[A]s the pace of life keeps quickening
Beneath the bitching and the bickering
When I try to drown my thoughts in gin
I find my worst ideas know how to swim
— David Berman
I’ll keep this installment short so we can all get back to our personalized, algorithmically-curated Two Minutes Hate. (If only it lasted just two minutes.) Besides, the only take I feel like offering at this point in time is pretty concise, if extremely contrarian: the 2020 presidential election does not, in fact, matter as much as you’re being led to believe.
How can I possibly make such an outrageous claim? Put simply, it’s because the problems we have, and they are legion, are not political problems in the narrow, electoral sense of the word and it is foolish to expect them to be solved through electoral politics. For better or worse, our problems are much more fundamental than that and their solution will likewise need to be more fundamental. Our troubles, at this point, are cultural, the result of a project spanning decades or longer that has inscribed a host of disordered values onto our personal, interpersonal and institutional identities. I think we’ll find that we can try to drown them with a national election, but our worst ideas know how to swim.
Of course, my usage above is no longer the primary meaning of “identity” these days. As regular readers of this column know, it is a deep and abiding frustration of mine that serious consideration of the material conditions of modern America is consistently avoided in favor of lazy identitarian demagoguery. This criticism applies not just to our political industry, but also to the news media, the arts, corporate marketing, and the way we “choose” to spend our own individual attention on social media, and it is an imbalance that not only distracts us from the root causes of things but divides us along relatively superficial categorical lines.
I vividly remember when I was first exposed as a high school student to the concept of majority tyranny. It struck me as an obvious yet subtle insight that functional democracy is put in jeopardy when political matters are consistently resolved in winner-take-all fashion with little or no consideration of the interests or values of those outside the majority. As most of us were taught as children, might does not, in fact, make right. Call me old fashioned, but I still don’t think “you can’t stop us” is sufficient justification for a given act.
Overlay this insight onto the scorched earth of our current political condition. We can choose between 30 or so types of Pringles, but the market for political representation is effectively limited to a corrupt and feckless duopoly that is incapable of representing anything close to the full spectrum of political values held by the electorate. It’s no wonder that eligible voters stay away from the polls in droves in every election, the practical effect being that “none of the above” routinely gets as many votes as Republicans and Democrats combined.
Rather than require that they lead or at least govern, we have allowed the two parties to systematically collapse all arguments, both real and contrived, into a referendum on which of two tribal avatars each of us will assume. To further this mass, binary sorting, all differences of opinion must be understood as questions of right and wrong, good and evil. Each party casts the other as an existential threat to all that is right and good and themselves as the only thing standing in the way of certain annihilation.
The catastrophe of an all-culture-war-all-the-time politics should be self-evident. A democratic society is doomed if half its population is simply evil, a cancer to be rooted out and destroyed. Politics, in this context, consists not of collective action to improve the lives of a given population, but only of performing virtue and figuring out which half of the population is in need of cancellation, a sort of mass witch hunt that permeates every nook and cranny of modern American society.
Given such large-scale disaster, it is only logical that our only real hope is likely small-scale. I’m personally convinced that our best odds for a brighter future lie in something we might think of as radical localism. I’ve alluded before in this column to the manifest need to roll back some of the economic ideology, which, as Wendell Berry puts it, boils down to the single principle that “commodities will be produced wherever they can be produced at the lowest cost, and consumed wherever they will bring the highest price.” Drawing from the work of Berry, and others working sympathetic terrain, is a good intellectual start.
More practically speaking, there are many pioneering individuals, families and communities that are busily improvising kludges to navigate their way through or around the system failures that pervade the greater society. I find their stories hopeful and inspiring, even when they don’t exactly look like what we’ve been conditioned to see as progress. Assuming the election does come and mercifully go in the next two months as scheduled, let’s plan to meet back here and pick up the thread at that point.
Stacy Young is a regular contributor to the Zephyr. He lives in Southwest Utah.
To comment, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Zephyr Policy: REAL NAMES ONLY on Comments!
Don’t forget about the Zephyr ads! All links are hot!