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On Group Feeling and Group Conflict

On Group Feeling and Group Conflict

As part of my general sociological research on the Crisis Era and the recent pandemic, I have been studying the topic of ingroup solidarity and outgroup aggression. Essentially, this is the social theory of group identification and the idea that people are more likely to support those whom they perceive as belonging to their group and to be hostile to those whom they perceive as being outside of their group.

I’ve browsed some academic works, which typically define the ingroup and outgroup in either nationalistic or ethnic terms. The studies find support for the hypothesis (idea) above, with interesting twists. For example, level of support can be affected by perceptions of status difference and whether one’s own group’s status (privilege) is threatened, or whether an outgroup is perceived to be particular hostile to one’s ingroup. Both of these perceptions will lead to increased hostility towards an outgroup. With each of two groups perceiving the other in this way, they can get caught up in a vicious cycle of mutual hostility, certainly a recognizable phenomenon in many of the conflicts in our world.

Two groups caught up in such a vicious cycle may well be the political parties in the United States today. The degree of partisanship and rancor between the two factions has become legendary. I’ve been blogging about it for a long while now, and recently speculated that we have social media bubbles to sustain “group feeling”, in the words of Ibn Khaldun. To put it differently, social media bubbles serve to maintain ingroup solidarity, and sometimes even to encourage outgroup aggression.

I found this one fascinating paper which speculated that Trump’s election victory in 2016 might well have been because of greater group solidarity among Republicans than among Democrats. The resisters like to mock the MAGAs for acting like they are in a cult, but really MAGAs are just exhibiting stronger group feeling. This will only help them in the ongoing conflict. Link to the research paper follows.

Another source I studied as part of this little project is the book Tribe by Sebastian Unger. In this brief work, the author argues that one reason for so much anxiety and depression in modern life is that we are removed from our evolutionary past, in which we lived in small, cohesive groups (tribes). In other words, by nature, we have a deep need to experience group feeling. In times of war and disaster, this atavistic experience returns. And though no one wants to be in a war or disaster per se, those who do, such as veterans with PTSD, often report that they miss the feeling of solidarity they had with their group while they were in the midst of hardship and danger.

An interesting tidbit that I got out of Junger’s book is that personalities who tend towards aggression, while not well adapted for ordinary life in peaceful times, become an invaluable asset when survival is at stake, such as during wars and disasters. This is hardly surprising to learn; I only mention it in the context of the previous discussion of ingroup solidarity and outgroup aggression. To whatever extent people in one group (say, a political faction) feel that their status (privilege) is threatened or that they are targets for another group (faction), then aggression will be seen as a valuable survival trait.

I don’t want to end this post on such an ominous note, so I’ll also mention that in the research papers I looked at there was evidence for factors that mediate against hostility between groups. One, believe it or not, was simply persuasion. So maybe your social media posts aren’t all just shouting into an echo chamber. Another is the perception of a shared common fate with outgroups, or a sense of belonging to the ultimate group, “all of humanity.” If these factors can be encouraged, maybe there is hope for us after all.

For those who are interested, I’ve put links to the research papers below.

The Crisis Era in Terms of Khaldun’s Theory of Dynasty Formation

The Crisis Era in Terms of Khaldun’s Theory of Dynasty Formation

I recently posted about The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, a remarkable book on world history that was written in the 14th century, but has many ideas about political and social science that fit right in with modern philosophical views. In my post I couldn’t help but wonder what the author would say about the state of the world today, were he to somehow be here to observe it. He was a pretty successful guy in his time, as I understand it, and to time travel him to our mess of an era would probably be rude, but I guess if it was just for a consultation and then he got sent back home it would be OK.

So how he would describe the state of our civilization today? He would obviously be amazed at all the advanced technology, and at the population level and degree of urbanization across the planet, which he would have thought was unachievable because of the inherent limitations of “sedentary culture.” He also, I imagine, would be surprised by the prevalence of democratic government. While he mentions the Greeks and Romans in The Muqadimmah, I don’t recall that he ever acknowledges their systems of government in ancient times. He may not have even been aware of them.

If he actually was aware of the nature of ancient Greek and Roman government, he would certainly recognize them as the antecedents of our modern democratic systems. If not, their existence would be a real eye-opener for him. Either way, I think he could still find a way to frame his understanding of our government in terms of his theory of dynastic formation. He would say something to the effect that we had invested royal authority in a representative body by means of cleverly crafted laws. Assuming he had access to all the history between his time and now, he would also note that the laws were often found faulty and had to be revised, and sometimes broke down altogether in periods of incredibly destructive warfare. He might wonder if we really knew what we were doing.

He would probably be disappointed with the relative statuses of Christianity and Islam today. In The Muqaddimah he frequently refers to the European Christians as a people, but does not have much to say about them except to acknowledge that they live up to the north of the areas he is mainly interested in, which are Spain, North Africa and the Middle East (he uses different names), that is, the Muslim world. He is writing during the Islamic Golden Age, after all. If he were here today, he would have to face the reality that European Christians have successfully spread their culture to new lands across the seas and are generally richer and more powerful than the nations of the Islamic world.

Looking at the United States today, he would probably observe a decline in religious organization, and note that religion no longer acted as a restraining influence. He would then observe that the royal authority of the representative government was also in decline, and would probably attribute that to the generational distance from the time of the global war which had established the current dynasty. He would recognize the richness and diversity of our sedentary culture as a sign of a civilization in its final disintegrative phase.

Does it even make sense to describe the government of the U.S. as a “dynasty?” Well, it might, in order to shoehorn Khaldun’s theory into the modern era. The current dynasty in the U.S. could be understood as the institutional framework that came into existence in the aftermath of World War II, when there was strong group feeling in the country, and trust in big institutions. As the generations have passed that group feeling and trust have eroded, and the royal authority of the government has eroded accordingly. The dynasty (that is, institutional framework) founded four generations ago is now disintegrating; hence the reeling sense of chaos that pervades our society.

I think that the way Khaldun would describe our state is something like what follows. The absence of religion (shared values) as a restraining influence (ordering principle) means that royal authority (rule of law) is required to establish order. For a new dynasty (institutional framework) to form, a new faction must arise which has the group feeling (solidarity, consensus) and desert attitude (courage, willingness to sacrifice) to achieve superiority and establish its royal authority (recognized right to rule). Applying this model to the ongoing partisan conflict between the red zone and blue zone factions in our society, about which I’ve blogged a great deal, it’s clear that the winner of the conflict will be whichever faction most successfully marshals these qualities of solidarity and courage. That is, whichever faction has the strongest group feeling.

Seen in this light, that each faction has a social media bubble, where a consensus on facts and values is continuously reinforced, makes perfect sense. It’s an effort to sustain group feeling during the conflict, since losing that group feeling means granting superiority to the other faction. It’s really that simple.

Which faction is currently favored in the conflict? A few years back I would have speculated that the red zone faction, rallying around former President Trump, had a stronger group feeling. They really seemed to have a greater solidarity of purpose than the blue zone faction, split between its progressives and moderates. But after the failed coup attempt in early 2021, my sense is that the strength of their faction just wasn’t quite enough to achieve superiority, and now they are on the defensive. However, I would note, as Khaldun might put it, that the red zone has been more clever at manipulating the laws of royal authority to favor their faction.

I’d like to think that Ibn Khaldun would agree with my interpretation of modern events in light of his historical model. I bet that if we did snatch him out of time to come observe our era, he wouldn’t want to go back just yet – not until he saw how events in the rest of this phase of civilization unfold.

Life in the Purple Zone

Life in the Purple Zone

I live in Pennsylvania’s 6th congressional district. It’s a safely blue zone district, but I don’t really live in the blue zone. It definitely feels like MAGA-land here. How can this be?

The answer can be found by taking a look at the map of my district. It consists of one blue zone county, Chester county, which is like a huge exurb of Philadelphia, and also the southern corner of Berks county, including the city of Reading.

Clubbing together urban Reading and the West Philly exurbs makes this a blue zone district, even though there are swaths of rural and semi-rural country throughout which are solidly red zone. It’s not even that it’s gerrymandered. This district used to be and was dependably Republican, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the districts in 2018. If you look at the old map, you can see how bad the gerrymandering was.

Still, though this may be a sensibly drawn district, which will almost certainly have a Democratic representative in Congress, from where I sit, it feels like a Republican part of the country. I live about where the two highways meet, at the bottom of Berks county. It’s much closer to Reading than to Philadelphia, in an agricultural region known as Twin Valley. You just have to drive this way or that for a couple of minutes, and suddenly you are in beautiful rural country.

This is farm land (you can smell it periodically), and in fact is near Amish communities, and we see them driving by in their horse-drawn buggies all the time. So it’s kind of rural Pennsylvania, which accounts for the high preponderance of red zoners here. In 2020 there must have been four or five Trump signs to every Biden sign (mind you, there were a total of four houses in town, including ours, displaying Biden signs). Another sure sign that we’re red zone here is the very small percentage of people wearing face masks in public.

Nonetheless, to some degree this area is aligned with Philadelphia. There are people living here who work in the Philly area; if not in the city itself then in one of the nearby towns. It’s kind of a bedroom community for commuters to Philly. Possibly this commuter demographic is a little more blue zone.

In addition, where we live is right off of the Pennsylvania turnpike, and also on a state route that is a major travel artery, so we get a lot of through traffic. There’s even a place that truckers use as a depot to keep their trucks stored temporarily, sometimes camping out in them. So this place kind of has a trucker/biker Motorway City vibe. I’m sure those folks are all red zoners.

On top of all this, a casino just opened here a few days before Christmas, so who knows what will happen to the vibe here because of that. We’ve buzzed by the casino recently and its parking lot tends to be full, and I think the clientele is mostly older folks from the surrounding area.

The house we live in was built in the nineteenth century, no later than 1876. Meaning that we know it existed then, but aren’t sure of exactly what year it was built – probably just a few years before that. It’s been modified since then but still has an “old bones” feel to it. There are places where it leans a bit, and the doors don’t all fit snugly in the frames. It doesn’t have a central air system, so we put air conditioners in the window in the summer and rely on baseboard heating in the winter. At least it’s got insulation in the walls.

All around, there’s a fair amount of old construction here, but also new development, meaning people are looking to this place for opportunity and growth. The infrastructure is old compared to what I got used to when I lived in North Carolina, where the oldest development was from the 1970s. Here there are still telephone poles carrying power lines! There are a lot of old churches and graveyards, as well as this interesting kind of historic site – iron furnaces from the heyday of Pennsylvania’s regional iron-smelting industry. There are at least three such sites a short drive from our house.

In summary, life here in the purple zone is like being in a strange borderland, where the old and new coexist on the same roads, and almost everyone is travelling through, though many come back time and again. There aren’t quite enough likeminded people around to feel like I fit in, but not so very few that I feel completely isolated. Maybe that makes this place a perfect microcosm of the United States of America.

Rights vs. Responsibilities in the COVID Era

Rights vs. Responsibilities in the COVID Era

Take a look at the remarkable chart below, which shows death rates from COVID-19 for six different groups of United States counties. What distinguishes the groups of counties is the partisan voting rate, and what is remarkable is how much higher death rates are in Republican leaning counties than they are in Democratic leaning counties, after the first big wave, which hit primarily coastal megacities.

It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that this reflects the politicization of the pandemic, and how, in Republican-leaning parts of the country, there are lower vaccination rates and lower levels of compliance with mitigation rules such as wearing face masks and avoiding indoor gatherings. I’ve complained before about how insane this is, but here I want to give a little more thought as to why people might be motivated so differently in their behavior that they experience such disparate outcomes.

Here, I want to comment on how data like the above relates to two different ways of looking at the world. One is to see it from the standpoint of the individual, and their unique perspective. And the other is to see it from the standpoint of the collective of all people, which is what graphs like the above are doing. Graphs like the above are created by aggregating data – each week, a certain number of people die from COVID-19. Each individual death is a tragedy, and some deaths are unavoidable no matter how much we as a society try to mitigate against the spread of the virus. But looking at the aggregate data makes it plain how mitigation efforts do reduce overall suffering and death. That’s why we ask, as a society, for everyone to participate collectively in this effort.

The problem is, large numbers of people don’t want to see the world from this collective perspective. Their preference is to focus on the individual, and the rights of the individual. It’s like they see the dots on the graph, but not the curve. But one dot alone doesn’t give you any information, when you are trying to determine good policy. The curve, the collection of dots, is what lets you make an informed choice. The dots themselves just give you individual stories, what we call “anecdotal evidence,” which could be used to justify any policy. For example, as the graph above clearly indicates, some people in the counties with the lowest death rates do die from COVID-19. No place has a 0% rate. You’ll always be able to point to a case of a breakthrough infection in someone who was vaxxed and boosted and still got sick and died. But that one case alone is not enough to justify giving up on vaccination. To decide what overall policy is the most sensible based on one case and not the entirety of cases is foolish.

The same applies in other areas, like gun control. Simply put, firearms are a hazard and making them easier to access and carry around increases the risk to everyone of injury or death from firearms. It’s why we have this idea of sensible gun laws to regulate the use of firearms, making everyone safer, just as we regulate so much else in life. But a sizeable minority is obsessed with the individual right to bear arms, stymying lawmakers’ efforts to enact such legislation. This minority probably thinks that their arsenals will make a difference in upcoming political struggles. But however violently future political conflicts are resolved, what easy access to firearms will mostly do is increase the rates of suicide and homicide by firearm. I’m not even talking about mass shootings, I mean just ordinary incidents involving firearms.

Gun rights advocates will argue that it is unfair to deny them their individual rights just because of the negative consequences of other people’s choices. They are looking at the dots – you can’t take what’s mine based on someone else’s actions. For gun control advocates, the argument is that restricting gun rights will benefit the public in the aggregate. They are looking at the curve – overall suffering and death will go down if you change the rules. This is the same logic that goes into determining rules for the mitigating against the spread of the coronavirus. Restricting some rights, like the right to congregate indoors in large groups, will benefit public health, in the context of a highly transmissible and potentially fatal virus in circulation.

The zealous prioritizing of individual rights over collective good is what leads to memes like the one on the right, found on Twitter. It’s what leads to freedom derisively being called “freedumb,” when taken to the point of needlessly endangering lives. But those who won’t comply with mandates for the collective good aren’t really dumb, they are just prioritizing their rights as individuals over what is best for society as a whole. To them, compliance with authority smacks of submission to tyranny. They even have narratives based on historical occurrences to justify their resistance, even though the context is completely different now.

Maybe it would help for people to think in terms of both individual rights and individual responsibilities. Then you can keep your personal autonomy, but also recognize that your personal choices have consequences. Then you can see how you as a dot fits into the bigger picture of everyone else as a curve. Look again at the graph. It’s clear that for any one given individual, your chances of dying from COVID-19 are small. Not even half a percent of the country has. But if you are careless about transmitting the virus, you will help to kill some people. And that’s on you.

An Emerging Values Consensus?

An Emerging Values Consensus?

You might look at that title – “An Emerging Values Consensus” – and think, are you kidding?? The Culture Wars and the partisan divide between liberals and conservatives (or the blue zone and the red zone) have been a fixture in our society for decades now. I’ve already written a series of blog posts on the topic, in which I concluded that we were experiencing a “Red-Blue” identity crisis as a society. Which way will we break? Or could we even break into two – split into two societies altogether, possibly violently? There is serious discussion of impending civil war out there.

You’ve probably seen the above map before. It’s from the 2000 Presidential election, and shows the counties that voted for Bush in red and the counties that voted for Gore in blue. It’s around this time that the red zone-blue zone idea came about – the idea that there were two different “values camps” with competing visions of what America should be. Baby Boomers were in mid-life then, and their values-orientation dominated American culture. Their passion and moral zeal is what made the divide between the two camps so deep and so unbridgeable, damaging our political system to the point that many now wonder if it can be repaired. Just think of the events of January 6th this year to understand what I mean.

Back around that time, on an old fashioned web site that I built, I attempted to list out the differences between these two values camps. The list is a bit over-generalized, a bit stereotyped; I can’t deny it. I’m sure many people believe a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B. But to some extent these differences do define the partisan divide, and the thing is, as the partisanship has just worsened and worsened, it’s gotten to the point that it doesn’t really matter what your particular “nuanced” belief system is. The political struggle has become existential, and you have to pick a side and stick with it.

Or not, I suppose. You could just not belong to either side. I have a feeling that many of my generation, Generation X, are in that particular “values camp.” It’s the camp of people who mind their own business and just want to be left alone. As the map below show, if non-voters counted in the electoral college (I know, that makes no sense) then “Nobody” would have been elected President in 2016.

This isn’t to say that non-voters lack values or moral beliefs, just that they might be having trouble finding a political party to fit into. As I already suggested, most people probably take their beliefs a little from the red side, a little from the blue side. It’s even possible to show that the country isn’t so starkly divided geographically as the “red zone-blue zone” maps suggest, by measuring both Republican and Democratic votes per county and constructing a “purple” spectrum map like the one below.

Red v. Blue spectrum version from the 2016 Presidential election.

All I’m trying to say here is that the neat division of values into two columns doesn’t necessarily reflect how people think. And now that Boomers are aging out of mid-life, being replaced by Generation X, moral righteousness as a guiding principal of politics is losing its shine. As I already blogged, Boomer moralism has rendered politics dysfunctional. Younger generations yearn for a practical approach to politics, one that can solve the many thorny problems facing our society. It is perhaps unfortunate, then, that the current mid-life generation, Generation X, which is known for pragmatism, also eschews politics.

I’m just rehashing what I’ve already written about before, so back to the title of this post and the idea of a values consensus. Assuming America is not going to split into two societies, we’re eventually going to settle for some version of “a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B” that works for the majority of us. This will grow more and more apparent as the morally righteous Boomers, who pretty much can’t ever have their minds changed, age out of public life. Those who disagree with these values, who reasonably can claim that there is no “consensus” since they disagree, will be relegated to the sidelines of public life. In fact, you can already see this happening. Isn’t that exactly what hashtag movements, cancel culture, de-platforming are all about? Effectively, if unfairly, enforcing a majoritarian viewpoint?

So what exactly is the consensus that is emerging? I actually tried to predict what it might be way back in 2002 when I first created the red values v. blue values page. Then I tried again and again around the time of the 2016 election. How exactly am I doing this? Well, my admittedly non-scientific approach is simply to monitor discourse on major platforms on the Internet to see what’s going on. I check the reddit hivemind, since I really do think that is the premier site where Millennials are forging a consensus using the tools of social media.

Now maybe this puts me in a bit of blue zone bubble, since all the red zoners are moving to alternate sites like Gab and Parler (so I’ve heard). But doesn’t the fact that red zoners are shifting to less mainstream platforms tell you which way the consensus is going? Honestly, I think there are only two areas where the red zone’s view still has traction, and that is in the two most contentious points of the Culture Wars – gun control and abortion rights.

So here’s where I think we end up:

  • Pro-gun rights
  • Pro-marijuana legalization
  • Equal rights for LGBTQ
  • “Counter-culture” mainstreamed (everyone has a tattoo these days)
  • Pornography accepted
  • Continued restrictions on abortion, though it will never be fully banned
  • Justice and police reform
  • Reform to improve the lot of lower economic classes, even if it’s “socialism”
  • Pro-environmentalism policies to deal with climate change
  • A path to citizenship for “dreamers,” but immigration otherwise limited
  • Acceptance of a multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious society, to the chagrin of White Christian Nationalists

So now that this Culture Wars crap is out of the way, can we end the filibuster already and get some Universal Healthcare?

The Red-Blue Identity Crisis

The Red-Blue Identity Crisis

This will probably be my last political post for a while. I’ve been hashing out the Red-Blue partisan divide for many posts now since the last election cycle, and wanted to leave a final thought. With the attack on the U.S. Capitol nearly three months behind us, it feels to me like things are settling down. The partisan divide is still there, no doubt, but it seems the conflict has retreated to the shadows. I thought there might be further escalation following the January 6 riot, but now I’m not seeing it. This could just be because of my personal social media bubble, of course.

My last thought on this is that, if partisanship has hardened us to the point that the two political parties can’t possible work together, then politics truly has left the realm of policy debate and become entirely about group identity. This is not unprecedented and it could simply be part and parcel of life in a Crisis Era. So what our political conflict comes down to is a choice of identity for the United States of America. Are we a conservative, “traditional American” society, dominated by whites and Christians (the red zone)? Or are we a progressive, diverse society, accepting of all races, creeds, and orientations (the blue zone)?

Ask yourself: doesn’t this surely describe the choice faced in recent elections? What substantial policy differences have really been on the table, that are not framed in terms of these values differences?

And couldn’t other Crisis Era conflicts be described as identity crises? In the 1860s, Americans faced the choice of defining themselves as primarily agriculturalists dependent on slave labor, or as industrialist capitalists and abolitionists. In the 1770s, Americans faced the choice of defining themselves as loyalists to the King, or as patriots of an independent nation. The winners of the great conflicts of those eras determined the identity which prevailed.

So what we’re experiencing is an identity crisis, as we try to figure out as a society if we are going to let the red zone values regimes prevail, or the blue zone values regime. I see a parallel between our times and England in the Tudor era, which see-sawed between Protestant and Catholic identities under different monarchs. Bloody Mary’s reign was a Catholic interregnum between two Protestant regimes, just as Trump’s was a MAGA interlude between the progressive Presidencies of Obama and Biden.

And just as England emerged from its conflicts as a decidedly Protestant nation, I believe the United States will ultimately affirm itself as a blue zone nation. Why do you think the red zoners complain so much about the “mainstream media?” The blue zone, with its progressive identity, is the mainstream!

In the end, the Red State, already exiled from social media and the butt of joking memes, will be consigned to an “alt-” existence on the fringes of mainstream society. All that their politicians can do now is do their best to suppress the vote. But in the long run, they cannot prevail. They we will be left as troublemakers, and dissenters from the mainstream view.

Which isn’t to say that they will be entirely in the wrong or that the mainstream view will be ideal for society. That’s just the way we are headed right now, as far as I can tell. Of course, some major event could prove me wrong. But barring that, I don’t think I have much more blogging to do on this subject.

Subreddit of the week: murderedbyAOC

Subreddit of the week: murderedbyAOC

Years back, I wrote a blog post about how Millennials use social media for consensus building. I was tying into predictions based on Strauss & Howe generational theory on how the Millennial generation would behave as young adults in this era, the Crisis Era. One prediction is that they will enforce a code of good conduct.

Prediction about Millennials from The Fourth Turning.

Fast forward to today, and cancel culture is fully in place. Well, what is “cancel culture” if not an effort to enforce a code of conduct by ostracizing those who violate the code?

It seems that complaints about cancel culture come mostly from the political right. But before you call it a phenomenon of the left, I challenge you to go to a right-leaning site like parler and express support for President Biden. I’ll bet you get “cancelled” pretty fast.

Could the right’s problem with cancel culture just come from the fact that the left has been more successful at it? Perhaps that is because the left’s code of conduct better reflect’s the majoritarian view. Perhaps that is because the left didn’t choose a champion who is a criminal mountebank.

Or maybe the left really is just better at the culture game. We all know from reddit that the /r/TheRightCantMeme. And look no further than reddit to find a Millennial who excels at enforcing good conduct with her brilliant wit.

I mean Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has her own subreddit, dedicated to reposting the stinging comebacks to red zoners that she makes on social media. It’s a happy little bubble for a blue zoner to go and assure themselves of the superiority of their partisan viewpoint. And as a partisan blue zoner myself, I’m happy to declare /r/murderedbyAOC the subrreddit of the week.

Subreddit of the Week: enlightenedcentrism

Subreddit of the Week: enlightenedcentrism

There is a subreddit devoted to the idea that the claim “but both sides are doing it…” as some sort of above-the-fray stance of moderation is really aligning oneself with the extremist right. It’s called /r/enlightenedcentrism and it freely admits in a reminder on a pinned post that it is left-leaning.

An image taken from a post on /r/enlightenedcentrism.

I bring up this subreddit because I recently read the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” It’s authors argue that the Republican Party bears the greater responsibility for creating the partisan rift and for disrupting the functioning of government. It’s been their strategy since they started pushing against the New Deal coalition of the Democratic Party, way back when conservative Baby Boomers entered politics. It’s part of their Ayn Rand-ian “no government is good government” agenda. The authors also argue that the problem has been exacerbated by the professional media’s inclination to attempt to report objectively, to treat both sides of the partisan divide fairly. This has obfuscated the truth that one side is deliberately being disruptive and causing damage to the democractic process.

Doesn’t this make sense of recent events surrounding the election of the new President, a Democrat? Let’s face it, being an enlightened centrist isn’t a useful option any more. As Dr. Maggie Gravel says at the end of Death to 2020, “pick a side and hunker down.” Either get on your Russian-hosted social media site with the other red staters and plot against the United States, or join the blue state and the mission of restoring the nation.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

I still sometimes see people out and about and not masked. I call them “death spreaders” and give them a very wide berth. There was a death spreader at the Post Office over the Christmas holiday. It was in much too close quarters for anyone to be unmasked and it pissed me off. It’s sad that this is still a problem, with the pandemic raging and the numbers just getting worse and worse.

When I first observed this phenomenom I called these people Covidiots. Their presence was ominous and invoked the feeling of being in an apocalyptic movie. How can it be getting worse?

We all know the real problem. The pandemic has been politicized. One side of the political divide believes the pandemic is a lie, just as they believe the election is a lie. And now the Covidiots are out on the streets, armed and dangerous, attacking democracy itself.

It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. So get ready for the final chapter in the trilogy, coming soon to a country near you.

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

I just finished this quick read – It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Here’s my review on goodreads:

The Boomer generation is one whose scholars and thinkers (and they are a thinking generation rather than a doing generation) tend towards pessimistic outlooks and dire prognostications. They are also the most politically destructive generation in living memory. The destructiveness the Boomers have wrought in American government is the subject of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”, a collaboration by two of their own chorts. While the book isn’t explicitly generational history, the story it tells, of government becoming increasingly partisan and conflict-oriented rather than coalitional and achievement-oriented, clearly coincides with the Boomers’ rise to political power.

The authors trace the beginnings of this trend all the way back to 1978, when Newt Gingrich first took office in the House of Representatives. Before reading this book, I had not realized how far back the inception of the Gingrich Revolution was, or how long it took to come to fruition. It was predicated on a strategy of confrontation and disruption, and of questioning the legitimacy of existing institutions: the Boomer modus operandi since the days of the student movements of the 1960s. By the time of the Obama administration, when this book was first published, the strategy enabled a Republican minority to hold the United States government hostage.

The fundamental problem which Mann and Ornstein diagnose is that parliamentary style political parties do not mesh well with a system of separate branches with checks and balances. A minority party can easily exploit one branch’s power to limit another’s and prevent any governing from happening at all. This suits the ideology of the Republican party, which holds that government is actually undesirable altogether, and their asymmetric use of this strategem against the Democratic party has defined politics in the United States in our time. Generation X politicians in the GOP, like the “Young Guns” of the 2008 election cycle, have been happy to take up the banner of obstructionism in the name of anti-government principles. This alliance between Boomer and Gen X conservatives has wielded considerable power, and clearly marks a generational shift in U.S. politics.

Again, the authors don’t explicitly make a generational point. What they do is break down the problem in terms of specific factors and offer some possible remedies. Foremost is improving voter participation and shifting away from winner-take-all electoral processes, which prevent moderate politicians from winning elections. Campaign finance reform is another possible remedy at the electoral level. At the institutional level, reducing the use of the filibuster to obstruct legislation and executive nominations is key. Finally, improving the culture overall is required, to restore public trust and recreate a sense of public space.

The authors released an edition in 2016 with the title updated to “It’s Even Worse Than It Was”; this is the edition I read. In the afterword, Mann and Ornstein acknowledge that nothing improved since 2011, that all the trends of hyperpartisanship and extremism and lack of compromise have worsened. And this was before Trump won the election; I can only guess that a third edition published now would be titled “It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined”. The disastrous inability of the government to address the Covid-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates the damage that the insurgent Republican party has done to our political system.

Overall this book is a quick and easy read, and an eye-opening work of political analysis. It explains the changes that have occurred in government since Boomers and Gen Xers have come to dominate in office, and how the confrontational style of parliamentary politics has rendered our constitutional system dysfunctional. It understands that restoring the functioning “normality” of the past, with parties that are adversarial but able to work together, will be difficult. Informed by generational theory, we must recognize that it will take future generations of politicians to get us there.

I’ll just add that, despite the pessimistic title I gave to this blog post, I feel like we might soon be over with this period of hyperpartisanship. I think the worst of the extremists are being discredited, and are being marginalized in the public sphere. Trump’s hopes of a coup of some sort are fading, and Trump supporters are heading for the shadows.

Obviously a lot is riding on the transition to the Biden administration and its first few months. Like all of us, I will watching intently to see if it finally starts getting better.