Monday, February 20, 2017

Politics: The Bad, Not-So-Bad, and the Almost Good.

Moonstone Beach, Rhode Island

It's now a month since Donald Trump was inaugurated into office.  Yet so far, damage has been limited by the administration's inexperience, incompetence and political isolation.  The ability of the Republican Party to take advantage has been hampered by its own awkward transition from a voice of wild criticism (insulated from consequence by supine journalism and Obama's veto pen) to a ruling party that has to put its money where its mouth is, so to speak.  The stumbling has been compounded by Paul Ryan's miscalculation that he could first and foremost take down the Affordable Care Act before his caucus woke up to the political dangers of stripping health insurance from millions of Americans in order to give millionaires a tax cut.  It must make it seem all the more ill-timed that Trump's attacks on the media have shattered the complacency of the courtier press and woken many journalists up to their historical role as check on (and fact-checker of) the powerful.  Given how unpopular many of the Party's core priorities are, the last thing they need is an assertive press insisting on truth-telling or accurate math.

Although gerrymandering and the Citizen's United ruling insulate most of the House from any real blowback, they can't be happy to see the body politic getting itself riled up about Republican mis-rule.  Even quiescent constituencies like scientists, spies and bureaucrats have bestirred themselves.

In this latest installment about politics in the twilight of American empire, I thought I'd lay out a few of the repercussions that strike me as interesting.

The bad:

The vulnerable: Any political analysis today has to acknowledge that people are going to be hurt.  When it comes to the most marginalized, Americans wield their fantasies of meritocracy like a club.  We have set up a system that disadvantages certain people and then we blame them for their own lack of success.  Women, minorities, the young, the poor, the working class and so on, all swim upstream in the face of active opposition.  Now, our nation's worst tendencies of willful blindness, rationalization and cruelty will get free reign.  The message from on high - as they shred the safety net and whatever other protections and compensations we've managed to put into place - will be to blame the individual or to blame the Other, but don't blame the system or the powerful people who benefit from it, because that would be whining.  

Attacks on immigrants:  Families who have emigrated here will be torn apart and made scapegoats for a system that was created and maintained by powerful, wealthy men.  These are men who bankroll our politics and who preferred to create and maintain an underworld of vulnerable "illegals" rather than a system of legal immigration.  It's a system successfully designed to lower wages and decrease organized labor's influence by creating a politically weak form of second-class citizenship - and drive a wedge into the heart of the working class.

Xenophobic Isolationism:  From a progressive perspective, creating, nurturing and maintaining connections between cultures, nations, religions makes us a stronger, more resilient society.  For a host of reasons, it also keeps us safer in the face of threats like international (or domestic) terrorism. In contrast, xenophobic propaganda, tribalism and withdrawal - which characterizes the Trump administration - does the opposite.  They will not only fail to make us safer, but they will use their failure (i.e. the next terror attack by a non-Christian, non-White) to consolidate their power.

The not so bad:

Populism:  The pernicious, unspoken consensus among the political class about "free trade," economic globalization and trickle down effects has been broken now that the population has been given the opportunity to weigh in on a rogue candidate.  Although Trump is a crony capitalist rather than a populist (while his inner circle is more nationalist), he rode American populist anger to power and that genie will be hard for the parties to put back into the bottle.  For better or worse, both are now more open to attack by populists of various stripes.

The almost good:

Political Action:  Before November, my main concern about political culture was that the American experiment in democracy and middle-class capitalism would die with barely a whimper and fade into idiocratic oligarchy or corporate rule, but it seems democratization and government by the people is back on the table.  Grass roots conservatives were already restive obviously, but the threat of unfettered Republican rule has meant an end to a complacent faith among progressives about Progress with a capital P, and activism is suddenly on the upswing.  It remains to be seen whether that will be sustainable or effective, given how much effort has already gone into removing the levers of power from democratic reach, but people are paying attention in a way that is new and potentially disruptive.  

Re-Localization: There is a tension between local rule and state and federal rule.  Liberals embraced federal rule in part in order to overrule local and state preferences for racism, homophobia, patriarchy, environmental despoilment and so on.   Conservatives have resented being ruled by outside elites and liberals are waking up to find they like it just as much.  The current political flip opens to the door for a push among progressives for greater local control to pursue progressive agendas.  Given the fact that the federal government has shown little or no capacity to head off or solve the problems coming down the pipeline (including climate change, the end of cheap oil, economic de-growth, and winding down the US empire) it may be that our only hope of successful adaptation is to rely on a diversity of local approaches - rather than one organized from the top down.  I can't help but think that the sooner local democracy emerges from its current atrophied condition, the more likely we are to build more resilient localities.

But as the wise say,

We'll see.