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.
“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”
~ Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
It’s hard to have public debate in the United States for a number of reasons. The most basic reason is that Americans are severely uninformed and disinformed. We also tend to lack a larger context for knowledge. Historical amnesia is rampant and scientific literacy is limited, exacerbated by centuries old strains of anti-intellectualism and dogmatic idealism, hyper-individualism and sectarian groupthink, public distrust and authoritarian demagoguery.
This doesn’t seem as common in countries elsewhere. Part of this is that Americans are less aware and informed about other countries than the citizens of other countries are of the United States. Living anywhere else in the world, it is near impossible to not know in great detail about the United States and other Western powers as the entire world cannot escape these influences that cast a long shadow of colonial imperialism, neoliberal globalization, transnational corporations, mass media, monocultural dominance, soft power, international propaganda campaigns during the Cold War, military interventionism, etc. The rest of the world can’t afford the luxury of ignorance that Americans enjoy.
Earlier last century when the United States was a rising global superpower competing against other rising global superpowers, the US was known for having one of the better education systems in the world. International competition motivated us in investing in education. Now we are famous for how pathetic recent generations of students compare to many other developed countries. But even the brief moment of seeming American greatness following World War II might have had more to do with the wide scale decimation of Europe, a temporary lowering of other developed countries rather than a vast improvement in the United States.
There has also been a failure of big biz mass media to inform the public and the continuing oligopolistic consolidation of corporate media into a few hands has not allowed for a competitive free market to force corporations to offer something better. On top of that, Americans are one of the most propagandized and indoctrinated populations on the planet, with only a few comparable countries such as China and Russia exceeding us in this area.
See how the near unanimity of the American mass media was able, by way of beating the war drum, to change majority public opinion from being against the Iraq War to being in support of it. It just so happens that the parent companies of most of the corporate media, with ties to the main political parties and the military-industrial complex, profits immensely from the endless wars of the war state.
Corporate media is in the business of making money which means selling a product. In late stage capitalism, all of media is entertainment and news media is infotainment. Even the viewers are sold as a product to advertisers. There is no profit in offering a public service to inform the citizenry and create the conditions for informed public debate. As part of consumerist society, we consume as we are consumed by endless fantasies, just-so stories, comforting lies, simplistic narratives, and political spectacle.
This is a dark truth that should concern and scare Americans. But that would require them to be informed first. There is the rub.
Every public debate in the United States begins with mainstream framing. It requires hours of interacting with a typical American even to maybe get them to acknowledge their lack of knowledge, assuming they have the intellectual humility that makes that likely. Americans are so uninformed and misinformed that they don’t realize they are ignorant, so indoctrinated that they don’t realize how much their minds are manipulated and saturated in bullshit (I speak from the expertise of being an American who has been woefully ignorant for most of my life). To simply get to the level of knowledge where debate is even within the realm of possibility is itself almost an impossible task. To say it is frustrating is an extreme understatement.
Consider how most Americans know that tough-on-crime laws, stop-and-frisk, broken window policies, heavy policing, and mass incarceration were the cause of decreased crime. How do they know? Because decades of political rhetoric and media narratives have told them so. Just as various authority figures in government and media told them or implied or remained silent while others pushed the lies that the 9/11 terrorist attack was somehow connected to Iraq which supposedly had weapons of mass destruction, despite that the US intelligence agencies and foreign governments at the time knew these were lies.
Sure, you can look to alternative media for regularly reporting of different info that undermines and disproves these beliefs. But few Americans get much if any of their news from alternative media. There have been at least hundreds of high quality scientific studies, careful analyses, and scholarly books that have come out since the violent crime decline began. This information, however, is almost entirely unknown to the average American citizen and one suspects largely unknown to the average American mainstream news reporter, media personality, talking head, pundit, think tank hack, and politician.
That isn’t to say there isn’t ignorance found in other populations as well. Having been in the online world since the early naughts, I’ve met and talked with many people from other countries and admittedly some of them are less than perfectly informed. Still, the level of ignorance in the United States is unique, at least in the Western world.
That much can’t be doubted. Other serious thinkers might have differing explanations for why the US has diverged so greatly from much of the rest of the world, from its level of education to its rate of violence. But one way or another, it needs to be explained in the hope of finding a remedy. Sadly, even if we could agree on a solution, those in power benefit too greatly from the ongoing state of an easily manipulated citizenry that lacks knowledge and critical thinking skills.
This isn’t merely an attack on low-information voters and right-wing nut jobs. Even in dealing with highly educated Americans among the liberal class, I rarely come across someone who is deeply and widely informed across various major topics of public concern.
American society is highly insular. We Americans are not only disconnected from the rest of the world but disconnected from each other. And so we have little sense of what is going on outside of the narrow constraints of our neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, social networks, and echo chambers. The United States is psychologically and geographically segregated into separate reality tunnel enclaves defined by region and residency, education and class, race and religion, politics and media.
It’s because we so rarely step outside of our respective worlds that we so rarely realize how little we know and how much of what we think we know is not true. Most of us live in neighborhoods, go to churches and stores, attend or send our kids to schools, work and socialize with people who are exactly like ourselves. They share our beliefs and values, our talking points and political persuasion, our biases and prejudices, our social and class position. We are hermetically sealed within our safe walled-in social identities. Nothing can reach us, threaten us, or change us.
That is until something happens like Donald Trump being elected. Then there is a panic about what has become of America in this post-fact age. The sad reality, however, is America has always been this way. It’s just finally getting to a point where it’s harder to ignore and that potential for public awakening offers some hope.
* * *
Fantasyland by Kurt Anderson pp. 10-14
Why are we like this?
. . . The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.
The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet that hated Establishment, the institutions and forces that once kept us from overdoing the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, politics, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—has enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the last few decades.
A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes miracle cures on his daily TV show. Major cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. A CNN anchor speculated on the air that the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner was a supernatural event. State legislatures and one of our two big political parties pass resolutions to resist the imaginary impositions of a New World Order and Islamic law. When a political scientist attacks the idea that “there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. A white woman felt black, pretended to be, and under those fantasy auspices became an NAACP official—and then, busted, said, “It’s not a costume…not something that I can put on and take off anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black.” Bill Gates’s foundation has funded an institute devoted to creationist pseudoscience. Despite his nonstop lies and obvious fantasies—rather, because of them—Donald Trump was elected president. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable. As particular fantasies get traction and become contagious, other fantasists are encouraged by a cascade of out-of-control tolerance. It’s a kind of twisted Golden Rule unconsciously followed: If those people believe that , then certainly we can believe this.
Our whole social environment and each of its overlapping parts—cultural, religious, political, intellectual, psychological—have become conducive to spectacular fallacy and make-believe. There are many slippery slopes, leading in various directions to other exciting nonsense. During the last several decades, those naturally slippery slopes have been turned into a colossal and permanent complex of interconnected, crisscrossing bobsled tracks with no easy exit. Voilà: Fantasyland. . . .
When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things,” the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: “our wishes, our inclinations” and “the dictates of our passions” now apparently do “alter the state of facts and evidence,” because extreme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule.
This is not unique to America, people treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously. We’re just uniquely immersed. In the developed world, our predilection is extreme, distinctly different in the breadth and depth of our embrace of fantasies of many different kinds. Sure, the physician whose fraudulent research launched the antivaccine movement was a Brit, and young Japanese otaku invented cosplay, dressing up as fantasy characters. And while there are believers in flamboyant supernaturalism and prophecy and religious pseudoscience in other developed countries, nowhere else in the rich world are such beliefs central to the self-identities of so many people. We are Fantasyland’s global crucible and epicenter.
This is American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century. America has always been a one-of-a-kind place. Our singularity is different now. We’re still rich and free, still more influential and powerful than any nation, practically a synonym for developed country . But at the same time, our drift toward credulity, doing our own thing, and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less-developed country as well.
People tend to regard the Trump moment—this post-truth, alternative facts moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. In fact, what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of attitudes and instincts that have made America exceptional for its entire history—and really, from its prehistory. . . .
America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers—which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.
I hope we’re only on a long temporary detour, that we’ll manage somehow to get back on track. If we’re on a bender, suffering the effects of guzzling too much fantasy cocktail for too long, if that’s why we’re stumbling, manic and hysterical, mightn’t we somehow sober up and recover? You would think. But first you need to understand how deeply this tendency has been encoded in our national DNA.
Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts. For Andersen, these are not momentary perversions but habits baked into our DNA, the ultimate expressions of attitudes “that have made America exceptional for its entire history.” The country’s initial devotion to religious and intellectual freedom, Andersen argues, has over the centuries morphed into a fierce entitlement to custom-made reality. So your right to believe in angels and your neighbor’s right to believe in U.F.O.s and Rachel Dolezal’s right to believe she is black lead naturally to our president’s right to insist that his crowds were bigger.
Andersen’s history begins at the beginning, with the first comforting lie we tell ourselves. Each year we teach our children about Pilgrims, those gentle robed creatures who landed at Plymouth Rock. But our real progenitors were the Puritans, who passed the weeks on the trans-Atlantic voyage preaching about the end times and who, when they arrived, vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores. They were zealots and also well-educated British gentlemen, which set the tone for what Andersen identifies as a distinctly American endeavor: propping up magical thinking with elaborate scientific proof.
While Newton and Locke were ushering in an Age of Reason in Europe, over in America unreason was taking new seductive forms. A series of mystic visionaries were planting the seeds of extreme entitlement, teaching Americans that they didn’t have to study any book or old English theologian to know what to think, that whatever they felt to be true was true. In Andersen’s telling, you can easily trace the line from the self-appointed 17th-century prophet Anne Hutchinson to Kanye West: She was, he writes, uniquely American “because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” a total stranger to self-doubt.
What happens next in American history, according to Andersen, happens without malevolence, or even intention. Our national character gels into one that’s distinctly comfortable fogging up the boundary between fantasy and reality in nearly every realm. As soon as George Washington dies fake news is born — the story about the cherry tree, or his kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Enterprising businessmen quickly figure out ways to make money off the Americans who gleefully embrace untruths.
Possibly, upwards of a third of Americans are a wild card on polling and voting. These people are some combination of politically misinformed, ideologically inconsistent, anti-intellectually reactionary, mentally unstable, disconnected from reality, lacking self-awareness, socially unconcerned, apathetically indifferent, distractedly careless, cynically trollish, frustratedly outraged, generally irritated, etc. They are unable or unwilling to fully participate in the demands of democracy. Or else they don’t believe we have a functioning democracy to participate in.
Any crazy belief or crazy politician that only gets consistent support from a third or less of the public can be set aside, albeit not dismissed, at least in terms of understanding what is the actual motivation and intention. Even most Trump voters admitted that they didn’t like him nor trusted him to do what they wanted him to do. They voted out of protest, or else for shits and giggles; either way, it’s a clear ‘fuck you’ (maybe ‘fuck you, fuck me, fuck us all’, ‘just fuck it’, ‘who gives a fuck’, or something along those lines). Such people don’t form a monolithic demographic of opinion and values. And for damn sure they aren’t representative of any larger pattern in society, any larger trend among the public… beyond how screwed up it has all become.
Across the entire population, there is more than enough ideological confusion and inconsistency to go around. This largely has to do with how labels are used, or rather misused and abused. Liberals label their positions moderate, the very positions that the political and media elite think of as liberal. Either liberals really are more moderate or the elite aren’t as liberal as they think, although I suspect both are true. That leaves conservatives holding positions that these same elites consider liberal, while conservatives don’t see them as liberal, which questions the very concept of conservatism. There are more conflicted conservatives than consistent conservatives, something not found among liberals. To the degree that liberals are conflicted, it is because they mis-label their views right-ward.
Anyway, the average person probably doesn’t give much thought to how they answer polls and vote in elections. Most people have busy lives. Besides, it’s not as if the education system and news media does a great job of informing the public and explaining the issues. And that is on top of the low quality of options typically given. We also can’t forget the constant bullshit, spin, propaganda, psyops, etc. Framing alone sometimes will completely reverse what people state as supporting. When a combative frame is used, most Americans support harsh punishment of criminals. But when a public health frame is used, most Americans support rehabilitation. So, which is the real majority? Well, both are or neither is.
Here is a major point to be understood and emphasized. As data shows, most people who hold liberal positions don’t identify as liberal. And most people who identify as liberal don’t identify many of their own positions as liberal, instead identifying them as moderate. Also interesting is the fact that self-identified conservatives, many being conflicted conservatives holding liberal positions, tend to identify their liberal and moderate positions as conservative. So, every demographic labels their views to the right of where their views actually are on the spectrum, at least for most major issues. This is partly because of the political and media elite who claim to be moderate and centrist while in many ways being to the right of the general public. The narrative of public opinion and the political spectrum is being defined by a disconnected elite that is heavily biased to the right.
Considering this, maybe it’s unsurprising that the crazification factor is so large. This explains all the noise in public polling. And this probably explains why so many Americans don’t even bother voting. Their views aren’t being represented. In fact, the views of most Americans simply make no sense within the dominant paradigm that controls the political system.
Crazification factor (alternatively known as the “Keyes constant”) is a neologism coined by blogger John Rogers to refer to the portion of the electorate comprising the nuttiest of the wingnuts and the batshit crazy.
In popular usage, it is an application of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, in which you only call attention to data supporting your proposition: you will find endless examples of people online crying “Crazification factor!” when 20-30% of people do something — anything — the speaker doesn’t like, or are even polled as holding an opinion they don’t like.
Rogers later stressed that the phrase was a joke, not some serious statistical proposition.
These errors were things that we lumped into something we called “response style” (psychologists call it response bias). It’s very very hard to observe response style. But I’d say we can make a pretty good guess that Americans – and possibly everyone – do a lot of random responding when it comes to these sorts of surveys.
[M]aybe people just don’t think very hard about how they answer these questions. Maybe some people are confused by the questions. Maybe some are trolling.
Whatever the cause, it seems like you can get 20 to 25 percent of Americans to say any ridiculous thing imaginable. “Do you think eating raccoon poop reduces the risk of brain cancer?” “23 percent of Americans say yes!” “Would you be willing to cut your toes off with a rotary saw if it meant your neighbor had to do the same?” “17 percent of Americans say they would!” Etc.
It makes no sense at all…unless you can get ~20 percent of Americans to say pretty much any ridiculous thing on a survey.
I call this the margin of stupid. Unlike the margin of error, it’s not even a roughly symmetric error — because you can’t have less than 0% of people give a certain answer on a survey, the margin of stupid always biases surveys toward showing some non-negligible amount of support for any crazy or stupid or horrible position.
Whenever you read a survey like this, you must take the margin of stupid into account. Yes, there are Americans who believe crazy, stupid, and horrible things. But dammit, there aren’t that many. Next time you see some poll breathlessly claiming that 21 percent of Americans support executing anyone whose name starts with “G”, or that 18 percent of Millennials believe themselves to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, take it with a grain of salt. It’s a lot easier to give a stupid answer on a survey than to actually truly hold a nuts belief.
Sadly, the margin of stupid also probably applies to voting.
This led screenwriter John Rodgers and a friend to coin the term Crazification Factor–an unpredictable and shifting yet relatively consistent bottom, like the silt at the bottom of a pond: “Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification – either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.”
“Crazification” seems not just unkind but simplistic, though I don’t deny a certain baseline: I’d add ironic voting, protest votes–a vote for Alan Keyes is a resonant protest vote–and even people who want to make a spectacle worse. But it still seems to be a useful theory, in the sense that when I see Donald Trump polling really well (26 percent!), or birthers continuing to emit a low hum (27 percent!), I’m no longer shocked: oh, that’s just the Keyes Constant.
Public Policy Polling’s recent poll on conspiracy theories mostly showed up on my Facebook feed as “Four percent of Americans believe lizardmen are running the Earth”.
(of note, an additional 7% of Americans are “not sure” whether lizardmen are running the Earth or not.)
Imagine the situation. You’re at home, eating dinner. You get a call from someone who says “Hello, this is Public Policy Polling. Would you mind answering some questions for us?” You say “Sure”. An extremely dignified sounding voice says – and this is the exact wording of the question – “Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our society, or not?” Then it urges you to press 1 if yes, press 2 if no, press 3 if not sure.
So first we get the people who think “Wait, was 1 the one for if I did believe in lizardmen, or if I didn’t? I’ll just press 1 and move on to the next question.”
Then we get the people who are like “I never heard it before, but if this nice pollster thinks it’s true, I might as well go along with them.”
Then we get the people who are all “F#&k you, polling company, I don’t want people calling me when I’m at dinner. You screw with me, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell you I believe lizard people are running the planet.”
And then we get the people who put “Martian” as their nationality in psychology experiments. Because some men just want to watch the world burn.
Do these three groups total 4% of the US population? Seems plausible.
I really wish polls like these would include a control question, something utterly implausible even by lizard-people standards, something like “Do you believe Barack Obama is a hippopotamus?” Whatever percent of people answer yes to the hippo question get subtracted out from the other questions.
Poll Answers As Attire
Alas, not all weird poll answers can be explained that easily. On the same poll, 13% of Americans claimed to believe Barack Obama was the Anti-Christ. Subtracting our Lizardman’s Constant of 4%, that leaves 9% of Americans who apparently gave this answer with something approaching sincerity.
(a friend on Facebook pointed out that 5% of Obama voters claimed to believe that Obama was the Anti-Christ, which seems to be another piece of evidence in favor of a Lizardman’s Constant of 4-5%. On the other hand, I do enjoy picturing someone standing in a voting booth, thinking to themselves “Well, on the one hand, Obama is the Anti-Christ. On the other, do I really want four years of Romney?”)
Some pollsters are starting to consider these sorts of things symptomatic of what they term symbolic belief, which seems to be kind of what the Less Wrong sequences call Professing and Cheering or Belief As Attire. Basically, people are being emotivists rather than realists about belief. “Obama is the Anti-Christ” is another way of just saying “Boo Obama!”, rather than expressing some sort of proposition about the world.
And the same is true of “Obama is a Muslim” or “Obama was not born in America”.
The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble. Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception. In a post from last week, a commenter pointed out that there really are vegetarians and vegans, especially in certain punk scenes, who purport to believe that animals are not only morally equal to, but perhaps even morally superior to human beings. As he also pointed out, though, none of them really act as though they believe anything of the sort. Now, you might say that we already have a word for this: Hypocrisy. But I think it’s worth preserving a separate term here, because we usually use that term for people who specifically promote standards of behavior that they either consciously don’t really hold or do hold but are just incapable of adhering to (from weakness of will or whatever), and conceal this inability out of shame or fear. Symbolic beliefs, as I’m conceiving of them, are “sincere”—in that the person holding them probably isn’t consciously or reflexively aware that they’re false, but also shallow, insofar as a subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert. For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American.” It’s not, I hasten to say, that they really believe, deep-down, that Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s more that—as with H.G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”—the literal truth or falsity of the proposition is a matter of indifference; it’s not really the point.
Over the last several decades, scholars have noted a strengthening link between ideology and party identification among the public, but the causal direction of this phenomenon remains contested. The ideological realignment thesis holds that ideology now strongly influences party identification, but this position conflicts with literature suggesting that party identification remains the primary causal force behind most important political attitudes. This study examines the causal forces at work between ideology and party identification by focusing on the distinction between symbolic and operational ideology. The methodology involves the use of panel data that span several decades, and structural equation modeling. The findings indicate that between 1982 and 1997, symbolic ideology had a strong influence party identification, but operational ideology had little effect on party identification. The results suggest an important revision to the ideological realignment thesis, as the evidence indicates that symbolic ideology has been the primary force driving realignment.
Looked at this way, 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.
This raises the question: why are so many people identifying as conservative while simultaneously preferring more government? For some conservatives, it is because they associate the label with religion, culture or lifestyle. In essence, when they identify as “conservative,” they are thinking about conservatism in terms of family structure, raising children, or interpreting the Bible. Conservatism is about their personal lives, not their politics.
But other self-identified conservatives, though, are conservative in terms of neither religion and culture nor the size of government. These are the truly “conflicted conservatives,” say Ellis and Stimson, who locate their origins in a different factor: how conservatives and liberals have traditionally talked about politics. Conservatives, they argue, talk about politics in terms of symbols and the general value of “conservatism” — and news coverage, they find, usually frames the label “conservative” in positive terms. Liberals talk about policy in terms of the goals it will serve — a cleaner environment, a stronger safety net, and so on — which are also good things for many people. As a result, some people internalize both messages and end up calling themselves conservative but having liberal views on policy.
Ideology has two faces: the labels people choose and the actual content of their beliefs. For liberals, these are mostly aligned. For conservatives, they are not.
Polls have generally showed self-identified conservatives outnumbering liberals, with a recent slight increase in the number of liberals. I have often speculated that this is largely due to the success the right wing noise machine has had in demonizing the word liberal. Americans come out more liberal than would be expected by these poll findings when we look at individual issues.
While the pendulum swings both ways, the trend has been toward more liberal policies over the years. Most people wouldn’t think of returning to the days of child labor. Medicare and Social Security are deeply entrenched, to the point that even when Republicans vote for ending Medicare as we know it they realize they have to hide what they are doing. Recent polls show increases in the number of people who support legalization of same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana. A majority even supports the individual components of Obamacare when asked without identifying the policy as Obamacare. […]
This idea that nearly 30 percent of self-identified conservative are really liberals would explain the increased support for liberal positions despite a majority identifying themselves as conservatives.
[…] The general pattern is not surprising. Symbolic ideology is correlated with the most commonly chosen label for issue positions.
A closer look shows important asymmetries. Across all issues, symbolic conservatives are always more likely to label their positions as conservative than anything else, even when an analyst would label many of those issue positions liberal or moderate. Moreover, symbolic conservatives use the conservative label for their issue positions far more frequently than symbolic liberals use the liberal label for theirs. For symbolic liberals, the moderate label is chosen by a plurality on 10 of the 13 issues. On only one issue, support for gay marriage, does a clear majority of liberals label their position as liberal.
The pattern of labeled issue positions among symbolic liberals is not consistent
with the Ellis-Stimson narrative. In that account, liberals’ unconflicted liberals’
ideological commitments and ideological sophistication allow them to apply the liberal label with ease. In fact, while liberals apply the general label to themselves, they do not embrace the term for many of their issue positions and instead more often choose the moderate label.
As one would expect, a plurality of symbolic moderates used the moderate label to describe their policy preferences—with the exception of social security, where slightly more described their position as “none of these.” For eight of the 13 issues, more moderates described their positions as conservative than liberal. The “none of these” option was chosen by 20-30 percent of moderates across the 13 issues. These results are consistent with research that describes moderates, on average, as less political than liberals or conservatives.
Plainly, the mismatch between symbolic ideology and issue position labels is common and is not limited to conservatives. In fact, the avoidance of the liberal label extends to symbolic liberals, which is consistent with the long-standing argument that the label has negative connotations. It may illustrate that the importance of the framing pathway described by Ellis and Stimson and, in doing so, raises a question of about how much framing accounts for conflicted conservatives for whom Ellis and Stimson emphasize the extra-political sources of ideological identity.
Mismatches between Issue Positions and Their Labels
For some of the most popular causes—such as spending on education—positions (and symbolic ideology) show a weak relationship to issue position labels. In the case of education spending, nearly half of symbolic conservatives considered opposing a cut in education spending to be a conservative position. More than ninety percent of liberals opposed this same cut in education spending, but only about one-third call this view liberal, with most liberals calling it a moderate position.
Mismatches are most common for issues on which there is a consensus view. In fact, across the 13 issues, there is an important correlation between the size of the issue position plurality and the frequency of mismatches between issue positions and issue position labels. For symbolic conservatives, the correlation is -0.81—more popular causes create more mismatches (liberal positions labeled conservative) for conservatives. For symbolic liberals, the size of the plurality and labeling liberal positions as conservative has a correlation of -0.71.
Consistent with findings about mismatches between symbolic ideology and issue positions, we find that mismatches for issue positions and their labels occur more often in the form of labeling liberal positions conservative than in labeling conservative positions liberal. More than 30 percent of labeling responses associated the conservative label with liberal positions, while only about 20 percent associated the liberal label with conservative positions.
Pew had a poll from a couple years ago that I missed. If you look at the broad public opinion, it looks like the same old same old. Most Americans have a more favorable opinion of capitalism than socialism. They also have a more favorable opinion of conservatism than liberalism. But it’s always in the details where it gets interesting. The cracks are beginning to show in the Cold War edifice.
More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.
Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.
So, if most Americans are actually conservative and the Democratic Party is actually liberal, then why does the Democratic Party have higher positive ratings than the Republican Party for more than a decade? Either Americans aren’t so conservative or the Democratic Party isn’t so liberal. I’d argue it’s both.
If Americans are so conservative, then why do they have a decently positive feeling rating toward what they perceive as ‘liberals’? The positive feelings for liberals hasn’t dropped below 50 in several decades. That ain’t too shabby for a supposedly conservative population. […]
The key values of the ideological divide are the basis of the key issues of society and politics. As such, determining the key issues is important in distinguishing liberalism vs conservatism in the American population. Key issues are important because they are the wedge issues that decide elections. What is telling to my mind is that it’s specifically the key issues of American politics that have been strongly moving leftward. I would conclude two things. First, the majority of Americans are definitely not right-leaning in any clear sense and there isn’t any evidence that the center of public opinion is shifting rightward. Second, however one might add up all the various issues, the majority of Americans are progressively liberal or becoming more progressively liberal on many if not most of the key issues.
According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.
This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.
It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.
Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.
Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.
Most Americans are surprisingly far to the left of the plutocratic and kleptocratic establishment. Most Americans support left-wing healthcare reform (single payer or public option), maintaining the Roe vs Wade decision, stronger gun regulations (including among most NRA members), more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment of criminals, drug legalization or decriminalization, etc. They are definitely to the left of Clinton New Democrats with their corporatist alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Hillary Clinton, for example, has long had ties to heavily polluting big energy corporations.
Maybe it’s unsurprising to learn that the American public, both left and right, is also to the left on the issue of climate change and global warming. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up issue of environmentalism and public opinion. Labels don’t mean what they used to, which adds to the confusion. But when you dig down into the actual issues themselves, public opinion becomes irrefutably clear. Even though few look closely at polls and surveys, the awareness of this is slowly trickling out. We might be finally reaching a breaking point in this emerging awareness. The most politicized issues of our time show that the American public supports leftist policies. This includes maybe the most politicized of all issues, climate change and global warming.
Yet as the American public steadily marches to the left, the Republican establishment uses big money to push the ‘mainstream’ toward right-wing extremism and the Democrats pretend that their conservatism represents moderate centrism. The tension can’t be maintained without ripping the country apart. We can only hope that recent events will prove to have been a wake up call, that maybe the majority of Americans are finally realizing they are the majority, not just silent but silenced.
[…] from the book Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253): […]
It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.
Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).
[…] The conservative elites, or at least their advisors, fully understood decades ago that most Americans didn’t agree with them on the issues. Nonetheless, most Americans continue to identify as conservative when given a forced choice (i.e., when ‘moderate’ or ‘independent’ aren’t given as an option).
It makes one wonder what exactly “symbolic conservatism” represents or what people think it represents. Reagan often stood in front of patriotic symbols during speeches and photo-ops. Look back at images of Reagan and you’ll find in the background such things as flags and the Statue of Liberty. Ignoring the issue of “true conservatism”, this symbolic conservatism seems to have little in the way of tangible substance, heavy on the signifier while being light on the signified.
[…] To look at the issues is to consider how values are expressed in the real world. What does it mean that many Americans agree with the symbolic values of conservatism while disagreeing with the actual enactment of those values in policies? What are Americans perceiving in the patriotic and pseudo-libertarian jingoism of the GOP or whatever it is? And why is that this perception appears to be so disconnected from reality on the ground, disconnected the reality of Americans’ daily lives and their communities?
[…] Most importantly, take note that the American public isn’t actually polarized, not even between the North and South — as Bob Moser explained in Blue Dixie (Kindle Locations 126-136):
[…] But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.”
[…] So, yes, there is something weird going on here with the American public. Is this confusion artificially created? Is the public being manipulated by politicians who know the American public better than the American public knows themselves? Apparently not, as Alex Preen explained on Salon.com:
According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are.
The research found that this was as true for Democratic politicians. All politicians across the board were equally clueless about and disconnected from those they claim to represent. This is why it isn’t a partisan issue. It is a bipartisan ignorance.
In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.
If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.
If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.
Consider specific issues.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.
That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion limits, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.
Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?
If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.
In the 2005 Pew poll, the demographic was just called ‘Liberals’. In this 2011 Pew poll, the demographic is called ‘Solid Liberals’. So, I don’t know if it is speaking about the exact same demographic segment of the population. Pew changes the demographic groupings as the data changes. In the new ‘Solid Liberals’ demographic there is only 23% Independents whereas in the previous ‘Liberals’ demographic there was almost 1/2 Independents. Of those Indpendents, they didn’t ask how many self-identified as liberal or something else. Among ‘Solid Liberals’ in general, only 60% self-identified as ‘liberal’ while 31% self-identified as ‘moderate’ and 9% self-identified as ‘conservative’.
What does ‘liberal’ even mean when slightly less than 1/2 of supposed ‘liberals’ don’t self-identify as ‘liberal’? This goes to the heart of the American public’s confusion about ideologies and labels. Given a choice between the two, most Americans self-identify as ‘conservative’. However, when asked about specific issues, most Americans support many liberal positions on key issues. […]
“But the Gallup survey of self-identification of ideology shows that more Americans self-identify as moderates and liberals than as conservatives. Most Americans do not self-identify as conservatives.”
Given a choice between the three, the data I’ve seen shows most Americans self-identify as moderates. So, what is a moderate? They are essentially those who tend toward centrism or at least away from the extreme wings. Considering that, where is the center in American politics? […]
I was looking further at the Pew data. There is another interesting group: Post-Moderns. They are considered Independents and they are the only group to have the majority self-identify as moderates. One would assume, therefore, that they wouldn’t have any bias toward either party. But one would be wrong in that assumption.
Post-Moderns are 62% Independents, 26% Democrats and 2% Republicans. Of the Independents, 19% has no lean, 58% lean to the Democratic Party and 23% lean to the Republican Party. They favor Democrats over Republicans on almost every question, including reelecting Obama. Also, they listen to Fox News less than the average Democrat and listen to NPR at almost the same rate as the average Democrat. They are second only to Solid Liberals in their reading of The New York Times and their watching the Daily Show. They generally seem closest to Solid Liberals on most issues. They are strongly socially liberal. They have the strongest, although qualified, support of the government. They’d prefer it to be smaller, but they see a role for government in many social issues.
Post-Moderns are the only demographic with a majority of moderates which means they are the clearest indicator we have about where the center is right now in US politics. These moderates are more liberal than not. So, the majority of Post-Moderns identifies as moderate even as the majority also supports many liberal positions and policies.
– – –
Here is the reason why the Democratic Party has never been controlled by liberals and especially not by left-wingers.
“The Pew Research poll notes a fundamental difference between “solid Liberals” and the other two groups that lean Democratic — “Hard-pressed Democrats” and “New coalition Democrats”: “both of these last two groups are highly religious and socially conservative.” To the extent that cultural issues — such as abortion and homosexuality — dominate political discourse, these groups can be peeled away from the Democratic bloc to vote Republican. In his classic, What’s the Matter With Kansas? journalist Tom Frank detailed how Republicans redirect economic discontent to explosive cultural issues. In 2012, “moral purity” will be a major Republican theme — particularly if messianic Texas Governor Rick Perry becomes the GOP candidate. The Liberal challenge is to ensure that jobs and economic fairness become the dominant political themes, not “How can we make the US a Christian nation?””
– – –
Here is some data from 2004 which I suspect might be even more true in 2011. The article notes that in 2000 the Independents were evenly split between the two parties but by 2004 they were leaning Democratic and liberal. If this is a trend that fits the other leftward trends, this will continue into the near future as OWS seems to demonstrate.
“The bad news for conservatives is that a majority of independents line up on the liberal-to-moderate side of the ideological spectrum. Twenty-one percent of independents in the Zogby poll described themselves as liberal or progressive, while 37 percent called themselves moderates. In contrast, 30 percent of independents describe their politics as conservative, with only 4 percent calling themselves “very conservative” or libertarian.
“Zogby asserts that the polls indicate independents are trending more liberal in this election year as opposed to 2000. For example, fully 70 percent of independents believe the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment, a traditionally Democratic concern. “The environment is a Democratic ace in the hole this year,” Zogby says.
“Meanwhile, 82 percent of independents want the federal government to play a major role in protecting individual freedom, suggesting a backlash against the Patriot Act and other attempts by the Bush administration to change the traditional balance between national security and individual liberty. Sixty-two percent feel the government should help ensure that all citizens have economic opportunities, while 60 percent want a dominant role by the federal government in providing social programs to help the needy.
“The liberal bias of independents contrasts sharply with the other elections in which their vote has proved critical. In the 1980 election, blue-collar workers deserted Jimmy Carter and the Democrats to vote Ronald Reagan into office. And in the 1990s, Bill Clinton infuriated traditional liberals but won the presidency twice by appealing to the socially moderate, fiscally conservative instincts of suburban soccer moms. Third party candidates – John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000 – attracted disaffected voters who saw no real difference between Republicans and Democrats.” […]
Considering all of this, it blows my mind that 9% of so-called ‘Solid Liberals’ self-identify as ‘conservative’. Pew defines ‘Solid Liberals’ as being liberal across the board, fiscally and socially liberal on most if not all issues. Essentially, ‘Solid Liberals’ are as liberal as you can be without becoming an outright communist.
How on God’s green earth could such a person ever be so confused as to think they are a conservative? What do these 9% of conservative ‘Solid Liberals’ think that ‘conservative’ means? What kind of conservatism can include liberalism to such an extent? What could possibly be subjectively experienced as conservative despite appearing liberal by all objective measures?
Consider the seemingly opposite Pew demographic which is labeled ‘Staunch Conservatives’ (basically, conservative across the board). Are there 9% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ who self-identify as ‘liberal’? Of course not, although interestingly 3% do.
Compare also how many self-identify as ‘moderate’: 31% of ‘Solid Liberals’ identify as moderate and only 8% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ identify as moderate. ‘Staunch Conservatives’ are as partisan as they come with %100 that lean Republican (0% that lean Democratic, 0% with no lean). On the other hand, ‘Solid Liberals’ have 1% who lean Republican and 3% with no lean; that might seem like minor percentages but that means 1 in 100 ‘Solid Liberals’ are drawn toward the Republican Party and 3 in 100 are genuinely independent.
Some want to argue that we have a functioning democracy because we have the outward forms of democracy. We can protest in the street, vote, etc. But then why does it rarely lead to democratic results, specifically at the Federal level? And why is there so little ability for the public to force transparency and accountability?
It’s because those forms are separate from the actual seat of power. The two party system and corporate media is controlled by oligarchs. They use public perception management (AKA propaganda), backroom deals, cronyism, revolving door politics (e.g., politicians becoming lobbyists), regulatory takeover, and a thousand other kinds of anti-democratic tactics. They use these to determine who we are allowed to vote for and what those people can do while in office.
This system is so well entrenched that is protected from the voting public. But it isn’t just the government. Polls show that union leadership advocate for positions and support politicians that union membership often doesn’t support. The same thing is seen with organizations like the NRA, a divide between those who control those organizations and the members.
Of course, the leadership of these organizations have close ties to the two party system that controls the government. So, these organizations can’t be used by the public to exert influence on politicians. They are part of the social control. No amount of petitions or protests can change this. Present strategies of activism and attempts of reform have been failing for longer than I’ve been alive.
If what you are doing has been proven not to accomplish what you claim to want, then what do you do? You either lower your expectations by making excuses or you try something new.
We have two options left to us. The first is a constitutional convention. But the first constitutional convention more than a couple of centuries ago was taken over by powerful (pseudo-)Federalists who, unconstitutionally according to the first constitution (The Articles of Confederation), forced through an anti-democratic document to ensure their rule. Powerful forces would attempt to do the same thing with another constitutional convention. So, if that fails, that leaves only one option left. That is revolution, whether peaceful or not.
As our options dwindle down, our choice of action becomes simplified. The only question remaining is do we have the moral vision and moral courage to take action. It is up to the oligarchs about whether or not they want to push us to the edge, seeing how far we can be pushed before we simply go over. But as we find ourselves teetering on the edge, what do the rest of us do, We the People?
As citizens of the United States, here is something to keep in mind. Fool the American public once, shame on the oligarchs. Fool the American public a thousand times, that is the shame of our entire society. We’ve been played for fools and we’ve acted accordingly. Let’s take this as a lesson learned the hard way. So, what do we do now? The first step might be learning to make important distinctions.
Pseudo-democracy is to democracy as truthiness is to truth. The spectacle of pseudo-democracy gives us the appearance of democracy to absolve the public’s sense of failure and guilt. The public can say that, well, at least I voted, joined the union, protested, signed a petition, volunteered for a campaign, etc. It allows small impotent acts in order to avoid the possibility of actions that would make a difference.
If we want actual functioning democracy, it is our collective responsibility. We have to act outside of the anti-democratic system. That would require creating a new parallel system that acts independently. We need to create our own separate government, not unlike what the American colonists did when they turned revolutionary, and then put so much public support and power behind it that it can’t be denied. We’ve waited long enough for the oligarchs to do the right thing. It’s now in our hands.
All of that is easier said than done. But it is either that or we continue our decline. As always, it’s a choice to be made.
I first likened being a US citizen to being run over by a car. I then used a simple comparison to describe the prospective presidencies in terms of the boiling frog scenario. Here are three more metaphors for your cynical amusement.
This one is a more detailed metaphor for the candidates this campaign season:
The body politic is ailing. Hillary Clinton is a symptom of the corruption that has compromised the immune system. Trump is a secondary illness like pneumonia that is potentially life threatening.
The secondary illness wouldn’t be dangerous if the immune system wasn’t already compromised and the patient were willing to seek medical treatment. But for some reason the ailing patient refuses to go to the doctor who is Sanders.
The mainstream media is the hospice worker administering pain drugs that puts the patient to sleep, as death nears. Then the patient’s eyes open and rallies some strength asking for something in a voice too quiet to understand, either asking for the doctor or Jesus.
Is all hope lost? Or can the patient still be saved?
The next metaphor is me being plain silly:
Clinton is a monkey in a banana experiment. The monkey’s hand is stuck in the hole, unable to get the banana out and unwilling to let go of the banana.
Sanders is the scientist observing the monkey and taking notes. The scientist goes on lunch break so as to eat his banana and peanut butter sandwich that he made himself.
Meanwhile, Trump is a banana plantation tycoon. He is inquiring about buying the laboratory where the experiment is happening, as he thinks that further banana research might be good for banana profits. He is also inquiring about maybe even buying an entire banana republic while he is at it.
The voting public sees a news report about the ongoing research. It makes them hungry for a banana.
And the best metaphor saved for last:
This campaign season is “Monte Python and the Holy Grail.” Clinton is King Arthur. The mainstream media is the guy following along making clopping noises with coconut shells. Trump is the Frenchman taunting King Arthur and his entourage. Sanders is the peasant complaining that he never voted for King Arthur. The voting public is the killer bunny.
That should clear everything up for you. I’m glad to be of service.
“The politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of.”
~ Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party
This is how future generations will think about this era. It will be remembered as an age of endless fear-mongering and self-defeating lesser-evilism. It will be described as the time when the Democrats became the party of mainstream conservatism and Republicans became the party of right-wing populism, reactionary lite and reactionary full flavor.
Historians will point to this odd moment of the 2016 election when the main Republican candidate, Donald Trump, had a mixed up campaign platform—sometimes campaigning on positions far to the left of of the establishment Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. For example, there is Trump’s support of universal healthcare. The only other candidate supporting it is the supposed ‘socialist’ Bernie Sanders whose support of such things, the establishment Democrats claim, is why he isn’t ‘electable’—despite most Americans also supporting universal healthcare.
Sanders is the most trusted and well liked candidate. Comparing his positions to public polling, it is obvious he represents majority public opinion. He is the only moderate candidate running for the presidency, not even close to being as far left as old school Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet present establishment Democrats and the mainstream media mischaracterize him as a ‘radical’.
We live in strange times. We are watching a campaign season where a large number of supposed ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ in the Democratic party are fighting against strong positions on liberal and progressive policies. The political left doesn’t need an enemy party when they have the Democrats to rig the political process and undermine any hope of a functioning democracy. We have an anti-democratic Democratic party—just think about that. The sad irony of it is mind-numbing.
I have lost faith in the political system, to say the least. Like so many others.
Research shows that the political elite of both parties are disconnected from and unresponsive to the vast majority of Americans. The political elite even ignore the middle class, which makes it all the more sad how the middle class betrays the lower class majority by sucking up to the political elite in being good soldiers in partisan politics. Class war trumps all else, and even for Democrats class war is mired in a legacy of racism (e.g., the decades of dog whistle politics from the Clinton New Democrats).
I want to make clear, though, that I haven’t lost faith in the American public, even as the public has lost faith in America. For one, there isn’t much of a public to speak of, as we are so divided and disconnected from one another. Second, I really don’t see the majority as having many realistic options available to them. The political system is so controlled and the MSM so propagandistic. The only way the citizenry could force change is by taking to the streets and threatening revolution, but that is a major step to take. Most people would like to believe there is still hope for reform within the system, no matter how all attempts at reform have continuously failed.
If we had a functioning democracy that engaged and inspired, that represented and was responsive to voters. If majority public opinion mattered and politicians weren’t corrupt. If there was an effective education system and news media that led to an informed public. If the Democratic party was actually democratic and the Republican party actually republican. If there was a genuine progressive liberal movement and a genuine libertarian conservative movement. If all of this, then we’d be living in a very different country and we’d have very different kinds of elections.
In that case, past elections would have pitted those like Ralph Nader and Ron Paul as the two main party candidates, along with some viable third party candidates having forced wide spectrum of public debate. And, in that case, the present campaign season would have entirely excluded heavily disliked and mistrusted candidates such as Clinton and Trump—instead, the main competition would be between moderates like Sanders and principled challengers like Jill Stein.
That is what a functioning democracy would look like. Such a world wouldn’t have endless obstructionism and corruption. Imagine it. Imagine a world of continuous progress where every generation had a better life than the last, where instead of cynicism and defeatism most people felt engaged and hopeful. Imagine a political system that instead of demoralizing with lesser evilism inspired with the greater good. Imagine such a basic thing as a government that the American people trusted.
Simply put, imagine if we actually had democracy. Not just the rhetoric and appearances of democracy but the real thing. And not just a democratic government but a democratic society and economy, democratic in all ways and at all levels. Just plain democracy.
Collectivism vs. Individualism is the primary and fundamental misreading of human self-formation out of the Enlightenment and picking sides in that dumb-ass binary has been the primary driver of bad politics left and right for the last 250 years.
The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera
by Edward Muir
Kindle Locations 80-95
One of the most disturbing sources of late-Renaissance anxiety was the collapse of the traditional hierarchic notion of the human self. Ancient and medieval thought depicted reason as governing the lower faculties of the will, the passions, sions, and the body. Renaissance thought did not so much promote “individualism” as it cut away the intellectual props that presented humanity as the embodiment of a single divine vine idea, thereby forcing a desperate search for identity in many. John Martin has argued that during the Renaissance, individuals formed their sense of selfhood through a difficult negotiation between inner promptings and outer social roles. Individuals during the Renaissance looked both inward for emotional sustenance and outward for social assurance, and the friction between the inner and outer selves could sharpen anxieties 2 The fragmentation of the self seems to have been especially acute in Venice, where the collapse of aristocratic marriage structures led to the formation of what Virginia Cox has called the single self, most clearly manifest in the works of several women writers who argued for the moral and intellectual equality of women with men.’ As a consequence quence of the fragmented understanding of the self, such thinkers as Montaigne became obsessed with what was then the new concept of human psychology, a term in fact coined in this period.4 A crucial problem in the new psychology was to define the relation between the body and the soul, in particular ticular to determine whether the soul died with the body or was immortal. With its tradition of Averroist readings of Aristotle, some members of the philosophy faculty at the University of Padua recurrently questioned the Christian tian doctrine of the immortality of the soul as unsound philosophically. Other hierarchies of the human self came into question. Once reason was dethroned, the passions were given a higher value, so that the heart could be understood as a greater force than the mind in determining human conduct. duct. When the body itself slipped out of its long-despised position, the sexual drives of the lower body were liberated and thinkers were allowed to consider sex, independent of its role in reproduction, a worthy manifestation of nature. The Paduan philosopher Cesare Cremonini’s personal motto, “Intus ut libet, foris ut moris est,” does not quite translate to “If it feels good, do it;” but it comes very close. The collapse of the hierarchies of human psychology even altered the understanding derstanding of the human senses. The sense of sight lost its primacy as the superior faculty, the source of “enlightenment”; the Venetian theorists of opera gave that place in the hierarchy to the sense of hearing, the faculty that most directly channeled sensory impressions to the heart and passions.
That does not say much unless one connects it to the more important idea that form will determine the nature of content. For those readers who may believe that this idea is too “McLuhanesque” for their taste, I offer Karl Marx from The German Ideology. “Is the Iliad possible,” he asks rhetorically, “when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?”
When I read Jaynes’s book for the first time last year I was struck by the opportunities his theory affords for marrying materialism to psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. The idea that mentality is dependent on social relations, that power structures in society are related to the structure of mentality and language, and the idea that we can only understand mentality historically and socially are all ideas that appeal to me as a historical materialist.
The “Alpha version” of consciousness involved memory having authority over the man, instead of the man having authority over his memory. Bicameral man could remember some powerful admonishment from his father, but he could not recall it at will. He experienced this recollection as an external event; namely a visitation from either his father or a god. It was a sort of third-person-perspective group-think where communication was not intentional or conscious but, just like our “blush response,” unconscious and betraying of our deepest being. You can see this in the older versions of the Iliad, where, for instance, we do not learn about Achilles’ suicidal impulse by his internal feelings, thoughts, or his speaking, but instead, by the empathic understanding of his friend. Do you have to “think” in order to empathize, or does it just come on its own, in a rush of feeling? Well, that used to be consciousness. Think about it, whether you watch your friend blush or you blush yourself, the experience is remarkably similar, and seems to be nearly third-person in orientation. What you are recognizing in your friend’s blush the Greeks would have recognized as possession by a god, but it is important to notice that you have no more control over it than the Greeks did. They all used the same name for the same god (emotion) and this led to a relatively stable way of viewing human volition, that is, until it came into contact with other cultures with other “gods.” When this happens, you either have war, or you have conversion. That is, unless you can develop an operating system better than Alpha. We have done so, but at the cost of making us all homeless or orphaned. How ironic that in the modern world the biggest problem is that there are entirely too many individuals in the world, and yet their biggest problem is somehow having too few people to give each individual the support and family-type-structure that humans need to feel secure and thrive. We simply don’t have a shared themis that would allow each of us to view the other as “another self,” to use Aristotle’s phrase, or if we do, we realize that “another self” means “another broken and lost orphan like me.” It is in the nature of self-consciousness to not trust yourself, to remain skeptical, to resist immediate impulse. You cannot order your Will if you simply trust it and cave to every inclination. However, this paranoia is hardly conducive to social trust or to loving another as if he were “another self,” for that would only amount to him being another system of forces that we have to interpret, organize or buffer ourselves from. How much easier it is to empathize and care about your fellow citizens when they are not individuals, but vehicles for the very same muses, daimons, and gods that animate you! The matter is rather a bit worse that this, though. Each child discovers and secures his “inner self” by the discovery of his ability to lie, which further undermines social trust!
Marx’s theory of human nature has an important place in his critique of capitalism, his conception of communism, and his ‘materialist conception of history’. Karl Marx, however, does not refer to “human nature” as such, but to Gattungswesen, which is generally translated as ‘species-being’ or ‘species-essence’. What Marx meant by this is that humans are capable of making or shaping their own nature to some extent. According to a note from the young Marx in the Manuscripts of 1844, the term is derived from Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy, in which it refers both to the nature of each human and of humanity as a whole. However, in the sixth Thesis on Feuerbach (1845), Marx criticizes the traditional conception of “human nature” as “species” which incarnates itself in each individual, on behalf of a conception of human nature as formed by the totality of “social relations”. Thus, the whole of human nature is not understood, as in classical idealist philosophy, as permanent and universal: the species-being is always determined in a specific social and historical formation, with some aspects being biological.
It is the production capacity within a community that allows a community to exist, but communities are more than their productive capacities and subjectivities are different from subjects. Therefore, it is best to think of the schema we have given societies in terms of integrated wholes, and societies are produced by their histories both ecological and cultural. The separation of ecological and the cultural are what Ken Wilber would call “right-hand” and “left-hand” distinctions: or, the empirical experience of what is outside of us but limits us–the subject here being collective–is and what is within us that limits us.
One of the easiest ways to get a sense of the important ideas that Marx was advancing is to look at more recent research (such as Lenski’s) on the relation of techno-economic modes of production (foraging, horticultural, herding, maritime, agrarian, industrial, informational) to cultural practices such as slavery, bride price, warfare, patrifocality, matrifocality, gender of prevailing deities, and so on. With frightening uniformity, similar techno-economic modes have similar probabilities of those cultural practices (showing just how strongly the particular probability waves are tetra-meshed).
For example, over 90% of societies that have female-only deities are horticultural societies. 97% of herding societies, on the other hand, are strongly patriarchal. 37% of foraging tribes have bride price, but 86% of advanced horticultural do. 58% of known foraging tribes engaged in frequent or intermittent warfare, but an astonishing 100% of simple horticultural did so.
The existence of slavery is perhaps most telling. Around 10% of foraging tribes have slavery, but 83% of advanced horticultural do. The only societal type to completely outlaw slavery was patriarchal industrial societies, 0% of which sanction slavery.
So what, if anything, is human nature? Marx provides a much richer account. He is often said to have argued that there is no such thing as human nature. This is not true. Though he did think that human behaviour was deeply informed by social environment, this is not to say that human nature does not exist. In fact it is our capacity to adapt and transform in terms of social practices and behaviours that makes us distinctive as a species and in which our specifically human nature is to be located.
For Marx, we are essentially creative and producing beings. It is not just that we produce for our means of survival, it is also that we engage in creative and productive activity over and above what is strictly necessary for survival and find fulfilment in this activity. This activity is inherently social – most of what we produce is produced collectively in some sense or another. In opposition to the individualist basis of liberal thought, then, we are fundamentally social creatures.
Indeed, for Marx, human consciousness and thus our very notion of individual identity is collectively generated. We become consciously aware of ourselves as a discrete entity only through language – and language is inherently inter-subjective; it is a social practice. What we think – including what we think about ourselves – is governed by what we do and what we do is always done socially and collectively. It is for this reason that Marx refers to our “species-being” – what we are can only be understood properly in social terms because what we are is a property and function of the human species as a whole.
Marx, then, has a fairly expansive view of human nature – it is in our nature to be creatively adaptable and for our understanding of what is normal in terms of behaviour to be shaped by the social relations around us. This is not to say that any social system is as preferable as any other. We are best able to flourish in conditions that allow us to express our sociability and creativity.
Alienated consciousness makes sense only in contrast to un-alienated consciousness. Marx’s conception of the latter, though somewhat vague, derives from his understanding of primitive communism. It is here that Marx’s debt to anthropology is most clear. In foraging or “primitive” societies, people are whole – they are un-alienated because resources are freely available and work directly transforms those resources into useable goods. This directness and immediateness – with no interventions or distortions between the resource, work, and result – makes for creative, fulfilled, and unified people. Society is, as a consequence, tightly bound. There are no class divisions which pit one person or group against another. Because social relations are always reflected back into people’s lives, unified societies make for unified individuals. People are not alienated they have direct, productive, and creative relationships with resources, work, things, and others. This communalism is, for Marx, most conducive to human happiness and well-being.
This unity is shattered when people begin claiming ownership of resources. Private property introduces division into formerly unified societies and classes develop. When this occurs people are no longer free to appropriate and produce as they please. Creativity and fulfillment is crushed when labor is separated from life and becomes an isolated commodity. Humans who labor for something other than their needs, or for someone else, become alienated from resources, work, things, and others. When these divided social relations are reflected back into peoples’ lives, the result is discord and disharmony. People, in other words, feel alienated. As economies develop and become more complex, life becomes progressively more specialized and splintered. The alienation becomes so intense that something is required to sooth it; otherwise, life becomes unbearable.
It is at this point (which anthropologists recognize as the Neolithic transition) that religion arises. But religion is not, Marx asserts, merely a soothing palliative – it also masks the economically and socially stratified conditions that cause alienation:
“Precisely as a consequence of man’s loss of spontaneous self-activity, religion arises as a compensatory mechanism for explaining what alienated man cannot explain and for promising him elsewhere what he cannot achieve here. Thus because man does not create himself through his productive labor, he supposes that he is created by a power beyond. Because man lacks power, he attributes power to something beyond himself. Like all forms of man’s self-alienation, religion displaces reality with illusion. The reason is that man, the alienated being, requires an ideology that will simultaneously conceal his situation from him and confer upon it significance. Religion is man’s oblique and doomed effort at humanization, a search for divine meaning in the face of human meaninglessness.”
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
~ Declaration of Independence
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
~ Constitution of the United States
Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America Edmund S. Morgan Kindle Locations 62-82
Government requires make-believe. Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governors are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.
The political world of make-believe mingles with the real world in strange ways, for the make-believe world may often mold the real one. In order to be viable, in order to serve its purpose, whatever that purpose may be, a fiction must bear some resemblance to fact. If it strays too far from fact, the willing suspension of disbelief collapses. And conversely it may collapse if facts stray too far from the fiction that we want them to resemble. Because fictions are necessary, because we cannot live without them, we often take pains to prevent their collapse by moving the facts to fit the fiction, by making our world conform more closely to what we want it to be. We sometimes call it, quite appropriately, reform or reformation , when the fiction takes command and reshapes reality.
Although fictions enable the few to govern the many, it is not only the many who are constrained by them. In the strange commingling of political make-believe and reality the governing few no less than the governed many may find themselves limited— we may even say reformed— by the fictions on which their authority depends. Not only authority but liberty too may depend on fictions. Indeed liberty may depend, however deviously, on the very fictions that support authority. That, at least, has been the case in the Anglo-American world; and modern liberty, for better or for worse, was born, or perhaps we should say invented, in that world and continues to be nourished there.
Because it is a little uncomfortable to acknowledge that we rely so heavily on fictions, we generally call them by some more exalted name. We may proclaim them as self-evident truths, and that designation is not inappropriate, for it implies our commitment to them and at the same time protects them from challenge. Among the fictions we accept today as self-evident are those that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and that they owe obedience to government only if it is their own agent, deriving its authority from their consent. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate these propositions by factual evidence. It might be somewhat easier, by the kind of evidence we usually require for the proof of any debatable proposition, to demonstrate that men are not created equal and that they have not delegated authority to any government. But self-evident propositions are not debatable, and to challenge these would rend the fabric of our society.
Civil Rights and the Paradox of Liberal Democracy Bradley C. S. Watson pp. 1-3
Any discussion of liberal democracy requires some definition of terms. Defining democracy is a notoriously complex enterprise, made the more so by adding the qualifier liberal. Yet most would agree that we in the Western world live in regimes that share one overriding and defining feature: they are all “liberal democracies.”
The ancient understanding and practice of democracy, to the extent that it implied rule of all free persons in a regime, clearly would not qualify as such. No distinction can of course be drawn, in terms that are acceptable to modernity, between free and unfree persons. Modernity in fact marked a fundamental departure from all views that claimed relevant political distinctions could be drawn between individuals. This is one way of understanding the meaning of liberal in the phrase “liberal democracy.” For Locke, the state of nature is notoriously a state of freedom, but also a state of equality
wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that the Creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection, unless the Lord and Master of them all, should by any manifest Declaration of his Will set one above another, and confer on him by an evident and clear appointment an undoubted Right to Dominion and Sovereignty.
Thus, for Locke, is consent a function of the nature of things. And freedom, in civil society, cannot be understood apart from consent.
The full meaning of the combination of demos and kratein in the modern age was captured by no less an authority than Abraham Lincoln: government of the people, by the people, for the people. For my purposes, this definition will suffice. Implied in it are, to use the terminology of social science, several “tests” of whether the democratic, or republican, threshold is being met. First, inclusiveness–the people as a whole in principle constitute the demos; second, an entitlement–the entitlement of the people to rule; third, an empirical claim–that the people actually exercise their entitlement to rule; and, finally, an end to which rule is directed–the true interests of the people. It is a definition that does not imply a simple majoritarianism. It must be the case, in Lincoln’s words, following Locke, that no man is good enough to govern another, without that other’s consent.
Harry V. Jaffa has long argued that the conception of equality expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence is the political expression of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” It is these natural laws, he argues, that the U.S. Constitution–and the regime of which the Constitution is the organizing document–were designed to implement. [ . . . . ]
But the very phrase “liberal democracy” points to the paradox that is the subject of this book. Democracy implies the consent of the governed, which consent rests, explicitly or implicitly, on the recognition of the effective political equality of the individuals who constitute the demos. Liberalism implies a respect for, nay, an exaltation of, the individual qua individual, which respect or exaltation is in tension with the idea of consent of the whole. This brings to light the inadequacy of a relatively common definition of liberal democracy; it is inadequate because it fails to take into account the true meaning of liberalism: “‘Democracy’ . . . refers to the location of a state’s power, that is, in the hands of the people, whereas ‘liberal’ refers to the limitation of a state’s power. From this viewpoint, a liberal democracy is a political system in which the people make the basic political decisions, but in which there are limitations on what decisions they can make.” But liberalism in its contemporary incarnation frequently results in the individual using the state’s power, whatever the wishes of the majority. Liberalism thus appears to be linked with those passions in the human soul that tend toward the tyrannical, where tyranny is understood as the rule of the one in his or her own interest. Liberalism so viewed threatens to make the first “test” in Lincoln’s definition difficult to meet, and, by extension, all the other tests. But this tension is a commonplace, and it merely adumbrates the paradox of liberal democracy.
The Mycenaean texts frequently include the word damo, the demos or village defining both the geographic position and the population of the communities. The context reveals that the word did not have an administrative meaning but it signified the collective body of the people of each administrative unit. The words demos and telestai are also used as synonyms which indicates that the major landholders sometimes represented the people. One of the offices which refer to Pylos was the damokoro, a complex adjective deriving from demos and the korete. The damakoro were employees appointed by the wanax.
Demos (ὁ δῆμος) was used through the middle of the fifth century to refer to commoners. But in fifth century Athens demos also meant the sovereign body of free citizens. As commoners comprised a good part of the citizenry in the democracy, the two definitions—commoners and citizens—coexisted through the Classical period. It is the sovereign Demos that would have been revered in the cult with the Nymphs, on the Acropolis at Athens: an inscription dating to 462 attests a joint sanctuary of Demos and the Nymphs, who may have been the Horai (Seasons) and/or Charites (Graces) (IG I2, 854). Certainly in the second half of the fifth century, demos sometimes took on negative connotations, and the demos is increasingly represented as gullible and fickle, capable of being deceived by politicians, as exclaimed by the chorus of aristocratic cavalrymen in Aristophanes’ Knights (in 424), for example (Aristoph. Kn. 1111-18). (Aristophanes was probably the first to personify Demos, but similar characters may have been portrayed in the lost comedies of Eupolis and Cratinus.) Tension between the two views of demos—the commoners who are ridiculed, on the one hand, and the sovereign people, who warrant respect—seems to have been reflected in the personification of Demos on stage and in visual arts. In Knights Aristophanes is also sympathetic, and clearly sees the demos as capable of reform, for the crux of the play is Demos’ rejuvenation. The youthful Demos at the end of the play vows to restore old-fashioned ways in the government, a solution for which the democrats frequently yearned.
Greek word Demos (δῆμος, pronounced “day-moss”) has several meanings, all of them important for Athenian democracy. Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district. Young men, who were 18 years old presented themselves to officials of their deme and, having proven that they were not slaves, that their parents were Athenian, and that they were 18 years old, were enrolled in the “Assembly List” (the πίναξ ἐκκλησιαστικός) (see Dem. 44.35; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1).
Another meaning of Demos, to the Athenians, was “People,” as in the People of Athens, the body of citizens collectively. So a young man was enrolled in his “demos” (deme), and thus became a member of the “Demos” (the People). As a member of the Demos, this young man could participate in the Assembly of Citizens that was the central institution of the democracy. The Greek word for “Assembly” is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), but the Athenians generally referred to it as the “Demos.” Decrees of the Assembly began with the phrase “It seemed best to the Demos,…”, very much like the phrase “We the People…” that introduces the Constitution of the United States. In this context, “Demos” was used to make a distinction between the Assembly of all citizens and the Council of 500 citizens, another institution of the democracy (see below). So some decrees might begin “It seemed best to the Demos…”, others might begin “It seemed best to the Council…”, and still others might begin, “It seemed best to the Demos and the Council….”
So the Athenian Demos was the local village, the population generally, and the assembly of citizens that governed the state. The idea of the Demos was a potent one in Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.
It had not always been the case. The Iliad—the work of literature that was the shared text for all Greeks—describes a world whose values pre-date those of the Athenian democracy. One passage from it, especially, suggests that the idea of the “demos” changed dramatically in the years leading up to the 5th century. [ . . . . ]
The Homeric hero Odysseus did not favor putting rule into the hands of the Demos. What happened, then, to change the status of the Demos from that of a lowly mob, to be beaten down with a stick, to that of the ruling People of classical Athens?
Any contemporary effort to rethink the meaning of democracy must start by tracing the word democracy back to the Greeks, who are customarily thought to have invented the word and given it meaning. The platitude that democracy means the rule of the sovereign people usually points to its ultimate origin in or around classical Athens during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Most contemporary textbooks read by students andteachers concerned with the history of democratic theory and institutions repeat the point that this is where the history of democracy began. Thereis indeed an old and venerable tradition of doing so, yet new researchcalls this Myth of the Greek Origins of Democracy into question. It turns out not only that the arts of self-government sprang up much earlier, for instance in ancient Mesopotamia, where popular assemblies (pu-uh-ru)wielded power, including the election of kings.1 Even the root of the word democracy pre-dated the ancient Greek city states. References (in the Linear B script) to the dāmos are evident during the Mycenean period (c. 1500-1200 BCE), when it is used as a noun to refer to a group of former landowners who lose everything and are dispossessed of political power2. The nuances need not detain us here, except to note a key point : that the dāmos is a sectional or self-interested group that has its eyes on power, but is for the time being shut out from power.
That particular connotation of exclusion is carried over into the word demokratia (δηµοκρατία) that was spoken in the various classical Greek dialects. That the past was to echo into the present should not be surprising when it is considered that those who principally referred to the demos were its fearful opponents. The term became common currency in a phase of transition when (most famously in Athens) politics was dominated by aristocrats locked in competition with themselves and with their opponents. What this self-styled class of aristoi had in common was their mostly hostile regard for a sectional group that was seen to be dangerous because it was property-less and hungry for political power. Such references help to explain why democracy (demokratia : from demos and kratos, rule) had so few intellectual defenders, and why its critics pointed to the demos as a potentially destructive force within the life of the political community.
Few observers have spotted that the negative connotations of the word demokratia – a form of polity defined by the exercise by some of self-interested or sectional power over others – are buried within the very word democracy itself. The verb kratein (κρατείν) is usually translated as‘to rule’ or ‘to govern’, but in fact its original connotations are harsher, tougher, more brutal. To use the verb kratein is to speak the language of military manoeuvring and military conquest : kratein means to be masterof, to conquer, to lord over, to possess (in modern Greek the same verb means to keep, or to hold), to be the stronger, to prevail or get the upper hand over somebody or something. Homer’s Odyssey and Sappho’sSupplements both use kratein in this way. The noun kratos (κράτος), from which the compound demokratia was formed, similarly refers to might, strength, imperial majesty, toughness, triumphant power, and victory over others, especially through the application of force. The now obsolete verb demokrateo (δηµοκρατέω) brims with all of these connotations : it means to grasp power, or to exercise control over others.1
From the standpoint of today, these are indeed strange and unfortunate connotations. They bring us to a first major difficulty in simple-minded uses of the word democracy : that it is the carrier of exactly the opposite meaning of what most democrats today mean when they speak of democracy, in much more complex ways, as non-violent inclusiveness, power-sharing based on compromise and fairness, as equality based upon the legally guaranteed respect for others’ dignity. Interpreted simultaneously with ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ eyes, the word democracy is untrue both to itself and to its users. It is a double-standard word. Like adouble-agent that charms those around it into thinking that it is something that it is not, talk of ‘democracy’ invokes an original meaning that betrays what the word today conveys. For Greek commentators and critics alike, demokratia was a unique form of rule – note the accurate Latin translation of kratein with regulare : to control, to exercise sway over – in which the demos acts as a selfish body in pursuit of its own particular interests. Here the word demokratia has one thing in common with other contemporary words used to describe the rule of sectional interests – words like aristokratia (αριστοκρατία : aristocracy), ploutokratia (πλουτοκρατία: the rule of the rich) and monokratoria (µονοκρατορία monocracy, or the rule of a single person). To speak of demokratia is to point to a particular group whose particular interests are not identical with everyone’s interests. In a demokratia the demos holds kratos,1 which is another way of saying that it is prone to act forcefully, to get its own particular way by using violence, either against itself but especially against others. This is exactly what Plato meant by his remark that democracy is a two-faced form of government, ‘according to whether the masses rule over the owners of property by force or by consent’2. The unknown Old Oligarch had much the same thing in mind when dressing down demokratia as the rule of the lowest and most misguided section of the population, the demos, who sometimes strive to exercise power by making common cause with sections of the aristoi.3 When this happens, the people are ruled in their own name. Demokratia still refers to a form of sectional rule based on force but its emphasis undergoes a subtle shift, towards something like empowerment through the people. Demokratia is a form of polity in which the people are ruled while seeming to rule.
Strategic Abuses of Democracy
It may be objected that a genealogy of the word democracy is an exercise in antiquarianism or, worse, intellectual pedantry. The charge might be persuasive if indeed democracy as a form of government had been confined to the ancients. That was of course not to be, for the revival of the discourse of democracy in the late sixteenth-century Low Countries prepared the way for the emergence of democratic institutions as a modern form of life – as a sui generis mode of organizing power. What is of interest here is that the divisive, exclusionary connotations of the word democracy did not disappear with its ‘modernization’. They were if anything resuscitated and strengthened by a political tendency that has in the meantime become something of a well-established pattern : the tendency of actors to invoke the word democracy, understood as popular sovereignty, as a handy weapon in the struggle for power over others.
Considering the fall of early civilizations, decentralization and privatization come into focus as important for understanding. They have, in at least some major examples, been closely associated with periods of decline. That doesn’t necessarily imply they are the cause. Instead, it may simply be a sign. Decline just means change. An old order changing will always be perceived of as a decline.
The creation of centralized government is at the heart of the civilization project. Prior to the city-states and empires of ‘civilization’, people governed themselves in many ways without any need of centralization for most everything had been local. It required the centralization (i.e., concentration) of growing populations to create the possibility and necessity of centralized governance. A public had to be formed in opposition to a private in order for a public good to be spoken of. Privacy becomes more valued in crowded cities.
Early hunter-gatherers seemed to have thought a lot less about privacy, if they had any concept of it at all, certainly not in terms of sound-dampening walls and locked doors. In that simpler lifestyle, most everything was held in common. There was no place that was the Commons for all of the world was considered the commons, for the specific people in question. Personal items would have been the exception, rather than the rule. Before the modern condition of extreme scarcity and overpopulation, there would have been less motivation to fight over private property.
It should be no surprise that periods of decentralization and privatization coincided with periods of population dispersal and loss. The decline of civilizations often meant mass death or migration.
We live in different times, of course. But is it really any different now?
When people today advocate decentralization and privatization, what does that mean in the larger sense? When some fantasize about the decline of our present social order, what do they hope will result? What is motivating all this talk?
If it is a sign, what is a sign of? What changes are in the air?
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1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed Eric H. Cline pp. 152-4
DECENTRALIZATION AND THE RISE OF THE PRIVATE MERCHANT There is one other point to be considered, which has been suggested relatively recently and may well be a reflection of current thinking about the role of decentralization in today’s world.
In an article published in 1998, Susan Sherratt, now at the University of Sheffield, concluded that the Sea Peoples represent the final step in the replacement of the old centralized politico-economic systems present in the Bronze Age with the new decentralized economic systems of the Iron Age— that is, the change from kingdoms and empires that controlled the international trade to smaller city-states and individual entrepreneurs who were in business for themselves. She suggested that the Sea Peoples can “usefully be seen as a structural phenomenon, a product of the natural evolution and expansion of international trade in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium, which carried within it the seeds of the subversion of the palace-based command economies which had initiated such trade in the first place.” 57
Thus, while she concedes that the international trade routes might have collapsed, and that at least some of the Sea Peoples may have been migratory invaders, she ultimately concludes that it does not really matter where the Sea Peoples came from, or even who they were or what they did. Far more important is the sociopolitical and economic change that they represent, from a predominantly palatial-controlled economy to one in which private merchants and smaller entities had considerably more economic freedom. 58
Although Sherratt’s argument is elegantly stated, other scholars had earlier made similar suggestions. For example, Klaus Kilian, excavator of Tiryns, once wrote: “After the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, when ‘private’ economy had been established in Greece, contacts continued with foreign countries. The well-organized palatial system was succeeded by smaller local reigns, certainly less powerful in their economic expansion.” 59
Michal Artzy, of the University of Haifa, even gave a name to some of the private merchants envisioned by Sherratt, dubbing them “Nomads of the Sea.” She suggested that they had been active as intermediaries who carried out much of the maritime trade during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC. 60
However, more recent studies have taken issue with the type of transitional worldview proposed by Sherratt. Carol Bell, for instance, respectfully disagrees, saying: “It is simplistic … to view the change between the LBA and the Iron Age as the replacement of palace administered exchange with entrepreneurial trade. A wholesale replacement of one paradigm for another is not a good explanation for this change and restructuring.” 61
While there is no question that privatization may have begun as a by-product of palatial trade, it is not at all clear that this privatization then ultimately undermined the very economy from which it had come. 62 At Ugarit, for example, scholars have pointed out that even though the city was clearly burned and abandoned, there is no evidence either in the texts found at the site or in the remains themselves that the destruction and collapse had been caused by decentralized entrepreneurs undermining the state and its control of international trade. 63
In fact, combining textual observations with the fact that Ugarit was clearly destroyed by fire, and that there are weapons in the debris, we may safely reiterate that although there may have been the seeds of decentralization at Ugarit, warfare and fighting almost certainly caused the final destruction, with external invaders as the likely culprits. This is a far different scenario from that envisioned by Sherratt and her like-minded colleagues. Whether these invaders were the Sea Peoples is uncertain, however, although it is intriguing that one of the texts at Ugarit specifically mentions the Shikila/ Shekelesh, known from the Sea Peoples inscriptions of Merneptah and Ramses III.
In any event, even if decentralization and private individual merchants were an issue, it seems unlikely that they caused the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, at least on their own. Instead of accepting the idea that private merchants and their enterprises undermined the Bronze Age economy, perhaps we should consider the alternative suggestion that they simply emerged out of the chaos of the collapse, as was suggested by James Muhly of the University of Pennsylvania twenty years ago. He saw the twelfth century BC not as a world dominated by “sea raiders, pirates, and freebooting mercenaries,” but rather as a world of “enterprising merchants and traders, exploiting new economic opportunities, new markets, and new sources of raw materials.” 64 Out of chaos comes opportunity, at least for a lucky few, as always.