Groupthink Gridlock

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemed to many the final triumph of Western liberal thought over a system known for its rigid adherence to doctrines driven by theory, the suppression of dissent, and demands for soul-crushing intellectual conformity by the nation’s elite leaders. A new golden age characterized by freedom of expression, a renewed faith in the value of free and open debate, and decision making based on facts rather than wishful fantasies had triumphed, and all the old divisions would be set aside in favor of a world run by a benevolent and tolerant meritocracy. Go, go Western democracies!

If you had told the celebrants who were gleefully demolishing the Berlin Wall that their futures would be characterized by crippling political polarization, public shaming of dissenters, and academic and political elites that ruthlessly enforced an intellectual orthodoxy that still somehow thrived despite ample evidence of its disastrous failures, they might well have put down their sledgehammers and gone home that day.

The liberal belief in a godlike global state that would be managed to peak efficiency by appointed bureaucrats managed to do little other than engineer a massive transfer of wealth to the super rich while insisting upon a zillion pettifogging regulations for the rest of us that neither protected our futures nor improved our daily lives. Our global elites instead enhanced the power of perhaps the most universally hated group on the planet—lawyers—because their expertise at navigating newly created mountains of arcane and contradictory bureaucratic mandates was now critical to every aspect of our now thoroughly regulated existences.

The steadily rising economic anger of the ruled against their rulers has now led to the election of Donald Trump in America, the revolt against the European Union that has pretty much ended the political career of its greatest champion, Angela Merkel, and the rise of populist leaders most everywhere else who have surfed to power on tsunamis of rage and outright revolt against the deeply dysfunctional status quo. The reaction of the new global elite to this new and unwelcome reality has been both predictable and depressing: Those who don’t appreciate our sage guidance are a bunch of ignorant and misguided bigots who fear what they cannot understand. Therefore, what we need now are new and enhanced powers to monitor and manage this unruly and ungrateful herd.

The self-serving outrage and smug insults of those leaders and their supporters who are angry about the vicissitudes of democracy isn’t likely to win back many of the disaffected. Here in the United States we are regularly treated to apocalyptic gabfests and learned commentary regarding why our governing structures are suddenly too weak to stand up to the scary “white supremacists” who are now diligently engaging in the one action that is characteristic of all budding domestic terrorists: casting a vote in an election. Democracy kind of sucks when those whom you deign to rule tell you to shove off.

However, despite their unwilling efforts to better understand the peculiar motivations of those whose lives revolve around work, faith, and family, the mainstream media and Beltway insiders have mostly fallen back on that old standby strategy familiar to despots the world over when faced with a revolt: We need to reassert our control by crushing dissent. Hence, we hear and read repeated calls to censor the dissemination of opposing viewpoints, incitement of the harassment of those who question the status quo, and the launching of daily ad hominem attacks on the values and morals of those deemed enemies of the statist solutions. Aided and abetted by those in academia equally concerned about the yearnings of many Americans to slip the leash of government-approved behavior and beliefs, we are regularly warned of the hell lying just ahead unless these ideas—and those who hold them—are destroyed and their rights to free speech are suppressed.

The problem is, of course, that neither the globalist or nationalist viewpoint is correct 100% of the time. Just as some matters are best left to individual nations to manage for themselves, so are some problems large and complex enough to warrant a response coordinated by an international body.

A thoughtful explanation followed by a reasonable suggestion is still more than able to sway opinions when the necessity arises, and the 2018 elections should be proof enough that democracy still has sturdy powers of self-correction despite breathless predictions of its imminent demise. However, those who lack faith in the wisdom of the governed are still anxious to hand power to unaccountable authorities who can more easily override the wishes of those who are obviously too stupid to manage their own lives or the planet without leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

New ideas are neither inherently dangerous nor destructive, but the ongoing effort to silence those who want to change the current direction of our nation and world will simply frustrate the legitimate aspirations of many and promote yet more of the theory-driven groupthink that has landed us in the mess we are today. Any refusal to listen is ultimately more harmful than the idea being expressed, and we might find that even those supposedly ignorant and bigoted masses who are not properly credentialed to rule have many ideas worthy of consideration. In the final analysis, those who do the working and the sweating will always understand more than those who devote their cloistered lives to study and judgement—so the voices of the people should be treated with far more respect than they often are today.

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Our “No Trust” Nation

Who and what are Americans to believe in today?

Polls show that we suffer from a crushing lack of faith in government, business, educational institutions, religion, law enforcement, news organizations—and one another.  The outcomes of this perhaps unprecedented collapse in trust in most every aspect of our daily lives are felt everywhere we look, and this likely accounts for much of the sour and suspicious insularity that pervades both our politics and personal lives today.

Our personal lives are based on trust, and the frightening cynicism that pervades our society—and manifests itself most obviously in our suffocating self-absorption and childish focus on our own personal needs above all else—drives many to either “hook up” without any long term commitment or simply retreat into daily lives built around video games and online pornography.  The amazing numbers of people who are alone—yet seem not to even want to bother with human intimacy—is a symptom of a culture and people devoid of even the minimal faith necessary to have a cup of coffee with someone whom they find interesting or attractive.  Of course, anyone willing to contemplate either emotional or physical intimacy must also reckon with the amazing lack of both personal boundaries and respect for the privacy of others that now pervades our existences.  Expect to have a slurp-by-slurp description of your encounters pop up on social media somewhere because apparently an occurrence is no longer real until it is blared to a global audience—which is both frightening and ridiculous.

No society can thrive without trust.  No one will, for example, be willing to engage in dialogue if they doubt both the veracity of the information provided and the good intentions of others involved in the conversation.  Moreover, the willingness to marry, start a business, have a child, earn a college degree, buy a house, or work diligently at a job—each a basic function inherent in a successful nation—all rely on trust in either the future or in others.  No modern economy can thrive without the willingness to both extend credit and assume reasonable debt; the alternative is a pre-industrial system of barter trade that was the key feature of medieval life.  Worst of all, those who lack trust gradually—and catastrophically—stop thinking about the future and focus on nothing other than the here and now, which is an impediment to building the societal consensus necessary to both solve problems today and make the investments of time and money needed to ensure successful tomorrows.

The counterargument is, of course, that our leaders and institutions have failed us and are undeserving of our trust—and there is certainly validity to this.  However, although we seem to now be unable to easily find leaders who can readily recognize that sweet spot on the spectrum between naive idealism and ruthless realpolitik, we must also keep in mind that the renowned men and women of our past were probably not much better.  Time tends to wear the rough edges off both memories and events, and part of the problem with our “warts and all” modernity that records—and endlessly replays—our political and cultural highs and lows is that we are mercilessly stripped of our illusions and reduced to weary cynicism because we cannot escape the fact that our leaders are just a fallible are we are.  Much like children who are crushed to find out there is no Santa Claus, we rage over the foibles of others who share our human weaknesses and are disappointed that no one in charge can ever satisfy our every need in precisely the manner in which we want it to be satisfied.

This childish need to have our every wish granted without having to deal with gritty and unwelcome realities is likely a key component of the irrational attraction many voters currently have for socialism—now rebranded as a new and improved American type of “Democratic” socialism offering the same empty promises that have beguiled previous generations around the world.  

As a system of political, economic, and social organization, socialism has probably destroyed more lives than the Black Plague, but its attractiveness to those who believe that capitalism has failed because some are rich and some are poor is perhaps less puzzling when we view it as a symptom of our crushing lack of trust.  

If one proceeds from the presumption that no one can be trusted to provide what you “deserve”, and there are those who promise to help “the people” experience painless wealth and ease by taxing and regulating those who hold undeserved wealth and power, it sounds pretty darned good. Particularly in light of the harsh fact that our nation—along with most of the developed countries around the world—is crashing headlong into the fiscal limitations of the post-WW II welfare state, the promise of endless benefits paid by a magic pot of money extracted from those who either lucky, smart, or both is simply irresistible to many who have no trust in the American economic system today.  

This will not, of course, end well, but socialism’s many bold promises initially play well with people who have lost trust in their leaders and institutions. However, before we go that route entirely, it might be worth asking the Russians of 1917 and the Germans of 1933 how state-run socialism worked out for them in the long run.

The obvious problem we now face is that—after many decades of continued government interference and control of our national economy—we are far closer to socialism than should be comfortable. The redoubled efforts we will now face to encourage yet more “partnership” between business and government—which typically takes the form of subsidies, regulations, and ever more threat of legal jeopardy—are not going to solve the crisis of trust that so infects much of our electorate. Recommencing our nation’s journey along the path to more government control and oversight of our economic life, which has been only slightly interrupted over the past couple of years, is likely to further cripple the hopes and dreams of many, leaving them little choice but to be further infantilized by elected officials and bureaucrats who will promise parental care and understanding—if only they are given the power to do so by voters so dissatisfied with their lives that they will choose to believe in the snake oil of socialism.  After these new-style socialist officials are in power, we will be assured of little but that the rewards of hard work and personal initiative will continue to erode as this terrible and destructive path to national ruin turns more Americans into passive and miserable wards of the all-powerful state.

Revealing the truth—that although sometimes people are ridiculously lucky or terribly unlucky, most success in an actual capitalist system still derives from brains, hard work, and sacrifice—is nowhere near as much fun as promising oodles of freebies. Telling people to put their heads down and work harder—but without any guarantee of having their fondest dreams fulfilled—is not a winning campaign message when so many are preoccupied with the blatant and blinding unfairness of a system now run to enrich the few at the expense of the many. However, until the electorate wises up to how the current economic disasters of their lives are brought to them courtesy of their own government’s corrupt and idiotic polices, which is doubtful at best, many politicians will continue to peddle their own version of El Dorado, the mythical “lost city of gold” that was there for the taking.

For those who don’t care to Google it, the myth of El Dorado drove many early explorers to madness and mayhem as they scoured the jungles of Central and South America for the gold and jewels that they were told were just lying there ready to be scooped off the ground.  Why did they believe such an outlandish and implausible story?  Perhaps for the same reason we continue to elect those who promise us all manner of government largesse without any explanation of how to pay for any of it.  We choose to believe in wild tales of wealth that can be ours for the taking because we find the belief comforting—particularly when we no longer trust our nation and its leadership to watch out for our best interests because the system is run for the benefit of insiders and government-sponsored grifters.

The “Blue Ripple”

We are, or course, well into the Midterm election post-mortem period.

On the one hand, we have the Republicans, who are pleased to have limited their midterm losses (as of this date) to 31 seats in the House while solidifying their grip on the Senate with 2 pickups.

Having won the right to hold hearings and howl about Donald Trump’s policies, expect lots of Democrat drama and endless House investigations starting next year.  However, that will pretty much be the beginning and end of the Democratic agenda and accomplishments for the next two years—unless they are willing to hold their noses and work cooperatively with President Trump.  Stymied in the Senate and vexed by the veto pen, the dreams of true-blue progressives for a government that is far more expansive and expensive will remain beyond reach.  Seeking to embarrass the school bully whenever possible will be all they can hope to do until 2020.

Perhaps most important to Republicans, their stranglehold on the Senate confirmation process will allow them to continue to put a deeply conservative stamp on the Supreme Court and federal judiciary, which will be a legacy that will live for decades beyond the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.  

On the other hand, we have the Democrats asking a familiar existential question: What happened?  Just a few short months ago Democrat candidates seemed poised to sweep away Republican office holders like a sharp scythe cutting down the tall grass.  Why the Democrats failed to close the deal will be the subject of much public and private discussion.  Given that the norm since 1908 is that the party holding the White House has lost 30 House seats and 4 more in the Senate, Democrat gains for 2018 are well in the range of average to below average.  Just as a point of comparison, the scorecard for Barack Obama’s first term Midterm was the devastating losses of 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats.  Republicans are obviously letting out a sigh of relief today after the many predictions of a similar Election Day catastrophe befalling them failed to materialize.

An additional worry for the Democrats going forward is that the trinity of charismatic progressive candidates who were supposed to be the core of the next generation of leadership for the party—Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Andrew Gillum in Florida, and Stacey Abrams in Georgia—all struggled mightily in their races (1 loss and 2 still in limbo).  Now facing the prospect of being stuck with their same ossified leadership going forward, the bench for a 2020 challenge to Donald Trump still looks very thin indeed, although many are actively exploring the possibility of somehow recycling Mr. O’Rourke for a national run buoyed by his amazing fundraising magic.

However, it must be noted that the Democrats did begin the road to bouncing back from their catastrophic state level losses during the Obama administration, when their representation at the state level sank to lows not seen since the 1920’s.  Perhaps when you hit rock bottom you have nowhere to go but up, but additional governorships and state legislative seats will allow Democrats to roll out some of their healthcare, environmental, and economic agenda on a smaller scale, which will provide useful laboratories for testing the differences between high-minded theory and blunt reality when it comes to the troublesome balance between taxing, spending, and debt.

I have a couple of theories regarding why, despite throwing every resource they had into this year’s elections, the Democrats managed to not even meet the historic norm for midterm electoral success—and this against a President whom they believe to be an unmitigated disaster.

First and foremost, Democrats forgot the lesson of 2016: Insulting Donald Trump is like punching a brick wall—the pain is yours and yours alone.  After mistakenly believing that hurling invective at Donald Trump was sufficient to win two years ago, the deafening rage of today’s bug-eyed haters of his politics and personality again managed to obliterate any possibility of rational discussion of Democrat policies that might provide feasible alternatives.  Moreover, the stream of snark and shabbiness from those who could barely keep their heads from exploding at every Trumpian tweet both enlivened his loyal base and fed perfectly into his strategy of convincing independents that crazed and crazy Democrats could not be trusted with the keys to the family car.  It is worth also remembering that if the most visible spokespeople for your cause are late night comedians and oddball D-list actors and celebrities, you’ve got a major problem with your political messaging going forward.

Speaking of message, this brings attention to the second problem that the Democrats had during this election: Resistance is not enough.  I pay a great deal of attention to politics, and I would have a very hard time explaining the party’s platform—beyond impeaching Donald Trump.  Spiteful promises of retribution mashed up with high-flown rhetoric and sanctimonious virtue-signaling are not the same as actionable plans to reach an objective.  In addition, making multiple promises of new programs and benefits—most of which have the word “free” baked inside them—but offering no specifics regarding actual financial execution (aside from raising taxes on the one-percent) does not inspire voter confidence.

I also suspect that the wild nomination hearings of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court were a huge turn-off for many swing voters.  The venom displayed likely startled those who still entertained the fantasy that Democrat Senators were respectable members of a great deliberate body instead of a gaggle of craven careerists who mug for the cameras in order to excite potential campaign donors.  One’s assessment of the final Senate confirmation vote is, of course, wholly a function of one’s political leanings, but the process was not one prone to engender great faith in the Democrat Party and its grasp of either evidentiary standards or the legal presumption of innocence.

This election also might be the point at which we need to finally admit that political polling is, for all its supposed science, no more reliable at predicting electoral outcomes than the Farmer’s Almanac is at predicting the season’s weather.  The stupendously confident failures of 2016 morphed into the careful hedging of 2018—but to no great benefit.  On the whole, the many, many predicted outcomes, which seemed to change daily, bore but a passing resemblance to the actual results, and the supposed clarity was more akin to blind guesswork in many cases.  

However, much more importantly, we can now see that many voters beyond the confines of liberal redoubts clustered on the coasts and college towns just aren’t buying wholeheartedly into what the Democrats are trying to sell, which will continue to cap their national electoral ambitions in 2020 and beyond.  

Democratic Socialism?  Expedited illegal immigration?  Massive tax increases?  Increased regulation?  Globalized government?  Yet larger bureaucracies?  More scolding by legislatively-mandated scolds?  None of these are issues likely to excite anyone other than the already faithful, who have an almost mystical belief in the power of big government to improve our lives—despite much evidence to the contrary.

Russian internet trolls are not to blame for the Democrat “Blue Wave” washing out to sea this time around, although I predict a whole series of new House hearings that will try to revive the rotting corpse of Russia-gate and demand that Robert Mueller be empowered to continue his investigations until he finally finds the elusive evidence that Donald Trump is a KGB stooge who gets down on his knees and prays to a statue of Vladimir Putin every night.  Unfortunately, untilthat day comes—or Democrats end up losing the House again in 2020—we can expect that unsubstantiated allegations, innuendo, and angry diatribes will be the chosen language of President Trump’s not-very-loyal opposition as they struggle to remain relevant during the years ahead.

Will U.S. Citizenship Remain A “Birthright”?

Just when you might have thought the debates about immigrationboth legal and illegalcould not become more difficult and emotional, there is yet another controversy now brewing: President Trumps plan to end birthright citizenship by executive order for those whose parents have entered the United States illegally.  This executive order, should it actually come to pass, would certainly be immediately challenged in federal court, and it could be several years before the matter works its way up to the Supreme Court for an ultimate resolution regarding the meaning and intent of the 14th Amendment.

For a nation populated by immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, this issue obviously has special resonance, and it collides with our national identity as a nation that has always welcomed everyone to our shores.  The reality is, of course, starkly different.  

When the early American period of frontier expansion, which required a large and ready pool of immigrants ready to risk all in order to seize lands held by others, came to an end toward the end of the late 1800s, immigrants piling into now-established cities and towns became an increasing irritant to those already settled in place.  More restrictive laws were soon enacted to stem the influx of foreignersbringing their cultures and languages ashore to dilute the supposed purity and perfection of this new nation.  The taint of otherness that greeted many new immigrants to this country was often based upon the crudest ignorance and bigotry, but Americas population nonetheless became ever more diverse over time as a sometimes unfair and occasionally arbitrary system of legal immigration was developed and refined over the decades to come.

However, over the past several decades the number of people residing in the United States illegally has skyrocketed, and their unlawful entries have been enabled by both poorly conceived and executed governmental policies and the efforts of private organizations advocating on behalf of unrestricted immigration. Unsurprisingly, many pressing questions have arisen regarding how to respond to an undocumented population that has been estimated to range from 11 to 22 million adults, adolescents, and children.

President Trump won election partlysome might say primarilybased on his promise to stem the tide of illegal immigration to the United States, and over the first two years of his administration we have all been witness to the many political firestorms that have accompanied his efforts to both harden our borders and expeditiously expel those who circumvented or ignored legal requirements for entry.  Many states and local governments have responded to this effort by asserting their local sovereignty and refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authoritiesand some have even advocated for abolishing ICE, the agency now tasked with enforcing the laws and regulations now on the books.

Now added to this mix is the question of whether American citizenship will continue to be automatically granted to the American-born children of illegal immigrants, which is an issue quite separate from the ongoing discussions concerning how to resolve the legal status of those brought here as children by parents who entered the United States illegally and raised them in this country.  As one can easily see, the many layers of complex problems that require resolution by Congress and the courts defy tidy morality and easy answers.  

The inherent sloppiness of realityin this case compounded by decades of shortsighted thinking regarding immigration policies and enforcementguarantees that a substantial number of Americans will be dissatisfied with the resolution of the cases of the many millions of people who live in the United States but have no legal basis for continuing to do so.  We know many innocents will be made to suffer due to the past stupidity of our government.  Moreover, given that it is functionally impossible for America to absorb everyone who wants to live in our great nation, many will be compelled to leave so that some may stay.  The forced exodus of those who have grown accustomed to life in the United States and presumed they could remain forever because our immigration policies regarding illegal entry were apparently all but forgotten will cause real pain to both those compelled to leave and those left behind.

The newest wrinklethat of the possible limitations of the 14th Amendmentwill be a topic of heated debate.  Originally crafted after the Civil War in order to confer immediate citizenship to freed slaves, the question of whether this Constitutional amendment applies equally to the American-born children of those who entered America illegally has never been fully resolved, and the fear among advocates for the undocumented is that federal courts now being rapidly reshaped by the conservative appointees of President Trump will tend toward a circumscribed interpretation at odds with the more expansive and welcoming immigration policies they favor.

There is little doubt that stricter enforcement of existing immigration lawsand perhaps a landmark reinterpretation of the 14th Amendmentwill divide Americans in the years ahead.  Attempting to either deport or legitimize tens of millions of people will have a major impact upon many families and communities, and there is no doubt this will be a political and social wedge issue in our nation for a long time to come.  However, the alternative, which boils down to an open border policy, is simply not feasibleespecially given the incredible number of people who are desperate to live in America in order to escape economic hardship, political persecution, and violent crime in their own countries.

All we can really expect looking forward is more anger and anguish.

Bombs Away?

The recent spate of mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats was abhorrent. Sadly, those who are angry—and likely isolated and delusional—can terrorize us in a variety of ways, but attempting to murder others with anonymous bombs is particularly cowardly and awful.

Thankfully, law enforcement has already identified and arrested a suspect, and one can only applaud the incredible work of the FBI and others who worked so skillfully and quickly to apprehend him. We are lucky indeed that no injuries resulted from these explosive devices, and continued investigation will discover whether others were involved with these criminal actions.

Now let us take a step back, count to ten, and watch the actions of a dangerous and disaffected looney become immediately tangential to the political blame game that will blaze through the media between now and the midterm elections—and likely far beyond.

This is the sad and divided nation that we live in today. Rather than simply be grateful that an obviously crazy individual was captured and no one was hurt, we are going to have to portion out the blame for a crazed bomber to one party or politician based upon our own blame-filled political beliefs. How fortunate we are that the period between now and the midterm elections can be packed with some extra bitterness and bile beyond that which already is poisoning our national dialogue.

For the record, it is my belief that trying to find a logical reason to explain the actions of those who are clearly mentally unstable is itself just a bit crazy. Keep in mind that President Reagan was nearly killed in 1981 by a cuckoo who believed that political assassination was the ideal way to impress a famous actress—these oddballs aren’t renowned for their logical and linear thinking. The history of political violence throughout our world’s history is basically a parade of lonely losers who were deluded enough to believe that killing a leader would somehow redeem their miserable and empty lives.

It would certainly be for the best if all our pundits and politicians could refrain from riling up their viewers and supporters in their eternal quest for ratings and votes, but this will never happen. Conflict is, perversely enough, a winning strategy; to pretend otherwise would be both foolish and naive.

Moreover, because we quite naturally revel in hearing that the viewpoints and actions of others prove our own moral and intellectual superiority, our increasingly partisan news and information systems have ready and credulous audiences. More and more hearing and reading no thoughts other than those that match our own, daily tailoring what we hear and read to match our preconceived notions about the “reality” of the world around us and those who inhabit it, creates an intellectual echo chamber that only further narrows our already narrow minds and hardens our hardened hearts.

The word bombs that destroy our tattered unity will only become worse if we do not take action. Therefore, I suggest that we consider reviving an updated version of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy that we heedlessly and needlessly discarded in 1987 which required news and information programs to present contrasting viewpoints regarding the issues of the day. This policy was not a perfect solution—and discussions about implementing any similar policy will crash into today’s enormously complex and interconnected digital world—but it did provide for some welcome and necessary measure of balance regarding the presentation of news and opinion.

Our nation and its citizens are poorly served by the hyper-partisanship of our media today. The very existence of, for example, a super conservative Fox News and an abundantly liberal MSNBC—both sneering at the sheer stupidity of the other side—contributes little to creating the bipartisan consensus that is necessary to govern a country as diverse as our own. Each monocular and insular side of our national dialogue is equally culpable for creating the anger and divisions within what is perhaps now ironically called The United States of America. We are anything but united at the present time, and it will be a long and difficult road back from the chasm where we now stand—suspiciously staring at one another.

For any improvements to occur, we will also need to surrender that which is so precious to so many: a smug and intellectually lazy sense of our own correctness. As hard as it might be, admitting we can be wrong is the necessary first step to national reconciliation and unity.