The most filiopietistic defenders of the social-democratic nation state have regarded Donald Trump as their black beast since he stepped into politics. So surely they are thrilled by his probable decline and fall?
Perhaps, they worry, our elections have become nothing more than entertainment but otherwise completely ineffective methods of engineering consent.Not quite. In fact, there is a growing sense of panic on the part of old-time “progressives” that the political system, the policy consensus, and the moral credibility of big government itself are no longer sustainable propositions. The emergence of Trump has become their exhibit A. “How could this have happened?” they ask themselves. What is so fundamentally unstable about the system we’ve created that so many seem willing to try something, anything, else?
His success, however temporary, has been to contribute to a growing sense of panic that public respect for government is at an all-time low.
Perhaps, they worry, our elections have become nothing more than entertainment but otherwise completely ineffective methods of engineering consent. Without that consent, the stability of core institutions of command-and-control is no longer sustainable.
It’s not just that Trump was nominated. It is too simple an explanation to say he was a singular event, that his success, however temporary, was his alone. No one can imagine that anything like this would have happened in the 1950s, for example, at the high point of the American political consensus. What has happened to the health of the public sector that has enabled these sorts of unthinkables to happen in the first place?
It’s No Longer Working
What is made by law cannot be as sticky a part of the social structure as that which emerges from voluntary action.Keep the stakes in mind. The experiment with a central state that knows no limits to its power – controlling every interaction, permissioning or forbidding every choice – is little more than 100 years old. Nearly the whole of the bureaucratic, interventionist, regulatory, welfare-warfare state is a 20th-century creation. It was made by legislatures, judges, and ruling executives.
What is made by law cannot be as sticky a part of the social structure as that which emerges from voluntary action. It can therefore be unmade. And much of what they built is under serious pressure: fast approaching bankruptcy (Social Security to Obamacare), a self-evident failure (public schooling and the Iraq war), and being outrun by more innovative structures in the private sector (P2P technologies and distributed power).
Without this backdrop, consider the alarm of Andrew O’Hehir at Salon. The meaning of his piece depends on how you read it. He is describing disaster from his point of view. I read it and think: let it be so!
Recently a British journalist asked me whether I thought the United States had become so politically paralyzed and ideologically divided as to be ungovernable…. the question answers itself.
And this problem extends far beyond this election:
I have argued all year long that it’s a dangerous mistake to assume that the madness afflicting American politics and American society has affected only Republicans or “conservatives” (a word that, along with “liberals,” bears almost no relationship to its original meaning). As the primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders should have made clear — the first Democratic campaign to be waged on fundamental ideological questions in more than 30 years — Democrats face the same internal struggle between their base voters and their Beltway leadership as Republicans, albeit in less overt and less acrimonious form.
Those supposedly normal and sensible grownups who read the New York Times and recycle No. 2 plastic and attend parents’ night at the middle school with concerned but nonjudgmental expressions have seen the current polls and heaved a half-sigh of anticipatory relief. Now they’re reassuring themselves, Well, once we get past Election Day and all the right-wing wailing and gnashing of teeth that is likely to follow, maybe we can get back to some semblance of normal government. They are inhabiting a state of near-Trumpian delusion.
Then he tries to alert his fellow progressives to the full implications of the grim reality:
My point is more that American politics have been in a state of slow decay for many decades and everyone knows it, even if the establishment caste of both parties has studiously pretended not to notice. Donald Trump is arguably performing an important medical function — he’s like the tumor or the boil that makes the disease obvious to everyone….
When Trump suggests that Democrats are “rigging” the election and that he might not accept the result if he loses, he is of course spewing a dangerous line of bullshit. But he’s also right, in a way. That is, he’s reflecting the widespread sense that American elections don’t matter and don’t accomplish anything — that they might as well be rigged because they have been drained of meaning.
Wow! That this was published by Salon, the paragon of progressive politics, is extremely revealing. Even they are giving up hope in the project that defined their lives, while ruining the lives of so many others.
What was once considered the highest display of civic virtue and patriotic fulfillment has become instead a honeypot for cranks.Many of us who long for liberty in its fullest form have sensed this same thing, that this election has been a vivid display of a fundamentally dysfunctional structure, one that is not long for this world. It has been weird, disconnected from normal life, distorted, revanchist in rhetoric, and utterly lacking in principle. What was once considered the highest display of civic virtue and patriotic fulfillment has become instead a honeypot for cranks, demagogues, careerist deceivers, and frontmen (and frontwomen) who specialize in duplicitous dirty dealing. What’s more, people are catching on.
And what the progressives feel about it is despair. Maybe they should chill and welcome and cheer a newly emergent liberty from 100 years of totalist policy intrusions that have so seriously thwarted the functioning of markets and spontaneous social evolution. In other words, they should celebrate the freedom that we can hope will replace the unviable, unworkable, inefficient, and socially destructive attempt to manage life from the top down.
In any case, they might as well get used to it. As Andrew O’Herir says, nothing will ever be the same.
To be sure, the result of the decline and fall of the century-old status quo does not necessarily portend a new liberty. The end of the establishment does not automatically become a victory for liberty. Some (including Noam Chomsky) say that it presages a new authoritarianism. Pray no.
My hope is that this election will be understood as a decisive rejection of that model, and that technological shifts will carry us the rest of the way. However, such a shift also requires a cultural and intellectual coming to terms with liberty and its meaning.
We have our work cut out for us.