There is always confusion about ideology, particularly liberalism in a liberal age. Everything becomes conflated with liberalism, often in distorted ways. Even many conservatives call themselves classical liberals, conveniently ignoring early liberals like Thomas Paine who, as egalitarian proto-leftists, often were radicals, rabblerousers, and revolutionaries. But it might be fair for conservatives to also claim a liberalism of sorts, since they obviously don’t want to be openly identified with classical conservatism: colonial imperialism, neo-feudalism, neo-monarchism, neo-aristocracy, land theft, genocide, slavery, indentured servitude, white supremacy, etc; whatever they may, in many cases, genuinely support (e.g., theocracy) but won’t acknowledge. Indeed, one might argue that every modern Westerner to some degree is a liberal at this point, because so much is framed and defined by it, be it progressive or reactionary. As often noted, the average conservative today is more liberal than the average liberal was a century ago (e.g., majority support and mainstream acceptance, even among Republicans, for same sex marriage).
Besides, there never has been a single liberalism. That insight is something many are beginning to struggle with. In a review of a recent book by Francis Fukuyama, Aaron Irion discusses liberalism and gives an overview of Fukuyama’s take on it without once mentioning conservatism (Maladapted Liberalism: A Review of Francis Fukuyama’s Liberalism and its Discontents). The thing is that Fukuyama’s so-called End of History wasn’t a general triumph of liberalism but specifically of neoliberalism, which in the U.S. is identified with the political right as economic conservatism, most infamously as Reaganomics (Starve the Beast, Two Santa Claus Theory, military largesse, creation of the permanent national debt, defunding public good, deregulation, plutocratic tax breaks, corporate subsidies, etc). It’s true that such neoliberalism has also taken over the Democratic Party, but we should honestly admit that the liberalism of the American majority is much further left, specifically about economics, in being less forgiving toward the neoliberal dominance of corporate capitalism and globalized plutocracy, not to mention still supportive of interventionist progressivism (American Leftist Supermajority).
The original neoliberals were FDR Progressives who lost faith in democratic processes, politics, and policies, especially the prioritizing of public good, and so most of them became Republicans and joined right-wing think tanks. Possibly a few well-intentioned idealists aside, most of them saw capitalist realism and corporate rule of the world as their new salvation, with democracy as a mere rhetorical flourish and side effect. It is one of the more illiberal forms of liberalism, that is to say only liberal at surface level and maybe not even that. One could, nonetheless, accept neoliberalism as a genuine kind of liberalism. It echoes the anti-leftist hyper-individualism that, in gaining power during the Cold War, sought to disempower and disenfranchise the political so as to usurp all power within the economic sphere and hence to have corporate-controlled markets replace democracy proper. This has involved two ideas: (1) spending money is voting with one’s dollars; and the corollary (2) money is speech. But what it ignores, as Corey Robin noted, is that “the implication for democracy is clear. There can be no democracy in the political sphere unless there is equality in the economic sphere” (The real problem of Clarence Thomas).
That is the ultimate test. The political right typically won’t denounce democracy entirely, although the early classical conservatives did so quite vociferously. To attack democracy directly these days is politically incorrect and shameful, and hence political suicide. No politician would ever get elected, not even in reactionary America, if they explicitly stated they were anti-democratic. So, instead, the reactionary right will claim to be for democracy, sometimes claiming to be the ‘Real Liberals’; but their purpose is to co-opt democratic rhetoric in order to defang democracy itself, to eliminate it as an effective possibility. Tellingly, neoliberals who want supposed ‘free markets’ to replace democratic politics don’t actually want freedom in markets either. They go bonkers if it’s suggested that markets and workplaces should be democratized, the only way that freedom could operate. As Robin suggests, economic democracy may be more directly important than political democracy, as leftists have long understood that power comes from those controlling material conditions and the means of production; hence the close link between social democracy and democratic socialism.
There is no such thing as limited democracy; no way to have partial self-governance, partial slave abolition, partial suffrage, partial civil rights, partial secularism, partial public good, etc. Either there is democracy in all areas and in all ways or there is no democracy at all. A free market is only actually free if everyone operating within it and affected by it is equally and effectively free (i.e., positive freedom). And such freedom, or lack thereof, is experienced personally and daily. Most people aren’t actively and explicitly involved in politics on a regular basis but almost everyone is constantly and obviously affected by economics every time they go to work and go to the store. But in the end, there is no separation between the economy and politics. Democracy is an entire culture of trust, a way of being and relating. Left-liberalism has always sought a balance between individual liberty and collective action, between private rights and public good. “Perhaps, if we all embrace something like the Last Man inside ourselves, devote ourselves to the struggle, to the hard work of moderation that it’ll require,” as Aaron Irion concludes, “we can struggle not against liberalism, but for a better liberalism and a better world.” That is the only honest issue to be debated.
For Fukuyama, once an advocate of neoliberalism, he has become one of its greatest critics and now largely, if not entirely, points in the opposite direction. In an interview with Sergio C. Fanjul, Fukuyama said that, “I was never opposed to social democracy. I think that it really depends on the historical period and the degree of state intervention. By the 1960s, many social democratic societies had become mired in low growth [and] high inflation. At that point, I think it was important to roll some of that back. That is, in fact, what happened in Scandinavia. Most of those countries reduced tax rates, reduced levels of regulation and therefore became more productive. But I think that in the current period, we need more social democracy, especially in the United States. We still don’t have universal health care, which I think is ridiculous for a rich country, a rich democratic country. My attitude towards social democracy really depends on what period you’re talking about and what country you’re talking about” (Francis Fukuyama: ‘The neoliberals went too far. Now, we need more social democratic policies’).
Social democracy is central to a liberal society. Such a society can only be created through active support, promotion, and defense. “All liberal societies,” Fukuyama continues, “have to [be able to] preserve their own institutions. When you get a political party, for example, that is anti-democratic or anti-liberal, that, if it gains power, it’s going to shut down freedom of expression, not going to permit future democratic elections and so forth, a liberal society has the right to defend itself. […] A liberal society must [have the ability] to protect itself from illiberal forces. […] The most severe one is from a resurgent populist nationalism that’s represented by Orbán in Hungary, by Erdoğan in Turkey, by Modi in India, by Donald Trump in the United States. All of these people were legitimately elected… but they use their legitimacy to threaten illiberal institutions. They want to eliminate the independent court system, they want to shut down opposition media, they [weaponize] the justice system to go after their political opponents.” The one and only thing liberalism can’t tolerate is intolerance. Yet the American right has always been fundamentally opposed to tolerance, as it has fought against social democracy.
So, where does Fukuyama’s ideal of ‘moderation’ fit in. Is he suggesting moderation between a fascist elite and a neoliberal elite, or rather moderation between the left-liberal majority and all the elites combined? This may be where Fukuyama stumbles, as maybe he remains anti-populist, paternalistic, and elitist in his wariness toward actual democratic self-governance. His state of confusion, unfortunately common among the elite, leads him to carry forward some of the illiberal views of democracy he held as a neoliberal. Sergio C. Fanjul asked him, “Are liberalism and democracy always fellow travellers?” His answer was that, “They are allies and they support each other, but they don’t necessarily have to exist at the same time. Orbán wants an illiberal democracy, with elections, but without freedom of the press or belief or free opposition. There are also liberal societies without democracy, like Singapore: there is individual freedom, but there are no elections.” *Sigh* There is no such thing as illiberal democracy or non-democratic liberalism. The former is a banana republic, with appearances of democracy only. And the latter is simply Confucian patriarchy and paternalism.
Liberalism and democracy are something else entirely, as expressions of freedom, egalitarianism, and justice; the complete opposite of social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism, and social dominance orientation. The difficulty might be that liberal democracy, as rhetoric and reality, can seem unsexy and unexciting. In fact, to the reactionary mind and anyone under stress pulled into the reactionary, it comes across as downright boring (Boredom in the Mind: Liberals and Reactionaries). “Fukuyama makes clear,” Irion writes in reference to Fukuyama’s 1990s vision of the ‘Last Man’, “that liberalism may not remain unchallenged. In his telling at the time, liberalism brings peace, stability, and prosperity, but humans may struggle against it anyway. If for no other reason than “a certain boredom,” a desire to “struggle for the sake of struggle” and prove to themselves that they remain free, that they “remain human beings.”” It’s more than possible that Fukuyama too finds it a bit boring, in now giving a weak defense. Only the radical imagination, in narratizing new and inspiring visions, can inoculate against such moral ennui.
For Fukuyama, the big surprise of liberalism’s trajectory after the Cold War has been the scope and impact of neoliberalism—the free-market reforms of deregulation, privatization, and austerity that began in earnest in the nineteen-seventies. He believes that neoliberalism, as opposed to classical liberalism, has tanked liberalism’s reputation among young people today. Although many neoliberal policies started half a century ago, their effects, like excessive inequality and financial instability, are more plainly visible to him now.
Neoliberalism is not a complete theory of justice, morals, or the good life but a narrower set of ideas about political and economic institutions, and how they should work in the service of free markets. It emerged, in Fukuyama’s account, as a valid reaction to bloated mid-century welfare states in the U.S. and Europe, but was then “pushed to a counterproductive extreme.” Internationally, institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank sought to undo capital controls in many other countries, triggering financial crises with “alarming regularity.” Some neoliberal reformers in the U.S. and abroad also rolled back the social-welfare policies that had improved their fellow-citizens’ quality of life. Fukuyama writes all this off as an anomalous hijacking of liberal principles: “Liberalism properly understood is compatible with a wide range of social protections provided by the state.”
But is neoliberalism really separable from what Fukuyama dubs classical liberalism? The distinction has long been fuzzy; the twentieth-century Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, for one, was both a vocal defender of classical liberalism and a co-founder of the Mont Pelerin Society, the international neoliberal forum, in 1947. And Fukuyama stumbles in characterizing neoliberalism as liberal individualism pushed to right-wing extremes. As the historian Quinn Slobodian has argued, the pioneers of neoliberalism were not focussed on individuals’ rights; they were concerned, primarily, with the institutions of markets. Neoliberalism has not only been about tearing down regulations so that people can buy things more freely but about actively building and reinforcing institutions, like the World Trade Organization, that insulate markets around the world from the vagaries of nation-states and democracies.
After five decades of privatization and austerity around the world, it is nearly impossible to picture any liberal democracy today without its neoliberal institutions. And Fukuyama doesn’t really try, offering only a tepid suggestion to redistribute some wealth in order to offset inequality “at a sustainable level, where [social protections] do not undercut incentives and can be supported by public finance on a long-term basis.” (A colleague of Kristol’s riffed that a neoliberal is “a liberal who got mugged by reality, but has refused to press charges.”) After reading Fukuyama’s chapter on neoliberalism, it becomes clear that the task ahead for liberals isn’t more abstract argumentation but, rather, devising practical ways to curb the regulations and bodies that push democracies to serve markets instead of their citizens.
But Fukuyama has been anticipating certain other problems with liberalism for decades. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” he wondered whether, even after the collapse of rival ideologies like communism, liberalism might contain the seeds of its own decline. “Could we assume that successful democratic societies could remain that way indefinitely? Or is liberal democracy prey to serious internal contradictions, contradictions so serious that they will eventually undermine it as a political system?” Fukuyama wrote, presciently, in 1992. At the time, he concluded that it did not—but he did accurately identify several sore spots: liberal societies tended to “atomize and separate people,” were deleterious to community life, and would continue to harbor inequality. What he had underestimated was the extent to which liberal societies could breed hyper-individualistic consumers, obsessed with “self-actualization” and identity at the expense of politics and public-spiritedness.
Fukuyama is clearly flummoxed by the scale at which these threats have escalated. And he tries to make sense of it by briefly turning the floor over to communitarian critics of liberalism, who grasped such issues much earlier. In doing so, he retraces a major debate of the nineteen-eighties, which followed John Rawls’s seminal liberal treatise, “A Theory of Justice,” from 1971. While Rawlsian liberalism posits that humans are fundamentally autonomous, communitarians like Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Walzer argue that they are fundamentally shaped by their communities. And whereas liberalism protects individuals’ rights to choose their own versions of the good life, the communitarians countered that states or other communities should take an active role in shaping a common good. Such arguments have recently returned to the public sphere, from both the left and right. They touch a nerve for many in the U.S., who, despite living in the world’s richest country, may still feel they lack community, shared values, or hopeful future.
Fukuyama scrupulously entertains several communitarian critiques, and even repudiates Rawls for his “elevation of choice over all other human goods.” But he never convincingly accounts for the social and moral voids that plague today’s liberal societies. He turns instead to a taxonomy of “thick” and “thin” political visions. (These terms were also trotted out in earlier liberal-communitarian debates; Walzer wrote a book titled “Thick and Thin,” in 1994.) “Successful liberal societies have their own culture and understanding of the good life, even if that vision may be thinner than those offered by societies bound by a single religious doctrine,” Fukuyama writes. He finds the conservative critique that liberal societies “provide no strong common moral horizon around which community can be built” to be “true enough,” but struggles to come up with ways to “reimpose a thicker moral order.” Wearily, he concludes that this “thinness” is a “feature and not a bug” of life under liberalism.
Were Fukuyama really hoping to convince the skeptics, he could have easily reached within liberalism’s own history for examples of how it can enrich, rather than erode, the social fabric. In late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century England, the liberalisms expounded by reformist economists like William Beveridge and J. A. Hobson helped establish the modern welfare state, as the Oxford scholar Michael Freeden has shown. For them, liberalism was not just about protecting free choice but also about actively generating the conditions for individuals to flourish. In the U.S., Progressive-era liberals like Herbert Croly, who co-founded The New Republic, in 1914. saw liberalism as about more than abstract equal rights; it was also about concrete things like higher wages and a social safety net.
Rather than showing how such visions of welfare have been part and parcel of liberal democracies, Fukuyama avers only that liberal democracies “remain superior to the illiberal alternatives.” Alternatives from the left are largely reduced to caricature; Fukuyama’s bogeymen of a “progressive post-liberal society” include the evaporation of national borders, “essentially meaningless” citizenship, and “anarchist” rule along the lines of the short-lived autonomous zones that arose in Seattle and Portland in the summer of 2020. Having summoned such stand-ins for the left on one end, and the more obviously undesirable spectre of right-wing illiberalism on the other, Fukuyama absolves himself from having to truly confront the social and material deprivation of liberalism’s subjects.
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
“ In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise.
“But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies
We’ve come to a new point in life, maybe approaching something vaguely resembling maturity if not yet wisdom. A change in attitude was recently expressed in changes made to this blog’s comment policy, specifically about what is off-limits. There are certain issues that have gone beyond the realm of meaningful, worthy, and useful debate (race realism, genetic determinism, etc); sometimes entirely beyond the pale (white supremacy, eugenics, etc). That is to say there is nothing left to debate, as far as we’re concerned, not in the broad sense, if there might remain points of honest disagreement. One of those fruitless and dissatisfying areas of conflict involves false equivalency. So, on the pages of this blog, there is now a total ban on false equivalency arguments and rhetoric, although that partly comes down to interpretation and hence discernment. The point is that, no, the two sides of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are not the same, not even close. In making comparisons along these lines, tread lightly and think carefully before speaking. We’ve grown tired and bored with a certain kind of bullshit. We’ve had a thousand debates along these lines and we’ve reached our limit. We are moving on to newer and greener pastures.
The hour is later than some realize. Anyone who still doesn’t grok it by now is probably beyond being reached by fair-minded argument and open dialogue; or, anyway, it’s not our duty to enlighten their ignorance, remedy their inadequacies, or to save their lost souls. Nor will space be given to their words and time wasted in responding — life is too short. Been there, done that; and now we retire from the fray, like an old soldier joining a monastery. But for the purpose here, we will kindly offer an explanation. Part of the problem is the language itself (and we are entirely open to critique of terminology, definitions, and framing). Though an ancient and powerful metaphor, the egocentric (i.e., non-cardinal point) view of ideology as bipolar directionality along a linear spectrum is, well, simplistic. And the metaphorical frame was simplistic for a reason as a simple distinction was being made. Originally, all that it meant was literally on which side of the French king one sat, in indicating whether one was a supporter or a critic. Once the king was deposed, this seating arrangement continued in the National Assembly during the French Revolution. Then later on the distinction was applied to political factions, parties, movements, and ideologies.
To put it in basic terms, the original dualistic categorization of ‘right’ vs ‘left’ was about whether one favored or opposed naked authoritarianism as unquestioned power held with and enforced by a monopoly of violence (though articulated precursors of this distinction went back to the Axial Age, then later with the English Peasants’ Revolt and English Civil War). But, to be fair, the metaphor got muddy quite early on when the most reactionary, anti-democratic, and authoritarian of the Jacobins seized power and so the radically progressive, democratic, and anti-authoritarian Thomas Paine ended up sitting on the ‘right’ side with the Girondins who were initially part of the Jacobins (the ‘left’/’right’ divide took a while to be more clearly formulated following the revolution). As a side note, there is even more confusion in trying to apply the Western political spectrum to non-Western societies, such as Lebanon, that don’t share Western history, culture, and politics. Such things get quite messy and confused, even in the original context of meaning. Let’s not try to pretend to categorize the whole world in one of two categories, ‘right’ and ‘left’. On the other hand, at least within the Western world, let’s not dismiss these labels and what they’ve historically represented across centuries, as important meanings have been established.
Anyway, the latter position of opposition to unjust authoritarianism and/or rigid hierarchy came to be associated primarily with the core concept of egalitarianism that incorporates freedom and fairness (further related to communal principles of demos, democracy, fraternity, solidarity, class consciousness, globalcitizenry, commons, public, public good, public trust, and culture of trust, along with a more relational individualism); and liberty as well that, although distinct, became conflated with freedom in the English language (liberty was a legalistic concept of not being a slave in a slave-based society, whereas freedom was being a member of a free people; but, even early on, liberty had developed an alternative meaning of internal independence and autonomy). Egalitarianism was never opposed to authority in its entirety for there are other dynamic, flexible, responsive, accountable, temporary, conditional, and even anarchistic forms of authority besides the rigidly-structured and violently-enforced hierarchy of authoritarianism as monarchy, patriarchy, theocracy, feudalism, caste systems, imperialism, dictatorship, plutocracy, natural aristocracy, paternalistic liberalism, corporatism, social Darwinism, ethno-racial supremacy, law-and-order police state, etc; or even right-libertarianism. In line with such authoritarianism, we might as well throw in the the ‘liberty’-minded and ‘republican’-oriented but anti-democratic and anti-freedom Jacobinism, under Maximilian Robespierre, that led to basically a new monarchical-like empire with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte having replaced King Louis XVI (a republic, by the way, is any government that isn’t a monarchy; most modern authoritarian regimes have not been monarchies). This is not unlike how Stalin’s personality cult replaced Emperor Nicholas II and re-created the Russian Empire with an industrialized neo-feudalism involving peasant-like ‘communist’ laborers that were put back into place after revolting. In America and France, both radical revolutions for egalitarianism were co-opted by anti-egalitarian reactionaries and authoritarians who used the demagoguery of fake egalitarian rhetoric. Are we to call that the ‘left’? Similarly, just because the business-friendly, corporatist-promoting, and individualism-fetishizing Nazis (i.e., fascists) called themselves national ‘socialists’, are we also to include them as part of the ‘left’? If so, all meaningful distinctions are moot and we should give up; but we don’t accept that.
As another side note, originally republicanism was the ‘leftist’ challenge to the ‘rightist’ defense of monarchy, in the context that all authoritarian regimes at the time were monarchies. But, with monarchy eliminated in the founding of the United States and republicanism having become normalized, many post-revolutionary conservatives and right-wingers embraced republicanism which sort of became a near meaningless word in how it describes nothing in particular (like the United States, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were republics). Thomas Jefferson observed, “In truth, the abuses of monarchy had so much filled all the space of political contemplation, that we imagined everything republican which was not monarchy. We had not yet penetrated to the mother principle, that ‘governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it.’ Hence, our first constitutions had really no leading principles in them” (letter written to Samuel Kercheval; Monticello, July 12, 1816). This relates to how the subversive ideal of republican federalism was originally the radical position in the American Revolution as it was the insurrectionist opposition to the monarchy of the British Empire. Then reactionary authoritarians co-opted the republican ‘Federalist’ label for themselves. This created the odd situation where the so-called Anti-Federalists were more pro-federalist than those who identified themselves as Federalists, while some of those pseudo-Federalists became nostalgic about imperialism and even monarchy. Going back centuries, there has been a continuous pattern of reactionaries co-opting the language of the ‘left’ which endlessly complicates matters (one might call them ‘Faceless Men‘). The first ‘libertarians’, for example, were French anarchist/anti-statist socialists who were part of the ‘left-wing’ workers movement that included Marxists and communists. Yet today the right-‘libertarian’ Koch brothers (one now dead) are the leading power and funding source behind a libertarian movement to replace democracy with neo-fascism.
The rightist position, no matter the language and labels co-opted within reactionary rhetoric, has emphasized a metaphorical view of the political head (or capitalist head; or religious head) as ruling over and held above or otherwise controlling and being superior to the body politic (or body economic; or Body of Christ as church body), whereas the leftist view has tended to consider the metaphorical head as merely a single part of a metaphorical whole body not to be prejudicially prioritized. So, the leftist emphasis has been on the communal, collective, systemic, holistic, and co-creative; that the parts are inseparable and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; as expressed in more modern theories of historical materialism, sociology, anthropology, ecology, integralism, intersectionality, etc (in Spiral Dynamics, presently somewhere between green, yellow, and turquoise vmemes, although earlier incorporating more from orange vmeme). As such, the detached head or any other part cannot metonymically stand in for the whole body. In democracy, like many tribal societies where the leader follows, authority represents the public will through consent of the governed toward the public good but cannot enforce anything upon the public or else it no longer is democracy (similar to the reason the Soviet Union was not ‘leftist’ precisely to the degree that it became a neo-feudal Russian Empire built on a Stalinist personality cult, not to dismiss that many Soviet citizens and officials genuinely sought to promote egalitarian leftism as communism that gave workers freedom, autonomy, and agency; similarly not to dismiss that many in the American founding generation actually did advocate and support democracy).
To get back to the metaphor of the ‘head’ and ‘body’, we can also consider it non-metaphorically. The idea of the ‘head’ ruling the ‘body’ was an old scientific theory of human biology that lingers in folk scientific understandings of folk psychology about the egoic individuality — the brain (or some part of the brain; e.g., pineal gland) as the seat of the self, soul, or consciousness. Yet modern science has, instead, found that neurons exist in other parts of the body (gut, heart, etc), that multiple links operate between brain and other areas (e.g., gut-brain axis), and that neurocognition is more embodied and diffuse than previously recognized, not to mention a bio-electromagnetic field that extends several feet beyond the physical body. The rightist conviction in separation and division, an ideology of the atomistic individual self, atomistic body, atomistic material world, atomistic private property, atomistic nuclear family, atomistic worker-cog, atomistic consumer-citizen, atomistic God, atomistic relationship to God, and atomistic authority figures (an often regressive blue-orange vmeme alliance of the New Right and MAGA, but sometimes shifting toward an orange-green alliance such as Russel Kirk’s unconscious postmodernism, Karl Rove’s social constructivism, Donald Trump’s post-truth, and Jordan Peterson’s self-loathing pluralism) is far less scientifically plausible and morally compelling than it was when early scientific thought (e.g., Newtonian physics) had yet to be challenged by later scientific research, knowledge, and theory.
There is an understandable attraction to visually simplistic metaphors that capture the imagination. And there is inspiration to be taken from the wing metaphor, since two wings are part of a single bird, often used as a symbol of nobility and natural freedom, such as the bald eagle being the primary symbol of the United States. As elegant and inspiring as it might be to think of society like a great feathered creature requiring a linked pair of wings moving in balanced unison to gain lift and soar through the sky, it becomes readily apparent where the metaphor of a ‘left’ wing of egalitarianism (i.e., non-rigidly non-hierarchical authority) and a ‘right’ wing of authoritarianism (i.e., rigidly hierarchical authority) fails us. In the world we actually live in, a small ‘right’ wing ruling elite controls both ruling parties and has come to dominate all of society through plutocratic and kleptocratic, corporatocratic and oligarchic capitalist realism (fungible wealth of ‘capital’ etymologically as head; related to ‘cattle’ and ‘chattel’; hence, chattel slavery was part of early capitalism and still is). The metaphor in question would only describe reality if a stunted ‘right’ wing had somehow become bloated and cancerous, grown a monstrous demonic mouth-hole with razor-like teeth, began beating to death the massive but paralyzed ‘left’ wing, futilely struggled to detach itself from the body, and then sado-masochistcally attempted to devour the rest of the bird. The metaphor breaks down a bit at that point. Hence, the problem with false equivalency between ‘left’ and ‘right’. I hope that clears things up.
We are well into a new century and the older generations that held power since the Cold War, too many with minds locked into backlash, are finally retiring, turning senile, and dying off. As a society, it is time for the rest of us to move on. Although silenced and suppressed, disenfranchised and demoralized, the vast majority of Americans already agree on basic values, aspirations, and demands (a 60-90% supermajority of the population, depending on the particular issue; in some cases, 90+%). That a hyped-up and over-promoted minority in the ruling elite and on the far right fringe disagrees is irrelevant. Even most Americans supposedly on the political ‘right’ to varying degrees agree with ‘leftist’ and liberal positions on many key policies; albeit a diverse and pluralistic supermajority. So, the many average Americans on the so-called ‘right’ are not enemies and one might argue they’re not even really on the ‘right’, despite false polarization pushed by corporate media and corporatist parties to manipulate and control us, divide and disempower us. Though many have been indoctrinated to believe the ‘left’ is their enemy, we invite them to consciously join the moral (super-)majority they might already belong to without knowing it. This is what leftists, in opposition to false consciousness, refer to as class consciousness and other forms of group consciousness or shared consciousness; the impulse behind intersectional politics that, if imperfectly, poses a worldview where the oppressed majority could feel unity and solidarity amidst overlapping disadvantages, rather than the splintering division of competing identity politics (whites vs minorities, one minority group vs another, men vs women, LGBTQ vs cis-heterosexuality, able-bodied vs persons with disabilities, Americans vs foreigners, WASPs vs ethnic-Americans, Christians vs everyone else, and on and on); and, in our reactionary society, this also applies to left vs right and liberal vs conservative, and hence the reason we’ve emphasized the public as a supermajority with the potential of unified solidarity.
To put some numbers to it, John Sides has a decent 2014 article, Why most conservatives are secretly liberals. He reports that, “almost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics. Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics. Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views. The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only” (with another 25% that is some combination of independent, indifferent, apathetic, frustrated, cynical, confused, uninformed, misinformed, contrarian, and trollish; i.e., crazification factor). In referencing Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson, Sides points out how this disjuncture has been longstanding: “When identifying themselves in a word, Americans choose “conservative” far more than “liberal.” In fact they have done so for 70 years, and increasingly so since the early 1960s. […] On average, liberal responses were more common than conservative responses. This has been true in nearly every year since 1956, even as the relative liberalism of the public has trended up and down. For decades now there has been a consistent discrepancy between what Ellis and Stimson call symbolic ideology (how we label ourselves) and operational ideology (what we really think about the size of government).”
Here in this blog, our mission is to defend the broad and majoritarian ‘leftism’ (i.e., pro-egalitarianism) of this inclusionary big tent movement; and that is why we are making important and necessary distinctions. The reason the political right opposes majoritarianism is because, consciously or unconsciously, they realize they are a very small minority; that is to say they not only oppose majoritarianism but also oppose the supermajority itself, and particularly oppose the supermajority developing group consciousness of being a supermajority. Whatever one wants to call it and by whichever metaphor one wants to frame it, this is the same difference that makes a difference. We the free People are the demos of democracy. After asserting the founders and framers had failed to create and protect a free society, an aging Thomas Jefferson asked where was to be found republicanism (as he defined it: democratic, popular, direct, and majoritarian self-governance; if he was hypocritical in his racism and sexism) and he answered: “Not in our constitution certainly, but merely in the spirit of our people.” The American public, the American majority is the rampart upon which democracy must be defended, the line that we cannot back down from, the ground that can never be ceded for it would be a mortal wound, collective soul death. There is no compromise on this point. We face an existential crisis, a moment of do or die. Here we stand or separately we will hang, to echo one famous founder. We are quickly running out of opportunities to avoid the worst and, in knowing history, we realize the worst can get quite bad — not to mention that each iteration of the worst is likely to be worse than the last.
This is why, in this blog, we are not going to portray or allow the portrayal of both sides as equal or equivalent. We are not going to treat fascism, theocracy, and bigotry as equally valid as anti-fascism, secularism, and tolerance. We are not going to pretend that those opposed to some authoritarianism in favor of other, often worse, authoritarianism are the same as those who oppose all authoritarianism on principle. Social domination and social democracy aren’t merely two reasonable options of how to govern society. Either there is freedom or not. And any liberty that denies democracy is just another name for slavery. Also, to get at a specific point, no, the comparably rare violence, typically property damage, of recent leftists defending egalitarianism, countering injustice, standing up to oppression, protesting wrongdoing, and fighting authoritarianism is no where near the same as the widespread commonality of right-wing terrorism, hate crimes, violent oppression, police statism, and war-mongering. If you don’t understand what is at stake, we won’t be bothered to give you the time of day. If you’re still going on about false equivalence, you have fallen into an evil mindset, a psychotic fantasy that disconnects you from real world suffering of others.
To cite actual United States data from the past decade (2012-2021), right-wing non-Islamic extremists have committed 75% of extremist-related killings, “including white supremacy, anti-government extremism of several types, right-wing conspiracy theory adherents and toxic masculinity adherents”; and the next largest group is that of right-wing Islamic extremists at 20%; while left-wing extremists are falsely portrayed at 4%, but that includes black nationalists who are typically right-wingers in terms of advocating socially conservative ethno-nationalism and fundamentalism (e.g., Nation of Islam); which leaves only anarchists, both left-anarchists and right-anarchists, who have committed no extremist-related killings in decades (Anti-Defamation League, Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2021). Notably, there is absolutely no violent deaths from left-wing Christians and Muslims, multicultural advocates, pro-government and pro-democracy types, left-wing conspiracy theory adherents, and toxic femininity adherents. So, basically, 100% of recent deaths by extremism are attributed to one sector or another of the religious and socio-political right. With that in mind, fuck off about “spiritual violence“, in rationalizing moral cowardice, while people in the real world are suffering and dying from physical violence, usually coming exclusively from one side.
Nonetheless, intelligent and informed distinctions will be made, rather than overly simplistic black/white judgements. Yes, the transparitisan stranglehold of both main (right-wing) parties unfortunately pushes a forced and false choice of two greater evil varieties of right-wing authoritarianism of corporatocratic capitalist realism, if one side prefers milder paternalism and the other outright oligarchy (“Stragedy? Is ‘stragedy’ the right word to describe how the DNC corporate Democrats strategically connive to set it up that they always ‘have to’ concede to Republican demands?” queries National Notice). But, even in that, there are finer distinctions to be made, other differences that also do make a difference and so we won’t tolerate false equivalency with that either. For example, some politicians are undeniably and irrefutably moredangerous than others; and the pattern does largely fall along partisan lines, which does somewhat support that there really are greater evils in the world, not that we should tolerate the lesser evils that end up making the greater evils more likely and justified (e.g., pseudo-liberal media elites using the propaganda model of perception management as social control and acting as boundary-defenders and gatekeepers who give covering fire for the political right to push the Overton window further right). And, for all the devious corruption of the Clinton Foundation, there simply is no extensive left-wing equivalent to the right-wing Shadow Network. Still, the fact remains that most Americans are to the left of the DNC elite. Heck, a surprisingly large swath of Republican voters are to the left of the DNC elite, on issues from economics to environmentalism. The Biden administration is morally questionable and anything to the right of that is morally unacceptable, beyond the bounds — that far right and no further and even that is too far right. As a society, we have to have norms and standards. Most Americans have come to an agreement on this and now it’s time we Americans recognize our status as citizenry, take collective responsibility, demand consent of the governed, and enforce our moral majority, albeit a pluralistic majority.
In conclusion, let us be clear in stating our purpose, in declaring where we stand. Most importantly, we in this blog will always side with the underdog. Absolutely fucking always! If you are not on the side of the underdog, you are our mortal enemy and we will treat you as such. But when right-wingers are oppressed or their rights infringed, we will defend them just the same; and we will always defend everyone’s right to free speech, if not always giving them a platform to freely promote that speech in this personal and private blog. We are devoted to a fierce compassion, emphasis on both ‘fierce’ and ‘compassion’. The greatest condemnation will be reserved for moral cowards. As the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi declared with no equivocation, moral cowardice is worse than violence and death. “There is hope for a violent man to be some day non-violent,” Gandhi argued, “but there is none for a coward.” Yet, obviously, non-violence and non-aggression is always preferable and will be sought as a first option (even second and third option). And self-chosen self-sacrifice can be noble, as Gandhi held up as the highest ideal, if victimhood identity politics of romanticized martyrdom can be dysfunctional. Still, the point remains that Gandhi brooked no false equivalency between the violence of aggression and the violence of self-defense, between spiritual violence and physical violence — neither will we.
We must hold to moral courage in all ways, particularly in defense of what is morally right, to not back down from a fight, to not avoid uncomfortable conflict. Within this protected space, there will be no tolerance of intolerance — that will not be an issue of debate. Any and all reactionary rhetoric and authoritarian views are simply forbidden, even when used by those who identify as ‘leftist’, liberal, Democratic, independent, or whatever else. We will no longer play that game. This is the end of the age of bullshit. Yet, in relationship to those who have been pulled into the dark side of reactionary fear and fantasies, we will always be willing to welcome them back into the fold of moral society and respectable politics, if and when they are ready. We understand that the Fox News effect, the Mercer media machine, and the corporate propaganda model of the news has virulently afflicted millions of Americans with a reactionary mind virus that causes psychotic disconnecton from reality and generally maladaptive behavior, false identities and confused thought processes, even pulling more than a few ‘leftists’ into misleading and harmful rhetoric.
That saddens us, but there appears to be little we can do to save those others from that horrible fate, if they do not recognize the trap they are in and if they refuse all help. They will have to take the first step out of their own darkness. Until then, we will strive too hold this space of light and truth with the door always open to those of shared moral concern for freedom and fairness. We will do so to the best of our ability, however imperfect and inadequate that may seem under the oppressive circumstances of the greater problems we are all immersed in. That is the necessity for holding a basic standard for allowable participation here in these pages. This blog is a small refuge from a world gone mad. We can’t pretend to be ideological physicians offering promises of an antidote to the mind plague, but we can offer a brief respite, a sanitarium of fresh air and sunlight. Please respect these intentons. But also join your voice with ours, if you feel inspired. At times like these, we need to support each other in speaking out and in giving voice. Whatever might actually be ‘left’ and ‘right’, egalitarianism is the center, the beating heart. Anyone who denies this is a dangerous extremist not to be trusted or tolerated, an enemy of the people. Egalitarianism is not merely a word, not an abstract ideal, not yet another ideology. As an archaic moral impulse, this moral vision does matter. We are all egalitarians now, if many of us don’t yet realize it. We always have been egalitarians, at the core of our shared human nature.
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4/29/21 – This post was written at the beginning of the month and we’ve had the past several weeks to mull it over. We remain basically satisfied with it, as it turned out better than expected. It was something that has been on our mind for a long time and it needed to be said. We had immense satisfaction once the piece was completed. But, as always, our thoughts never really end. We did revise the post slightly, although it was mainly minor corrections of errors and changes in wording. Besides polishing it up, there is some additional commentary rumbling around in our braincase. We’ll just tack it on here at the end. We are overly self-conscious of our audience, real and prospective. In this case, there was no negative response and, if anything, mostly agreement or apparent neutrality. Then again, maybe some were too concerned about our own potential response to leave a more critical comment. We’re certainly not seeking to suppress and silence dissent. There are no doubt thousands of alternative and challenging views one could express without falling foul of this blog’s new false equivalency ban.
Most powerfully, one could simply and directly challenge the entire framing of the post and that would be more than welcome. To be honest, we don’t much like the framing either. But until something better comes along, that framing is our shared cultural inheritance from these past centuries of modern ideological thought as the end result of the more than two millennia of prior change, as initiated by the collapse of the Bronze Age bicameral mind and its replacement with Axial Age Jaynesian consciousness. One doesn’t so easily toss aside the foundation of one’s civilization, even when it’s imperfect. Much else is built upon it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t point out the cracks, particularly in order repair them. And, meanwhile, nothing is stopping anyone from attempting to design and construct a new foundation. Following the precautionary principle and the words of Franz Kafka, we shouldn’t wantonly destroy what already exists before we have something better to replace it with. Furthermore, as Carl Jung wisely advised, even if it seems madness, it might be serving a purpose of preventing something far worse.
So, here we are. Even our own stance of critical judgment is not intended as mere attack. The political right does not represent the dark, evil, and demonic polar extreme of Manichaean dualism. As such, the entire right-wing is not our collective enemy. Only those who act as our enemy are our enemy. In the above post, we went so far as to suggest that most people portrayed and/or self-identified as ‘rightists’ (of whatever kind) are not even really ‘rightist’ in the conventional, traditional, and historical sense of Western social, economic, and political thought. That is a major point, if not the primary focus of this post, but maybe it should’ve been given greater emphasis. It further supports and explains why equivalence is false. It’s not merely that the ‘right’ is the minority of Americans and other Westerners. Even on the so-called ‘right’, the actual hardcore ‘right-wing’ is a minority. It’s that minority within a minority that is fully embracing and expressing the extremes of the reactionary mind, nostalgic backlash, historical revisionism, xenophobic bigotry, violent hatred, dogmatic closedmindedness, social domination, and the Dark Tetrad (authoritarianism, narcissism, Machiavellianism, sadism); particularly as expressed among the Double Highs (high right-wing authoritarianism and high social dominance orientation), the worst of the worse.
As we like to endlessly repeat, the public mind has gone far left (in terms of social liberalism, economics, environmentalism, etc), if the public imagination remains suppressed and stunted. Most people today are far left of liberals from a century ago. And most people a century ago were far left compared to the liberals a century before that. When the left and right labels were first used, the ‘right’ defended theocracy, monarchy, aristocracy, imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, and worse (e.g., genocide); meanwhile, the original ‘left’ was a bit mixed or confused on issues like democracy, universal suffrage, rights of commoners, etc. So, even the oldest ‘left’ is, by today’s standards, too right-wing extreme to be acceptable and respectable to most present right-wingers. Of course during the colonial and early modern revolutionary periods, Americans had become the most left-leaning population in the West. They had grown accustomed to a social norm of free and open access to land and natural resources (practically, an informal commons), a wealthier lifestyle that increased socioeconomic mobility, and semi-autonomous self-governance because of a distant imperial capitol and weak military force.
This is why the United States is the only country in the world specifically founded on documents that espoused liberal principles and many of them still radical to this day. Right from the beginning, the US started far left of the rest of the world, particularly left of the British Empire; and even the French Revolution didn’t have any voices or leaders as radically leftist as Thomas Paine (well, not until Paine himself showed up in France after fleeing persecution in England). The original rightist ideology of the French was simply unacceptable in being too far right even to most early American conservatives. For Anglo-American thought, this was the initial point of confusion. It’s not only that all of us Americans are now liberals for we always were. That is what makes American society stand out. What goes for American conservatism is simply a variety of Western liberalism, if heavily revised and distorted by the reactionary mind. It’s precisely because there is no native tradition of a genuine American traditionalism that the ‘rightist’ ideologies that took its place are so radically modern and sometimes postmodern, in desperately and impossibly attempting to distinguish itself as something else.
This is hard for Americans to see because liberalism frames everything and so is taken for granted. Even American ‘conservatives’ occasionally admit this state of affairs in claiming they are the real and original ‘classical liberals‘, a false but telling argument. This first became apparent to us in being confronted by the Continental European view of Domenico Losurdo presented in his counter-history of liberalism, which we initially disagreed with but eventually came around to. Maybe this is more apparent within Catholic tradition that maintains a living memory of old school traditionalism, not to mention a historical memory of premodern and pre-Protestant ancien regime — Father Brent Shelton wrote: “To be clear, the term ‘Liberal’ is used here in its philosophical sense to refer to a constitutional order which protects the rights of individuals, specifically, the rights to “life, liberty and property”, and is philosophically opposed to Conservatism, which prefers either rule by landed aristocracy, or rule by an imperial bureaucracy. In the USA, both the Republican and Democratic parties are philosophically Liberal, emphasizing competing aspects of Liberalism, although modern electoral polemics have altered the term in the popular imagination.”
Original and actual Western ‘conservatism’ as traditionalism is so far outside the bounds of American social norms as to not even be acknowledged in mainstream media and politics, not even for sake of historical context, much less discussed and defended in public debate. Yet it’s always lurking as a typically unspoken and ever threatening authoritarianism in the American reactionary mind, regularly re-emerging as a demagogic return of the repressed (e.g., Donald Trump’s MAGA). It’s precisely this hidden nature that makes it so dangerous because its not part of any respectable and stable Old World cultural tradition that could redirect it toward the public good (e.g., Scandinavian conservatives supporting social democracy). This is the reason so many American conservatives, while preaching liberal rhetoric of libertarianism and laissez-faire, are ever ready to shore up neo-imperialism as neo-conservatism, neo-colonialism as neo-liberalism, and neo-feudalism as neo-fascism.
American conservatives have no traditional roots to ground and stabilize the reactionary forces that possess them. They can never honestly speak about what are their true intentions and agendas, since these disreputable impulses aren’t established within a shared consciousness of ideological understanding and traditional meaning. American political thought was born abruptly in the modern world, not having had the slow shift out of the ancien regime as happened in much of Europe. Even the Euopean enclosure movement took centuries to complete in finally and fully ending the feudal commons and the laws that went with them. The reactionary is bad enough in Europe, as attested to by the modern nostalgic revisionism of ethno-nationalism and fascism. But only in the US has the reactionary taken hold as a new kind of absolutely anti-conservative and anti-traditional capitalist realism, social Darwinism, hyper-individualism, materialistic consumerism, and market fetishism.
In how early European conservatism is the shadow of American ‘conservative’-minded liberalism, American reactionary ‘conservatism’ as regressive liberalism is the shadow of American liberalism as progressive radicalism. This is what makes false equivalency so misleading and dangerous. This often leads to another minority group of reactionary extremists (typically Democrats or ‘independents’) that, in portraying everyone else as extremists, pretends to be ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’. That is related to how the American ruling elite has always included bourgeois semi-liberals and pseudo-liberals, (Cold War McCarthyists, Blue Dogs, Clinton Democrats, etc), holding to anti-leftist rhetoric while punching left and pushing hard right. Such is the need for a strong left that, without quibbling and in-fighting, pushes back hard. And so all the more reason we shouldn’t tolerate false equivalency in the slightest. Yet even the most adamant of leftists need to recognize that none of us is immune to the reactionary in a society that has become overwhelmed with inequality and injustice, division and conflict, anxiety and fear. It’s never just about those other people, the ‘basket of deplorables’. The reactionary shadow falls upon us all and so we all have much collective shadow work to do in processing deep wounds of transgenerational trauma.
There was a group of people huddled in a dungeon, prisoners for reasons long forgotten. They were chained together, unable to move about. It was the only life they knew and there was a comfort in the routine of it. Every morning, the guard would pass by to unlock their cell and serve them slop. Then each night, the same guard, always wearing steel-toed boots, would come into the cell to kick and beat them, until they cried out for mercy, locking their cell closed again. A few malcontents begged him to stop, pleaded that this treatment was not fair, was not deserved.
One among them went so far as to speak inspiring words of fairness and justice. Such loose talk usually earned even more bootings to the skull and ribs. Today was different. The guard was in a kind mood. He said he would listen to their complaints but he warned them that all he heard was a bad attitude from a bunch of losers. He explained he had worked hard to gain his position. It took years of study and training to become a guard. The locking mechanisms of the cell alone required advanced knowledge. And that was only one among hundreds of other locks that needed to be maintained to keep the prison secure and operational.
It was no easy job and a thankless task, but he took seriously his duty as a guard and his responsibility to the prisoners he cared for. Order needed to be maintained for the good of all. The world needed guards and those with the ability to do so would fulfil that role. What right did they have to question what he had earned and accomplished? What right did they have to raise a voice against the very prison system that fed and sheltered them? They had only themselves to blame for their situation, he carefully explained as he fiddled with the keys at his belt.
Anyone with the talent and intelligence could follow his example. There is nothing stopping you, he told them, from also working your way up. In fact, he wanted to retire soon and so there would be a guard position opening up, but he couldn’t step down until there was a replacement. Otherwise, he would continue on in doing his job. He made a deal with them. They could nominate two of their own as candidates in electing a new guard or keeping the one they had. They would be free to choose. That way they would be represented and could no longer complain. It was a fair deal.
This was the best opportunity they had ever been given. They took it. The two nominations were a tough guy and the egalitarian idealist, along with the option of re-electing the old guard. The tough guy was allowed to speak to the other prisoners and had all the airtime he wanted on the prison loudspeaker. Meanwhile, the social justice advocate was placed in a separate cell where he couldn’t speak to anyone, but nonetheless he was given total free speech, even if no one could hear what he had to say. That is how free speech works, after all.
The other prisoners quickly forgot about the preacher of equality. In hearing only the tough guy, they became swayed by his rhetoric and parroted his words as if they were their own thoughts. They wanted someone who, as he assured them, could stand up to the prison system and fight on their behalf. Compared to the old guard, he was the lesser evil and stating otherwise, obviously, made you a spoiler. Besides, this tough guy told them that he used to work in this prison system — he knew how it worked and would get things done. He would bring prison reform! They resigned themselves to promises of hope and stopped rattling their chains. The tough guy was elected with little contest.
The newly elected guard was immediately unchained from the group and taken away. Later, when he returned, he had on a set of steel-toed boots, the exact same boots the old brutal guard used to wear. He immediately began kicking the shit out of the prisoners. The idealist, having already been brought back to the shared cell, shared in this round of abuse. When he spoke up against yet more injustice, demanding the abolishment of imprisonment and the tearing down of the prison, the other prisoners told him to shut up with his extremism, that he would only cause trouble. It’s better the evil we know, they said to him, because something worse might replace it. Progress happens slowly. We must be patient.
The original guard, now retired, came in. He explained that they got what they voted for and they must accept the results. They may only have had limited choices, but they did have a choice. That is what freedom means, having a choice; no matter what are those choices, how they are determined, or who controls the outcome. The other prisoners couldn’t argue against such solid logic. Moral of the story: Don’t be resentful of your betters. They know what is good for you. Freedom is submission. Submission is freedom.
“The modern Republican Party is about using the power of the government to enforce the beliefs of a radical minority on the majority of Americans.” ~Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American
“I would add that my friend George Lakey, a scholar of non-violent social change, is a great believer in both polarization and crisis as when you sort things out and make progress. And I feel in some ways something’s coming to the head or the situation in the U.S. is coming to a head as a rising majority faces a minority that refuses to give up domination power-control, including over truth and fact.
“I feel like — well you know the the rainbow coalition I mentioned — the majority will win in the end, but not necessarily in the short term. And for human rights, for the climate crisis, for a lot of things, what happens immediately matters. But we will be a non-white majority country in a little over 20 years and the Republican Party has tooled itself to be the party of white grievance. Part of why they need voter suppression is because they’re losing the ability to win elections outside of the really red states and and regions.
“So it feels like the crisis and the sense of things coming to a head is upon us, and figuring out how to win and as soon as possible. You know I’m not a strategist, but I am — as a writer and a historian — a great believer in the importance of describing something accurately is the beginning and to treat a disease first you have to diagnose it.” ~Rebecca Solnit, The “Crisis of Truth” in Democratic Societies
“As Michelle Alexander reminded us recently: “The whole of American history can be described as a struggle between those who truly embraced the revolutionary idea of freedom, equality and justice for all, and those who resisted.” She argues that we are not the resistance; we are the river that they are trying to dam; they are the resistance, the minority, the people trying to stop the flow of history.” ~Rebecca Solnit, The American civil war didn’t end. And Trump is a Confederate president (quoting We Are Not the Resistance)
Where is the demos in democracy?
What do Americans think as a people and a public? That is the eternal question in a country that was made famous by being founded as the first modern democracy. Among serious thinkers, the conventional theory of representative government has been that public opinion generally determines public policy, on average if not in every detail. This is what supposedly gives a public mandate to the political elite to rule on our behalf, as an approximation of self-governance but without direct democracy. Well, that is the theory. Is it true? To question this political dogma, in the past, was considered unpatriotic and seen as an attack on the very ideal of democracy. But times have changed, as has faith in claims of democratic representation.
Let us explore where Americans stand on the issues. This year’s Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) values survey, Dueling Realities: Amid Multiple Crises, Trump and Biden Supporters See Different Priorities and Futures for the Nation (full data and visual summary), brings us some lovely info about the American population and conclusions can be offered (by the way, PRRI is self-described as “an American nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization” that Media Bias Fact Check rates as “Least Biased and High for factual reporting” and FiveThirtyEight grades as A/B). There is a decided shift showing a larger pattern across the board. It could be suggested that Donald Trump’s administration does not represent the direction the country is heading in, assuming there is any hope of actual democracy functioning in the slightest.
Neither is the Republican Party in alignment with the general public nor with Independents. And Republican Fox News viewers are shown to be living in a separate alternative reality — older, whiter, and more right-wing than the average American, although not as far right as the audiences of the Daily Caller, Breitbart News, and the Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh radio shows (John Gramlich, 5 facts about Fox News). With total lack of awareness, Pew describes the audiences of most media sources as ‘left-leaning’ while not acknowledging that most Americans are ‘left-leaning’ (John Gramlich, Q&A: How Pew Research Center evaluated Americans’ trust in 30 news sources); but left of what, left of Fox News? Then among the religious, white evangelicals are extremists and, among Christians, a minority. Yet the media and political elite obsess over white evangelicals, as if they were the very definition of religiosity and representative of the religious majority — they are not.
These three combined demographics (Fox News viewers, white Evangelicals, and Republicans) represent a minority — not exactly new information. Based on the acronym FER, they’ll henceforth be referred to as ‘Ferengi’. This demographic is situated within the American public and society somewhat in the way that the patriarchal and profit-obsessed Star Trek Ferengi (with their capitalistic religion) represented an alien presence and minority worldview within the socially liberal United Federation of Planets. Even though the Ferengi were not members of the Federation and held themselves apart from Federation society, they nevertheless were tolerated and accepted as part of the Federation’s open and diverse liberal culture of social democracy and democratic socialism, which included being allowed to do business within Federation territory.
Similarly, the American demographic minority that we shall now call ‘Ferengi’ are opposite of and in opposition to the American majority that is progressive, liberal, and leftist across every category of views and values, issues and policies (the metaphor of a political spectrum being a relative concept; how can the American people be on the political ‘left’ if they are the majority public opinion that defines the ‘center’ of American society?). Yet these American Ferengi are given equal rights and freedoms that are protected by the very social liberalism and social democracy that contradicts their preferred ideology of patriarchal authoritarianism, caste-based social Darwinism, xenophobic identity politics, fascist corporatocracy, and theocratic aspirations. This is the Ferengi vs the Federation, neither equals nor enemies but awkwardly situated together.
This Ferengi demographic is a variety of what one could call Faceless Men, in honor of the masked assassins cult in Game of Thrones. The Faceless Men can change guise, in the way that reactionaries co-opt ideological rhetoric and adopt ideological identities. This makes the Faceless Men hard to pin down, but in the case of the Ferengi we at least have some demographic identifiers to clearly mark boundaries. That is the purpose of naming the Ferengi in creating a specific demographic category that has been defined by a favorite disguise of the Faceless Men. Speaking of a ‘conservative’ movement is too vague and misleading. Certainly, not all conservatives are Ferengi and maybe, as one might argue, not all Ferengi are conservatives; depending on what one means by such vague and amorphous labels, though much more clearly defined in social science research. Interestingly, a large part of the American population self-identifies as ‘conservative’ while holding views that are mostly or entirely on the political ‘left’ (an equally large but opposite pattern on the political left is not found in any data). These confused and inconsistent pseudo-conservatives (i.e., symbolic ideology) may or may not vote Republican, but it is highly unlikely that most of them are Ferengi in being white evangelicals who regularly watch and trust Fox News. That is an important distinction to keep in mind while reading further on.
Before moving along, let’s clarify what kind of understanding is implied by this insight and analysis. Yes, American society is and always has been broadly liberal, as a product of Enlightenment thought and revolution, not only the American Revolution but also several major populist revolts during the colonial era and continuing revolts over the centuries since — the Spirit of ’76 is the American Spirit, from the War of Regulation and Shays’ Rebellion to the Coal Wars and the Battle of Athens. The word for ‘democracy’ was not as familiar in early America, but the ideals and ideology of democracy (along with proto-socialism, proto-Marxism, etc) had already begun to take hold with the English Civil War, which had immense impact in shaping early American culture and politics. Heck, proto-leftist rhetoric of egalitarianism and class war was already being heard during the 14th century peasants revolts. What is often misunderstood is that conservatism is not traditionalism, as conservatism did not exist until after the revolutionary period. Rather, it’s a variant of and reaction to liberalism, both of which followed the failure and fall of traditionalism that conservatives as reactionaries sought to replace. The reactionary mind is the shadow of a liberal society and, as the light of liberalism has increased, the reactionary has intensified in its darkness. We live in a reactionary age, as the stress and anxiety mounts, with collective insanity taking hold and collective trauma having become a scar — we are in need of healing.
With an immunocompromised psyche, we all are vulnerable to infection from this virulent mind virus (as based on the terrain theory of ideological immunity). We all contain the potential of becoming Faceless Men, in the way one is turned by the bite of a zombie, vampire, or werewolf. The Ferengi are simply an extreme example of the reactionary, among the first victims of the mind plague, and so our purpose here is not to scapegoat them but to explore what is central to defining American society, not unlike the way the Star Trek Ferengi as a contrast helped shape the Federation identity. As such, the demographic of Ferengi in American society are used as a foil to highlight the qualities of liberalism, in terms of both its ideals and failures, its strengths and Achille’s heel. The Ferengi serve a necessary role in the public imagination and the political narrative. Reactionaries become possessed by and identified with the shadow of society, what we have collectively denied and cast out but cannot make go away. They carry the burden of what we haven’t yet learned to handle. And, maybe in line with Arnold Mindell’s thought, they fill an essential social role that must be represented and fulfilled, if not necessarily in such a distorted manner. The reactionary mind is the return of the repressed. It holds up a mirror to our society, if we dare look.
Despite being a miniscule minority, the Ferengi have an outsized influence in society and the psyche. But we should emphasize the most basic point for our purposes here. These overt reactionaries are a minority that are located at the radical fringe, a minority even among ‘conservatives’. Never forget that. The public opinion of the American public, suppressed and silenced, is something entirely else. The political polarization is not between two equally sized groups but between the broad disenfranchised majority and one specific privileged minority. Still, one way or another, we will be forced to face what the reactionary represents. The reactionary is not only those others but something within us, but that is an issue to be saved for another day. Let us summarize these initial comments with a reassuring thought. Shadow or not, the reactionary mind is not normal and we need to recognize this truth, to constantly remind ourselves of it. We are not defined, as individuals or as a society, by our worst impulses.
What kind of country is America?
In looking at the recent PRRI values survey, we are given a picture of America as seen by Americans, the differences within public opinion and the commonalities. So, what kind of country do we Americans believe we live in? Let’s go straight to the top, God. Most Americans no longer believe God has granted the United States a special role in history. Once having been an article of faith among the majority, only 40% of Americans still hold to this conviction in the shared political religion that dominated during the Cold War, although 64% of Republicans are holding strong to their sense of divine entitlement as the Elect and presumably all of the divine privileges that go with it.
It isn’t solely a partisan divide and maybe as much about specific kinds of religiosity. White evangelical Protestants, unsurprisingly, are totally into American theocracy as seen with their strong support of Donald Trump hand-picked by God as the Chosen One to rule over the Chosen People, albeit this is a slight interpretation of the data on our part. Then again, if much more weakly, black Protestants are barely holding onto a sense of America’s divine status; and many of those black Protestants would be evangelicals as well, though not Trump-idolizing in most cases. But the majority of mainline Protestants, Catholics, etc don’t see it that way. As in the past, the divide continues to be primarily within Christianity, not between the religious and non-religious. For all of American history, Christians have been on both sides of public debates, from slavery and secularism to abortion and gay marriage.
Interestingly, back in the 19th century, it was evangelicals, as a minority religious group, who were among the strongest defenders of the separation of church and state — how things have changed. It was also evangelicals who were supporters of Populism, Progressivism, the Great Society, and the New Deal. Evangelicals weren’t always reactionaries (similar to how libertarians, as leftist anarcho-socialists who originated in the 19th century European workers movement, didn’t begin as reactionary right-wingers either). Like the majority of mid-20th century Protestants, some earlier famous leaders of the religious right and political right, supported a pro-choice position for abortion access in the post-war era. In how conservative religion has been co-opted by right-wing reactionaries since then, evangelicalism has been taken on as one of the many deceptive guises of the Faceless Men.
Besides those two groups of primarily evangelicals, all other measured demographics are probably more prone to believing America has fallen under a divine curse. As for Christians in general, they’re just not buying this divine patriotism and nationalistic idolatry. On the other hand, no demographic, not even white evangelicals, thinks that America is and always has been a Christian nation, not even after four years of the Chosen One, President Donald Trump, ruling the land. America has not been made great again, even if assuming it ever was great. So, it’s hard to know what God’s favor could mean anyhow, as there have always been much more religiously devout countries out there. Indeed, church attendance in the US has been dropping, particularly in the so-called Bible Belt. God looks down on America and says, “No respect, no respect, I tell ya.”
After these rough past few years, the evidence is becoming less and less clear that we are the Chosen People. This calls into question our American Exceptionalism and hence our divine mandate to rule the world as the largest empire in history. But the survey didn’t ask which country now has gained God’s favor in replacing America’s divine status. We’ll have to wait to find out the results on that one, as God works in mysterious ways. For certain, God doesn’t hold the sway he once did here in the grand ol’ US of A, as only 39% agree that believing in Him is necessary for morality. About an equal number (38%) thinks that religion causes more problems than it solves. So, maybe God should look for a more hospitable place to call home.
America has stopped being the moral beacon for the world, according to Americans (74%), whatever might be God’s opinion on the matter. Huddled masses of immigrants take note. Most Republicans don’t see this nation as a good moral example with 55% taking this negative view, when only 33% agreed in 2018. Not even White evangelical Protestants can get on board with a belief in national moral superiority at this point. So, obviously, Trump’s brand of Christian ethno-nationalism wrapped in an American flag hasn’t inspired a populist flood of moral religiosity to buoy up the erectile dysfunction of flaccid public confidence and impotent patriotism. It turns out that there is more to religion than waving a Bible in the air while posing in front of a camera or at least there used to be. The average Christian doesn’t appear to be swayed by such superficial displays and ritualistic performances. It’s easy to forget that most Christians, like most Americans, hold many leftist views. A large majority of Democrats, liberals, and progressives are and always have been Christian; and this majority might grow as Christians, including evangelicals, are turning left; despite formal religious adherence being on the decline.
As opposed to social dominators using faux religiosity as a symbolic conflation to dress up reactionary authoritarianism, some argue there is evidence that genuine religiosity might actually somewhat lessen the extremes of social conservatism: “religious participation may moderate conservatives’ attitudes on other important culture war issues, particularly matters of race, immigration, and identity. […] Taking these results together leaves us with a surprising finding: conservative, Republican, churchgoing Trump voters take more moderate positions on many culture war issues than their self-identified moderate, independent, nonchurchgoing counterparts” (Emily Ekins, Religious Trump Voters: How Faith Moderates Attitudes about Immigration, Race, and Identity). That is as long as the religious in question are not white evangelicals, the driving force of the present religious right, who diverge not only from most Americans but often also many Christians. Church attendance, of course, will simply exacerbate the tendencies within one’s faith tradition. For white evangelicals, that pulls them further into the orbit of Ferengi identity politics.
Yet others argue this remains true for white Christians in general, as Ferengi sympathizers and fellow travelers. “The results point to a stark conclusion: While most white Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans, holding racist views is nonetheless positively and independently associated with white Christian identity. Again, this troubling relationship holds not just for white evangelical Protestants, but also for white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. Moreover, these statistical models refute the assertion that attending church makes white Christians less racist. Among white evangelicals, in fact, the opposite is true: The relationship between holding racist views and white Christian identity is actually stronger among more frequent church attenders than among less frequent church attenders” (Robert P. Jones, Racism among white Christians is higher than among the nonreligious. That’s no coincidence.). The cold shadow of a dark past won’t be so easily thrown off. Even as conscious attitudes change, racism as a mind virus can burrow deep.
Nonetheless, the symbolic power of rhetoric aside, Christian nationalism itself, as a proxy for white supremacism or otherwise, does not hold much significance at this point. Americans have come to a consensus that America is no longer a Christian nation (74%) with a significant portion thinking it never was (22%). An increasing number think that this decline of Christian dominance is a good thing, at 39% which is up from five years ago when it was 29%. One can see a trend in falling religiosity and the weakening of theocratic impulses, as secular nationalism takes hold among the religious and non-religious alike. Maybe the culture wars and political spectacle of infotainment media (both corporate media and social media) has become our new shared religion, as we do devotedly worship it with the authorization it provides in shaping our sense of reality. People scroll their smart phones like rosary beads, bow their heads to their laptops as if before a shrine, and go into altered states as their eyes glaze over watching the boob tube. Churches have steep competition these days.
What’s the matter with America?
Let’s now move onto more general views of what is seen as mattering, since God no longer holds this place of pride. The majority of Americans generally agree with the majority of Democrats in how they prioritize most issues: coronavirus pandemic (respectively 60% & 85%), fairness of presidential elections (57%, 68%), health care (56%, 73%), jobs and unemployment (52%, 58%), crime (46%, 48%), terrorism (45%, 43%), abortion (36%, 35%), appointment of Supreme Court Justices (40%, 44%), federal deficit (36%, 31%), immigration (33%, 36%), and trade agreements with other countries (23%, 19%).
On the last four issues, Republicans are close to being in agreement as well. But on the first seven, Republicans strongly disagree with both the general public and Democrats. And on three other highly polarized and partisan issues (racial inequality, climate change, and growing gap between rich and poor), the average American is about smack dab in the middle between the two camps. Actually, they are leaning toward the middle on some of the others as well, although they have a general alignment with Democrats while, in those cases, Republicans are found on the complete opposite extreme. Two examples of the latter are 39% of Republicans seeing the coronavirus pandemic as critical and 33% with that opinion about health care, in contrast to 60% and 56% for Americans in general which is about equally distant from Democrats, though on the same side of the minority-majority divide as Democrats. So, in some cases, where Democrats have a strong majority view, that of the general public is a mere moderate majority; but, in both cases, in opposition to Ferengi and most other Republicans.
It gets interesting with a religious breakdown. When looking at the top three issues for each group, there is wide agreement about the coronavirus pandemic and fairness of presidential elections. There is a consensus on these two among most included religious demographics: white mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, White Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, Other Christians, and the non-Christian religious. That makes this the majority religious position about what is seen as central at this present moment. As such, there is a general focus and set of priorities that keeps religious Americans on the same page.
Also, Hispanic Protestants and the Unaffiliated put the coronavirus pandemic in their top three picks, but not fairness of presidential elections. White evangelical Protestants, interestingly, did agree about fairness of presidential elections, if by that they meant their minority position should eternally rule, while being alone in stating great concern for terrorism and abortion, indicating that they are highly motivated by thoughts of violence and death, if not the slow violence and mass death by other means (poverty, class war, air pollution, lead toxicity, lack of healthcare, racial oppression, war, CIA covert operations, economic sanctions, etc), and of course they love the widespread violence of law-and-order, militarized police, war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the death sentence in order to enforce and maintain social control. As another popular issue, healthcare was held up as important to four of these demographics: Hispanic Protestants, White Catholics, Other Christians, and Unaffiliated.
In general, most Americans want healthcare reform, and specifically universal healthcare with ever growing support and demand. It’s interesting to note how this is so popular with White Catholics who, by using divisive culture war rhetoric, were brought into line with the Republican Party in high rates of voting for Trump, partly as swayed by the Catholic Kellyanne Conway and the Catholic Steven Bannon. By the way, Conway once worked for Richard Wirthlin, the religious right pollster and advisor to right-wing politicians, including Ronald Reagan. This is how voters can be manipulated into betraying their own self-interests through symbolic ideology and what is called the Wirthlin effect, how social identity politics as superficial groupthink of ‘values’ rhetoric can undermine the moral force of an actual moral majority.
Are Americans racists or socialists?
Here is a funny one. Almost half of Americans perceive the Republican Party as having been taken over by racists and the Democratic Party by socialists. The people in each party disagrees with that view, but it is amusing because of the lopsided quality of the accusations. Most Democrats don’t identify as socialist even as they wouldn’t take it as a slur against their good character, whereas Republicans understandably freak out when they get called racists. No one wants to be thought of as a racist, not even most racists these days. Despite the well-funded right-wing culture wars and class war, the left is slowly and belatedly winning the war of rhetoric. That is largely because some politicians on the left have openly embraced leftist labels; such as Bernie Sanders and socialism, regardless of the fact he wasn’t actually a socialist.
Also, that is because a growing number of Americans identify with the socialist label while an ever shrinking minority still openly embraces racist ideology. As Sarah van Gelder, in looking at other polling, explained the former: “While capitalism is viewed more favorably among all Americans than socialism, the reverse is true among those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year, according to a Pew poll. And more Americans have a favorable view of socialism than of the Tea Party.” As the older generations die off and the country becomes a majority of racial/ethnic minorities, along with inequality growing worse, net positive view of socialism could become common or even mainstream in the coming decades. Socialism might become the new majority position before too long, in response to the extremism, atrocities, and injustice of corporatocratic capitalism and plutocratic social Darwinism.
At the very least, socialism is already part of socially acceptable public debate, albeit still contentious for the moment, at least as portrayed in corporate media and corporate-owned politics. Yet when it comes to racism, even Donald Trump feels compelled to deny it even while he is throwing out blatantly racist rants. The fact that racism has to be hidden behind lies, if open and obvious lies, demonstrates how shameful it is perceived. Everyone understands that racism is no longer acceptable (neither politically correct nor morally good), as public opinion has shifted far left on social issues. At the same time, public opinion is likewise going left on fiscal issues. Attempting to slander Democrats as socialists and fellow travelers doesn’t quite have the sting it did during the Cold War when there was a real threat of harm to leftists (McCarthyist witch hunts, corporate blacklisting and blackballing, etc). Instead, it has had the unintended effect of normalizing ‘socialism’, as a word to be bandied about, no matter the lack of any shared understanding of what it means.
These changes are seen all across the board, as a recent Fox News poll proved, not to mention the hundreds of other polls that have shown the same. To take another key example, from 2015 to 2020, the majority switched from agreeing to disagreeing with the statement that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life, and for as long as this question has been asked by PRRI this is the first time this response was seen. As the Cold War is growing distant, so is the War on Terror. But once again, Republicans stand alone in clinging to these old fears and animosities of a prior age of mass propaganda and bigoted xenophobia. Most Americans, instead, are focused on collective problems that are immediate and concrete: economic troubles, COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare reform, climate change, etc.
There are some even more damning divides on racial issues. Once a minority position, an emerging majority (56%) has been persuaded that cops killing Blacks is part of a broader pattern, not mere isolated incidents. In 2015, 53% said the opposite was true. Yet, as always, Republicans (79%) and Fox News viewers (90%) cling to their worst hateful prejudices in presently siding with this institutionalized and systemic racist law-and-order, compared to 40% independents and 17% of Democrats. That is a vast gap in public opinion. This further demonstrates the persistent demographic pattern of the reactionary Ferengi as distinct from the progressive and liberal majority. As the rest of America wakes up to this sad state of affairs, the political right has remained steady with their cold hearts unmoved by pleas of injustice and oppression, violence and suffering.
But it is good to be reminded that they are a polling minority in their callous disregard toward racial minorities, whereas white Democrats have fallen almost exactly in line with blacks, such that we could look to radicalized white liberals as the canary in the coal mine. White Independents, now at 46%, have also edged down into seeing racist-driven killings as a problem; although White Americans in general are hovering right on the divide of public opinion with equal numbers going both directions. As for white Christian groups, most of them are still feeling a bit racist while steadily moving away from the hardcore racism of white evangelical Protestants (70%), their former reactionary alignment weakening as white mainline Protestants have dropped down to 57% racist and white Catholics at 58% (Tara Isabella Burton, Study: when it comes to detecting racial inequality, white Christians have a blind spot). For the time being, as summarized by PRRI’s CEO Robert Jones, it remains a conflict of worldviews between “white Christian groups — and everybody else.” That demonstrates that it’s far from only being about the hardcore religious right of evangelicals and fundamentalists, but it also clarifies the toxic brew of religiosity and white grievance.
What is the racial and racist divide?
To really get at racism, PRRI divided the polling sample into demographically equal sub-samples. They received questions about protests that were identical except in one way, by mentioning blacks or by not mentioning race at all. This was a brilliant way to get at people’s honest opinion and what is motivating it. Americans in general agree (61%) with the statement “When Americans speak up and protest unfair treatment by the government, it always makes our country better.” But Americans are almost divided (52%) whether such free speech and freedom to assemble also applies to “Black Americans” or if, instead, we should continue to disenfranchise and oppress racial minorities as is the pervasive, systemic, and institutionalized status quo of American tradition.
The only two measured demographics, as brought up in the PRRI report, that absolutely believe all Americans should have equal rights are blacks and Democrats, although many of the other demographics still mostly favored giving blacks such rights (the views of other races and ethnicities were not mentioned in the report but might be available in the raw data). The demographics of white conservatives all were strongly opposed to blacks not being violently oppressed and silenced, but to be fair they were less supportive and more divided on protesting in general. Even so, most Americans, no matter their race, are equal in their majority support of the citizen’s right to protest. Once again, conservatives are the minority even among whites.
But, of course, America’s racist history rears its ugly head the moment the question is racialized. The variations in demographics, though, are not entirely as expected. As most Americans support protesting on principle, even if only a slim majority holding to the same for blacks, there is nonetheless many white demographics that would defend this right for blacks. There are the college-educated, as always; in that not being ignorant helps. Gender, though, is the opposite of how typically portrayed. White men (50%) are more supportive of black protests than white women (44%), which might relate to white men being one of the key demographics where Trump saw declining numbers among his voters this past election, while Kellyanne Conway’s professional expertise has always been in helping misogynistic GOP candidates gain the white woman vote (in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton as a white woman lost the demographic of white women), similar to the role played by the ilk like Sarah Palin. So, white men can’t be blamed for everything. This also indicates that the Ferengi phenomenon is not merely an issue of The Man. The Ferengi do defend white patriarchy, but many of those defenders happen to be white women (for example, in watching Fox News, our mother has become a more rabid conservative and GOP partisan than our father).
Besides conservatives, it’s the white religious, including among mainline Protestants, who are among the most racist on this issue, as their majority support for protests drops to 35-38% when applied to blacks. This reminds one of why most Americans now assume that believing in God is not necessary for being moral, and increasing number actually takes religion as problematic for a free and democratic society. Obviously, the religious faith of these whites has not helped them to see all humans as the children of God with souls that are equal before God. When blacks are at issue, they don’t see souls at all, much less the content of their character, but just their bodies and the color of their skin.
A similar pattern is seen with White Christian groups being most likely to view Confederate flags and monuments as symbols of Southern pride, rather than racism. It’s strange that racism among whites tracks so closely with religiosity or at least religious identification, although other data shows many of these people don’t actually attend church (e.g., lower religiosity rates in the so-called Bible Belt). This says a lot about religion in America, at least as a symbolic ideology. Indeed, anyone familiar with American history knows that churches and religious leaders played an important role in defending and maintaining slavery, Jim Crow, sundown towns, etc. Yet religion was also central in blacks fighting back against oppression and injustice, as seen with the civil rights movement that included support of particular mostly white religious groups (e.g., Quakers).
The divide over racism within American Christianity is itself racial. The vast majority of black Christians believe in a God who loves all people equally, but this view of God’s universal love is not nearly so strongly held by white Christians. For all of our cynicism, this is a bit shocking to our egalitarian sensibilities in having been raised in a liberal church that was majority white. It might not be expected that the racial division would be this stark along religious lines, although it is a tired truism well known in the South that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. And this is an area where the Ferengi hold immense sway in creating the sense of a divided and polarized country.
Is there unity in diversity?
Even so, white conservatives and white Christians aren’t completely lost in fear and bigotry. Among Republicans, only 17% claim (or admit?) to prefer the U.S. to be made up of people of western European heritage. That is barely above the national average of 10% in support. Similarly, a mere 18% are bothered by the idea of America where most people are not white. It’s a little bit higher with Republicans at 27%, but that isn’t too bad with nearly three-quarters not in support. The numbers would have been starkly different not that long ago. The increase of immigrants and the growing number of minorities, not to mention the rise of interracial relationships, is having an impact on changing attitudes. It’s become normalized to show diversity in the media. It’s no longer perceived as strange and scary. On Fox News these days, they now have more non-white hosts and they often make sure to have token minorities on their panels and focus groups.
Still, the full and open embracing of diversity remains a divisive issue and the population is about evenly split. That is to say, even though white supremacy is not seen as the solution, Americans hold onto concerns about multiculturalism or whatever it is a symbolic proxy for (breakdown of communities? loss of culture of trust? social stress from rising inequality?). As expected, those who more fully embrace diversity are Blacks, other non-whites, the multiracial, and college-educated whites. It should be noted that these are growing demographics and, when combined, already represent the American majority. This is one of the many anti-Ferengi alliances, if typically unacknowledged in ‘mainstream’ media and politics. So, America is not only a leftist majority but also a diverse and diversity-embracing majority.
Gender roles and social norms were another area the PRRI survey looked into. In a mirror image of opposing views, most Americans disagree (60%), contrary to most Republicans that agree (60%), that society punishes men just for acting like men. About an equal number of Republicans also think that society has become too soft and effeminate (63%). Both Democrats and Independents are in line with the majority in opposition to Republicans. The religious are evenly divided on this issue, as are men. That is quite intriguing, though, that half of men have no worries about these conservative or rather reactionary fears of a supposed decline of masculine and male-dominated society. Most women, of course, have little concern about this area of male identity politics. All combined, it’s a minority issue that has been held up as a banner of culture war by a single sector of the reactionary ruling elite.
These kinds of social issues related to egalitarianism vs authoritarianism unsurprisingly tend to sync with political issues, specifically attitudes about democracy. A two-to-one majority says the popular vote, not the electoral college, should determine the presidency. Once again, Independents (68%) side with Democrats (86%), opposite of Republicans (39%), in demanding greater democracy and a more representative government such that all voters are treated as equal no matter where they live. There is some other demographic variance, but still the majority are in favor — whites and non-whites, men and women, young and old. Republicans, especially Fox News viewers, are the outlier in being absolutely opposed to equal rights and full self-governance for all other Americans, no matter their residence or skin color. The Ferengi are fighting against the democracy that most Americans want, and this has been useful for the reactionary ruling elite in both parties by using the Ferengi to distract from the majority’s demands for fair representation — one of the ways lesser evilism guarantees continuously greater evil. In a society claiming to be a representative democracy, what greater political evil is there than a conspiracy to attack and destroy any possibility of a free society of self-governance?
The fear of certain demographics being given a seat at the table has been largely motivated by racism and xenophobia. It’s similar to how the ruling elite manipulate many whites to oppose social programs that help whites out of fear that they will also help minorities. This has been slowly changing in mainstream society, a sign of hope. “Majorities of Americans,” reports PRRI, “say that there is a lot of discrimination against Black people (75%), Hispanic people (69%), and Asian people (55%). Far fewer say that there is a lot of discrimination against either Christians (37%) or white people (32%).” Fewer and fewer Americans, across most demographics, want to continue the scapegoating of minorities as the portrayed enemies of a sought-after white supremacy, ethno-nationalism, and Christian patriotism. Following the pattern of declining bigotry and xenophobia, this includes majorities, in this case large majorities, of Independents and Democrats; as opposed by the Ferengi, of course (Emma Green, Most American Christians Believe They’re Victims of Discrimination; Samuel L. Perry, Andrew L. Whitehead, & Joshua T. Davis, God’s Country in Black and Blue: How Christian Nationalism Shapes Americans’ Views about Police (Mis)treatment of Blacks).
A large number of Republicans (52%) also feel compelled to admit that blacks face major discrimination, even as they hold to self-serving identity politics in believing that white people (57%) and Christians (62%) are the most oppressed people in the world. It’s worse with those Republicans (27-36%) who, in trusting Fox News, don’t think any minorities at all have anything to complain about, in contrast to whites (58%) and Christians (73%) who are experiencing genocide. On a positive note, there is no religious group that believes whites are more discriminated against than blacks in broad terms, but those in the snowflake demographic of white evangelical Protestants (66%) do self-identify as the most victimized Americans. The Ferengi once again stand out as unique and atypical; and, in this case, even being distinct from other religious whites.
Continuing open support of bigotry and prejudice, for certain, can’t be blamed on whites in general: Not All Whites! Strong and overt white identity politics is largely limited to Republicans, Fox News viewers, and certain Christians, especially white evangelicals. But even combined, these people do not form anywhere close to a majority among whites. Most white Americans disagree with this strong racialized worldview. They may not see the prejudice as applying as much to Asians (47%), but most of them do very much think it is undeniable among Hispanics (61%) and blacks (67%), whereas it’s not so much for Christians (38%) and whites (39%). So, on this issue, maybe about one third of all white Americans are either part of the Ferengi or in alignment with the Ferengi. It’s a significant minority, but still relatively small for how loud their voice is amplified by the power structure of media and politics.
Victimhood politics holds little merit with the typical white. The same goes across the education spectrum, as both those with and without a college degree agree with other whites, if to varying degrees. As for the majority of minorities, they are maintaining solidarity in agreeing they all experience more prejudice as compared to whites and Christians. The last part stands out considering non-whites have higher religiosity rates than whites, and yet the prejudice they experience is not identified with their religion. That makes sense. No police officer ever killed a black guy because he was Christian and no ICE agent ever deported a Hispanic because they attended church too often.
By the way, the tipping point for public acknowledgment of systemic racism was clearly seen years ago, as shown in previous PRRI polling. “The most striking thing about the numbers is their uniformity. Between August 2013 and August 2014, Americans of all stripes — Democrats and Republicans, young people and old, Hispanics and whites — showed an increase in the belief that minorities are unfairly targeted. And while a majority of seniors and Republicans [i.e., old conservatives ~BDS] still think the two groups (whites and minorities) are treated equally, each category showed a significant uptick in the number who see racial bias as a systemic feature of the U.S. justice system” (Sophie Kleeman, How Ferguson Changed America for Good, in One Striking Chart). In general, the leftward trend appears to have been going on for centuries, if we only have polling data to show the specific demographic details across recent decades and generations.
In the US, this kind of thing is mostly a non-issue at this point. Besides the standard ultra-right demographics, the average white individual doesn’t feel threatened by racial/ethnic minorities and diversity. It’s a minority of white Americans (40%), if a sizable minority, including white Americans without a four-year college degree (46%), that thinks that increasing diversity always comes at a cost to whites. As with a third of Americans overall (34%), only 35% of Independents and 17% of Democrats agree with this assessment of racial politics as a zero-sum game. If the Ferengi view of American society ever was the moral majority, which is highly questionable, it certainly no longer is and hasn’t been so for a long time.
It should be noted that as early as the 1980s, during the Golden Age of the Reagan Republicans, it was known that the reactionary right-wing of fundies was not a majority, moral or otherwise. In fact, the very concept of a ‘Moral Majority’ was openly advocated and promoted as a defense against majoritarian rule and against democracy in general. Bill Moyers, in an interview with David Daley (Republicans Admit They Lose When Elections Are Fair and Free), said that,
I agreed with the Republican strategist, Ben Ginsberg, who said that David Daley has exposed, “The strategy of shadowy, but thus far, legal hacking, splicing, and dicing of congressional districts to secure Republican domination, and in turn, subvert the will of the American voter.”
That’s a Republican saying that. Admitting that gerrymandering was crucial to the Republican party’s strategy of undermining democracy. Some people were shocked, David. But I wasn’t. And I wanna take a step back here, I mean, back to 1980.
I was reporting for a documentary on the founding of the Moral Majority. Thousands of religious conservatives gathered in Dallas, Texas, to launch what is now the most influential base of the Republican party. Ronald Reagan running for the Republican nomination, spoke to them.
And one of the most influential Republicans of the past 60 years was there. Paul Weyrich was his name — right-wing Catholic, brilliant strategist, outspoken partisan [who] founded the Heritage Foundation, founded the Moral Majority, on and on and on. He really was an architect of the Republican domination today. Here’s a brief excerpt of what he said. It brought cheers from those religious conservatives.
Paul Weyrich: “Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
This wasn’t anything new, not even in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan helped make conservatism respectable again, but he didn’t do it by winning majority support for hard right issues. His victory was rhetorical but highly effective, following the defanging of the once powerful political left by union busting, McCarthyism, Hollywood blacklisting, and FBI’s COINTELPRO; not to mention the propaganda and perception management campaign of the right-wing Shadow Network; along with the help of Richard Wirthlin. The conservative rule he established was an elitism in defiance of the American people. Republicans were able to take advantage of racist dog whistle politics and covert class war to divide the voting public, even though the American majority was in many ways even more economically progressive than it is now. Support for extremely high taxes was so strong that it was barely part of public debate prior to that shift.
Republican presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Richard Nixon, didn’t dare to speak a negative word about liberalism and would instead praise it. It was a consensus among the majority in both parties that liberalism was how governments should be run, as Ike once argued. Reagan switched this around by incorporating a progressive attitude and co-opting liberal rhetoric for the purpose of conservative ends. He couldn’t have won the election by having been honest with the American people, as they fundamentally didn’t want what he was selling. So, it had to be deceptively packaged with empty and vague rhetoric of ‘values’.
The strategy was devious (Starve the Beast, Two Santa Claus theory, Wirthlin Effect, etc), in weaponizing symbolic ideology that was divorced from operational ideology (Poll Answers, Stated Beliefs, Ideological Labels) — that is to say rhetoric usurped reality and so narrative framing, not public policy, became the driving force of American politics. It no longer mattered what most Americans wanted, and that became even more true with the rise of dark money and oligopolistic corporate media. The winning narrative became a potent, if toxic, identity politics — specifically white grievance and victimhood made virulent through an old racist, elitist, and supremacist narrative of ethno-nationalism and xenophobia, politicized class anxiety and racialized class war.
This rhetoric of reactionary backlash and right-wing populism, combined with anti-democratic tactics (voter role purges, precinct closures, gerrymandering, ex-con disenfranchhisement, etc), simultaneously inspired and empowered a specific minority, the Ferengi, while demoralizing and disenfranchising not only all other minorities (Blacks, Latinxs, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, social justice Christians, progressive Evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, democratic socialists, Marxists, anarchosyndicalists, etc) but also and, more importantly, the majority of potential voters.
When the political right talks about protecting the minority against the mobocracy of majoritarian oppression, they’re only referring to one specific minority, the Ferengi demographic overlap of viewers who trust Fox News, white Evangelicals, and partisan Republican voters — basically, a specific segment of mostly older whites raised on white privilege and rabid Cold War propaganda that they internalized as the core of their identity; although also including some former white liberals and progressives that were indoctrinated later in life by the right-wing media machine (Jen Senko, The Brainwashing Of My Dad; documentary and book). All other minorities, the Ferengi believe, should continue to be oppressed as they were in the past. Make America Great Again!
How bad is inequality?
Where the real debate is happening is whether racial inequality is tightly linked to economic inequality. Is a historical legacy of institutionalized and systemic racism, specifically the transgenerational effects of slavery and discrimination, from sundown towns to redlining, still contributing to a lack of economic opportunities for blacks? Is it holding many of them back from being able to work their way out of the racial caste of a permanent underclass? Americans in the past slightly leaned to answering ‘no’, but are now almost evenly split. With the shift continuing, the full acknowledgement of ongoing racial prejudice and oppression will be the majority position in the near future.
As with other issues, Republicans, Fox News viewers, and white Christians (i.e., the Ferengi) believe blacks are whiny and lazy losers who need to get over it, a culturally and/or genetically inferior sub-group that should passively submit to their deserved subjugation. These are the same people who think blacks shouldn’t be allowed to protest and so many of these concern trolls have started counter-protests to complain about blacks acting like they are equal to others when they demand to be treated as such. Independents did side more with Republicans in the past (62%, 2015), but have since (46%) moved toward Democrats (20%) with Democrats having likewise moved further left since five years ago (39%).
The same movement toward the ‘left’ has been happening with whites overall in following the example of Independents. So, most whites are forming a consensus with non-whites, which leaves the Ferengi ever more stranded in isolated extremism. Like the pressure building along a fault line, the realignment of public opinion will fully set into a new position with seismic tremors followed by a political earthquake. Even though building up slowly over generations and centuries, the final result will feel sudden and dramatic. The response by the Faceless Men will be ever more reactionary, likely involving increased violence. We will probably go through a period of right-wing hate crimes, terrorism, vigilantism, mob actions, insurrection, coups, etc before it settles back down into a new perceived social norm and established social order.
Where is the American public heading?
Most Americans are going left on most issues while a small minority on the right is often going further right, the latter particularly involving the symbolic ideology of reactionary identity politics. A polarization is happening but it’s between a growing majority on the left that is just now finding its voice and a shrinking minority on the right that is ever more isolated and radicalized, much of it having to do with who is and who is not caught in the right-wing news media bubble, social media echo chamber, and the political outrage machine. About continuing racial biases and disparities, it’s also polarization within religion such that non-white Christians, non-Christians, and the religiously unaffiliated (both non-white and white) are in opposition to a large sector of white Christians, particularly white evangelicals.
Now for a really divisive set of issues look at affirmative action and reparations. Slim but growing majorities support efforts to remedy racial bias and historical legacies in education and employment. It splits up, as expected in the mainstream narrative, with partisans on the two extreme ends and Independents closer to the middle. Also, blacks and Hispanics strongly favor such policies and practices, whereas whites are still slightly holding back their support but making strides in that direction. Quite likely, in the next decade if trends continue, the demand to help those disadvantaged and disenfranchised by transgenerational oppression will finally become a majority position for whites and a strong majority for the entire American public. That is to say a Scandinavian-style social democracy could become more probable or at least increased egalitarianism in general, although far from a predetermined outcome.
That brings us to another oft racialized issue, that of immigration. Most people think of it as a polarized topic in how it is used as a political football by politicians and gets used in dog whistle politics, but the reality is there is almost unanimous agreement across all of society. Even among Republicans, a large majority views immigrants as hardworking (79%) and as having strong family values (76%), along with a significant number acknowledging that immigrants make an effort to learn English (38%). The positive attitude toward immigrants is stronger among other demographics. Only a tiny minority disagrees about most immigrants being good people who contribute to their adoptive communities and potentially are a net gain for American society.
Generally speaking, Americans don’t see immigrants as a problem. They aren’t perceived as a cause of crime or disease in communities. Although divided in other areas involving immigration issues, there still isn’t an overwhelming majority who are drawn to scapegoat this population. Still, it is true that there is vociferous debate about whether or not immigrants burden local social services and compete for jobs, about which Americans are divided down the middle; and those are fair and reasonable concerns that can’t necessarily be reduced to mere bigotry. As before, it’s only Republicans with a clearly negative view of immigrants. Among Democrats and Independents, it’s some combination of positive and neutral, depending on what is being asked about.
Other than the Ferengi demographic of Republicans (57%), specifically those who trust Fox News (67%), few Americans (31%), Independents (28%) or Democrats (15%), and few whites (36%), Hispanics (24%) or blacks (24%) would agree that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” Only 51% of largely non-Ferengi Republicans who don’t trust Fox News go along with those who do trust it, and that is considering so many Republicans who distrust Fox News probably have left the party at this point. It’s as much a media divide as anything else, between right-wing media viewers and everyone else. But the divide on this topic probably would also be seen between white evangelicals and all others.
To be fair, there are also surprising divides emerging within demographics such as a significant minority of Hispanics, mostly groups like Cubans, having voted for Donald Trump (Natalie Jackson, Religion Divides Hispanic Opinion in the U.S., PRRI report). These intra-demographic divergent voters might have been larger in the second election. And, if so, this might have been partly motivated by his tough-on-immigration stance. To put it in historical context, even though the legal framing of immigration is a more recent invention by the political right, it must be admitted that public opinion on the topic goes in generational cycles following the pattern of increasing and decreasing immigration. With that in mind, one could note that immigration numbers these past couple of decades have been at a historical low point, which is probably why right-wing hysteria of moral panic hasn’t gained purchase in the public mind, beyond a few select demographics.
It goes on and on. Most Americans, including majorities of Americans in every major demographic mentioned but excluding Republicans and Fox News viewers (and possibly excluding white evangelicals), oppose building a border wall between the United States and Mexico (57%), oppose passing a law to prevent refugees from entering the country (62%), support immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children (i.e., Dreamers) to gain legal resident status (66%), and support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (64%). It’s mostly a non-issue, despite all the noise among a desperate elite attempting to ramp up the lingering support of the shrinking Ferengi fringe. Despite Fox News pushing a near-continuous anti-immigrant narrative, it just has no hold on the American mind; with probably even most casual Fox News viewers being largely indifferent.
On the last issue of a pathway to citizenship, Republicans distrusting Fox News support it and all religious groups also support it, and among opponents of citizenship there are those who would still support permanent residency status (16%). Most Americans, even including most Republicans, along with every religious group, oppose an immigration border policy that separates children from their parents and charges parents as criminals (76%). This is an issue that is a bit more divided for the Ferengi with many Republicans and white evangelicals siding with the majority, with the only exception being the Fox News faithful, demonstrating the power of corporate media as propaganda. The dividing line is not conservatives vs liberals, not right vs left, but those trusting Fox News vs all others. Fox News, possibly being replaced by Newsmax, has been the dark beating heart of the most extreme element within the reactionary Ferengi.
What is wrong and what is irrelevant?
Let’s wrap this up. Most Americans across most demographics agree that something is amiss in American society and governance, some kind of failure or corruption or decline, but this has not made them entirely cynical and hopeless. The majority does want the government to do more, as a Fox News poll shows, in such a way that would actually benefit the public good and help everyday Americans. This faith in a government that could and should do right by the American people remains steady, despite the fact that polls show the majority no longer trusts big government, along with no longer trusting big biz and big media. Lately, public trust in the military is likewise in decline, which is a real shocker in it having stood for so long as the last pillar of public trust.
Mistrust is not cynicism, fatalism, and apathy. The thing is Americans want a government in which to place their trust with politicians who will honestly and fairly represent them. American idealism may be on life support, but it’s still hanging on with tenacity. This faith in good governance toward the public good includes guaranteeing all Americans access to affordable childcare (83%), guaranteeing all Americans a minimum income (70%), making college tuition-free at public institutions (63%), and a “Medicare for All” plan that would replace private health insurance with government-backed health insurance coverage for all Americans (62%). This is what Americans want and have wanted for a quite a while, much of this public support having developed during earlier administrations. It’s unfortunate that, in this banana republic, the political and media elite are so effective in suppressing this majority.
Certainly, it’s far from limited to a supposed radical left-wing fringe. Along with Democrats and Independents, Republicans support guaranteeing all Americans access to affordable childcare (95%, 85%, and 71%, respectively) and guaranteeing all Americans a minimum income (88%, 69%, and 52%, respectively). But Republicans are mixed in what they support and what they oppose, and there is that ever present contrarian thorn in the side of the American public, that of Ferengi subset of Republicans under the sway of Fox News propaganda who always take the opposing position. It’s not that the Ferengi are more opposed to government but, rather, opposed to democratic governance that serves all Americans. Along with being reactionaries, they are hardcore right-wing authoritarians and social dominators.
Most Americans, other than Ferengis, have a common vision of the kind of society they want to live in and what they consider important. There is a strong sense that climate change poses a genuine threat that people fear will cause personal harm to themselves, their families, and communities (58%). Other polls show that most Americans want government to do more with stronger environmental regulations and protections. This isn’t abstract culture war bullshit but concrete threats in the real world and Americans fully appreciate what this could mean as it gets worse. Democrats and Independents of all races are in agreement. Many Republicans, outside of the Ferengi fringe, likewise agree. The same presumably would be true among self-identified conservatives, as seen in other data.
For still other issues, Americans show fairly strong and broad support. This is seen with once supposedly divisive culture war issue like the pro-choice position on abortion (60%), which is seen as perfectly fine even among majorities of the religious, the fundies aside. Most Americans think it should be legal in all or most cases. Many polls show this, including from Fox News — an ironic piece of data considering Fox News so heavily pushes this issue onto their viewers. Interestingly, previous PRRI data shows that immigration plays a role in shifting public opinion to the right, which is ironic in how native-born conservatives oppose the very immigrant groups that could bolster their numbers as a conservative movement. They might want to rethink that opposition considering that, though still a majority among Republicans, white Christians are in the minority for the first time in US history (Rachel Zoll, White Christians are now a minority of US population). Many Hispanics are also embracing the white identity, which could help maintain the ideological perception of white Christianity, although as Hispanics assimilate they become more liberal — so, a double-edged sword; maybe the Ferengi can’t win for losing. Here are the specifics from a 2018 PRRI poll:
“The largest divide is by place of birth. A majority (57%) of Hispanics born in the U.S. believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, compared to 36% who say it should be illegal in most or all cases. Among Hispanics born in Puerto Rico, 41% support abortion legality, compared to 53% who say it should be illegal in most or all cases. By contrast, only 33% of Hispanics born outside of the U.S. say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while nearly six in ten (59%) say it should be illegal in most or all cases. Place of birth also stratifies age groups. More than six in ten (63%) young Hispanics ages 18-29 born in the United States support abortion, compared to just 38% of young Hispanics born outside of the United States. Among seniors ages 65 and over, 44% of U.S.-born Hispanics favor abortion legality, compared to just under one in three (31%) foreign-born Hispanic seniors” (The State of Abortion and Contraception Attitudes in All 50 States).
The same goes for LGBTQ rights, as seen in the PRRI data. The majority, including among the religious, is on board with allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally (70%) and in enacting laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing (83%). In fact, the American majority were in favor of same sex marriage years before even DNC leaders (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, etc) came out publicly in support, demonstrating it isn’t a liberal and intellectual elite leading the way or manipulating the masses with cultural Marxism or whatever other conspiracy fear-mongering that Machiavellian demagogues and social dominators obsess about in their rhetorical deceptions and manipulations.
Anyway, here is the demographic breakdown within the broad 70% support on the first of those issues: “Politically, the majority of Democrats (80%) and 50% of Republicans support same-sex marriage. Majorities of every major religious group support marriage equality, PRRI says. That includes support from 79% of white mainline Protestants, 78% of Hispanic Catholics, 72% of members of non-Christian religious groups, 68% of Hispanic Protestants, 67% of white Catholics, 57% of Black Protestants, and 56% of members of other Christian religious groups. The strongest opposition of same-sex marriage within religious communities comes from white evangelical Protestants, the study finds, with 63% opposing allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry” (Russell Falcon, American support for same-sex marriage is higher than ever, study finds). Once again, it’s within the Ferengi that minority opposition is found, and in this case even there it’s rather weak. The polarized divide is not within the general public nor between partisans but cleaving Republicans neatly in half. Give it a few years and the majority of Republicans will also be on board. It’s probably only Fox News and other heavily-funded right-wing media that is maintaining a countervailing force of resistance, without which the social liberal majority might already be absolute across all demographics.
Here is an important point. These issues are largely moot in the American mind, whatever may have been the case earlier last century. Few think there is anything meaningful left to be debated. Basic tolerance and equality, rights and protections are central to democracy and most Americans want democracy, specifically with a lean toward more direct democracy and social democracy. Hence, culture war issues are now non-issues. Yet somehow these ideological corpses are resurrected from the dead by a corporate media and political elite that trot them out on a regular basis, presumably as a distraction from the issues Americans actually do worry about. As far as the average American is concerned, such issues don’t determine their vote nor much affect their life. So, to respond to the naysayers and malcontented, just shut the fuck up about it. Do what the American people want or get out of the way, quit being authoritarian assholes, and let’s move onto what really matters. The age of tolerating intolerance is over, let us hope.
And what might we conclude?
Here is the main takeaway point, as shown with this and so many other polls/surveys. We Americans are not a divided people. We are not fundamentally polarized within the larger population or rather the only polarization involves the leftist majority of the democratic demos on one side and the reactionary fringe manipulated by the authoritarian elite on the other. Most Americans agree about most things, but this is a silenced and suppressed moral majority. The American people want some combination of representative democracy and self-governance, probably for the very reason we undeniably know it is lacking and experience it’s lack in our everyday lives. Most of what politicians do is severely out of alignment with what most Americans support and value, and political elites seem conveniently oblivious to this self-serving corruption or else cynically antagonistic to it. The media elite are equally clueless or devious, as the case may be (Eric Alterman, America is much less conservative than mainstream media believe). Sadly, this has has led to much mind-fuckery where Americans become disconnected from their own values, a gaslighting of the American soul — as Eric Alterman has written about:
“A significant part of the problem appears to lie with the inaccurate use of labels. Without a doubt, self-professed conservatives consistently outnumber liberals in polls when Americans are questioned about their respective ideological orientations. Politicians, pundits, and reporters tend to believe that this extends to their views on the issues. It doesn’t. In fact it represents little more than the extensive investments conservatives have made in demonizing the liberal label and associating it with one unflattering characteristic after another. I delved deeply into this phenomenon while researching my 2008 book titled Why We’re Liberals. In the book, I noted that as a result of a four-decade-long campaign of conservative calumny, together with some significant errors on liberals’ own part, the word “liberal,” as political scientist Drew Westen observed, implied to most Americans terms such as “elite, tax and spend, out of touch,” and “Massachusetts.” No wonder barely one in five Americans wished to associate himself or herself with the label, then as now. Yet at the very same time, detailed polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press demonstrated a decided trend toward increasingly “liberal” positions by almost any definition.”
How did it get this way? Consider the most important point. There is a single demographic, as repeatedly shown above, that is consistently far right on every issue and consistently in disagreement with the rest of the population. That demographic is partisan Republicans and Trumpian Republicans who are trusting of and indoctrinated by Fox News propaganda as aligned with an unprincipled religious right of white evangelicals that use politicized religion and symbolic religiosity (Trumpism After Trump? How Fox News Structures Republican Attitudes, PRRI report), as expressed through pseudo-populist demagoguery, social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism, and the Dark Tetrad (sociopathy, narcissism, sadism, & Machiavellianism); not to mention gun culture, militias, hate groups, hate crimes, and terrorism (e.g., decades of anti-choice violence). This isn’t a normal voting bloc but a militant movement seeking totalitarian power or rather manipulated by such ruthless and anti-democratic power-mongers, as seen with an aspiring strongmen like Donald Trump (and his Machiavellian sidekick Steven Bannon) who led an insurrectionist attack on the seat of government while president.
These Ferengi are opposite of Democrats, for sure, along with living on a different planet than most Americans. And they aren’t even like other Republicans, specifically not the disappearing moderate conservatives and civil libertarians, anti-fundamentalist Goldwater Republicans and anti-Bircher William F. Buckley Jr. Republicans, liberal-minded Eisenhower Republicans and laissez-faire Log Cabin Republicans; et cetera. But, maybe more importantly, they don’t slightly resemble the audiences of other corporate media; such as how those on the political left, as the data shows, tend to seek out a wider variety and more balanced selection of media sources (including right-wing media like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal). The rise of Fox News and right-wing talk radio, along with the alt-right media funded by dark money, as a nationwide echo chamber and ideological reality tunnel, was an entirely new phenomenon in history. In implementing the propaganda model of news media, it is an outrage machine that is highly effective in manufacturing consent by altering opinion, perception, and identity.
Fox News has increasingly become the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, particularly since Donald Trump’s takeover but going back several decades. “According to the poll, 55% of Republicans who say Fox News is their primary source of news say there is nothing Trump could do to lose their approval. This contrasts with only 29% Republicans who do not cite Fox News as their primary source of news who say the same.” (Rosie Perper, Fox News is part of the reason many Republicans don’t support impeaching Trump, a new poll reveals). Heck, even lacking college education doesn’t make one as dogmatically partisan as being brainwashed by right-wing media, in how mindless groupthink of the lesser educated still remains below majority level: “45% of Republicans who do not have a college degree say there is virtually nothing Trump could do to lose their support, compared to 35% of college-educated Republicans who say the same” (Fractured Nation: Widening Partisan Polarization and Key Issues in 2020 Presidential Elections). Watching Fox News is apparently the ideological equivalent to being reborn in the blood of Christ: “Virtually all Republican white evangelical Protestants (99%) and Republicans who say Fox News is their primary source of news (98%) oppose Trump being impeached and removed from office.” White evangelicalism, as the most extremist strain of white Christianity, does seem to be key.
“While the PRRI poll found that 77% of white evangelical Protestants approve of the job Mr. Trump is doing in office, only 54% of white mainline Protestants and 48% of white Catholics approve of his job performance. There are also divides along racial lines: 72% of Hispanic Catholics and 86% of black Protestants disapprove of Mr. Trump’s job performance. There is also widespread disagreement over whether Mr. Trump has encouraged white supremacist violence while in office. Seventy percent of white evangelical Protestants, 51% of white mainline Protestants, and 46% of white Catholics say that Mr. Trump has not had an impact on white supremacist groups, according to the PRRI poll. However, 78% of black Protestants say that Mr. Trump’s decisions and behavior have encouraged white supremacist groups” (Grace Segers, 99% of Republican white evangelical Protestants oppose impeaching and removing Trump, new poll finds). Racism, unsurprisingly, remains a schism in American Christianity and, as has always been true in American history, it largely falls along racial lines. Yet this schism is shrinking in the population overall, as even non-evangelical whites slowly but steadily turn away from America’s racist past.
This points to a central problem for the GOP and their Ferengi base. ““While White evangelical Protestants have declined as a proportion of the population over the last decade, from 21 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2019, they have maintained an outsize presence at the ballot box, somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of voters,” [Robert P. Jones, head of PRRI] said. He described this as a “time machine,” whereby the White evangelical Christians’ outsize vote “has the effect of turning back the demographic clock by nearly a decade. In other words, we’re living in the demographic realities of 2020, but our elections are being conducted, demographically speaking, in 2012 America.” […] White evangelical Protestants are the backbone of the GOP, but their geographic concentration and population decline mean Republicans are living on borrowed time” (Jennifer Rubin, Opinion: What the election tells us about religion in America). About Trump’s “underlying political bet he is imposing on the GOP,” it has been noted that, “Comparing the election results in 2018 with those in 2016, [political scientist Brian Schaffner’s] research found that House Republican candidates lost more ground among voters who agree that racism and sexism remain problems than they gained among those who do not” (Ronald Brownstein, The partisan chasm over ‘systemic racism’ is on full display).
That isn’t promising as a winning strategy heading into the demographically uncertain future. As the old pillars of conservatism can no longer be depended upon because of societal shifts, the right-wing elite will be forced to ever more turn to right-wing media machines to manufacture consent and rile support or otherwise demoralize the majority, disenfranchise voters, and undermine democracy. Public opinion and public policy might now be drastically further to the left, if not for the authoritarian influence of weaponized media and concentrated wealth, not to mention the destabilizing and anxiety-inducing high inequality. Yet no matter how large is the audience, Republican viewers of Fox News are a small percentage of the total population, as Fox News has proven with their own polling in showing how far left is the American majority. So, why does this miniscule minority have such an outsized influence in being treated as equal to the vast majority on the opposite side of public opinion? Why do the supposed ‘liberal’ Democrats and the supposed ‘liberal’ media figures accept this framing of false equivalency that silences not only most Americans in general but also most Democrats, Independents, and those portrayed on the political ‘left’? Why does all of the corporate media play along with this false narrative that is implemented as social control in disenfranchising the majority, even most genuine centrists, moderate conservatives, and principled libertarians?
However we answer that line of questioning, just for a moment imagine what the United States would be like without reactionary media, without endless outrage and fear-mongering. Imagine if Fox News politics wasn’t the dominant model of propaganda for an oligarchic rule. Imagine if all of the corporate media was broken up to the extent that most media was once again locally owned and operated or at least much smaller scale and diverse. Imagine if all big money was removed from politics, all legal bribery was made illegal, all corporate lobbyists were frozen out of public decision-making. Imagine if public opinion mattered, if the moral majority was not silenced and suppressed, if government actually represented the American People. Otherwise, what is the point of all this public polling? If and when we the American public realize we are the majority and far to the left of the elite, then what? Maybe we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The revolution has already happened in the public mind. Now all that remains is to follow through to where it leads.
We are defined by our opposition, in many ways. And a society is determined by the frame of opposition, the boundaries of allowable thought — such as right and left (or equivalent frame). This is how power has operated in the United States. In recent generations, this frame of the “political spectrum” has intentionally been kept extremely narrow. Sadly, it is precisely the supposed political left that has kept pushing right, such as the Clinton Democrats supporting the military-industrial complex, corporate deregulation, racist tough-on-crime laws, privatization of prisons, etc; not to mention supposed radical leftists like Noam Chomsky acting as sheepdogs for the one-party corporatist state.
In the past, right-wing reactionaries have often been successful by controlling the terms of debate, from co-opting language and redefining it (consider how libertarianism originated as part of the left-wing workers movement and how human biodiversity was conceived as a criticism of race realism) to the CIA in the Cold War funding moderate leftists (postmodernists, Soviet critics, etc) as part of a strategy to drown out radical leftists. This is how the most devious propaganda works, not primarily or entirely by silencing enemies of the state — although that happens as well — but through social control by means of thought control and public perception management. One might note that such propaganda has been implemented no matter which faction of plutocracy, Democrat or Republican, was in power.
This is how authoritarians create an oppressive society while hiding much of its overt violence behind a system of rhetoric. That is while the corporate media assists in not fully reporting on all of the poor and brown people killed abroad and imprisoned at home. Plus, there is systematic suppression of public awareness, public knowledge, and public debate about how immense is the slow violence of lead toxicity, poverty, inequality, segregation, disenfranchisement, etc). The propagandistic framing of thought control cripples the public mind and so paralyzes the body politic.
As such, any freedom-lover would not hope for an authoritarian left-wing to replace the present authoritarian right-wing. But we must become more savvy about authoritarianism. We Americans and other populations around the world have to become sophisticated in our intellectual defenses against rhetoric and propaganda. And we have to develop a counter-strategy to regain control of public fora in order to protect and ensure genuine public debate defined by a genuinely democratic public as an informed, engaged, and empowered citizenry. This would require a program of public education to teach what is authoritarianism, specifically how it operates and takes over societies, and also what relationship it has to the reactionary mind.
Before we get to that point, we need to free our minds from how the enforcement of authoritarian rhetoric becomes internalized as an ideological realism that is experienced as apathetic cynicism, as helpless and hopeless fatalism. So, let’s have a thought experiment and not limit ourselves to what the powers that be claim is possible. We could imagine a society where the right-wing and conservative opposition is represented by some combination of social democrats, progressives, bourgeois liberals, communitarians, and such. This far right and no further! There might be influential thought leaders acting as gatekeepers who would guard the ideological boundaries or else public shaming to maintain social norms in order keep out fascists, imperialists, and other outright authoritarians — ideological positions that would be considered immoral, dangerous, and taboo in respectable society.
Meanwhile, democratic socialists, municipal socialists, community organizers, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and reformist groups would hold the position of moderate centrism. And on the other side of the equation, powerful social, economic and political forces of anarcho-syndicalism, radical liberationism, international labor movements, etc would constantly push the Overton window further and further to the the far left. This would allow the potential for center-left alliances to form strong political blocs.
This must require a strong culture of trust and a well developed system of democracy, not only democracy in politics but also in economics and as a holistic worldview that would be felt and practiced in everyday life. Democracy could never be part of the public debate for it would have to be the entire frame of public debate. Democracy is about the demos, the people, the public. Public debate, by definition, is and can only be democratic debate. Anything and everything could be tolerated, as long as it isn’t anti-democratic, which is why authoritarianism would be excluded by default. The public must develop a gut-level sense of what it means to live not only in a democratic society but as part of a democratic culture.
That would create immense breathing room for genuine, meaningful, and effective public debate that would be supported by a populist-driven political will with majority opinion situated to the left of what goes for the ‘left’ in the present ideological hegemony of the United States. That is our fantasy world, if not exactly a utopian vision. We could imagine many scenarios much more revolutionary and inspiring, but what we describe wouldn’t be a bad start. At the very least, it would be a more interesting and less depressing society to live in.
Rather than a political left always weakened and on the defense, often oppressed and brutalized and almost always demoralized, it would be an entire culture that had taken the broad ‘left’ as the full spectrum of ideological possibilities to be considered. As the revolutionary era led to the social construction of a post-feudal liberalism and conservatism, a 21st century revolution of the mind would imagine into existence a post-neo-feudal democratic left and democratic right. Democracy would be taken as an unquestioned and unquestionable given, based on the assumption of it representing the best of all possible worlds. In place of capitalist realism and fascist realism or even communist realism, we would have democratic realism.
* * *
This post was inspired by a strong left-wing critique of the failures of social democracy in Western countries (see below). The author, Stephen Gowans, is a foreign policy analyst with several books in print. In his recent article, he argued that social democracy has been, in practice, fundamentally conservative in how capitalist societies and their political systems are designed or shaped by elites and so serve elite interests. We don’t know what to think of Gowans’ own political proclivities of old school leftism, but he makes a good point that we find compelling.
The bogeymen of communists, both in the Soviet Union and in the West, kept capitalist power in line and so curtailed fascism and other authoritarian tendencies. If not for the ideological threat of the Soviets as a global superpower, there likely would have been no leverage for radical leftists in the West to force political and economic elites to comply with the reforms they demanded. Similarly, it was the Soviet attack on the American oppression of blacks that gave the civil rights movement the ability to influence an otherwise unsympathetic government ruled by rich whites who benefited from their continued oppression.
Social democrats often are given the credit for these reforms, but the actual social and political force came from radical left-wingers. This is not unlike why Teddy Roosevelt openly argued that conservative and pro-capitalist progressives should listen to the grievances of socialists and communists so as to co-opt them. In offering their own solutions, such leaders on the political right could steal the thunder of left-wing rhetoric and moral force. So, Roosevelt could throw out some significant reforms to reign in big biz at home while simultaneously promoting am American imperialism that defended and expanded the interests of big biz abroad. He only offered any reforms at all because left-wingers were a real threat that needed to be neutralized.
So, once the external pressure of a threatening geopolitical opponent was gone, those very same elites could safely reverse the reforms they had previously been forced to allow, in fear of the alternative of a left-wing uprising. The object of their fear was eliminated and so the elites could once again show their true face of authoritarianism. What we added to this line of thought was, if social democrats have acted like conservatives under these conditions, then we should more accurately treat them as an ideology on the political right. In that case, what follows from this is then how to define the political center and political left.
Here is another thought, to extend the speculation about how our enemies shape us and hence the importance of carefully picking our enemies, which then defines our frame of reference. We are in another period of geopolitical contest that already is or is quickly becoming a second cold war, but this time the perceived enemy or rather enemies are no longer on the political left. What the ruling elites in the West offer up as a scapegoat for our anxieties are now all far right, if in a rather mixed up fasnion: Islamic Jihadists, Iranian theocrats, Russian oligarchs, Chinese fascists, and a North Korean dictator. In response to these right-wing threats, the Western authoritarians have pushed further right. This is different than in the past when, in facing down left-wing threats, the powerful interests of the time felt they had to relent in letting themselves be pulled left.
Apparently, according to this established dynamic of ideological forces, to make real our crazy fantasy of ideological realignment toward the political left what we need is a new left-wing bogeyman outside of the Western sphere, as a supposed threat to Western civilization. Better yet, make the perceived opposing left-wing ideology non-democratic or anti-democratic so that by being in knee-jerk opposition to it mainstream media and political figures in the West would be forced to be polarized in the other direction by adopting democratic rhetoric and democratic reforms. Sheer genius!
Many left-leaning US citizens are envious of countries that have strong social democratic parties, but their envy is based mainly on romantic illusions, not reality. Western Europe and Canada may be represented by mass parties at the Socialist International, but the subtitle of Lipset and Marks’ book, Why Socialism Failed in the United States, is just as applicable to these places as it is to the United States. For socialism—in the sense of a gradual accumulation of reforms secured through parliamentary means eventually leading to a radical transformation of capitalist society–not only failed in the United States, it failed too in the regions of the world that have long had a strong social democratic presence. Even a bourgeois socialism, a project to reform (though not transcend) capitalism, has failed.
This essay explores the reasons for this failure by examining three pressures that shape the agendas of social democratic parties (by which I mean parties that go by the name Socialist, Social Democrat, Labour, NDP, and so on.) These are pressures to:
• Broaden the party’s appeal.
• Avoid going to war with capital.
• Keep the media onside.
These pressures are an unavoidable part of contesting elections within capitalist democracies, and apply as strongly to parties dominated by business interests as they do to parties that claim to represent the interests of the working class, labour, or these days, ‘average’ people or ‘working families’. The behaviour and agenda of any party that is trapped within the skein of capitalist democracy and places great emphasis on electoral success—as social democratic parties do–is necessarily structured and constrained by the capitalist context. As such, while social democratic parties may self-consciously aim to represent the bottom 99 percent of society, they serve–whether intending to or not—the top one percent.
So how is it, then, that egalitarian reforms have been developed in capitalist democracies if not through the efforts of social democratic parties? It’s true that social democrats pose as the champions of these programs, and it’s also true that conservatives are understood to be their enemies, yet conservatives have played a significant role in pioneering them, and social democrats, as much as right-wing parties, have been at the forefront of efforts to weaken and dismantle them. Contrary to the mythology of social democratic parties, the architects of what measures exist in capitalist democracies for economic security and social welfare haven’t been social democrats uniquely or even principally, but often conservatives seeking to calm working class stirrings and secure the allegiance to capitalism of the bottom 99 percent of society against the counter-example (when it existed) of the Soviet Union. […]
Egalitarian reforms, however, have been achieved over the years in Western capitalist societies, despite these obstacles, and this reality would seem to call my argument into question. Yet the number and nature of the reforms have fallen short of the original ambitions of social democracy, and in recent decades, have been abridged, weakened and sometimes cancelled altogether, often by social democratic governments themselves. […]
The point, however, isn’t to explore the reasons for the Soviet Union’s demise, but to show that while it existed, the USSR provided a successful counter-example to capitalism. The ideological struggle of the capitalist democracies against the Soviet Union entailed the provision of robust social welfare programs and the translation of productivity gains into a monotonically rising standard of living. Once the ideological struggle came to an end with the closing of the Cold War, it was no longer necessary to impart these advantages to the working classes of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Despite rising productivity, growth in household incomes was capped, and social welfare measures were systematically scaled back.
Social democracy did nothing to reverse or arrest these trends. It was irrelevant. When strong social welfare measures and rising incomes were needed by the top one percent to undercut working class restlessness and the Soviet Union’s counter-example, these advantages were conferred on the bottom 99 percent by both social democratic and conservative governments. When these sops were no longer needed, both conservative and social democratic governments enacted measures to take them back. […]
Since capitalist forces would use the high-profile and visible platform of their mass media to vilify and discredit any party that openly espoused socialism or strongly promoted uncompromisingly progressive policies, social democratic parties willingly accept the capitalist straitjacket, embracing middle-of-the-road, pro-capitalist policies, while shunting their vestigial socialist ambitions to the side or abandoning them altogether. They planted themselves firmly on the left boundary of the possible, the possible being defined by conservative forces.
When social democratic parties espoused socialism as an objective, even if a very distant one, the socialism they espoused was to be achieved with the permission of capital on capital’s terms–an obvious impossibility. It is perhaps in recognizing this impossibility that most social democratic parties long ago abandoned socialism, if not in their formal programs, then certainly in their deeds. That social democratic parties should have shifted from democratic socialist ambitions to the acceptance of capitalism and the championing of reforms within it, and then finally to the dismantling of the reforms, is an inevitable outcome of the pressures cited above.
But the outcome is ultimately traceable to what history surely reveals to be a bankrupt strategy: trying to arrive at socialism, or at least, at a set of robust measures congenial to the interests of the bottom 99 percent, within the hostile framework of a system that is dominated by the top one percent. The best that has been accomplished, and its accomplishment cannot be attributed to social democratic parliamentary activism, is a set of revocable reforms that were conceded under the threat, even if unlikely, of revolution and in response to capitalism’s need to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union. These reforms are today being revoked, by conservative and social democratic governments alike. The reality is that social democracy, which had set out to reform capitalism on behalf of the bottom 99 percent, was reformed by it, and acts now to keep the top one percent happy in return for every now and then championing mild ameliorative measures that conservative forces would concede anyway under pressure.
Why is the ideal of liberty so strongly associated with economics? And why is it used to rationalize oppressive systems of hierarchy? What does it mean to use the language of liberty to favorably frame social Darwinism, plutocracy, and inverted totalitarianism? What kind of liberty is it when the Trump administration pushes for reopening the economy during a pandemic, even early on when potentially millions of deaths were predicted by leading experts around the world? What is this liberty? One thing is clear. Liberty is not freedom. It is about me getting mine; or else someone getting theirs. We must ask ourselves, when the mantra of “liberty or death” is repeated with real or implied threats of violence in watering the tree of liberty, whose death is being offered up on the altar of whose liberty.
Originally, in the Roman Empire, liberty simply meant the legal status of not being a slave while living under the threat and oppression of a slave society, an authoritarian hierarchy that imposed varying degrees of unfreedom. Or if a slave, according to Stoics and early Christians, it was the otherworldly faith that one’s soul was not enslaved even as was one’s body. This etymological and historical context offers a better understanding of what is meant by negative freedom as opposed to positive freedom, a pseudo-freedom of opportunity that rationalizes away the harsh reality of results and consequences. That is to say it’s not freedom at all. Genuine freedom is the complete opposite of such liberty, but the defenders of privileged liberty co-opt the rhetoric of freedom and, in conflating the two, degrade the very meaning of freedom, making it even more difficult to imagine an alternative.
When the American colonists demanded liberty, the context was their situation as imperial subjects in having been treated as second class citizens. A significant number of them were or descended from landless peasants, convicts and indentured servants, often not far above slaves. Earlier in the colonial era, most of the poor sent off to the colonies never lived long enough to know freedom, such as paying off the debt of their indenture; instead, they were typically worked to death. Inequality of wealth and power lessened to some degree by the late 1700s, but it was still quite stark and the majority were treated as cheap and expendable labor. Most of the colonies, after all, were established as for-profit ventures organized under corporate charters and so they were never intended to be free societies, much less democratic self-governing communities. Their only relative freedom came from the indifference of a distant imperial regime, as long as trade continued and profits kept rolling in.
By invoking liberty during the American Revolution, there was no necessarily implied demand of freedom for all, as few could even imagine such a utopian vision. It was the individual’s liberty at hand and only the liberty of particular kinds of individuals — primarily white men of the propertied class and mostly Protestant Christians at that; not women, not blacks, not Native Americans, not the poor, not the landless. Only a few radical rebels were actually demanding a genuinely free society, as an expression of a faint memory of the once independent tribes that formed the British ancestry prior to the Norman conquest. Freedom, as from the Germanic tongue, is etymologically related to friend. To be free means to belong to a free people, to be among friends who would defend one’s rights and fight on one’s behalf. It is the idea that the individual good was identical to or at least inseparable from the common good. In the American tradition, such freedom has always been subjugated to liberty, often by law and violent force. And the legacy of liberty retains its privileged position within the ideological order, what is proclaimed as reality itself.
This ideological realism continues to limit our public imagination. Yet it was always a weak foundation and the cracks have long been apparent, most of all during times of shared crisis. We see that now during this COVID-19 pandemic. The conventional frame of understanding is a conflict of extremes between the perceived authoritarians and the self-identified libertarians, but the social reality is more complex than the ideological rhetoric would allow. “This ambivalence is not a red-blue split. It is internal to both. On the right, laissez-faire economics chafe against Christian cultural intolerance, isolationism against imperialism. On the left, the Stalinists are still at war with the anarchists, the nanny-statists with the hippies, and a taste for utopian direct democracy, as in the Occupy movement, strains against a hunger for big government” (Judith Levine, The Pandemic Brings Out the Authoritarian and the Libertarian in Us All. Can We Meet in the Middle?). It’s a divide in the American soul and it makes our society schizoid.
There is a reason why hyper-individualistic societies that hold up liberty as an ideal so easily turn to authoritarian measures under stress. Even among self-identified libertarians, it is far from unusual for them to make anti-authoritarian arguments for authoritariansim, sometimes related to what some call libertarian paternalism but taking other forms as well, based on the self-serving conviction that most people have to be forced into ‘liberty’ against their will. In practice, this once again means liberty for the supposedly deserving and oppression for those who would threaten the liberty of the deserving — it just so happens that those with the most wealth, power and privilege, those who own the corporations and the government get to determine who is deserving and not. And so, in reality, this reactionary ideology is no different than the privileged elitism of the past, even if proclaiming a slightly different variety of ruling elite — Corey Robin discusses this reactionary mentality in great detail, in how it challenges old hierarchies so as to replace them with other authoritarian regimes.
Theoretical liberty of hypothetical choice, in its lazy slogans of apathetic submission to injustice, easily trumps the demanding awareness of real world harm, the uncomfortable knowledge of how oppression grinds people down and makes them bitter and cynical. And so to speak of freedom for all as a fully functioning social democracy, to speak of not only a government but a society and economy of the people, by the people, for the people gets dismissed as communism or worse. Oppression in society is preceded by an oppression of the mind, of radical imagination. What gets sacrificed is not only the public good but democracy itself, the supposed tyranny of the majority. So, instead, it becomes a contest between one’s preference of which minority should get to control all of society. Right-wing libertarians, like Randian Objectivists and anarcho-capitalists, can find a way to convince themselves that they’d make the best tyrants (The Moral Imagination of Fear, Freedom From Other People’s Freedom, & The Road to Neoliberalism).
Yet we shouldn’t dismiss the fears about authoritarianism. The problem is that there are cynical demagogues who will use those fears of authoritarianism to promote their own brand of authoritarianism. Historically and ideologically, liberty and authoritarianism are two sides of the same coin and it’s vital that we understand this, if we ever hope to build a fully free society. The equal danger is that, in too heavily focusing on the hypocrisy of liberty rhetoric, we open ourselves to the hypocrisy of those who wave away the real concerns about the loss of what freedoms we do have. Both competing groups heard in elite politics and corporate media are too often agreeing to attack freedom but from opposite directions, while the majority is being silenced and excluded from public debate. Being for or against liberty tells us nothing about one’s position on freedom, especially when the two are falsely invoked as the same.
This pandemic has shown the fractures in our society. There wouldn’t be so many worries about the economy if most people hadn’t been experiencing economic problems for about a half century, as markets and governments were taken over by oligarchic plutocracy and neoliberal corporatocracy, friendly fascism and inverted totalitarianism. The United States government has put itself in permanent debt with the military-industrial complex, big biz subsidies and bailouts, and tax cuts for the rich. Then we are told the working class have to go back to work during a pandemic in order to save the economy, er profits. Do the ruling elite of the capitalist class own not only most of the wealth, property and large corporations but also own the entire American economy, labor force, and political system? Do the opinions of most American citizens and workers not matter in political decisions? Shouldn’t they matter? If this were a democracy, they would matter more than anything else.
Dogmatic absolutism is the opposite of helpful. Even during lockdown, 70% of the American economy has remained open and running, and many states didn’t even go that far. Among the informed, contrary to what the ideologues would suggest, reasonable debate was never about either total authoritarian lockdown of all of society or total liberty and death imposed upon the masses. It was declared that we can’t afford to have the economy shut down because so many are out of work and struggling economically. As fake sympathy was offered to the jobless poor, what has gone ignored is the trillions upon trillions of dollars stolen from the public every year, not to mention the trillions of dollars committed to the oppressive and anti-libertarian War On Terror in response to the 9/11 casualties that were lower than a single day of deaths from COVID-19. We can afford all kinds of things when the plutocracy demands it.
As the economy is reopened, who is being put in harm’s way of infectious exposure? Mostly not the politicians, CEOs, upper management, stockholders, bankers, etc; nor the white collar workers and college-educated professionals. It’s the low-paid workers who are forced to deal directly with customers and to work in close contact in crowded workplaces. These working poor also are largely without healthcare and disproportionately minority. Liberty advocates and activists are mostly whites among the comfortable classes, whereas those with higher rates of COVID-19 are non-whites and the poor. Some populations are experiencing infections and fatalities at rates similar to the 1918 Flu pandemic while, for other populations, it’s as if there is no pandemic at all. If the whole country was similarly affected at such high rates, we’d be in the middle of mass panic and all these right-wing whites would now be demanding authoritarian measures to protect their own families and communities.
“As the pandemic became widely recognized,” noted Judith Butler, “some policy-makers seeking to reopen the markets and recover productivity sought recourse to the idea of herd immunity, which presumes that those who are strong enough to endure the virus will develop immunity and they will come to constitute over time a strong population able to work. One can see how the herd immunity thesis works quite well with social Darwinism, the idea that societies tend to evolve in which the most fit survive and the least fit do not. Under conditions of pandemic, it is, of course, black and brown minorities who count as vulnerable or not destined to survive” (Francis Wade, Judith Butler on the Violence of Neglect Amid a Health Crisis).
The plan was to simply to let the pandemic kill off the undesirables, the excess labor force of cheap and expendable lives, as the professional class worked safely from home and the rich isolated themselves far from the dirty and diseased masses. Most Americans, minorities and otherwise, disagree with this plan by the upper classes to sacrifice the poor and working class. But minorities disagree most strongly: “According to a new survey from Pew Research Center, health concerns about COVID-19 are much higher among Hispanics and blacks in the U.S. While 18% of white adults say they’re “very concerned” that they will get COVID-19 and require hospitalization, 43% of Hispanic respondents and 31% of black adults say they’re “very concerned” about that happening” (Allison Aubrey, Who’s Hit Hardest By COVID-19? Why Obesity, Stress And Race All Matter). It turns out that people generally don’t like to forced to die for the benefit of others who make no sacrifices at all. What is being asked of these people is no small risk.
“The health divide is even sharper than the economic one,” writes Jennifer Rubin. “The latest Post-Ipsos poll found that “nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes were concerned that they could be exposed to the virus at work and infect other members of their household. Those concerns were even higher for some: Roughly 7 in 10 black and Hispanic workers said they were worried about getting a household member sick if they are exposed at work.” Even more frightful, a third of those forced to leave the home for work “said they or a household member has a serious chronic illness, and 13 percent said they lack health insurance themselves.” The sick get sicker in this pandemic and in the altered economy it has created. By contrast, half of those employed can work from home — and 90 percent of those are white-collar workers.
“In short, if you are poor, a woman, nonwhite or live paycheck to paycheck in a blue-collar job, you have a greater chance of being unemployed or, if still employed, of getting sick and dying. (We saw this vividly in Georgia, where 80 percent of those hospitalized with the coronavirus were African American.) That is as stark a divide as we have ever seen in this country. The longer the virus rages without a vaccine, the longer the economy will be hobbled. And with that extended economic recession, we will see the gap between rich and poor, already huge, widen still further” (Inequality is now an issue of life and death).
Think about all of the protests and actions that have come from angry whites demanding the liberty to risk the lives of others with their proclamation of liberty or death, including the death of others. Now imagine masses of poor blacks did the same by likewise showing up with guns at state capitals and blocked the entrances to hospitals, and imagine there were numerous cases of poor blacks violently threatening and sometimes attacking workers who asked customers to follow safety measures — if that were to happen, it would not be tolerated so casually nor rationalized away as the necessary resistance to dangerous political power. Think about whose lives are being offered in exchange for liberty, whose liberty is prioritized and privileged. The public, poor minorities most of all, is not being asked to freely and willingly sacrifice their lives for the public good of the national economy but being told that their lives must be sacrificed against their will for the profit of big biz and the capitalist class, to keep the corporate behemoth running smoothly.
With that in mind, one might note that a major part of what is going on is a lack of trust. What is interesting is that it is precisely those who have most benefited from government who now attack it. They have the privilege to attack government with the assumption that government should serve them. Poor minorities have never been able to make that assumption. And so it’s unsurprising that a privileged white elite that has led this attack of public authority in order to promote their own authoritarian authority. It is a crisis of public trust that has built up over generations, beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s attack on public institutions that has continued with every Republican administration (although with no small help from conservative Democrats like Bill Clinton).
Interestingly, for all of this right-wing attack on governmental legitimacy, it is Trump that the American public trusts the least, whereas one of the few areas of majority support is found in the public trust of health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci. Despite all of the media obsession in reporting that makes the liberty protesters seem more numerous and significant than they are, the general public remains unconvinced that individual liberty should trump public health during a pandemic. Even most Republicans are opposed to a full, quick reopening of the economy. This position being forced upon us by certain elements of middle class activists, plutocratic elite, and corporate media does not indicate any actual public debate going on among most Americans. The average person does not see it as a forced choice between the extremes of liberty and death.
So, if not liberty, what is all of this staged conflict about? It’s not even about the actual mortality rate of COVID-19, in general or among specific demographics. This pandemic might not turn out as bad as expected or it yet might truly become a catastrophe — time will tell (Then the second wave of infections hit…). That isn’t the issue we are facing with an elite that is willing to sacrifice certain elements of society for their own self-interest and so as to maintain the status quo. This elite didn’t wait for the data to come in before deciding how many dead poor people and dead minorities would be the price they were willing to pay for their own continued prosperity, in ensuring their good life could be maintained. What we are dealing with here is ultimately a conflict between those who want freedom and those who don’t, and such freedom is about democracy and not liberty. Now, if well-armed angry white right-wingers were demanding democracy or death, freedom for all or death, then we could take them seriously.
But this does not mean that the government can do whatever it wants in the name of stopping the spread of a communicable disease. There is always a danger that government might use its power as an excuse for unnecessary restrictions on freedom. This has occurred during our current crisis in countries including Hungary, which canceled elections, and Thailand and Jordan, which have restricted speech critical of the government.
In the United States, a number of states have adopted regulations preventing abortions, including medically induced abortions that involve no surgical procedure at all. It is hard to see how such restrictions have a “real and substantial” relationship to stopping the spread of COVID-19 as opposed to attempts to use the crisis as a pretext for imposing additional limits on abortion.
And courts would probably look skeptically on banning a religious service if it involved people staying in their cars in a parking lot — a drive-in service, as some churches have instituted. Such gatherings present no valid public health threat, since they do not involve interpersonal contact.
Still, most closure orders are clearly constitutional. The right to swing your fist stops at another person’s nose. With coronavirus, your freedom stops when it endangers others by facilitating transmission of a highly communicable disease.
The rallies don’t represent public opinion. Three out of four Americans prefer to “keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed,” according to a recent Washington Post-Ipos poll.
The great majority of people understand that limitations that would normally be intolerable are justifiable in an emergency. No one, after all, objects to curfews and National Guard deployments in cities wrecked by hurricanes, floods or earthquakes.
Most Americans say saving lives by preventing the spread of COVID-19 should be the top priority for the U.S. government as the global coronavirus pandemic strains the nation’s health care system and social distancing measures ravage the economy, according to a new poll.
The Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos poll poll released Friday found the nation is becoming more accepting of drastic interventions to stop the virus’ spread, compared with a poll taken March 10 and 11. The increased support for restrictions comes as Americans believe coronavirus effects will be felt for the foreseeable future, the new survey found. […]
About nine out of 10 people now support canceling large-scale events, up from about four in 10 earlier this month. Nearly half of respondents now support grounding all domestic flights, when 22% had supported that measure. […]
Most survey respondents thought the crisis will continue for months, with 66% saying it will last “for a few months” or “at least six months.” Almost as many (55%)said they were prepared to put their normal lives on hold for those lengths of time. […]
among the majority (72%) of respondents who believe the government’s priority should be saving lives by stopping the spread of the virus, as opposed to sparing the economy.
Only about 1 in 5 said the government’s main priority should be saving the economy.
At the same time, the majority also believe the global economy and stock market are at a greater risk than their community or themselves personally.
To balance those concerns, more than 80% of those surveyed said they supported rebooting the economy slowly and carefully to avoid endangering lives.
Americans remain deeply wary of eating at restaurants, shopping at stores and taking other steps to return to normalcy, a poll shows, even as the White House is contemplating shutting down its coronavirus task force.
With several covid-19 models taking a wrenching turn toward bleaker death forecasts in recent days because of reopening moves in some states, most Americans say they worry about getting the virus themselves and they oppose ending the restrictions meant to slow its spread, according to the Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. […]
Polling suggests that despite the economic turmoil, most Americans are far from ready for a rapid reboot of society.
More than half, 56 percent, say they are comfortable making a trip to the grocery store, something many Americans have continued doing, according to the Post-U. Md. poll. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a clothing store, and 78 percent would be uneasy at a sit-down restaurant.
People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort to those in states with stricter rules. […]
Americans continue to give Trump negative marks for his response to the outbreak, while offering widely positive assessments of their governors, a trend that has been consistent throughout the pandemic, according to the Post-U. Md. poll.
Trump’s ratings are 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, in line with where he was two weeks ago, while governors earn positive marks from 75 percent of Americans. Partisan differences remain sizable, with nearly 8 in 10 Republicans and about 2 in 10 Democrats rating Trump positively. In contrast, governors earn big positive majorities across party lines. […]
Americans overwhelmingly approve of the way federal public health scientists, including Fauci, have dealt with the challenges from the coronavirus. Fauci’s positive rating stands at 74 percent. Public health scientists in the federal government overall are rated 71 percent positive. […]
Though the moves by some states toward reopening have been gradual, the Post-U. Md. poll indicates many residents oppose them.
The most significant opposition is to reopening movie theaters, with 82 percent of Americans saying they should not be allowed to open up in their state. There is also broad opposition to reopening gyms (78 percent opposed), dine-in restaurants and nail salons (both with 74 percent opposed).
The poll shows that Republicans are far more supportive of opening businesses than Democrats are.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents overwhelmingly oppose opening all types of businesses listed, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents range from mostly in favor of opening (61 percent for golf courses) to mostly opposed (59 percent for dine-in restaurants).
Fear of infection, the poll finds, has not abated at all in recent weeks.
In the survey, 63 percent of Americans say they are either very or somewhat worried about getting the virus and becoming seriously ill, while 36 percent say they are not too worried or not at all worried.
[A]mong the three “unalienable rights” enumerated by Jefferson in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the first right is “life,” not “liberty.” The purpose of government first and foremost is to “secure” the right to “life” of the citizens governed. The rights of “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” are rendered meaningless if government abdicates its paramount duty to safeguard the right to “life” and, instead, gives deferential preference to individual personal liberty.
Consistent with this understanding is a variant of a well-known phrase: “Your liberty ends where my life begins.” This expression is relevant and useful in explaining the current imposition by our nation’s governments of closures of non-essential businesses, of restrictions on freedom of movement and association, and of requirements of self-imposed quarantines by citizens who know they may have been exposed to the virus.
The Declaration of Independence promised that people can “alter or abolish” their existing form of government to “effect their Safety and Happiness.” What happens when people believe a stronger government that infringes on some liberty is necessary to “effect their safety”? […]
These sentiments have again come to the fore during the covid-19 pandemic. A recent poll shows that 56 percent of Americans are more concerned about the public health impact of the pandemic than the economic impact. A slightly larger share, 60 percent, say that it’s more important for government to control the virus’s spread than to restore the economy. Even among Republicans, only a slight majority — 51 percent — say government policy should focus more on the economy.
This latter figure is consistent with decades of Republican voting preferences. As my co-author, University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, and I showed in our book “The Four Faces of the Republican Party,” movement conservatives are not even clearly a majority of the GOP. Other, less doctrinaire conservatives hold the balance of power within the Republican electorate, and they have voted against the movement’s preferred candidate in presidential primaries for decades. Even a majority of Republicans are mainly content with the large modern state.
President Trump must navigate these currents adroitly to avoid being swept out to sea with a movement conservative tide. If he tilts too strongly in favor of lockdowns and public safety, he breaks faith with the GOP’s most dedicated supporters. But if he tilts too much toward them, he risks alienating the larger — and more politically volatile — group of Americans who prioritize safety over liberty in the current crisis. Polls already suggest Trump’s pro-reopening rhetoric is hurting him among seniors, the demographic most at risk in the covid-19 crisis and presumably the ones who most favor safety over liberty. Trump risks throwing away the election by moving too rapidly or openly in favor of the noisy movement conservative minority who value liberty over safety.
Death overtakes us all at some point. However, we’re now being told to numb ourselves to mass casualties and the increased possibility of our own COVID-19 infections in order help a president win re-election. Or to help some stocks rally, or even save a business from folding. That is what is happening here. “If a majority believe that we got through this, they’re not afraid anymore about their health, the health of their family and they feel like the health of the economy is heading in the right direction, then I think he’s in good shape,” former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently told McClatchy. “If they have doubts on either or both of those, then I think it becomes really, really tough.”
The Republican rush to “reopen” is projecting a simulacrum of the American “normal” that existed before the pandemic. The genuine article needed improvement, seeing as the pandemic has revealed the fragility of our systems in health care, education, tech, criminal justice, and throughout our federal government supply infrastructure, just to name a few. And rather than noting how it has sought to unbalance and defund many of the very systems that have proven deficient during this crisis, the GOP has kept behaving as if the coronavirus’ calamities are part of some divine plan. As such, before they ever “reopened” a single state, Republicans were demanding that we willingly embrace a lesser life before we bow out early.
Many cultish movements have deadly culminations, so it only seems natural that some of Trump’s most avid fans might be willing not merely to use the fiction of what they understand as freedom, risking their health for Dear Leader. But whether or not that is true, Republicans offer this fraudulent version of liberty because their true goal, plutocracy, is the diametrical opposite of freedom. It is a life lived to spite other lives, and often take advantage of them. They have profited from the vulnerable, whose literal freedoms are limited in various ways that, at times, overlap: communities of color, incarcerated populations, service workers, the homeless, disabled people, and others for whom liberals regularly advocate.
The right has built a thin veneer that looks like independence and freedom, but the pandemic has stripped away that myth in a matter of weeks. We can love our country enough to want to build it stronger than it was before, not paint some shoddy lacquer over top of it and call it brand new again. Why should we lay our lives down for a system this fragile and rotten, and for people this desperate?
The words freedom and liberty have been invoked breathlessly in recent weeks to bolster the case for “reopening.” Protesters of state public safety measures readily locate in the Bill of Rights the varied and assorted freedom to not be masked, the freedom to have your toenails soaked and buffed, the freedom to open-carry weapons into the state capitol, the freedom to take your children to the polar bear cage, the freedom to worship even if it imperils public safety, and above all, the freedom to shoot the people who attempt to stop you from exercising such unenumerated but essential rights. Beyond a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between broad state police powers and federal constitutional rights in the midst of a deadly pandemic, this definition of freedom is perplexing, chiefly because it seems to assume not simply that other people should die for your individual liberties, but also that you have an affirmative right to harm, threaten, and even kill anyone who stands in the way of your exercising of the freedoms you demand. We tend to forget that even our most prized freedoms have limits, with regard to speech, assembly, or weaponry. Those constraints are not generally something one shoots one’s way out of, even in a pandemic, and simply insisting that your own rights are paramount because you super-duper want them doesn’t usually make it so.
To be sure, a good number of these “protesters” and “pundits” represent fringe groups, financed by other fringe groups and amplified by a press that adores conflict. The data continues to show that the vast majority of Americans are not out on the hustings fighting for the right to infect others for the sake of a McNugget. Also, it is not irrational in the least to fear a tyrannical government capitalizing on a pandemic; it’s happening around the world. But even for those millions of people genuinely suffering hardship and anxiety, it’s simply not the case that all freedoms are the same. And it’s certainly not the case that the federal Constitution protects everything you feel like doing, whenever you feel like doing it.
In a superb essay by Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic this week, we’re reminded that there is a long-standing difference between core notions of what he calls freedom to and freedom from. The freedom to harm, he points out, has its lineage in the slaveholder’s constitutional notion of freedom: “Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom—the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing.” Kendi continues by pointing out that these two notions of freedom have long rubbed along uneasily side by side, but that those demanding that states “open up” so they may shop, or visit zoos, are peeling back the tension between the two:
From the beginning of the American project, the powerful individual has been battling for his constitutional freedom to harm, and the vulnerable community has been battling for its constitutional freedom from harm. Both freedoms were inscribed into the U.S. Constitution, into the American psyche. The history of the United States, the history of Americans, is the history of reconciling the unreconcilable: individual freedom and community freedom. There is no way to reconcile the enduring psyche of the slaveholder with the enduring psyche of the enslaved.
[…] We now find ourselves on the precipice of a moment in which Americans must decide whether the price they are willing to pay for the “freedom” of armed protesters, those determined to block hospitals, and pundits who want to visit the zoo, is their own health and safety. Polls show that the majority of Americans are still deeply devoted to the proposition that their government can protect them from a deadly virus, and that they trust their governors and scientists and data far more than they trust the Mission Accomplished Industrial Complex that would have them valuing free-floating ideas about liberty over the health and indeed lives of essential workers, the elderly, and their own well-being, despite the president’s recent insistence that this is what, all of us, as “warriors” must do. As Jamil Smith points out, this cultish view of “liberty” as demanding mass death in exchange for “liberty,” as in “freedom to” is an assembly-line, AstroTurf version of liberty pushed by those who are already very free. “Their true goal, plutocracy, is the diametrical opposite of freedom,” Smith writes. “It is a life lived to spite other lives, and often take advantage of them.”
In the coming weeks, we will see some relatively small portion of Americans with great big megaphones and well-financed backers start to openly attack the selfsame health care workers who were celebrated as heroes just a few weeks ago. We will see attacks on people wearing masks and attacks on people lawfully asking others to wear masks. Some leaders will buckle under the pressure to rescind orders with claims that in choosing between liberty and death, they went with liberty. Others, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will respond by insisting that the brandishing of guns inside the state Capitol is not, in fact, “liberty,” and that if it is liberty and justice, it is hardly liberty and justice for all, but rather for a small minority of people who seek to define freedom as something they will seize and threaten and even kill for. A good rule of thumb for COVID-based discussions about “opening up” is that if someone is demanding it while threatening to hurt or kill you, you are probably not as “free” as they are, and that their project does nothing to increase freedom in America and everything to hoard a twisted idea of freedom for themselves.
When you hear someone demanding inchoate generalized “freedom,” ask whether he cares at all that millions of workers who clean the zoos and buff the nails and intubate the grandmas are not free. These people are cannon fodder for your liberty. The long-standing tension between individual liberty and the collective good is complicated, and as Kendi is quick to point out, the balance often tilts, trade-offs are made, federal and state governments shift clumsily along together, and the balance tilts again. Nobody denies that individual liberty is essential in a democracy, but in addition to parsing whether we as a collective do better in providing the “freedom from” while also offering some “freedom to,” it’s worth asking whether those making zero-sum claims about liberty are willing to sacrifice anything for freedom, or are just happily sacrificing you.
It may be hard to remember after the last four years of madness, but over the fifteen years leading up to Trump’s election, American conservatives spearheaded a successful campaign to reorient US domestic and foreign policy around waging a “war on terror.” After the attacks of September 11, 2011 left 2,753 people dead — a horrific number that now makes up just 3.5 percent of the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic so far, and is not much more than the number of Americans dying from the virus every day — the US right proceeded to pour absurd amounts of money and lives into counterproductive wars and various other initiatives aimed at preventing anything similar from happening again, shaming and attacking anyone who dissented as weak and even treasonous.
It’s hardly news that the Right are shameless hypocrites; they say whatever they need to say to achieve their political goals.
During the Bush era, those included funneling money to military contractors, building a security state to eventually destroy any future left-wing political movement, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as weak and dangerous, so bodily security and saving lives was the issue. Now, those goals have become keeping the wallets of all wealthy industrialists comfortably filled during the pandemic, preventing a sudden, mass contradiction of decades of neoliberal economic nonsense, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as tyrannical and dangerous, so freedom at any price is the issue.
The trouble is that America’s narrow political spectrum is dominated by two sides that flagrantly don’t believe anything they say and make little effort to pretend otherwise. One side spent eight years being the party of centralized government power for the sake of security, before spending eight years caterwauling about government tyranny, and now backs measures to tacitly murder tens of thousands of its own people. The other side spent eight years warning about the imminent, dictatorial danger of a centralized national security state, before quickly adopting and enlarging that same national security state for another eight years. It couldn’t even keep up the pretense that it stood forvoting rights and sexual assaultsurvivors for a mere three years before reversing itself on both.
It’s hard to predict where exactly a political system ends up when it’s dominated by cynical actors like these. But history suggests a growing army of people disillusioned and distrustful with an existing political order rarely goes well for the latter.
Considering this lack of leadership, what would a William James pragmatist do?
Virtually everyone except for Trump and his apologists understands the obvious: Reopening the economy requires, first, a national commitment to a robust testing program fully backed by the federal government. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed $30 billion in new emergency funding for a national testing strategy and called on Trump to use the Defense Production Act if that’s what’s needed to mobilize the private sector to produce the required tests.
Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has created an expansive contact tracing program to track the virus’s spread. It could become a national model. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Howard Bauchner and Joshua Sharfstein suggested giving the nation’s 20,000 incoming medical students a year off, with pay and health benefits, to contribute both to care and testing efforts. The AmeriCorps program could also be mobilized for this labor-intensive work.
What pragmatists know is that railing against formal distancing rules does nothing to solve the underlying problem. As several economist colleagues I contacted noted, the economy will not fully revive until Americans are given good reason to put aside their fears of infection. Yelling at governors won’t get us there.
“Even if the government-imposed social distancing rules are relaxed to encourage economic activity, risk-averse Americans will persist in social distancing, and that behavior, too, will restrain the hoped-for economic rebound,” Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist, wrote me.
“Will customers return in-person to the retail or leisure/hospitality businesses anytime soon?” asked Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Not if they feel unsafe, and not if their personal finances have been constricted by the downturn.”
Those who shout for opening the economy in the name of freedom don’t think much about the freedom of workers to protect themselves from a potentially deadly disease. And employers do not want to find themselves facing legal liabilities for infected employees.
If the economy is substantially reopened without adequate testing, said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, the most vulnerable would include “low-wage workers, women, people of color, immigrants, and the elderly.” They are “concentrated in the riskiest jobs, with the least financial cushion, and the least likely to have employer-provided benefits or protections,” she said.
Sadly, in some quarters, mask requirements are being viewed as an unacceptable infringement on individual liberty. No rights are absolute, however, and personal freedom comes with a well-established philosophical superstructure.
Consider how John Stuart Mill, the preeminent philosopher of liberty, elucidated the idea of individual autonomy — and what he would probably say about face-mask requirements in a time of public health crisis.
Mill was adamant that individuals could do whatever they wanted as long as those actions affected them alone. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” he wrote.
But even this fervent proponent of individual liberty carved out an exception when one person’s conduct could hurt someone else, writing that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Where would face-mask requirements, whether imposed by states, cities, or retail businesses, fall? Clearly on the side of justified infringements, since by not wearing a mask, a person can easily spread highly contagious COVID-19 to others. That’s all the more true when you consider that an estimated 56 percent of coronavirus infections come from pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers — and that for some who catch it, the disease will be a death sentence.
Thus the notion that these requirements are unwarranted or illicit or outrageous or unbearable by free people clearly doesn’t pass the test enunciated by the West’s great apostle of individual liberty.
A second great thinker, political philosopher John Rawls, also merits mention here, both for the helpful clarity his reasoning imparts and for a tragic aspect of his biography: When he was a boy, two of his younger brothers perished from diseases (diphtheria and pneumonia) they had contracted from him.
One of Rawls’s signal contributions is the “veil of ignorance,” a way of thinking designed to overcome the bias imparted by one’s own circumstances in life. To wit: As you consider what’s just or fair, assume that you don’t know your own sex, race, socio-economic status, abilities, and so forth.
In the matter of face masks, the veil of ignorance means not knowing whether you hold (or are likely to have) a job that requires you to interact frequently with the public or, say, are in circumstances that require your use of public transportation. Nor do you know whether you face a greater or lesser chance of death should you contract COVID-19.
From behind that veil, ask yourself this question: Do you favor or oppose the wearing of masks by everyone in the public circumstances outlined above?
All of this can be distilled to an exhortation not much more complicated than the Golden Rule. If the case for masks were presented by the president and governors and mayors and religious and community leaders as treating others as we’d like to be treated if in their place, I like to think people would overwhelmingly come to see them as an inconvenience all patriotic Americans can accept in these terrible times.
* * *
Below are some articles on the demographic disparities, socioeconomic divides, and structural prejudices showing those most vulnerable to viral exposure, infections, comorbidities, death, lack of healthcare, and other health factors of concern during the COVID-19 pandemic and in general.
The main failure in this COVID-19 pandemic has been about knowledge. The United States government was unprepared for dealing with a pandemic, specifically in being unprepared for quickly gathering the data, analyzing it, basing official policies on it, and communicating it to the public. We were blindsided and slow to respond.
We not only have lacked necessary info but, more importantly, lacked leadership in relationship to what we needed to know. Government positions and corporate practices for the most part have not been dependably based on good data nor did those making the decisions emphasize the importance of getting good data. Instead, we’ve too often been handed partisan politics, campaign rhetoric, and slogans.
Unlike in some other countries, US government and major businesses have failed to do mass infection testing, temperature scanning, contact tracing, and app tracking. All of this would’ve offered useful data for controlling the spread of infections and making informed decisions about which actions to take. Compare companies that kept running in the US to some in other countries.
In the US, meatpacking plants that have close working environments weren’t even requiring employees to wear masks and that is insane, as quickly became apparent. A German company, on the other, managed to keep infections down using not only masks but data collection to quickly determine the infected so as to isolate them. The same pattern was seen in how many Asian countries were much more systematic in their control measures. Why did those other places seek out knowledge early on and acted on it while the US decision-makers embraced willful ignorance in hoping everything would be fine?
Even when US leaders had info, they would sometimes keep it a secret, instead of sharing it in a way that could’ve helped. For example, health officials were apparently afraid of their being a run on medical masks and so, instead of being honest with the public, they intentionally lied to us by stating masks offered no protection. This led many to not take the protective gear seriously, including in extended care facilities that weren’t using protective gear.
This lack of transparency and accountability has continued. Governor Reynolds of Iowa has continually repeated that she is basing all her decisions on careful and regular analysis of detailed metrics, but she has never shared any of the supposed data and instead just makes declarations. Or consider how the Trump administration has silenced the CDC by disallowing their official report to go public. Are these officials worried what the public would do or demand if they had full knowledge?
Even now, decisions are being made about reopening businesses, schools, etc without any clear basis on data, at least not data that is being shared with the public. Almost no one in media or government is talking about how the second wave in fall will likely be far worse than anything we’ve seen so far. Many officials are acting like the pandemic is coming to an end and that now it’s time for everything to go back to normal, even as the reality is that waves of infections could continue for years.
Obviously, we still lack the knowledge we need. It’s true we know that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as first thought, although it still is far more deadly than the common flu. All these months after the pandemic began spreading globally, there is no mass infection testing in the US nor are places of business implementing the basic tools like temperature scans used elsewhere from the beginning.
So, we aren’t sure how many Americans have been infected. On top of that, despite some hoping herd immunity will save us, our knowledge about immunity to this novel coronavirus is next to nothing. There might be some short term immunity, but even then it might not last long enough to prevent the same people getting infected again with the second wave. And no one knows if we will have a vaccine soon or ever.
Why is the US economy being reopened when even the most basic message of mask-wearing hasn’t been consistently and effectively communicated to much of the population? Instead, most of the major leaders are refusing to wear masks while speaking in public and so are modeling to Americans that they shouldn’t wear masks. Are we still at the level of not even agreeing on masks?
What lesson have we Americans learned from our mistakes during this pandemic? Have we learned any lessons? Would our leadership respond differently if the same situation happens again? When this pandemic began, we were in a state of collective ignorance and we were caught without even the capacity to ameliorate our ignorance. So, we acted blindly. In the same state of collective ignorance, we’d be forced to respond in the same way again or something similar.
The worst part is that this demonstrates the culture of ignorance that dominates in the US, as part of a broader failure of democracy. Much of the American leadership is brazen in pushing ignorance and much of the American public is apathetic in accepting it. There has been little political will to pursue data-driven policy and to put respect for knowledge front and center. Sadly, in the understandable mistrust by the public, those officials and experts worthy of trust are equally dismissed as the rest.
Our response in American society has been based primarily on ideology. The related problem in the US is that, in our reactionary hyper-individualism, a large part of the American population is dismissive to the very concept of public health, as if no individual should ever sacrifice the slightest freedom to save the lives of others. No healthy society can function that way.
Some of the most successful methods, besides masks, have been contact tracing and tracking apps. But many Americans would call that authoritarianism. It’s understandable that we should be cautious about what we allow in a society that aspires to democracy (aspires, if rarely succeeds). The problem is when paranoia destroys the culture of trust that is essential to a democracy. By promoting mistrust, the sad result is that authoritarianism becomes inevitable. Truth becomes whatever is declared by those with the most power and influence, by those who control the media and other platforms.
That is exactly what President Donald Trump has taken advantage of, in his own brand of authoritarianism. He loves to play on people’s fears, to scapegoat and attack all sources of authority other than himself so as to muddy the water. In his authoritarian worldview, US workers should be forced to go back to work with nothing in place to protect their lives because to an authoritarian workers are expendable and replaceable. This was his position from the beginning and no new data was ever going to change this position.
Yet most Americans are opposed to fully reopening the economy. That is largely because the top US leadership has utterly failed in the most basic test of human decency, even ignoring all of the deception and demagoguery. Americans don’t trust Trump or many other figures of authority, including the capitalist class asking for Americans to sacrifice their lives for the profit of others, and they aren’t sure who to trust. If some basic protections were put into place as is done in certain other countries, we could begin to rebuild some public trust.
The American public health crisis first and foremost is a public trust crisis. And it is a crisis that has been a long time coming. If not remedied, it could become an existential crisis. And the only remedy would be democratic reform through an informed public. That means the public will have to demand knowledge or, failing that, will have to educate themselves. A functioning democracy with transparency and accountability is the best preparation for any crisis, but that would require nurturing a culture of knowledge and learning, a shared respect for intellect and expertise.
What is the public? It relates to the idea of the People as démos and the body politic. The basic notion is that shared experience and identity is in some sense real, that we aren’t merely a collection of individuals. But a public sensibility has been on the decline. We’ll avoid a thorough analysis here. Instead, let’s look at a couple of areas.
Common identity most obviously is expressed through common appearance, in what people wear, how they cut their hair, and bodily modifications such as tattoos and earrings. In tribal societies and other small communities, this naturally happens through a common culture. The rise of the modern nation-state undermined this organic expression of communal bond. To satisfy the same need, the popularity of uniforms took hold. This has been done formally as symbols of public service such as the military, although uniforms have also been used in the private sector. Even the business suits common among men have become a kind of uniform that disallows much personal expression. The uniform became popular during the world war era and remained popular through much of the Cold War.
A uniform expressed not only a sense of common identity but solidarity and pride. This was true outside of the military, from postal workers and park rangers to gas station attendants and hotel porters. To be in a uniform signified belonging and meant a basic level of respectability, even for the most lowly worker. Besides police and firefighters, uniforms have receded from the public sphere and remain primarily as a symbol of the military — it might be unsurprising, if depressing, that the military is the only part of the government in the United States that retains public trust.
This shift has accelerated over the past few decades. As late as the 1990s, uniforms were still seen more often, although having had become uncommon. For example, some parking ramp cashiers were still wearing uniforms until the early Aughts, but they had already lost their cultural cache as meaningful symbols. These days, postal workers aren’t always immediately recognizable when walking around, as there is barely any semblance of a uniform remaining, and the symbolic value of postal workers has accordingly declined as private delivery services have increasingly taken over this once public service.
We’ve now reached the point where one might go weeks without seeing anyone in a uniform. That isn’t to say that conformity of appearance has disappeared, but we’ve come to embrace the illusion of individual expression through the conformity of consumerist fashion and corporate branding. This is said without any clear judgment in favor of uniforms, simply a social observation and a rather interesting one at that. It represents a deeper and broader change in society.
We can see how fuzzy has become the category of ‘public’, even in ‘public’ debate. It’s extremely unusual to hear a politician invoke the rhetorical force of the People, much less directly refer to the démos and body politic, almost entirely alien concepts at this point. This muddled state of a non-society society was intentionally created as ideological realism — it was Margaret Thatcher who famously declared, “there is no such thing as society.” Until the rise of Donald Trump, that is possibly the single most bizarre statement by a modern leader of one of the global superpowers.
The sad fact is that President Donald Trump as the main public leader in the United States does bizarre on a daily basis, often while attacking public authority, public expertise, and public institutions. It has become nearly impossible to speak of the public good, as a hypocognition has taken hold. This is how Trump supporters are able to hold up signs that say “Keep government out of my Medicare” and to argue that it’s better that this pandemic happened under Trump than President Barack Obama because Trump is wealthy enough to write everyone a $1200 check, in both cases not grasping that these are government responses designed to promote the public good.
For most of human existence, the concept and experience of ‘private’ was rare to non-existent. From tribal bands to feudalism, people typically lived cheek-to-jowl. Look at the growing urbanization of the early empires such as in Rome where everything was a social event — going to the bathroom, gymnasium, doctor, work, etc. So, in speaking of the communal experience that dominated for so long, we aren’t only talking about tribes but even for most of the history of advanced civilization, into the modern era.
It was only in colonial times that the Quakers introduced the practice of maintaining privacy with nuclear families and by having separate rooms or at least separate beds for each family member (Barry Levy, Quakers and the American Family), sometimes with spare rooms for visitors (Arthur W. Calhoun, The American Family in the Colonial Period), but at the time they were far outside the norm (Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were). In early America, to live in a village meant that your business was everyone’s business and there were no locks on the door.
The notion of privacy and the private sector was slow to take hold. Well into the 1800s, many feudal practices remained in place. There was a lingering belief in the commons and, in some cases, it was enforced by law for generations after the founding of the United States. This was seen in land use where ownership didn’t mean what it means today. A landowner couldn’t deny anyone else use of his land, if he wasn’t using it as defined by what land he specifically had fenced off. So, any open land, owned or not, was free to anyone for camping, hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering. This only changed with the abolition of slaves when these laws were eliminated in order to force blacks back into labor.
On a related note, consider corporations. Likewise in early America, they had a very different meaning, as an organization with corporate charter is by definition a public institution. The founding generation made sure that corporate charter were only given in relation to an organized activity that served the public good such as building a bridge and so the charter ended when that public good was achieved. Now the relationship has reversed where corporations have so much power that governments serve them and their private interests. This is also seen in land use, such as how governments subsidize corporations by selling natural resources off public lands at below market prices which basically means giving public wealth away for private gain.
Corporations and governments have become so enmeshed that they are inseparable. The idea of what is public has become conflated with government, and government has increasingly become identified with big biz. When the government is controlled or influenced by private interests in declaring that a company or bank is too big to fail, it is essentially declaring that something private is to be treated as part of government, which further erodes the sense of the public. If the last bastion of the public is government, and if government serves the private sector of a plutocracy, then what meaning does public have left remaining?
Growing concentration and inequality of wealth inevitably coincides with growing concentration and inequality of not only political representation but of power and influence, resources and opportunities. Even the most basic necessities for survival like clean air and water are not evenly distributed, something that would be a human right if we lived in a functioning democracy. When clean air and water don’t fall under the guaranteed protection of the public good, the ideal of a society built on a public has lost all meaning.
It’s unsurprising, under these conditions, that the overt symbols of public good have been particularly under attack. With this comes talk of privatizing Social Security, eliminating welfare, and much else. At one point, the public good was understood to be integral to national security. This is why the U.S. federal government in the past invested so heavily to ensure cheap education, housing, travel, etc — even if we might question some of these investments such as the creation of car culture and suburbia through government funding. My parents’ generation essentially got free college and great jobs in an economy boosted by big gov simply for being born in the post-war period.
The point is that, in an earlier time, the understanding and support of the public good was strongly held across American society and within both of the main political parties. After all, it was President Richard Nixon who, as a Republican passed the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed universal healthcare and universal basic income, the latter policies being now considered as communist by conservatives and too far left-wing by mainstream liberals. How far we’ve fallen.
Right-wing Republicans complain about high taxes while corporatist Democrats seem to agree, but not that long ago both parties supported immensely higher tax rates than we have now, specifically for the upper brackets. When looking at public opinion, Americans do still support taxing the rich far more. The problem is the plutocracy owning our government don’t agree with the public on this issue. Hence, so-called public policy has become disconnected from the reality on the ground of public opinion.
Loss of taxes hasn’t stopped the government from going into permanent debt by pumping immense public wealth and resources into the highly profitable military-industrial complex. This is seen with how Amazon, by way of the Pentagon cronyism Jeff Bezos inherited from his grandfather, has made huge profits from its government contracts while operating its private sector business at a loss for decades (Plutocratic Mirage of Self-Made Billionaires). Then when corporatism crashed the economy in 2008, government bailed out failing banks and corporations because they were too big to fail, which is an argument that they were so essential that they no longer should be allowed to operate according to market forces in a free market. It was another step further into fascism. Now, in this COVID-19 pandemic, most of the relief money once again is going to big biz in conflating private interest with public good.
The role that government used to play was in promoting areas of society that genuinely were for the public good. This included fundamental things like massive investments into education, housing, and infrastructure; but it also went into equally necessary things like basic research. This created immense knowledge that helped with technological invention and innovation. It funded the kind of research that benefits the public but doesn’t directly benefit corporate profit, although it is highly useful for private research companies in using it to build upon in their own research. In the slashing of government funding for research, it’s forced companies to do more of it, even though never to the degree as ween before. For-profit businesses are too conservative to take the risks that lead to new scientific discoveries. It’s a public good that can’t be re-created on the private market. The loss of that funding was also a loss of a mentality of public service, as demonstrated by Jonas Salk’s refusal to patent the polio vaccine.
Strangely, even ‘public’ media no longer gets most of its funding from government. NPR, for example, is now primarily supported by corporations and other private organizations. When sponsors of public media are listed, it essentially comes down to another form of advertisement. And anyone with a lick of sense realizes this influences what gets reported and not, along with how it gets reported. Some analysis has shown that a disproportionate number of guests on NPR come from right-wing think tanks (NPR: Liberal Bias?) that often advocate corporatist ideology or else simply presume capitalist realism.
Also, consider how HBO as a private company has bought the rights to the PBS show Sesame Street, one of the greatest shows ever produced by any public media in the world. HBO has also gained exclusive rights in the United States to streaming BBC’s Doctor Who. Or look at how the BBC has partnered with for-profit media: Netflix, AMC, FX Networks, etc; one example is the Hulu-BBC show Normal People. This is a growing trend.
So, despite accusations to the contrary, not only is public media not always clearly public but not even particularly liberal in a meaningful sense, except maybe in the historical sense. I’m thinking of how American liberals were some of the strongest Cold Warriors during the McCarthy oppression with red-baiting and blacklisting, not to mention the liberal fear of the likes of Martin Luther King jr. It’s similar to how German liberals supported the Nazis in their opposition to left-wingers. Liberalism, in practice, too often becomes yet another variety of reactionary.
The casualty in this has been the public — the public as the people and as the common good; the public as a guiding concept, principle and vision. This allowed public rhetoric to be usurped by authoritarians who use it to great effect, maybe for the simple reason that the public is so hungry for someone, anyone to powerfully invoke a public message, however distorted. That could be taken as a positive sign. This moment of national and global crisis is ripe for a re-awakening of the public sensibility as a genuine force of inspiration and political will toward reform. This might be a new age of rebuilding public institutions and shoring up public authority. The public might begin to remember they are a public, that they are the majority (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). Government as self-governance is an important part of what defines the public, but the two should never be conflated. It is we the people who are the public.
“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
~U.S. Declaration of Independence
“Democracy was once a word of the people, a critical word, a revolutionary word. It has been stolen by those who would rule over the people, to add legitimacy to their rule…The basic idea of democracy is simple . . .
“Democracy is a word that joins demos—the people—with kratia—power . . . It describes an ideal, not a method for achieving it. It is not a kind of government, but an end of government; not a historically existing institution, but a historical project . . . if people take it up as such and struggle for it.”
~Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy
“It is that right to local self-government – a right that we’re told that we already have, but which people discover is not there when they need it most – that serves as the guide-star of this slowly gathering movement.
“To stop them, corporate and governmental officials will be forced to slay their own sacred cow – the ‘rule of law’ – which they have used since time immemorial as their own version of ‘God said so’” Thus, governmental and corporate officials will be forced to bring the power of the system’s own courts, legislatures, and regulators crashing down on them, in the face of clear and overwhelming evidence that our food and water systems, our energy systems, and our global climate are themselves crashing as a result of policies created by those very same institutions…
“These communities’ new rule of law – made in the name of environmental and economic sanity – believes that people and nature have rights, not corporations; that new civil, political, and environmental rights must be recognized; and that we must stop (immediately) those corporate acts which harm us.”
~Thomas Linzy, Local Lawmaking: A Call for a Community Rights Movement
“The main mark of modern governments is that we do not know who governs, de facto any more than de jure. We see the politician and not his backer; still less the backer of the backer; or what is most important of all, the banker of the backer. Enthroned above all, in a manner without parallel in all past, is the veiled prophet of finance, swaying all men living by a sort of magic, and delivering oracles in a language not understood of the people.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted in Contour magazine
“The large extent of bank influence is not easily seen. We seldom see an identified bank or a money corporation candidate running for office; but when questions arise which affect them, the banks have agents at work, whose operations are the more effective because they are unseen.”
~William M. Gouge, Advisor to President Andrew Jackson, Editor fot the Philadelphia Gazette, Publisher of the “History of the American Banking System” and a “Fiscal History of Texas”
“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
~Adam Smith, 1776, Wealth of Nations, book V, ch.I, part II
“[T]he basic problem of legal thinkers after the Civil War was how to articulate a conception of property that could accommodate the tremendous expansion in the variety of forms of ownership spawned by a dynamic industrial society…The efforts by legal thinkers to legitimate the business corporation during the 1890’s were buttressed by a stunning reversal in American economic thought – a movement to defend and justify as inevitable the emergence of large-scale corporate concentration.”
~Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law
“What did he [Bingham] think about the conversion of the Fourteenth Amendment from a protection of all constitutional rights for all citizens to a bulwark of corporate power against the protests of farmers and workers? Here we have a bit more information. Bingham later wrote that the amendment had been designed to protect natural persons, not corporations.
“That seems quite reasonable, particularly since the first sentence of Section one refers to persons ‘born or naturalized in the United States.’”
~Michael Kent Curtis, John A. Bingham and the Story of American Liberty: The Lost Cause Meets the ‘Lost Cause’, The Akron Law Review
(John Bingham was a Republican Congressman from Ohio and principal framer of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which granted due process and equal protection under the law to freed slaves.)
“I think we would agree to describe the reality that flows from this corporate power as anti-democratic, anti-community, anti-worker, anti-person and anti-planet…Given our relative consensus on this situation, what should we be asking and doing about the corporation?…To effectively begin the work of countering what amounts to global corporate tyranny, we’ll need to do two kinds of defining: what we wish to see in the future, and what we are seeing in the present…We’ll never move these corporate behemoths out of our way with the poking sticks and thin willow reeds available to us through regulatory action…Nor will we gain their everlasting mercy with pleas for social responsibility or requests to sign a corporate ‘code of conduct,’ or the pitiful pleading for side agreements on free-trade pacts…Our colonized minds make it difficult to cut through our experience and envision real democracy. We’ve got a ‘cop in our head,’ and the cop comes from corporate headquarters…What must be done?
“When those of us who believe in an empowered citizenship see corporations spewing excrement and oppression with ever greater reach, we need to ask, ‘By what authority can corporations do that? They have no authority to do that. We never gave them authority.’ And we must work strategically to challenge their claims to authority…”
~Virginia Rasmussen, “Rethinking the Corporation”, Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) principal, talk given during Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom conference, July 24-31, Baltimore, MD
In the good ol’ days here in the United States of America, this is what used to be called sewer socialism or municipal socialism, what some would now prefer to more safely brand as social democracy but it’s the same difference. It was famous in Milwaukee, having lasted for almost three quarters of a century, from the Populism of the 1890s to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. This pragmatic socialist city was known all across the country as one of the most effectively governed at the time, praised during the early Cold War even by those who weren’t socialists.
Did you ever wonder why the citizens of Milwaukee were so happy in the tv sitcom Happy Days? It’s because they were living under this local form of democratic socialism, one of the few governments in U.S. history that literally was “of the people, by the people, for the people”. It truly was a good time to be a citizen of Milwaukee. The People had faith in their government and their government honored that faith by serving the public good. To put it far more simply, one might just call it democracy. What a crazy idea! Democracy, we should try it again sometime here in this country.
The sewer socialists were called such because they were the earliest American government to fund major public health projects. It was meant to be derogatory in the hope of dismissing their achievements as a mere obsession with sewers, but the socialists took it as a point of pride in it being a major advancement in dealing with the pollution of industrialization and the diseases of mass urbanization. Instead of only building sewers for the rich, they ensured all members of the community had hygienic living conditions and clean water, something that was novel during that period. Everyone was guaranteed to have basic needs met, including a public-owned-and-operated bakery. On top of this, they cleaned up organized crime and political cronyism. They were social and moral reformers.
Their success became the precedent that all other US cities followed and has since become standard all across the developed world. We now take this sewer socialism for granted since it has become central to every major country, either at the national or local level. Government municipalities are seen as a basic function of any well-functioning political system, but that wasn’t always the case. That was a profound change in the public perception of government’s role. Any country that lacks such basic amenities are presently judged as backwards or even as “third world”, as it is considered a sign of some combination of poverty, failure, and corruption.
Most important, sewer socialism is proven to work, proven again and again and again. It turns out improving the living conditions of the poor improves the living conditions of all of society. For those who have heard of Jesus Christ, you might remember him saying in no uncertain terms that, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Now consider this — as of 2010 in Finland, “church attendance is just 1.5 percent in the capital city region” (Nina Mustonen, Church Attendance Falls; Religion Seen as Private). So, why did it take the capital city in one of the most secular countries in the world to follow a central Christian dictum?
American Christians might want to contemplate that. All of us, Christian and otherwise, should rethink socialism, maybe rethink our entire society.
Housing First costs money, of course: Finland has spent €250m creating new homes and hiring 300 extra support workers. But a recent study showed the savings in emergency healthcare, social services and the justice system totalled as much as €15,000 a year for every homeless person in properly supported housing.
Interest in the policy beyond the country’s borders has been exceptional, from France to Australia, says Vesikansa. The British government is funding pilot schemes in Merseyside, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, whose Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, is due in Helsinki in July to see the policy in action.
But if Housing First is working in Helsinki, where half the country’s homeless people live, it is also because it is part of a much broader housing policy. More pilot schemes serve little real purpose, says Kaakinen: “We know what works. You can have all sorts of projects, but if you don’t have the actual homes … A sufficient supply of social housing is just crucial.”
And there, the Finnish capital is fortunate. Helsinki owns 60,000 social housing units; one in seven residents live in city-owned housing. It also owns 70% of the land within the city limits, runs its own construction company, and has a current target of building 7,000 more new homes – of all categories – a year.
In each new district, the city maintains a strict housing mix to limit social segregation: 25% social housing, 30% subsidised purchase, and 45% private sector. Helsinki also insists on no visible external differences between private and public housing stock, and sets no maximum income ceiling on its social housing tenants.
It has invested heavily, too, in homelessness prevention, setting up special teams to advise and help tenants in danger of losing their homes and halving the number of evictions from city-owned and social housing from 2008 to 2016.
“We own much of the land, we have a zoning monopoly, we run our own construction company,” says Riikka Karjalainen, senior planning officer. “That helped a lot with Housing First because simply, there is no way you will eradicate homelessness without a serious, big-picture housing policy.”
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