Germany), which is almost wholly forgotten now.

        Not only Communists (Lenin) but quite a number of Fascist intellectuals – not only philosophers but politicians (Mussolini), artists, social gadfly leafleteers – proclaimed themselves as providing avant-garde antidotes to the ‘liberalism’ that had resulted in the horrors of WWI. (That’s why one such movement called itself Futurism, and another Situationism – the terms derived from a rejection of Hegelian historicism in which human society achieves its fullest self-realization in the ‘liberal state.’) It is true that they all saw the old aristocracy as decrepit dinosaurs; the Communists got rid of them, the Fascists used them. But it was really the parliaments that they believed had failed in 1914; not because parliaments did not represent the will of the people, but exactly because they did.

        The question now, going forward from the era of Trump, is whether it is possible to address the rise of a volatile and unsustainable populism without resort to the anti-democratic models of communism or fascism. I confess I don’t have an answer to that. My suspicion is that by the end of the century, and after considerable upheaval and suffering, we will see the rise of faceless, technologically ordered bureaucracies, simply because there may be no other way to manage large, unstable populations with demands on dwindling resources. Perhaps the World Spirit will realize itself fully as mere computer program reading surveillance of people cradle-to-grave and handing out food and toys, and probably drugs, to keep them not happy, but numb.

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        1. Futurism arose before WW I, not after. The great Futurist painter Boccioni was killed during WW I, after all, and the Futurist Manifesto pre-dates 1914. The Situationist International was founded long after WW II. These examples are not really central to your argument, but you appear wrong on these point.

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        2. Futurism predates WW 1, by several years. The Futurist Manifesto was published in 1912 as I recall. (The Russian branch also predates WW 1.) That movement in the arts did not have any real political content, certainly not about liberal politics (in whichever sense). If by Situationism you have in mind the Situationist International, that comes far too late to play a part in your story. Perhaps you had some other movement in mind?

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          1. Sorry for the misleading misstatement of history. With Situationism, I was thinking of Dada. I suppose the transposition is because Situationism is more overtly post/anti-Hegelian than Dada.

            I admit I am less familiar with Futurism; but a friend of mine is fascinated by Marinetti, and the way that thinker moved from avant garde poetry to Fascist politics after WWI when he attempted to revive the movement.

            On both points, I should have checked my sources and slowed down my writing to do so. Thank you for the correction.

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  4. Joe,
    effective lesson taken by most people from that war was that the ancient aristocracy had failed, not that the liberal state had failed

    One could reply by arguing that in one aspect WWI was the success of liberalism in that liberal states united to defeat the aggression of an illiberal state.

    The real crisis that liberalism faces is how to reconcile the common good with the individual good. Striving for the individual good in a way that is not aligned with the common good promotes strife and disintegration. We can all agree each on our own individual good, since we know that well, but we cannot agree on what the common good is. That agreement is derived from a shared culture and values. Attack the shared culture and values, debasing them, and you diminish the likelyhood of agreeing on what the common good is.

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  5. It’s the Pandemic that is a real-time “proof” of the evil of Authoritarianism. With the exception of China, the more authoritarian the regime, the worse they are faring under the pandemic. In the face of chaos and fear, focusing on social scapegoats and dehumanizing them leads to a flattening of the moral landscape. Extreme measures, including extreme cruelty and oppression become acceptable. Dehumanizing political opponents also becomes the norm. Therefore politics becomes only power politics. There is no neutrality or impartiality left -everything is reduced to a power-grab. This, of course, gets amplified when a Fascist leader like Trump gets in power. In Germany in 1932, Hitler was not elected by a majority. He was appointed Chancellor because the ultra-conservative German establishment preferred him to any liberal. In the U.S. Trump was elected in 2016 in spite of getting three million less votes than his opponent. That is the result of the antiquated American Electoral system. But it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine his being elected by a real majority. We are fooling ourselves if we think that any political system has fail-safes against Autocracy. Donald J. Trump is a lesson of how close this possibility is. The real danger, and we have already seen it’s appearance, is misinformation. Trump’s most loyal supporters are also addicted to Fox news and hate radio. Half of them believe in conspiracy theories. QAnon is the black hole of conspiracy theories sucking every lame brain conspiracy that’s ever been thought of into it’s internet maw. But it’s really a reincarnation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. QAnon is a machine for producing dehumanization and it was woken by a combination of Trump and evangelical Christianity. (think of the “Left Behind” series of Apocalyptic bestsellers in the seventies and eighties.)
    We don’t really know what’s going to happen after November 3. But the possibility is there that if Biden wins and Trump loses, Biden can help dampen down the misinformation and the dehumanization and American government can again be a constructive force for good.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I suppose I differ with you on two major points.

    First, while I agree that much of the 30%-40% (or whatever) that makes up the Trump constituency could, in the wrong situation, be the ones to staff death camps, I also believe that much of the other 60%-70% could, too. I simply think most of us are in danger of making those same choices.

    Second, the federal system, and subsidiarity writ large (err, write small?), has some good things to say for it as a check against the would-be authoritarian. It enables some horrific and illiberal practices, but it strengthens those who might stand up to authoritarianism. It also probably in some way helps foster a robust civil society.

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  7. Good essay as usual!

    Isn’t it just possible that a certain percentage of the population, whether for Trump or not, is simply not politically educable?

    What about the more fanatic sectors of the woke left? Are they politically educable?

    It may be that at this moment the uneducable sectors of the population in the USA support Trump in general, that is, the extreme populist right, but that is just contingent. In Venezuela the uneducable sectors of the population probably support Maduro.

    The uneducable sectors are not necessarily on the extreme left or the extreme right. There is what Tariq Ali, the Pakistani-British Marxist writer, calls the “extreme center”, that is, those people who hold centrist views with the same fanaticism and lack of an open-mind that is generally associated with the extreme right and the extreme left. For example, in the 1950’s in New Jersey when I was growing up, many of the adults I knew and many other kids also were from the extreme center, fanatically pro-USA, fanatically anti-socialist (even fanatically anti-the socialism of Sweden which really isn’t socialism), fanatically anti-gay, fanatically convinced that the U.S. middle class suburban life-style was the best way to live, etc.

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    1. The problem of the population I have termed uneducables has in fact troubled functioning democracies for a long time. The art of appealing to them, re-directing their energies in non-threatening ways, controlling rewards for loyalty while modifying their more outrageous rhetoric – and so on – has largely defined important aspects of practical politics. Obviously the 30% I’m discussing here is the Trumpists in the general electorate; but if we section off the entire population we’ll find uneducables in every demographic. That’s political reality, and has been for decades and decades.

      The right has always been fairly cynical about this and has never made any pretenses otherwise. Their problem now is that they have unleashed the beast – the uneducables now control them and dominate the Republican Party.

      The difficulty on the left is more complicated. Liberals try to pretend that there are no uneducables, only lack of education. Leftists hold that it is all a matter of ‘false consciousness’ which can be changed through appropriate reasoning.

      Which leads into the question about whether the woke crew have any uneducables among them. Probably. But I’m just as concerned with the woke as many here, because there are intelligent people among them who read and think – the educables define the movement. Their thinking is cluttered with contradictions, and at some point, for any but the hardcore (or the opportunists, who clearly inhabit that movement), at some point they will have to confront those contradictions, and rethink their positions.

      Besides; I don’t inhabit the largely academic or legalistic communities where wokeness has its greatest say. I’m more concerned with the Trumpist 30% because they own guns and have a history of violence.

      It took decades to get the government to take action against the Klan; now Trump has brought them home again. That alone is enough to hate him for.

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      1. I agree with you that the principle danger today is Trump, not the woke set.

        However, haven’t you ever met highly educated people with whom you can’t reason, who are so close-minded, so dogmatic, so sure that they are right that they are basically uneducable? I believe that in the woke set there are many of them.

        Hannah Arendt distinguishes between thinking and everyday instrumental reasoning (there are different words in German, and if you want, I can find the German terms she refers to). Eichmann, she says, didn’t think, which of course does not imply that he didn’t reason about the most efficient way to ship Jews to Auschwitz or about how to get ahead in the Nazi hierarchy.

        Her example of someone who thinks is Socrates, that is, someone in constant dialogue with new ideas, constantly questioning his own ideas and those of people around him. Yes, I know that she is idealizing Socrates, but it’s a model. Aren’t there many educated people who don’t think in Arendt’s terms, who aren’t Socratic?

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        1. s. wallerstein.
          “Aren’t there many educated people who don’t think in Arendt’s terms, who aren’t Socratic?” Yes, of course, on both the right and left of the political spectrum. They inhale texts that re-affirm their beliefs, and visit texts that don’t merely to ‘troll,’ to incite quarrel rather than argument, to ‘score points,’ or to rattle their imaginary sabers, thinking mere opposition is somehow equivalent to reasoned disagreement.

          And certainly among the academic ‘woke’ there are those who have little to offer beyond such behavior, however wrapped in jargon. Those with tenure or publication opportunities will be around for a long time.

          But my remarks really refer to the students such academics have excited into collective ‘cancelling’ behavior. Having gone through several important transformations in my own thinking, and witnessing like transformations in the thinking of friends and acquaintances from High School and college, I just have a reasonable hope that these students, once they achieve further maturity and confront responsibilities of which they are not yet fully aware, will need to confront the contradictions of their present thinking and re-exam what they were taught.

          Although we in America are witnessing such transformations among conservatives who are actively repudiating Trump (who is not a conservative, but a right-wing demagogue), on the far right this sort of thing rarely happens except in cases of extremely dissonant experience. That’s because cynicism on the left is largely disappointed idealism channeled as suspicion, whereas on the right it is a deeply entrenched pathology. This cynicism allows contradictions to be resolved as an inevitable corruption of which all are guilty. The core belief remains untouched, because the cynicism is itself a part of that belief.

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          1. “Cynicism on the left is largely disappointed idealism channeled as suspicion”. Great observation! That sums me up.

            The left and the right are not polar opposites. I don’t know the right from the inside as I do the left, but it’s not just a question of contrasting values.

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  8. E.J. I know that Rhetoric is one of your interests:

    Coleman Hughes in his youtube video of ‘Why I’m Voting for Biden’ shows a fine grasp of the principles of rhetorical irony – litotes, asteism, and antiphrasis with a
    soupçon of paralepsis. However the internet is a blunt instrument and he may have misjudged his likely audience and proven the theory that irony ought to have its own font. Or on the other hand energised his conservative followers.
    It’s here:

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  9. “The [Trump] base is animated by a kind of perverse zero-sum game that allows people to feel better about themselves by putting others down. Conversely, recognising that others have needs and rights of their own seems to take these needs and rights away from oneself. It’s this zero-sum game that, I think, fuels the hostility of the base towards others. Ultimately it’s a game the player can’t win – putting others down cannot in the end make you a stronger person – but the base has something like a gambling addiction. It tries to feel better about itself, doesn’t succeed, so keeps playing, attempting to convert anger and contempt into self-worth. Frustration pushes it ever further to the extremes.”
    (…)
    “In the 1970s I thought the hidden injuries of class might heal in part through local, face-to-face interaction with people who are different. That hope doesn’t make sense today. I’ve lost my empathy for the complex motivations that animate fear and reaction. The mantra of “bringing the country together” loses any meaning as the base hardens and shifts to the extreme right; instead it has to be held to account for the criminal tendencies encouraged by its leader. The US isn’t going to heal any time soon.”

    – Sociologist Richard Sennett https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/02/donald-trump-us-election-base-extreme

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    1. Yah, but you got to do something about it! A better leader can encourage competency, altruism, and looking out for others. He can set a better tone or atmosphere that encourages cooperative problem solving. The real problem is that one half the population is part of a mis-information eco-system. There are probably ways to diminish this. Otherwise if we let it get further out of hand we are on our way to a “bright cold April morning and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi EJ,

    One has to be careful of falling into group think which would be the antithesis of logic and critical observation. Unfortunately, engaging in political discourse requires a lowering of standards since partisan politics essentially is a ‘fascist’ process: an individual has to find a group that represents their interests. This is an impossible quest in view of the facts of how our minds work. Suffice it to say that I believe that human culture is beyond the grasp of any individual. It would be delusional for me to think that I know what motivates people that I have never even met. Many people continuously convince themselves that they have such power.

    You reference two ‘truths’. 1. Trump supporters form a cult consisting of an uneducable swath of millions of people. 2. The US constitution needs to be replaced. These truths are certainly not self-evident, but lack of evidence is a minor problem when identifying political truth.

    Since I reside in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, I would guess that 90% of my neighbors are members of this proposed cult. It is a strange cult indeed. Whenever I discuss Trump with them, they roll their eyes – all agree, he sure is a wack job. But many of their yard signs proclaim what I think is their real motivation for voting for him: “Stop the Bullshit”. Trump certainly tries to promote a cult of personality. This is what all politicians do, Trump just happens to not fool anyone, hence he is more authentic. It is to his credit that he is not a very good politician.

    I believe that we are all educable, but that we pursue knowledge and understanding in different ways due to different interests and different perspectives. There is very little empirical support for this assertion, but the complexity of human culture would require this.

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    1. The evidence against Trump, Trumpism, and the Trump Cult has been accumulating for the past four years, with a legacy under investigation and reported in articles and books going years before that. I’m sorry you’ve chosen to ignore all that. As for your neighbors, apparently enough of them have agreed to “stop Trump’s Bullshit” that their votes are swinging Pennsylvania, and thus the election, over to Biden. I guess they wanted competent leadership, which requires professional politicians rather that blustering amateurs, after all. “Authentic” criminals are criminals nonetheless.

      Otherwise, I think we probably have nothing further to discuss.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. EJ,

        Now I get it. The two ‘truths’ underpinning your otherwise erudite essay are only political opinions. They are therefore problematic, but I agree that we probably will not resolve these thorny polemics.

        Still, the majority of people, liberal and conservative, I deal with seem educable. Most of them are focused on their own existence and less on the obvious shenanigans of career politicians. To suggest otherwise, that they are uneducable, would imply some factional biological difference.

        The world is extraordinarily complex. Divergence of perspective and opinion should be respected. The US constitution and bill of rights appear to be ahead of the curve in this regard.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. If we are going to throw a slur about we may as well get it right. It’s ineducable not ‘uneducable’ (Websters New Collegiate Dictionary). In the days before euphemism I remember reading in a book on education various definitions of the intellectually challenged. Presented as technical terms were ‘cretin’, ‘idiot’, and ‘moron’. A moron was defined as an ineducable idiot. The liberal intelligentsia who regard those that disagree with them as morons are liable to political failure. They try their best but they are slow learners.

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  12. Ding-dong! The Witch is dead
    Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!
    Ding-dong! The Wicked Witch is dead
    Wake up you sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed
    Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead
    She’s gone where the goblins go
    Below, below, below
    Yo-ho, let’s open up and sing and ring the bells out
    Ding-dong’s the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low
    Let them know the Wicked Witch is dead!

    AND SCREW THE TROLLS!
    Bless you Pennsylvania for saving us from the thugs (“intellectual” or not) who would destroy us). As the Irish sing, “we are a nation once again.”

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  13. ’Sé do bheatha, a bhean ba léanmhar
    do bé ár gcreach tú bheith i ngéibhinn
    do dhúiche bhreá i seilbh meirleach
    ‘s tú díolta leis na Gallaibh.

    Chorus:
    Óró, sé do bheatha bhaile
    óró, sé do bheatha bhaile
    óró, sé do bheatha bhaile
    anois ar theacht an tsamhraidh.

    Tá Gráinne Mhaol ag teacht thar sáile
    óglaigh armtha léi mar gharda,
    Gaeil iad féin is ní Francaigh ná Spáinnigh
    ‘s cuirfidh siad ruaig ar Ghallaibh.

    Chorus

    A bhuí le Rí na bhFeart go bhfeiceam
    muna mbeam beo ina dhiaidh ach seachtain
    Gráinne Mhaol agus míle gaiscíoch
    ag fógairt fáin ar Ghallaibh.

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  14. Hail, oh woman, who was so afflicted,
    It was our ruin that you were in chains,
    Your fine land in the possession of thieves…
    While you were sold to the foreigners!

    Chorus:
    Oh-ro, welcome home
    Oh-ro, welcome home
    Oh-ro, welcome home
    Now that summer’s coming!

    Grace O’Malley is coming over the sea,
    Armed warriors as her guard,
    Only Gaels are they, not French nor Spanish…
    and they will rout the foreigners!

    Chorus

    May it please the King of Prodigy that we might see,
    Although we may live but one week after,
    Grace O’Malley and a thousand warriors…
    Dispersing the foreigners!

    Chorus

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  15. Such extravagant emotions! But I must admit to quiet satisfaction that
    1) A practising Catholic has been elected as president. It has been a long time since the country had a principled leadership.
    2) There is a devout Catholic in the Supreme Court.
    3) There has been a return to the moderate centre of consensus seeking.
    4) This is healthy democracy at work when there are regular swings between the two main groups in the elecorate. Dominance by one group can only be bad.
    5) The regular swings between liberals and conservatives guarantees that in the long run the interests of both groups are protected through moderate consensus seeking.
    6) Democracy works best when it is value laden. The election of a Catholic president signals a return to centrist policies informed by clear principles.

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    1. Peter Smith:
      I hope you are being ironic. Joe Biden or The Ka of Joseph Biden is not a practicing Catholic and has been refused Holy Communion by a priest before this in South Carolina. The grounds in canon law for this action are impeccable for reasons which we all know. I imagine a future instance might come about but this time it will depend on the advice of a bishop probably.

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  16. Hi ombhurbhuva,
    No, I was not being ironic. Bearing in mind Lord Acton’s famous aphorism, we should not be surprised that all polticians are flawed and Biden certainly has his share of flaws. Even so, having an openly Catholic President has huge symbolic value. We have to wait and see how his Catholic values translate into choices and actions. But I am hopeful the influence will be there.

    As for the matter of ‘practising’ Catholic, that is a matter of definition and you are correct from that point of view. When I converted from atheism to Catholicism I was not baptised for a long time and consequently could not take Holy Communion(I was only batised recently). But I attended Mass regularly and supported the Church activities. Was I a ‘practising’ Catholic? In formal terms, no. But I considered myself a Catholic and certainly practised my Catholic faith as best I could. As an aside, I still remember with considerable amusement the moment I introduced myself to our parish priest. What church are you from, he asked. None, I replied, I am a lapsed atheist. The constellation of shocked emotions that crossed his face were priceless. I think he was fearful that he had allowed a wolf into the sheepfold!

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