Humans are social creatures. (thank you, captain obvious)
That essential nature of humanity extends far beyond our need to live in groups, coalesce around common purposes or cooperate to reproduce and keep our offspring alive. We have a deep need ingrained in our lizard brains to find our place in the world. This overpowering survival instinct helped families merge into tribes and protected proto-humans from the external threats of the natural world. But beyond that, it served to encourage us to develop language so that we could pass stories from one generation to another.
Now that we are virtually indestructible as a species (outside of mega-disasters on a scale far greater than we have ever faced) – dominant over the natural world and thriving in numbers almost TOO large – our need to tell stories remains. But now, without an evolutionary purpose, our need to spin a narrative that explains our lives and our places in the world is trapping us in a political nightmare. You see, politicians discovered, long ago, that the best way to move people into action (preferably the action of electing said politicians) is to use the narrative instinct. A “movement” in politics is impossible without a common narrative that unites a large enough group of individuals that a society can be impacted by that narrative. When we were organized into tribes consisting of 50-500 people (which appears to be how our brains were wired to live), a successful movement would convince 200 people of a common story – an agreed upon interpretation of events. Today, however, we are organized into tribes of MILLIONS. A successful movement must convince MILLIONS of people of the correctness of interpretations of events. Unfortunately, small groups of humans can better tolerate deviations from the common narrative because small groups of people can more easily agree on enough points in the common story to keep moving forward. But if you have to convince MILLIONS of people, then you must form ironclad narratives and deviations from the narrative cannot and MUST not be tolerated, lest those deviations undermine the credibility of the narrative and doom it to total collapse. Think of the resources…the work needed to shepherd a movement of that size; only to have that effort squandered because some small faction couldn’t get with the program.
The intolerant yank of the narrative is even worse when a nameless nobody can get online and post a funny one-liner on Facebook or Twitter or BuzzFeed and be a sensation reaching the millions in a single day. Politicians who once carried themselves with dignity and self-assured confidence while happily campaigning for their narrative to gain acceptance and change the world now knee-jerk react to every meme, every news article, every gaffe with breakneck speed. The unexpected deviations from the narrative MUST BE CRUSHED…right friggin’ now!…because if you don’t silence them today, they’re enshrined on Urban Dictionary and even Wikipedia tomorrow, and millions of people will never be convinced of their untruth unless the cleverness of the delivery method is topped by a countering message.
The tragedy of the narrative is best understood through historical example. I’ll use two from different sides of American political discourse.
Modern Porgressivism began with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and John Dewy. Progressives saw real (yes, conservatives…real) gaps in the functioning of Constitutional republican government. While the Constitution was essentially fair, offering equal opportunity and equal rights to the people, the world itself is essentially unfair. Not all people have equal opportunities – some are born into wealth or power, some are born with better abilities, some were simply unlucky, and many others were simply unhealthy. To deny that someone like Mitt Romney had chances to succeed that you and I did not have is to deny that the sky is blue (unfortunately, Romney’s own campaign appeared to deny this repeatedly – attempting to craft the manifestly false narrative that Romney was a self-made man just like all of us except in the success of his efforts, and that it was hard work, dedication, and charity and ONLY those things that made him successful). Seeing this reality, Progressives sought to help people who had, through no fault of their own, failed to thrive. This is written into our deepest held beliefs and passed down through narratives far more powerful than politically expedient platforms – through the arms of the great religions.
But there was a catch. Americans – even the ones who were struggling that progressives wished to help – were immensely proud of their shared heritage. Many had chosen to come to this great land of opportunity specifically because they were convinced that the Constitution made impossible dreams possible. An honest Progressive or two tried to campaign on the notion that the Constitution was unfair, but they got their butts kicked. So thoroughly were Progressives repudiated for appearing to oppose the Constitutional process that even modest successes in early unionization of hazardous workshops and factories that had garnered bipartisan support were rolled back under Constitutionalist Presidents like Calvin Coolidge. To make any progress at all, Progressives (who invented that term, along with terms like socialist and humanist in an attempt to brand their “product” with something universally appealing) needed to package the parts of their platform that people liked in a new narrative. It needed to be convincing, if not particularly honest. They came up with this one. Our Constitution was written a long time ago by brilliant men who, despite their genius, could not see far into their futures and prepare for the problems of the future. We must view the Constitution as a document intended to adapt and grow – its rules followed in spirit rather than blindly through construction.
This brilliant new deal – put forward by one of the greatest politicians the world has ever known (FDR, of course) – has at its core two messages which are impossible to reconcile honestly.
- The Constitution is good.
- The Constitution is incomplete.
But it is packaged up in a narrative that sounds plausible if you don’t think about it too hard. The world changes – a document made for a world that no longer exists can be a guide in spirit, but cannot be applied literally – it is a living document adapting to serve the needs of the time. Sounds fair, right? There’s just one problem. The document provides the precise legal method by which it may adapt to serve future needs: the Constitutional amendment process. But this requires that you convince the vast majority of the people that any change you wish to make is a good one – it is a slow and arduous task by design. And on top of that, the American people were still proud of Constitutionalism and the aims of Progressives were inherently non-Constitutional philosophically. As we established already, the Constitution was designed to be a fair document, not a Utopian one. Progressives wanted to fix real world problems and create a better society from the top down – not merely insure that the rules were unbiased. How do you amend the Constitution with addenda that conflict with the hard and clear rules of the Constitution. You can’t very well write an amendment saying that interstate commerce refers to all activity that may impact the interstate marketplace…the document makes very clear what interstate commerce means and historians can quite easily demonstrate the meaning of the founding fathers by simply reading the Federalist papers.
So, with good intentions, but dishonest methods, Progressives chose instead to distort the meaning of the Constitution through a narrative that has propelled their movement from fringe radical status to the heart and soul of the Democrat party. Now they are caught in that narrative, and constantly under fire by Conservatives who correctly point out that what they’re doing is blatantly in violation of the intended functioning of the Constitution. And here’s the funny thing – in spite of growing resentment by the American people toward their government – we still love the Constitution and the history of the American Republic. So with every victory they achieve, Progressives must constantly walk a tight line between speaking favorably about the Constitution and finding ever-more-creative ways of tap-dancing around the patently obvious fact that their goals are post-Constitutional. Mark Levin needed only 220 pages or so to completely obliterate the notion that Progressivism is Constitutional. That book – The Liberty Amendments – has blown away the NY Times bestseller list for 6 weeks running. Progressives are hurtling forward on an unsustainable course that will end either in the final admission that they do not believe the Constitution is a morally correct version of government or the crumbling of their scholarly facade. Every week, Barack Obama appears to be leaning more and more toward choosing the latter. The man who was elected as a “Constitutional Scholar” becomes more and more partisan, divisive and emotional in his rhetoric – a far cry from the calm and collected academic we met in 2007.
Modern conservatism – the movement that animated the GOP from the mid-1970s through George W. Bush’s presidency – is predicated on two basic claims about human nature:
- Man is inherently good – possessing infinite value and natural rights given to him by God, not by government
- Man, is inherently rational (if a tad selfish) – motivated by maximizing his own agency
I’ll forestall discussion of the truth of those two ideas (I believe that both are true, though the meaning of the word good is important – I don’t believe that people are born good and must be taught to behave badly…I believe that people are born with the innate capacity to be moral – a capacity that must be fostered by parents and society at large – but am always willing to honestly debate someone who wishes to take the other side), because the important point is how those two ideas are frequently combined by modern Republicans. If man is inherently good AND inherently rational, then it stands to reason that men joining together to form companies would act rationally to maximize the benefit of their businesses to themselves, their stock holders, and the people (since a company that provides a good service will be popular). And if companies are run by men (not males…people…sorry, I don’t believe in altering foundational language to appease the gods of political correctness), it stands to reason that they should have the same rights as the people under the law. And finally…if companies are inherently rational, then the impacts of rational economic activity should trickle down to the people. As long as GDP grows, a rising tide will lift all boats, meaning that the role of government in economics should be to create the conditions through which the aggregate economy prospers best.
Reagan convinced the entire nation (generally – he always had his economic detractors, but we’re talking about the success of his movement) that trickle-down economics was correct. There’s just one problem. Trickle-down economics was WRONG. The fundamental logical leap from “people are inherently rational” to “companies are inherently rational” does not hold. As it turns out when you research the market, an individual person may make decisions based on reason, but groups of people functioning together do not. The shear presence of the market phenomenon known as “the bubble” disproves the concept that groups of people acting on a market are rational. Because groups of people acting together are frequently irrational and driven by the allure of increasing their power through temporary gains in bull markets or holding onto their power when market conditions turns against them through accounting trickery or debt gambling, the role of government should not be to blindly foster conditions that favor the largest pieces of the economic machinery, but to do everything in its power to prevent corporations from growing too large and thus too able to harm citizens through irrational acts. One of the first successes of Progressivism was the passage of anti-trust laws. And on that score, Progressives were absolutely correct.
Furthermore, the assumption that, because men, in the aggregate, are endowed with a capacity to be moral (men are generally good), companies will, on the whole, do more good than harm, ignores another central truth in humanity. Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely. Like it or not, money is power in this world. And that being the case, as companies grow larger, their power increases, and so does their tendency toward corrupt behavior. So to treat a company like the people running it under the law is a misstep. The laws work under the assumption that society holds expectations of moral conduct – but the only litmus test we use for corporations is…do we like their product or service.
At this point, I’ll likely have severely pissed off a lot of conservatives. Reagan’s movement was so successful that it launched a conservative revolution that took control of both houses of congress for the first time in over four decades in 1994 and forced Bill Clinton to behave like a moderate – then won the White House with a thoroughly mediocre candidate (albeit against an even more unimpressive alternative). Don’t get me wrong – I like George W. Bush as a person. I think he was basically trying to do the right thing for the American people throughout his presidency. And I don’t think he was the outright moron that the left-leaning media made him out to be (though he was hardly an eloquent public speaker). But as a candidate for the presidency, I don’t think Bush was well prepared, and this tended to show through the most when he was attempting to craft narratives to sell his good ideas. He branded his version of conservatism as “Compassionate Conservatism” – unintentionally serving to brand the GOP as previously lacking in compassion. He called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “Axis of Evil” – making himself sound like G.I. Joe’s commanding officer from the corny 1970s cartoon show by drawing this parallel between three backwater nations and the far more intimidating Axis nations from WWII (let’s see…two desert filled Islamic countries and a mediocre jungle filled with cripplingly poor people…the might of the Luftwaffe and Panzers…yep…those are the same). He sold social security privatization so ineptly that not even Speaker Gingrich supported it – you know…the guy that just ran on using the Chilean model to reform Social Security in 2012. This is not the mark of a successful president.
My point, however, is that modern conservatism was given ENORMOUS momentum by the success of trickle-down economics as a movement. The movement was inherently wrong, however, and as big time corruption in our nation’s largest banks and holding companies nearly destroyed our economy – fueled in large party by corruption and irrational market strategies (both of which fly in the face of the trickle-down theory) the GOP…and with it conservatism in general…collapsed in 2008, yielding the bumbling, scandal-ridden nightmare of Barry Hopenchange. They were caught in a narrative that was proven false.
The facts on the ground say that big business hurts the middle class more than it helps. The facts on the ground say that big business has a large incentive to desire big government too (not helpful to the cause of conservatism, though it sure does get a lot of politicians elected from both parties, depending on which industry is looking for more power), since more regulation crushes would-be competitors in favor of stalwart monoliths exercising near-monopsonistic command over huge swaths of economic activity. And the GOP is required now to abandon the ideas that got them this far in favor of something new. While they search with both hands and flashlights for a way to save face, the grass roots conservative movement produces ill-prepared tea-party candidates that undermine the GOP and frequently don’t do conservatism any favors despite the best of intentions and the most honorable of motives. The result? Americans think that conservatism offers no new ideas and no direction.
Both wings of American political life are caught in narratives – those fundamental building blocks of political change – that they cannot seem to escape, and the American people are paying the price. They’re swallowing a massive debt burden that may render the great engine of economic progress useless. They’re feeling the pressure to choose sides in a war they don’t want to fight. They’re hearing insane rhetoric devoid of logic from the people in charge. None of it…on either side…seems to make sense. And as a result, they’re losing faith in their nation’s institutions. The morale of the people hasn’t been this low since the dawn of the Great Depression.
We have got to find a way to escape our narratives and return to rational discourse if we’re ever going to make progress and solve our problems. That’s Republicans and Democrats alike.