A Moment of Opportunity

I think I mentioned that on Thursday, I’m doing this 160-mile (give or take) bike ride, Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day (RAMROD). That’s why my family took off for the beach this week: Because on Wednesday I’ll be getting ready for this ride, and then on Thursday Dad and I will get up about 3:00 am (!) to drive down to Enumclaw to start riding at 5:30 am.

In preparation for this insanity, I’ve started getting up slightly earlier every morning. Yesterday it was 5:00 am; this morning, 4:30; tomorrow, 4:00 am (!!!!!! I try not to think about it too much). The theory is that I’ll be able to go to bed earlier each night, and that maybe it’ll make 3:00 am feel a little less like the middle of the night. A month ago, it actually wouldn’t have been so middle-of-the-night-ish, because the sun started rising about 4:00 am. But alas, we’re down from 16 to a measly 15 or so hours of daylight, and it’s definitely quite dark even at 4:30 am.

Anyway, getting up this early gives me some time, and I’ve spent a bit of it reading meta-analyses and discussions about the current global political situation. Many people I know have noticed it’s depressing, alarming, intolerable… but these couple articles I’ve been reading go farther than that, into interesting (and, yes, alarming) 10,000-foot views.

In the first one, titled “History tells us what may happen next with Brexit and Trump,” the author argues that people periodically inflict chaos upon themselves, but because we–all people–are short-term thinkers, we don’t remember that we’ve done this before. The academics who do notice are dismissed by the masses as “academic elites” who know nothing about the real world. The author suggests that

based on history we are due another period of destruction, and based on history all the indicators are that we are entering one. …It will come in ways we can’t see coming, and will spin out of control so fast people won’t be able to stop it.

He argues that things are likely to get really bad, possibly for many people, and cites a number of historical examples (think: Communist uprisings; World War I) where really horrendous numbers of people died from self-inflicted choices. Of course, nobody saw it coming, because we don’t look back at the past. But it’s there.

…it’s all inevitable. I don’t know what it will be, but we are entering a bad phase. It will be unpleasant for those living through it, maybe even will unravel into being hellish and beyond imagination. Humans will come out the other side, recover, and move on. The human race will be fine, changed, maybe better. But for those at the sharp end?… this will be their Somme.

I find this conclusion particularly interesting. He begins his article arguing that the Black Death may have actually strengthened and improved humans in the long run (see article for full argument), and perhaps this will be our Black Death/Communist revolution/Archduke Ferdinand moment. But taking this period in the broader view of history as one of many similar events, which will eventually be overcome and perhaps even strengthen us–this is not an easy view to take, because today, right now, we have to face the reality of the possible misery we’re inflicting on ourselves. But maybe it’s a little bit hopeful for the long-term.

Also, it would sure be great if we didn’t inflict this on ourselves. If we could learn from those past mistakes. History didn’t have the kind of global communication network we enjoy today; it’s easier than ever to communicate with thousands, millions, perhaps even billions of people around the world. Unfortunately, it’s also easier than ever to live in an echo chamber, continually hearing our own views and thinking they’re the only truth. This is how people come to believe that everything is worse than ever before, and the world is falling apart: Now we can instantly receive news of every bad event happening around the world, and then our chosen voices reinforce the fearful belief of spiraling insanity. Even though we can communicate more easily than ever before, this may not actually be good for us.

In the second article, written at the beginning of May before Trump sealed the nomination, is titled “Democracies end when they are too democratic.” In it, the author compares Plato’s “Republic” to today. Now, I can’t claim to have read it (my classical education was woefully neglected; my parents have so much to answer for!), but fortunately the author assumes we’ve all missed our classical educations, and he summarizes for us:

And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.

[Plato describes the tyrant this way:] He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess—“too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” — and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

The article goes on to discuss the fragility of democracy against tyrants, how our amazing freedom literally allows us to choose our own downfall:

I think we must confront this dread and be clear about what this election has already revealed about the fragility of our way of life and the threat late-stage democracy is beginning to pose to itself. …[American democracy] is not immortal, nor should we assume it is immune to the forces that have endangered democracy so many times in human history. …It is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.

This goes back to the previous article I mentioned, how people forget the bad choices of the past and will repeatedly pick options not in their best interest. With democracy as democratic as we have it — and the article argues that it’s more democratic than ever before — people literally do have the power to choose harmful leaders, with increasingly weak checks that can no longer serve to protect people from their own bad decisions.

It also goes into how the rise of the Internet media and the decline of, well, mediated media has exacerbated the situation, as I noted above in my own thoughts:

The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking “Is this relevant?” or “Do we really need to cover this live?” in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before. …And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin. Godwin’s Law — it’s only a matter of time before a comments section brings up Hitler — is a reflection of the collapse of the reasoned deliberation the Founders saw as indispensable to a functioning republic.

Then, of course, the stage is set for Trump:

  • We’ve got people who don’t know history and aren’t aware of the many precedents of masses choosing catastrophic options;
  • We’ve got the loudest voice being heard the most, and traditional media tossing out editorial quality in favor of pursuing higher ratings and more traffic;
  • We’ve allowed the power to transfer to all of us, giving great power to ignorance and foolishness, with no balance or check to prevent the most compelling foolish choices (the article says, “The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force”);
  • We love to be entertained! Let the most entertaining person win.

I’ll let you all read the whole article, which then proceeds to evaluate why Trump is, in fact, winning–and why he may actually win it big. The long and short of it is that people, collectively, aren’t able to look beyond their own little moments to see a bigger picture.

This is why the Republicans couldn’t unite to defeat Trump in the primaries, and I greatly fear that “never Hillary” holdouts may win their battle but loose us all the war: Individuals aren’t willing to hold their noses and vote against something terrible (Trump) when it means voting for something less ideal (Hillary). Perhaps this time, Democrats can at least learn from the recent history of the Republicans’ failure to stop Trump, and die-hard Bernie supporters can vote for Hillary even though they don’t love her. Surely, if you’re starving, you might prefer cake, but you’d still eat Brussels sprouts over a pile of poop.

The appeal of Trump is compelling and understandable: A promise to instantly “win” for people who suddenly, unexpectedly started losing after a lifetime of winning themselves. The global picture of terror at every turn, combined with the uneven economic recovery that has left many folks in a tough spot, makes for potent motivation to seek out the loudest, strongest voice. He’s the choice that absolves you from ever having to make another choice again. Overwhelmed and terrified with how things seem to be going? Of course you’ll seek the blustering strongman who promises protection and stability, even while engendering destruction and danger.

To call this fascism doesn’t do justice to fascism. Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. But his movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion. …our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

We probably don’t need to be told this, but the article finishes by reminding us the danger of picking the bully to protect us.

Like all tyrants, he is utterly lacking in self-control. Sleeping a handful of hours a night, impulsively tweeting in the early hours, improvising madly on subjects he knows nothing about, Trump rants and raves as he surfs an entirely reactive media landscape. Once again, Plato had his temperament down: A tyrant is a man “not having control of himself [who] attempts to rule others”; a man flooded with fear and love and passion, while having little or no ability to restrain or moderate them; a “real slave to the greatest fawning,” a man who “throughout his entire life … is full of fear, overflowing with convulsions and pains.”

When we choose the biggest, loudest, meanest guy to protect us–a person totally unable to govern his own words, let alone an entire country–we will certainly suffer consequences. At best, that might mean four years of chaos and disrupted international relations, but at worst…I don’t know. The article closes rather alarmingly:

In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

But going back again to that first discussion, when you take the broader view, what do you see? Maybe this is the first drop in a thunderstorm of global chaos, or maybe it’s just some bird poop from a random passing crow. Even if it’s the former, what will happen in the very long-term? No system of government lasts forever. Either we take this as a warning shot across the bow and deliberately choose to reevaluate our way of governing to better fit with today’s culture, technology, and needs… or the same thing will happen, but after a lot more misery, loss, and bloodshed.

People, as people, will continue. Hopefully we will learn from this (although history suggests we won’t), build on the good and leave behind the bad from this time. It’s not all as dark as these articles paint it, because with every risk comes a reward. With people shaken out of their complacency, this is an opportunity to redeem and renew our system of government. It’s an opportunity to rise above the petty, selfish, hateful rhetoric and show what democracy is really good for–bringing our best and brightest to the top to lead us all. Maybe we don’t need the elites to be our checks and balances anymore; maybe we can use our technology to come together to make better choices than ever before.

Maybe.

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