Our Experiment in Democracy Is Failing

Although it appears Joe Biden will be the 46th President, many people are wondering today how the election could be so close, and how could so many Americans have voted for such an abject failure of a man as Donald Trump. Nancy LeTourneau sums it up:

While data eventually showed Trump’s 2016 win in the Electoral College was fueled by xenophobia, there was at least the specter of crediting the president’s so-called “populism” as a factor. But none of that materialized once he got into office. The majority of working Americans disapproved of his tax cuts aimed primarily at the wealthy. The president never got around to infrastructure, and his trade war left most farmers in a state of uncertainty. Biden was right when he said that Trump would be “the first president of the United States to leave office, having fewer jobs in his administration than when he became president.” To cap that off, the president basically ignored a pandemic that has so far resulted in the death of over 230,000 Americans.

That summarizes Trump’s first-term. What did he promise to do in a second term? Nothing. The GOP didn’t even propose a platform, and the only thing the president released was a three-page document full of vague statements—most of which he’s been promising to do but never accomplished.

LeTourneau points to the lies and disinformation that have snookered so many. And, of course, racism and xenophobia are big factors also. But I think it goes deeper than that. We are looking at a wholesale rejection of the European Enlightenment and a resurgence of modes of thinking from the Dark Ages.

The United States was born from the Enlightenment. This was, briefly, the 18th century European philosophical movement that promoted reason, science, individual liberty, and equality as its highest ideals. I don’t want to write a long review of the Enlightenment here, but there’s a good overview at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

More than anything else, Trumpism is a rejection of the Enlightenment. Reason and science are out the window, obviously. Trumpers fancy themselves as champions of liberty, but of course the whole object of right-wing extremism in the U.S., throughout the nation’s history, has been to weaken civil rights and the rule of law in favor of the rule of power. I seem to write another complaint every few months about how the Right loves to holler about FREEDOM even as they are doing their damnedest to destroy it. The Right has stripped the word freedom of all meaning and turned it into a tribal totem.

Something I realized years ago is that American right-wingers, maybe right-wingers everywhere, tend to “think” in symbols, archetypes, and allegories rather than use conceptual thought. This is illustrated by something my Facebook friend Jeffrey Feldman wrote on Monday:

Trumpism is the rejection of discursive politics—our system of government based in talk as a form of persuasion. In discursive politics, talk is protected above all else. Hence: The First Amendment is first. Our laws are words that we follow. Our elected officials debate. We take words seriously. Trumpism rejects all this for a politics of stagecraft, drama, and violence. In their world, all that matters is sentiment, rage, and threats. Ask a Trump supporter why they like Trump and they don’t talk policy or programs. They tell you how he makes them feel—what it’s like when they see him—who they want to hurt. In Trumpism, arguments are replaced by call outs. Kamala Harris is…socialist! (yeah right). Biden’s “whole family” is…corrupt! (um…). In Trumpism, the names of politicians become epithets. In Minnesota, Trump just shouts “Ilan Omar” and his crowds go crazy.

So, the flags fit into this alternate universe. While Democrats are calling, texting, trying to persuade—Trumpists just drive around waving his name and snarling. Democrats are talking healthcare and Covid-19–Trumpists are driving around shouting “Hunter Biden!” out their car windows. It’s a different reality and one we don’t want to have control of our daily lives. Is it Fascism? Sure. If it takes over it will become that. But it’s bad enough as is.

This is thinking in archetypes. Representative Omar, Hunter Biden, Senator Harris, etc. are archetypes to them, not real people. These archetypes repesent something dark and frightening slopping around in the depths of the Trumpain id. You can spend weeks lecturing a Trumper about what socialism is and why Kamala Harris isn’t a socialist, and this effort would go nowhere, because all the Trumper would hear is “blah blah blah.” It doesn’t matter what socialism is, or what Kamala Harris actually proposes. The designations “socialist” and “Kamala Harris” represent something dark and evil, and that’s it.

This is the old mythos versus logos dichotomy; in brief, righties think mythologically rather than conceptually. See my old post from 2007, The Power of (Right Wing) Myth. People from both history and current politics are either embraced or hated by the Right not because of who they really were or are, or what they really did, but because of how those people make them feel and what they represent as archetypes.

And that’s why we don’t communicate. Most of us these days don’t think in archetypes and allegories, at least not exclusively. Ancient people were much more into mythos than we are. Ancient people wrote the world’s scriptures in the language of mythos that was never meant to be taken literally, for example. Then came the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment philosophers grappled with the distinctions between empericism and subjectivism. Empericism is about things that can be observed objectively and understood rationally and conceptually. When we discuss these things, we are using the language of logos.

Subjectivism touches on psychology, personal experience, emotions, what things and people and events mean or represent to us, not what they objectively are. Mythos is a way of using language to express subjectivism on a social, cultural, or even national scale. It’s not at all surprising that the fascist regimes of the 20th century made generous use of symbolism from ancient myths, whether Nordic (Hitler) or myths about ancient Rome (Mussolini). Today’s righties tap into myths and symbolism from both the Confederacy and from the Third Reich in a similar way.

You can have mythos without tribalism, but I doubt you can have tribalism without mythos. Shared mythology is what holds tribes together, especially these days when tribes join together through the internet and don’t always share physical space.

A big part of tribalism is loyalty. Moral Foundation Theory says that loyalty is much more important to conservatives than it is to liberals, and loyalty is everything to a tribe. This loyalty is the foundation of all groupthink.

For example, in September this year a Gallup poll found that 56 percent of Americans thought they were better off now than four years ago. Seriously? People commenting on this came up with all kinds of rationalizations about how anyone could think that. But I postulate a lot of people who said yes are Trump supporters who are not at all better off now than they were four years ago, but who answered yes to the question because they are supposed to be better off because Trump is president. They cannot answer no without admitting that Trump is failing, and they cannot admit that, even to themselves.

This explains rejection of masks, also; masks must represent something to them that is unspeakably awful, and not wearing one is an expression of tribal loyalty.

So here we are. Trump may be hauled kicking and screaming out of the White House, but the rejection of the Enlightenment by a substantial portion of our population is still with us. And we’re going to be dealing with people who have bought into the QAnon Conspiracy and who think Democrats work for the Devil. And they could very well become more unhinged and more dangerous. And I don’t know what the antidote is.

Trump did not create Trumpism; he stumbled into it. Back in 2012 I wrote a post called GOP: A  Cult Looking for a Personality. In 2012 the GOP was going through a phase of getting nuttier and nuttier, but there was no one Big Giant Head directing the nuttiness. Hence, it was a personality cult looking for a personality. Eventually it found Trump.

The post contains a quote from Billmon (remember Billmon?):

There simply is no getting around the fact that the mentality of the modern grassroots conservative movement is in almost all particulars the spitting image of a 20th century totalitarian political party–an “epistemically closed” loop of self-reference and self-delusion. In other words: a cult.

“’Epistemically closed’ loop of self-reference and self-delusion” is brilliant. This is what the American Right is, and I have no idea how to break the loop. I really don’t. But I don’t think the United States can survive as a representative democracy with so many people completely obvlivious to the Enlightenment principles upon which it was founded.

19 thoughts on “Our Experiment in Democracy Is Failing

  1. I believe you meant "antidote," not "anecdote."

    It would have to be ONE HELL of an anecdote!!!

  2.  But I don’t think the United States can survive as a representative democracy with so many people completely oblivious to the Enlightenment principles upon which it was founded.

    I think it is because they don't have a sound knowledge, or even a cursory sense of history.  

    At the risk of coming off as a bible pounding nutjob, I can only sum up my deepest feeling in what I'm seeing in those who blindly support Donald Trump with his America first agenda and its attending corruption is the scripture that they are trading their birthright for a bowl of pottage. I profoundly understand the admonition that we are fighting for the soul of America.

    A president who proclaims that a free press is the enemy of the people? If you don't recoil in horror from a statement like that, you just ain't intellectually up to speed.


    • Speaking of the Bible:

      2 Timothy 3:13, KJV: "But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived."

      If this doesn't describe the closed loop of mutual deception going on with the GOP and their followers, I don't know what does.

  3. Chris Hedges writes a great deal about this sort of thing – see Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

    The country is bifurcating. The time is coming for people to acknowledge this and seek a divorce.

    I’ve had decades of experience with people whose minds are underdeveloped. They reason with their feelings, and have only the rudiments of critical thinking habits/skills, if that. It’s gotten worse not better. They’re being led to the slaughter by those who create the illusions, the feelings, the tribal hatreds, the groupthink. Separate from them.

    There’s a great quote on Charles Pierce’s twitter feed: “The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” – Marcus Aurelius

  4. I've observed over the last few months that rhetoric (in the sense of language intended to persuade) has entirely vanished from what's coming out of the White House and various Trump surrogate sites. What comes is simply invective. (Invective was at the heart of Trump's statements from the beginning, but that virtually everyone claiming to speak for him has adopted it as their only mode of communication seems really striking, and fairly recent to me.

    This post gives much more shape and historical depth to my random observation… but the entire transformation involved, and its evident infectiousness as it has spread, is fairly frightening. Trump got more votes in 2020 than in 2016, not fewer.

  5. There are so many truths in this post. But, I think there are a couple factors you don't mention that would help tie it all together. I know you know this, so let me just remind you:

    (1) Low information voters and the Fox media information-bubble. (Welcome to Missouri, as you have pointed out).

    (2) Right-wing philanthropy tied to communication technology (Hat tip Rachel Bitecofer)

    (3) Steve Bannon's disinformation campaign.

    So, we aren't really seeing a rejection of the enlightenment, it is a strategic and intentional campaign to destroy rational discourse in the service of chaos, if not neo-fascism.

    The college-educated suburbs may respond to persuasion and policy discussion, but that isn't the only or primary battleground.

  6. There's an interesting (and ongoing) development that relates. You mention loyalty as being critical to tribalism. And you ask how we survive as a democracy "with so many people completely oblivious to the Enlightenment principles upon which it was founded." 

    The Trump boys seem to be transmitting Trump's frustration that the GOP, especially the Senate isn't backing the claim that the election is rigged against Trump. (There hasn't been the resounding condemnation Trump's remarks deserve, but no support either.) Assume Biden wins. Trump will blame someone, not himself, and not the Democrats (not entirely.) Because blaming the Democrats for your defeat suggests they were better, smarter or better equipped in the election. No, Trump will blame the GOP for his defeat. Here's the crisis which empowers those who respect the Enlightenment and disempowers (castrates, if you like that word better) the imbeciles. (At least, politically.)

    Trump will bring down the GOP in 2022 for not backing him (unless the entire GOP goes full-throated Linda Lovelace taking every inch of the conspiracy theory that Trump is actually the president who was robbed by a fraudulent election. (And that same fraudulent election returned Mitch and Miss Lindsey, so how loud do u scream fraud?) Mitch and Lindsey want to move beyond Trumpism that brought them to defeat. Trump will refuse to admit he was defeated. 

    I'm a broken record on this prediction – it's not the first time I've said it, but if Trump loses the election the war won't be between Progressives and Trumpsters. It will be between the GOP and the Trumpsters. And there will be blood.

    If a less racist GOP establishment emerges – unwilling to bow to Emperor-in-exile, Donald the First, they may have to return to unfamiliar principles like objective facts and the sentiments of the majority on justice, women's rights, and minority rights if they hope to appeal to independent voters who become their new base.

    I'm not saying that I know this will happen but the power they had in unity is about to be shattered by their cult leader. That could change a lot, especially if 2022 is a good year for Democrats. I'd like to return to intelligent debate and discussion and even compromise legislation.  It might not be decades away.

  7. Well done!

    I'm going to send this to some of my French friends, it should resonate with their current thought on he US.  Of course, they have their own troubles, but also, an empirical mindset left over from the Enlightenment that still seems in working order.  (I think "l'esprit de la lumière" is the term.)

  8. Well, today is the day America is going to have her first female Vice President.

     This is just my opinion…. No matter how one feels about Hillary Clinton I think it should be acknowledged that Hillary took the blows on the national stage that made it possible that Kamala Harris will become the Vice President of the United States today.

     In spite of all the damage and setbacks Trump has inflicted on our nation I see the election of a female in the administration of our government as a big step toward progress. She smiles! There is something in a genuine smile that tells a lot about a person.

     Pence on the other hand wore the facial expression of an overworked and underpaid grave digger. 

    • Not only first female VP but a black/Indian woman. It's really exciting seeing minorities move into power. The southeastern US is going through some amazing shifts right now.

      Related, all eyes will be on Georgia come January 5, two Senate runoffs.

  9. Trumpism is a LifeStyle Disease

    …Trumpism is embedded in America and can be fought only through rigorous self-discipline, through constant surveillance of the thoughts we think, the words we use and the assumptions we make. There was white supremacy before we started thinking of it as Trumpism, but before Trump, there also was a tendency to think of it as “out there” rather than “in here.” Now we know it not as a perverse blemish on American culture, but foundational to American culture. That’s progress.

    …Disillusionment isn’t an event, it’s a process. It doesn’t arrive and do its work all at once, like an epiphany. It is a way of living, a perpetual vigilance, a habit of mind. We may wish that Trumpism could be defeated, like an external enemy. But reality requires that we think of it as a chronic condition of American public life — not a virus that can be quarantined and perhaps cured, but a lifestyle disease rooted in sedentary thinking.

  10. What an apt and timely post.  

    We are slowly coming to terms (myself a little slower than greater gurus) with what we are up against.  Charles Pierce quoted Marcus Aurelius and Phillip Kennicott delivered an opinion piece in the Washington Post in a similar vein which Moonbat has linked.

    Here is the quote from Pierce.


    "The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." – Marcus Aurelius


    Oh how I like Kennicott's definition of Trumpism, not a virus…but a lifestyle disease rooted in sedentary thinking.

  11. Thomas Jefferson:

    "It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens." 


    Trumpism is, also, the result of not so much a lack of education, because there are many "educated" people who are Trumpists.  Its the lack of a quality education, something that the conservatives have worked over the decades since Reagan to bring about thru cuts in education funding, attacks on teachers and attacks on knowledge in general.  Too many Americans have no understanding of basic history, how the government functions, and couldn't tell you who their senators and representatives are.  They don't understand the difference between opinion and fact.  And general science?  Forget it. 

    Civics, critical thinking, history are all topics that would help people at least understand the moment we're in and the threat of Trump.  

    Jefferson said we need an "enlightened citizenry" that is "educated sufficiently" for self government, e.g. voting, to work.  We clearly don't have that now, when upwards of 69 million ignored everything to vote for Trump, who is antithetical to everything Jefferson and the Founders stood for.

    A long term goal for building a democratic majority and mitigating the Trumpist know-nothing scourge will be to improve the quality of K-12 education.


  12. What you're describing is something I've been contemplating since the 90s, and wondering how to battle most of that time.

    One of the problems is, the right wing media isn't just pro-Republicans (and sometimes Libertarians); it's viciously anti-Democrats (and that horror that describes "caring for society", "socialism").

    In Unix systems, logging in used to frequently give you a "fortune cookie" – a quote from a compilation of them. One of those quotes I remember vaguely, and it went something like

    Person1: What do you think of representative Smith?

    Person2: You know, I never really thought about him much, but one day, I played a really mean trick on him, and ever since, I can't *stand* him.

    The idea has stuck with me, because I realized there's some deep down wisdom there. If you play a really mean trick on someone, and you have a conscience, you have to regret it, unless they really deserved it. That means you can choose either to regret your action, or choose to believe they deserved it.

    Sure, it's not quite that simple; you don't get an A/B card, "please circle your choice: a) regret your action; b)they deserved it" and you just circle one or the other. But the choice happens, even if it's not consciously made.

    For people to listen to news that constantly praises Republicans, and constantly condemns Democrats (unless they're doing *exactly* what Republicans want), the same sort of thing will happen. You'll either stop listening in disgust at the unfairness, or, you'll decide it's not *that* unfair – "it's true, Obama *was* president was ISIS took power…", etc.. Eventually, you'll become inured to all the nastiness; and you might well start to believe it.

    And if you're in that state, mostly listening to that sort of reporting (note: I explicitly said "reporting", not "journalism"), anything that points out that, oh, Trump is a huge danger to national security, Trump is corrupt, Trump failed to protect the US from Covid-19, is so far out in left field that it will feel wrong. You might not have words you can use to explain why it's wrong, but you know that, e.g., Hunter Biden, or the DNC server, or the secret pedophile cabal, is the *real* story… especially if you're hearing that from people you've learned to trust (even if you still have the occasional "hey, *that* wasn't fair!" response to an attack on Democrats).

    The Republicans see the crazy as a net positive, since it motivates their base, and it's not *yet* so bad that they are forced to realize they've lost control. But they have. What you're discussing above, how reasoning and such doesn't work, is what proves they *have* lost control. They no longer have the power to pivot, other than very slowly, because there's so much momentum, up to and including people who are at least mentally gearing up to kill friends and neighbors in a second shooting civil war.


  13. <i>We are looking at a wholesale rejection of the European Enlightenment and a resurgence of modes of thinking from the Dark Ages.</i>


    I've been saying this for years. 

    I used to think contemporary conservatism was targeting the New Deal. It's much worse than that.

  14. "All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."

    — Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 1801

    That's a high-water mark of Enlightenment thinking from a founder. Contrast that with the attitude that's dragged us down to the sewer. 

    "I want what I want and I don't care how I get it."  That was the position of the Tea Party when they shut down the government to try to force the Senate and Obama to repeal Obamacare. The minority imposing on the majority. (BTW, I know 'progressives' who would throw process out the window to implement their views on climate change, putting them on the same level as anti-abortion nuts.)

    The breakdown in the Enlightenment thinking comes down to demanding your result regardless. All vices become fair' – you can lie, threaten, suppress votes. commit fraud, steal… nothing is out-of-bounds if it advances your side. This is the focal point of restoring civil discourse, and we all have to be willing to look in a mirror and do some ethical soul-searching.

    Eventually, both sides have to reach some agreement about what's 'ethical' and play by the same rules. I have (and continue to) advocated for playing hardball with power adopting the same lack of rules as the GOP with the objective of bringing both sides to the table (especially in Congress) to adopt a mutual agreement about acceptable conduct in government. It existed for a time and can return, but not when only one side honors the rules.

  15. This is an excellent analysis, and helps explain why our political problems are so intractable.

    According to conventional political analysis, that people vote their self-interest, the Republican Party should have been wiped out in a landslide. The pandemic, the disastrous trade war, the threat to the ACA, the stagnating middle class; Yet even the people who are directly and obviously harmed by Republican policies remain enthusiastic about them.

    Because they find more comfort in the mythos of white male grievance than the mythos of an egalitarian multicultural society.

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