Noam Chomsky: Neoliberalism Is Destroying Our Democracy

By Christopher Lydon, thenation.com, June 2, 2017  How elites on both sides of the political spectrum have undermined our social, political, and environmental commons. ExcerptThe world in trouble today still beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door… The New York Times calls him “arguably” the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him… he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam War and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations. He remains a rock star on college campuses, here and abroad, and he’s become a sort of North Star for the post-Occupy generation that today refuses to feel the Bern-out. He remains, unfortunately, a figure alien in the places where policy gets made….Last week, we visited Chomsky with an open-ended mission in mind: We were looking for a nonstandard account of our recent history from a man known for telling the truth. We’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks but how. He’d written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, also, in his words,  a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.”When so many people were on the edge of something, something historic. NC: Well, a brief summary I think is if you take a look at recent history since the Second World War, something really remarkable has happened. First, human intelligence created two huge sledgehammers capable of terminating our existence—or at least organized existence… The Second World War ended with the use of nuclear weapons. It was immediately obvious on August 6, 1945, a day that I remember very well. It was obvious that soon technology would develop to the point where it would lead to terminal disaster. Scientists certainly understood this. …we now understand that at the end of the Second World War the world also entered into a new geological epoch. It’s called the Anthropocene, the epoch in which humans have a severe, in fact maybe disastrous impact on the environmentSo there’s the two existential threats that we’ve created—which might in the case of nuclear war maybe wipe us out; in the case of environmental catastrophe, create a severe impact—and then some.

A third thing happened. Beginning around the ’70s, human intelligence dedicated itself to eliminating, or at least weakening, the main barrier against these threats. It’s called neoliberalism. There was a transition at that time from the period of what some people call “regimented capitalism,” the ’50s and ’60s, the great growth period, egalitarian growth, a lot of advances in social justice and so on— Since the Second World War, we have created two means of destruction. Since the neoliberal era, we have dismantled the way of handling them.

It’s not called that. What it’s called is “freedom,” but “freedom” means a subordination to the decisions of concentrated, unaccountable, private power. That’s what it means. The institutions of governance—or other kinds of association that could allow people to participate in decision making—those are systematically weakened. Margaret Thatcher said it rather nicely in her aphorism about “there is no society, only individuals.”For Thatcher, it’s an ideal—and that’s neoliberalism. We destroy or at least undermine the governing mechanisms by which people at least in principle can participate to the extent that society’s democratic. So weaken them, undermine unions, other forms of association… transfer decisions to unaccountable private power all in the rhetoric of freedom.

Well, what does that do? The one barrier to the threat of destruction is an engaged public, an informed, engaged public acting together to develop means to confront the threat and respond to it. That’s been systematically weakened, consciously… it was predictable. You didn’t know exactly when, but when you impose socioeconomic policies that lead to stagnation or decline for the majority of the population, undermine democracy, remove decision-making out of popular hands, you’re going to get anger, discontent, fear take all kinds of forms. And that’s the phenomenon that’s misleadingly called “populism.”… Well, that’s the fault of the information system, because it’s very comprehensible and very obvious and very simple…[ CL: Pankaj Mishra calls it—it’s a Nietzschean word—“ressentiment,” meaning this kind of explosive rage. But he says, “It’s the defining feature of a world where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and— Which was designed that way, which was designed that way. Go back to the 1970s. Across the spectrum, elite spectrum, there was deep concern about the activism of the ’60s. It’s called the “time of troubles.” It civilized the country, which is dangerous. What happened is that large parts of the population—which had been passive, apathetic, obedient—tried to enter the political arena in one or another way to press their interests and concerns. They’re called “special interests.” That means minorities, young people, old people, farmers, workers, women. In other words, the population. The population are special interests, and their task is to just watch quietly. And that was explicit.

Two documents came out right in the mid-’70s, which are quite important. They came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both influential, and both reached the same conclusions. One of them, at the left end, was by the Trilateral Commission—liberal internationalists, three major industrial countries, basically the Carter administration, that’s where they come from. That is the more interesting one [The Crisis of Democracy, a Trilateral Commission report]. The American rapporteur Samuel Huntington of Harvard, he looked back with nostalgia to the days when, as he put it, Truman was able to run the country with the cooperation of a few Wall Street lawyers and executives. Then everything was fine. Democracy was perfect. But in the ’60s they all agreed it became problematic because the special interests started trying to get into the act, and that causes too much pressure and the state can’t handle that. … This is a consensus view of the liberal internationalists and the three industrial democracies. They—in their consensus—they concluded that a major problem is what they called, their words, “the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young.” The schools, the universities, churches, they’re not doing their job. They’re not indoctrinating the young properly. The young have to be returned to passivity and obedience, and then democracy will be fine. That’s the left end.

Now what do you have at the right end? A very influential document, the Powell Memorandum a confidential memorandum for the US Chamber of Commerce, which has been extremely influential. It more or less set off the modern so-called “conservative movement.the basic picture is that this rampaging left has taken over everything. We have to use the resources that we have to beat back this rampaging New Left which is undermining freedom and democracy. Connected with this was something else. As a result of the activism of the ’60s and the militancy of labor, there was a falling rate of profit. That’s not acceptable. So we have to reverse the falling rate of profit, we have to undermine democratic participation, what comes? Neoliberalism, which has exactly those effects.

Full text

For 50 years, Noam Chomsky, has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting. He speaks not to the city square of Athens but to a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger.

The world in trouble today still beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door, if only because he’s been forthright for so long about a whirlwind coming. Not that the world quite knows what do with Noam Chomsky’s warnings of disaster in the making. Remember the famous faltering of the patrician TV host William F. Buckley Jr., meeting Chomsky’s icy anger about the war in Vietnam, in 1969.

It’s a strange thing about Noam Chomsky: The New York Times calls him “arguably” the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop-media stars on network television almost never do. And yet the man is universally famous and revered in his 89th year: He’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam War and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations. He remains a rock star on college campuses, here and abroad, and he’s become a sort of North Star for the post-Occupy generation that today refuses to feel the Bern-out.

He remains, unfortunately, a figure alien in the places where policy gets made. But on his home ground at MIT, he is a notably accessible old professor who answers his e-mail and receives visitors like us with a twinkle.

Last week, we visited Chomsky with an open-ended mission in mind: We were looking for a nonstandard account of our recent history from a man known for telling the truth. We’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks but how. He’d written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, also, in his words,  a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.”

Christopher Lydon: All we want you to do is to explain where in the world we are at a time—

Noam Chomsky: That’s easy.

CL: [Laughs]—When so many people were on the edge of something, something historic. Is there a Chomsky summary?

NC: Brief summary?

CL: Yeah.

NC: Well, a brief summary I think is if you take a look at recent history since the Second World War, something really remarkable has happened. First, human intelligence created two huge sledgehammers capable of terminating our existence—or at least organized existence—both from the Second World War. One of them is familiar. In fact, both are by now familiar. The Second World War ended with the use of nuclear weapons. It was immediately obvious on August 6, 1945, a day that I remember very well. It was obvious that soon technology would develop to the point where it would lead to terminal disaster. Scientists certainly understood this.

In 1947 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists inaugurated its famous Doomsday Clock. You know, how close the minute hand was to midnight? And it started seven minutes to midnight. By 1953 it had moved to two minutes to midnight. That was the year when the United States and Soviet Union exploded hydrogen bombs. But it turns out we now understand that at the end of the Second World War the world also entered into a new geological epoch. It’s called the Anthropocene, the epoch in which humans have a severe, in fact maybe disastrous impact on the environment. It moved again in 2015, again in 2016. Immediately after the Trump election late January this year, the clock was moved again to two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest it’s been since ’53.

So there’s the two existential threats that we’ve created—which might in the case of nuclear war maybe wipe us out; in the case of environmental catastrophe, create a severe impact—and then some.

A third thing happened. Beginning around the ’70s, human intelligence dedicated itself to eliminating, or at least weakening, the main barrier against these threats. It’s called neoliberalism. There was a transition at that time from the period of what some people call “regimented capitalism,” the ’50s and ’60s, the great growth period, egalitarian growth, a lot of advances in social justice and so on—

CL: Social democracy…

NC: Social democracy, yeah. That’s sometimes called “the golden age of modern capitalism.” That changed in the ’70s with the onset of the neoliberal era that we’ve been living in since. And if you ask yourself what this era is, its crucial principle is undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy.

It’s not called that. What it’s called is “freedom,” but “freedom” means a subordination to the decisions of concentrated, unaccountable, private power. That’s what it means. The institutions of governance—or other kinds of association that could allow people to participate in decision making—those are systematically weakened. Margaret Thatcher said it rather nicely in her aphorism about “there is no society, only individuals.”

Since the Second World War, we have created two means of destruction. Since the neoliberal era, we have dismantled the way of handling them.

She was actually, unconsciously no doubt, paraphrasing Marx, who in his condemnation of the repression in France said, “The repression is turning society into a sack of potatoes, just individuals, an amorphous mass can’t act together.” That was a condemnation. For Thatcher, it’s an ideal—and that’s neoliberalism. We destroy or at least undermine the governing mechanisms by which people at least in principle can participate to the extent that society’s democratic. So weaken them, undermine unions, other forms of association, leave a sack of potatoes and meanwhile transfer decisions to unaccountable private power all in the rhetoric of freedom.

Well, what does that do? The one barrier to the threat of destruction is an engaged public, an informed, engaged public acting together to develop means to confront the threat and respond to it. That’s been systematically weakened, consciously. I mean, back to the 1970s we’ve probably talked about this. There was a lot of elite discussion across the spectrum about the danger of too much democracy and the need to have what was called more “moderation” in democracy, for people to become more passive and apathetic and not to disturb things too much, and that’s what the neoliberal programs do. So put it all together and what do you have? A perfect storm.

CL: What everybody notices is all the headline things, including Brexit and Donald Trump and Hindu nationalism and nationalism everywhere and Le Pen all kicking in more or less together and suggesting some real world phenomenon.

NC: it’s very clear, and it was predictable. You didn’t know exactly when, but when you impose socioeconomic policies that lead to stagnation or decline for the majority of the population, undermine democracy, remove decision-making out of popular hands, you’re going to get anger, discontent, fear take all kinds of forms. And that’s the phenomenon that’s misleadingly called “populism.”

CL: I don’t know what you think of Pankaj Mishra, but I enjoy his book Age of Anger, and he begins with an anonymous letter to a newspaper from somebody who says, “We should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled. Nothing since the triumph of Vandals in Rome and North Africa has seemed so suddenly incomprehensible and difficult to reverse.”

NC: Well, that’s the fault of the information system, because it’s very comprehensible and very obvious and very simple. Take, say the United States, which actually suffered less from these policies than many other countries. Take the year 2007, a crucial year right before the crash.

CL: Pankaj Mishra calls it—it’s a Nietzschean word—“ressentiment,” meaning this kind of explosive rage. But he says, “It’s the defining feature of a world where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and—

NC: Which was designed that way, which was designed that way. Go back to the 1970s. Across the spectrum, elite spectrum, there was deep concern about the activism of the ’60s. It’s called the “time of troubles.” It civilized the country, which is dangerous. What happened is that large parts of the population—which had been passive, apathetic, obedient—tried to enter the political arena in one or another way to press their interests and concerns. They’re called “special interests.” That means minorities, young people, old people, farmers, workers, women. In other words, the population. The population are special interests, and their task is to just watch quietly. And that was explicit.

Two documents came out right in the mid-’70s, which are quite important. They came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both influential, and both reached the same conclusions. One of them, at the left end, was by the Trilateral Commission—liberal internationalists, three major industrial countries, basically the Carter administration, that’s where they come from. That is the more interesting one [The Crisis of Democracy, a Trilateral Commission report]. The American rapporteur Samuel Huntington of Harvard, he looked back with nostalgia to the days when, as he put it, Truman was able to run the country with the cooperation of a few Wall Street lawyers and executives. Then everything was fine. Democracy was perfect.

But in the ’60s they all agreed it became problematic because the special interests started trying to get into the act, and that causes too much pressure and the state can’t handle that.

CL: I remember that book well.

NC: We have to have more moderation in democracy.

CL: Not only that, he turned Al Smith’s line around. Al Smith said, “The cure for democracy is more democracy.” He said, “No, the cure for this democracy is less democracy.”

NC: It wasn’t him. It was the liberal establishment. He was speaking for them. This is a consensus view of the liberal internationalists and the three industrial democracies. They—in their consensus—they concluded that a major problem is what they called, their words, “the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young.” The schools, the universities, churches, they’re not doing their job. They’re not indoctrinating the young properly. The young have to be returned to passivity and obedience, and then democracy will be fine. That’s the left end.

Now what do you have at the right end? A very influential document, the Powell Memorandum, came out at the same time. Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer, later Supreme Court justice, he produced a confidential memorandum for the US Chamber of Commerce, which has been extremely influential. It more or less set off the modern so-called “conservative movement.” The rhetoric is kind of crazy. We don’t go through it, but the basic picture is that this rampaging left has taken over everything. We have to use the resources that we have to beat back this rampaging New Left which is undermining freedom and democracy.

Connected with this was something else. As a result of the activism of the ’60s and the militancy of labor, there was a falling rate of profit. That’s not acceptable. So we have to reverse the falling rate of profit, we have to undermine democratic participation, what comes? Neoliberalism, which has exactly those effects.

Listen to the full conversation with Noam Chomsky on Radio Open Source.

Our Divided Political Heart – The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent

Reviews and excerptsNPR excerpt is directly from the book; all other excerpt selections and highlighting done by web curator, Phyllis Stenerson

1 – Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E.J. Dionne Jr., review by Jeff Greenfield, Washington Post, June 1, 2012

2 -  ‘Our Divided Political Heart’ by E. J. Dionne Jr., review By GEOFFREY KABASERVICE, New York Times, SEPT. 28, 2012

3 – Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E. J. Dionne Jr. , NPR.org – excerpt

4 – Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent By: E.J. Dionne Jr., Bloomsbury.com -  – About Our Divided Political Heart – Who are we as a nation? And what is it that’s tearing us apart?

5 – Our Divided Political Heart, The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E.J. Dionne, bookbrowse.com  May 2012 – book summary

*   *   *   *   *   *  

1 - Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E.J. Dionne Jr. By Jeff Greenfield, Washington Post, June 1, 2012

“a richly researched tour of history to restore the broken consensus about who we are and what America stands for.”

If you want a perfect embodiment of the political divide that E.J. Dionne Jr. describes and laments in his new book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” there’s no better place to look than the credentials of E.J. Dionne Jr.: columnist for The Washington Post; senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; professor at Georgetown University; regular guest on “Meet the Press,” MSNBC and NPR.

These credentials, the very model of a modern major commentator, are multiple red flags for the millions who see in academia, D.C.-based liberal think tanks and most of the media the very forces that helped dragoon America away from its authentic roots and traditions. They all but ensure that anything Dionne might say would be rejected out of hand. And they help explain why his ambitious and estimable mission — to remind skeptical Americans of the strong communitarian foundations of the republic — is probably doomed to failure. The very folks Dionne is most determined to convince are the ones most likely to dismiss the historical evidence that fills almost every page by replying, “Consider the source.”

“Building a new consensus,” he says at the outset, “will be impossible if the parties to our political struggles continue to insist that a single national trait explains our success as a nation and that a single idea drives and dominates our story.” Our country, he says, “has witnessed the rise of a radical form of individualism that simultaneously denigrates the role of government and the importance most Americans attach to the quest for community.” Dionne believes that figures as diverse as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt would have been appalled by the understanding — or, rather, misunderstanding — of what “the American System” is all about. And over the next 200-plus pages, Dionne marshals an array of historians to reinforce this central point.

Where did this misunderstanding come from? For Dionne, its locus is the late 19th century, the Gilded Age, when social Darwinism was at its peak and when the Supreme Court was turning the 14th Amendment on its head, substituting corporate coddling for the goal of using federal power to protect citizens from abuse at the hands of the states. For most of our history, he argues, and especially over most of the 20th century, America has been guided by “the long consensus” — from the first Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan — that while it would be wrong “to deny the power of individualism in our history . . . it is just as misleading to ignore our yearnings for a strong common life and our republican quest for civic virtue.”

Yet, apart from that résumé that would make reciprocal respect unlikely, Dionne’s case for the rebuilding of the long consensus is exactly what the current version of American conservatism does not want. As Karl Marx once said of his fellow communists, the tea party disdains to conceal its aims. In his maiden speech last year, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) was sharply critical of Henry Clay’s compromises, embracing instead the abolitionist stance of Henry’s cousin Cassius Clay. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared in his presidential announcement speech that he sought to “make Washington as inconsequential in your life as I can,” there was no one on the right who suggested that this might be at odds with American history.

When Richard Mourdock, who recently defeated Indiana’s Richard Lugar in his attempt to extend his 36-year Senate career, was asked about bipartisanship, he said, “I have a mind-set that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

If Dionne’s effort to find common ground is likely to fail, it does not lessen his achievement. His case is strong enough, serious enough and grounded enough to challenge those on the other side of the divide to offer a counterargument as rigorously argued as this one. 

2 Our Divided Political Heart’ by E. J. Dionne Jr. By GEOFFREY KABASERVICE, New York Times, SEPT. 28, 2012

The Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr… examines current political concerns through the lens of history, religion and philosophy. But while readers will admire Dionne’s intellectual dexterity in diagnosing the historical origins of our present political problem of division and dysfunction, they may also wish he could make a more substantive case for how we might move beyond it….he situates our current divisions in the full sweep of American history, going back to the founders — since, as he observes, “Americans disagree about who we are because we can’t agree about who we’ve been.”

Dionne posits that American history has always been characterized by tension between the core values of individualism and community. Americans have cherished liberty, individual opportunity and self-expression while also upholding the importance of community obligation and civic virtue. The founders referred to these values as liberalism and republicanism, and the effort to balance and reconcile them has shaped the American character. Neither value is reducible to liberalism or conservatism as we now understand them, although communitarianism presumes a belief that government is at least potentially a constructive force. Dionne, a self-described “communitarian liberal,” acknowledges that he has much in common with conservative intellectuals like Robert Nisbet and the “compassionate conservatives” around George W. Bush. But Dionne argues that today’s Tea Party-influenced conservatives have broken with their communitarian traditions and become zealots for radical individualism. He pleads for a return to the balance between individual and community values that characterized most of American ­history.

Conservatives’ contentions that the founders believed in minimal government and maximal individualism, for example, are countered by the findings of scholars like Gordon Wood that the American revolutionaries sought to create a strong federal government and conceived of a highly communal and at times anticapitalistic version of liberty. Dionne points out that conservative justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas who claim to be able to discern the “original intent” of the Constitution are deluded, since the founders held conflicting views and some provisions of the Constitution “embody not timeless truths but sensitive compromises aimed at resolving (or getting around) pressing disagreements of the moment.”the laissez-faire doctrine of the Gilded Age was an aberration, and that “conservative individualists are thus trying to convert a 35-year interlude into the norm for 235 years of American history.”

… he hopes that Occupy Wall Street will find expression in traditional politics, just as the Progressives fulfilled many Populist goals by joining them with the aspirations of the middle class. The merger of Populism and Progressivism, in Dionne’s view, laid the groundwork for “the Long Consensus”: the active-government commitment to prosperity that expanded both individual opportunity and collective security in the century after Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency in 1901. It is this consensus, along with the balance and moderation it embodied, that is threatened by a Republican Party newly converted to the cause of radical ­individualism.

…. He shouldn’t be accused of political favoritism for diagnosing the current moment of “asymmetric polarization,” in which Republicans seek to overturn the Long Consensus while Democrats defend it. “If describing developments in American political life candidly is dismissed as a form of partisanship,” he warns, “then honest speech becomes impossible.”

… while he is justly critical of ideologically compromised right-wing history, he calls ideological left-wing revisionism “important,” “debunking” and thought-provoking.

Dionne declares that “the country confronts a time of decision,” one that demands more than “musty bromides” about moderation or mere procedural reforms…He hopes Republicans will recover their abandoned communitarian traditions The history Dionne tells can provide inspiration and guidance, but Americans will have to find new ways of thinking and acting if they are to restore the political balance that once enabled American greatness.

3 – Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E. J. Dionne Jr. – excerpt of this book  INTRODUCTION – Who We Are: Liberty, Community, and the American Character – NPR.ORG 

Fear of decline is one of the oldest American impulses. It speaks, oddly, to our confidence that we occupy a lofty position in history and among nations: we always assume we are in a place from which we can decline. It’s why there is a vast literature on “American exceptionalism” and why we think of ourselves as “a city on a hill,” “the first new nation,” “a beacon to the world,” and “a light among nations.”

When they arise, our declinist sentiments usually have specific sources in economic or foreign policy travails. These apprehensions quickly lead to bouts of soul-searching that go beyond concrete problems to abstract and even spiritual worries about the nation’s values and moral purposes. When we feel we are in decline, we sense that we have lost our balance. We argue about what history teaches us — and usually disagree about what history actually says. We conclude that behind every crisis related to economics and the global distribution of power lurks a crisis of the soul….

the words hope and believe were pointed responses to a spiritual crisis engendered by fears of lost supremacy. They help explain why the Obama campaign so often felt like a religious crusade…. The difficulty in producing a sustainable economic upturn (even if the hopes for a miraculous recovery were always unrealistic) only deepened the nation’s sense that something was badly wrong. Obama … failed, particularly in the first part of his term, to understand how the depth of the nation’s political polarization would inevitably foil his pledge to bring the country together across the lines of party and ideology…Whatever Obama was for, whatever he undertook, whatever he proposed — all of it was seen as undermining traditional American liberties and moving the country toward some ill-defined socialism. Whatever else they did, Republicans would make sure they prevented Obama from accomplishing anything more. Over and over, they vowed to make him a one-term president…This book is an effort to make sense of our current political unhappiness, to offer an explanation for why divisions in our politics run so deep, and to reflect on why we are arguing so much about our nation’s history and what it means.

Americans are right to sense that the country confronts a time of decisionWe are right to feel that traditional paths to upward mobility have been blocked, that inequalities have grown, and that the old social contract — written in the wake of World War II and based on shared prosperity — has been torn up. Musty bromides about centrism and moderation will do nothing to quell our anxieties and our fears.

… our current unease arises less from a shortage of specific plans or programs than from a sense that our political system is so obstructed and so polarized that even good ideas commanding broad support have little chance of prevailing. We don’t have constructive debate because we cannot agree on the facts or on any common ground defined by shared moral commitments.   

4 Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent By: E.J. Dionne Jr. – www.bloomsbury.com

About Our Divided Political Heart – Who are we as a nation? And what is it that’s tearing us apart? In Our Divided Political Heart, E. J. Dionne Jr., one of our most respected political commentators, argues that Americans can’t agree on who we are because we can’t agree on who we’ve been. The American tradition, Dionne says, points not to radical self-reliance and self-interest, but to a balance between our love of individual freedom and our devotion to community. With a deep understanding of our nation’s past, Dionne crafts an incisive analysis of how hyper-individualism is poisoning our current political atmosphere. He shares the Tea Party’s engagement with the American past, but takes on its distortions of our history while rooting the Occupy Wall Street movement in America’s civic and Populist traditions.

Dionne offers both a fascinating tour of American history-from the Founding Fathers to Clay and Lincoln, on to Populism, the Progressives, and the New Dealers-and an interpretation of our moment’s politics that shatters conventional wisdom. He reclaims the American idea of the federal government as an active and constructive partner with the rest of society in promoting prosperity, opportunity, and American greatness. And he challenges progressives to embrace their country’s story-to redefine progress and to put an end to our fears of decline.
Our Divided Political Heart is indispensable for all who seek a path out of America’s current impasse.

Reviews

“As he has so often, E.J. Dionne has written a brilliant new book, and it places our current division in political and cultural context” –  Paul Begala, Newsweek

“[A]n earnest effort to reach across the political divide….Dionne takes his readers on a richly researched tour of history to restore the broken consensus about who we are and what America stands for.His case is strong enough, serious enough and grounded enough to challenge those on the other side of the divide to offer a counterargument as rigorously argued as this one.” –  Washington Post

5 Our Divided Political Heart, The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E.J. Dionne, bookbrowse.com  May 2012 – book summary

Our Divided Political Heart will be the must-read book of the 2012 election campaign. Offering an incisive analysis of how hyper-individualism is poisoning the nation’s political atmosphere, E. J. Dionne Jr. argues that Americans can’t agree on who we are because we can’t agree on who we’ve been, or what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us Americans. Dionne takes on the Tea Party’s distortions of American history and shows that the true American tradition points not to radical individualism, but to a balance between our love of individualism and our devotion to community.

Dionne offersan analysis of our current politics that shatters conventional wisdom. The true American idea, far from endorsing government inaction or indifference, has always viewed the federal government as an active and constructive partner with the rest of society in promoting prosperity, opportunity, and American greatness. ystem to self-correct is its greatest asset and Dionne challenges progressives to embrace the American story he renews our hope that cooler heads can prevail with a renewed balance of individual rights and the needs of the community.” – Kirkus Reviews

Our Divided Political Heart recalls us to an American past that speaks powerfully, and hopefully, to our present political travails. Every citizen concerned about the state of our politics should read this book.” – Michael J. Sandel, author of Justice

“This is a brilliant book about America’s current political divide. But more importantly, it’s an insightful exploration of our nation’s history and our ability to balance individualism with community. That sense of balance has been lost, and this book shows how we can restore a shared appreciation for our historic values.” – Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin  

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for the Washington Post, and University Professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University. He appears weekly on NPR and regularly on MSNBC and NBC’s Meet the Press. His twice-weekly op-ed column is now syndicated in 140 newspapers. His writing has been published in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Washington Post Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Commonweal, New Statesman, and elsewhere. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of numerous books, including the classic bestseller Why Americans Hate Politics, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was nominated for the National Book Award. His most recent book is Souled Out. Dionne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with wife, Mary Boyle, and their three children.

Is Radicalism Possible Today?

sEE A response to: Is Radicalism Possible Today? BY pHYLLIS sTENERSON, 6/15/17

by David Brooks, The Opinion Pages,  New York Times, JUNE 13, 2017

Are you feeling radical? Do you think that the status quo is fundamentally broken and we have to start thinking about radical change? If so, I’d like to go back a century so that we might learn how radicalism is done.

The years around 1917 were a great period of radical ferment. Folks at The New Republic magazine were championing progressivism, which would transform how the economy is regulated and how democracy works. At The Masses, left-wing activists were fomenting a global socialist revolution. Outside the White House radical suffragists were protesting for the right to vote and creating modern feminism.

People in those days had one thing we have in abundance: an urge to rebel against the current reality — in their case against the brutalities of industrialization, the rigidities of Victorianism, the stale formulas of academic thinking.

But they also had a whole series of mechanisms they thought they could use to implement change. If you were searching for a new consciousness, there was a neighborhood to go to: Greenwich Village. If you were searching for a dissident lifestyle, there was one — Bohemianism, with its artistic rejection of commercial life.

People had faith in small magazines as the best lever to change the culture and the world. People had faith in the state, in central planning as an effective tool to reorganize the economy and liberate the oppressed. Radicals had faith in the working class, to ally with the intellectuals and form a common movement against concentrated wealth.

There were many people then who had a genius for creating ideals, and for betting their whole lives on an effort to live out these ideals. I’ve just been reading Jeremy McCarter’s inspiring and entertaining new book “Young Radicals,” which is a group portrait of five of those radicals: Walter Lippmann, Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Alice Paul and John Reed.

All of them had a youthful and exuberant faith that transformational change was imminently possible. Reed was the romantic adventurer — the one who left Harvard and ventured to be at the center of wherever the action might be — union strikes, the Russian Revolution. Paul was the dogged one — the diminutive activist who gave up sleep, gave up leisure, braved rancid prisons to serve the suffragist movement.

But the two true geniuses were Lippmann and Bourne, who offer lessons on different styles of radicalism. With his magisterial, organized mind, Lippmann threw his lot in with social science, with rule by experts. He believed in centralizing and nationalizing, and letting the best minds weigh the evidence and run the country. He lived his creed, going from socialist journalism to the halls of Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

Bourne was more visionary and vulnerable. He’d grown up in a stiflingly dull WASP town. It was only when he met the cosmopolitan stew of different ethnicities in New York that he got the chance to “breathe a larger air.” At a time of surging immigration, and fierce debate over it, Bourne celebrated that “America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.”

Bourne believed in decentralized change — personal, spiritual, a revolution in consciousness. The “Beloved Community” he imagined was a bottom-up, Whitmanesque “spiritual welding,” a graceful coming together of unlike ethnicities.

The crucial decision point came as the United States approached entry into World War I. Lippmann supported the war, believing that it would demand more federal planning and therefore would accelerate social change. Bourne was appalled by such instrumentalist thinking, by the acceptance of war’s savagery. As McCarter puts it, “As Bourne has been arguing, no choice that supports a war will realize any ideal worth the name.”

The radicals split between pragmatists willing to work within the system and visionaries who raised larger possibilities from outside. Spreading their ideals, they pushed America forward. Living out their ideals, most were disillusioned. Reed lost faith in the Soviet Union. Lippmann lost faith in Wilson after Versailles. Bourne died marginalized and bitter during the flu epidemic of 1918.

Bourne was the least important radical a century ago, but with his fervent embrace of a decentralized, globalist, cosmopolitan world, he is the most relevant today. He is the best rebuttal to both Trumpian populism and the multicultural separatist movements on the left, who believe in separate graduation ceremonies by race, or that the normal exchange of ideas among people represents cultural appropriation.

Most of the 20th-century radicals were wrong to put their faith in a revolutionary vanguard, a small group who could see farther and know better. Bourne was right to understand that the best change is dialogical, the gradual, grinding conversation, pitting interest against interest, one group’s imperfections against another’s, but bound by common nationhood and humanity.

Are we really going to hand revolutionary power to the state, the intellectuals, the social scientists, the working class or any other class? No. This is not 1917. But can we recommit ourselves to the low but steady process of politics, bartering and exchanging, which is incremental about means but radical about ends? That’s a safer bet.

Wanted: A Massive Education, Organizing Drive and Progressive Vision to Vanquish Trump

by Les Leopold, www.commondreams.org, June 3, 2017 www.commondreams.org/views/2017/06/03/wanted-massive-education-organizing-drive-and-progressive-vision-vanquish-trump

As Trump stumbles, and maybe crumbles, progressives are confronting a painful truth: Trump is a reflection of a much bigger problem ― the rise of runaway inequality and the failure of the liberal establishment to address it.

Between 1980 and 2014, the gap between the top 100 CEOs and the average worker climbed from $40 to one to an incredible $844 to one. All boats did not rise. During that time the real income of the average worker (after accounting for inflation) actually declined. Both Republicans and Democrats alike rushed to deregulate Wall Street, which is a major cause of these enormous gaps.

The Democrats, who once spoke for these working people, are in real danger of losing them. Since 2008, they have given up 917 state, local and federal elected offices. There are now 33 Republic governorships.

Who’s to blame?

In workshops around the country, we’ve been asking participants why Trump won. The answers primarily focus on the Comey letter, Hillary as a poor candidate, the Russian hacking, anti-establishment protest, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and so on..

In no instance is there any self-reflection from progressives about our own role in any of this. Isn’t it possible that maybe, just maybe, the enormous rightward drift has something to do with us ― with how progressives are organized and disorganized? At the very least, we should admit the obvious: all of this happened and continues to happen on our watch. To not take some responsibility for this growing calamity is to concede that we have no agency, no power, and no effective strategy to forge meaningful social change.

The Hazards of Silo Organizing

For the last generation, progressives have organized themselves into issue silos, each with its own agenda. Survival depends on fundraising (largely from private foundations) based on the uniqueness of one’s own silo. Each group must develop its own expertise and activities which distinguish it from other groups. Each needs to proclaim that its issue is the existential threat, be it climate change, police violence, abortion rights or health care. The net result of this Darwinian struggle is a fractured landscape of activity. The creativity, talent and skill are there in abundance, but the coherence and common purpose among groups is not.

Siloed organizational structures also make it extremely difficult to cooperate on a common program to reverse runaway inequality, There is little incentive to form a grand progressive alliance to build what the Sanders campaign, for example, had set in motion. Better to launch your own national effort and claim that it is the center of the organizing universe.

It is therefore not surprising that the two biggest progressive challenges to runaway inequality in the last decade ― Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders campaign ― did not arise from within these siloed organizations. OWS largely grew from a notice in Adbusters, a Vancouver, BC, journal. Most of those who did the occupying at the 900 encampments also did not come from progressive siloed organizations. In fact, the non-profit/NGO community more or less watched from the sidelines.

Similarly, the Sanders campaign also did not emerge from a concerted effort among progressives to create a new politics within the Democratic Party. Rather, it was driven by Bernie’s own social-democratic vision that he had been espousing for over 40 years, year after year after year. When his effort showed signs of life, progressives broadly divided between the idealists feeling the burn and the pragmatists seeking to back a sure winner, who at least would provide access to progressive ideas.

Talking to Ourselves?

The advent of Trump certainly has unleashed an enormous amount of progressive activity. In addition to the many sizeable marches, there are now approximately 5,000 Indivisible groups making life miserable for Republican office holders. However, nearly all of this activity is anti-Trump and defensive. There is no common Indivisible national agenda, nor is there a common organization to set a coherent strategic direction.

More importantly, pure anti-Trumpism guarantees we will be talking to the already convinced. By focusing solely on Trump, it becomes next to impossible to reach the Trump voters who also voted for Sanders and Obama.

Some argue that such outreach is a waste of time because there really are not that many Obama-to-Sanders-to-Trump voters. Unfortunately, exit polls do not give us enough data to reasonably estimate the size of this hybrid voting population. But sources inside the United Steelworkers, for example, report that 50 percent of their members who voted, voted for Trump. Given how representative those members are of the broader working class, we’re probably looking at several million Obama-Sanders-Trump voters.

We do know this: In the state of Michigan there was a 500,000 vote loss from Obama (2012) to Clinton (2016). It was minus 290,000 in Pennsylvania and minus 222,000 in Wisconsin.

Very few, if any of our siloed progressive organizations are targeting these working people. Danger ahead.

The Deplorables?

It will not be easy for progressive to reach out to Trump voters, unionized or not. In part, that is because anti-Trump defensive activity has become the basis for a new wave of silo organizing and fundraising. Each group is claiming that its activities will be the most effective means for upending the Trump agenda and returning Congress to the Democrats.

The animosity towards Trump voters runs deep. One prominent progressive educator told me privately that Trump voters should be viewed as terrorists ― that their anti-establishment revolt was like throwing a grenade into a crowd, and we’re the collateral damage. Others argue that the Trump voters really are “deplorables” when it comes to their racism, sexism and anti-immigrant beliefs.

The suspicion also spreads to those who do want to reach out to these Obama-Sanders-Trump voters. They are often criticized for favoring class over race ― for failing to put anti-racism as the central feature of all organizing and educational efforts. So for example, if addressing “white skin privilege” is not a major part of the education, then the education is viewed as catering to the racist white working class.

This can cascade into a series of litmus tests on race, gender, immigration, abortion, global warming, etc that must be passed in order to be welcomed into the progressive community. While there is no denying that these issues are of critical importance, the net effect of administering such tests is that progressives will be stuck within their own bubbles.

The Power of Education:

We’re facing a moment of truth about education and social change. We need to decide whether or not we believe that real education about big picture issues can make a difference in how people see the world. This kind of education is not the same as campaign propaganda, sound bite memes or technical training about how to get out the vote or organize an action. It’s about building a broad-based discussion on how the economy works and doesn’t work, and how to make it serve us all. Here are some of its features:

1. Placing a Target on Wall Street: By showing how and why society is growing more unequal, runaway inequality education (see runawayinequality.org) lays bare the ways in which Wall Street and its CEO partners engage in financial strip-mining, ― the immoral siphoning away of wealth from our jobs, communities and families. The weapons of financial engineering are many including mortgage fraud, high interest student loans, stock buybacks, payday loans, too big to fail/jail, bailouts, tax loopholes, tax breaks, off-shore accounts, privatization of public assets, and many, many more. None of our silos are immune from ravages of financial strip-mining

2. Building Common Ground: Big picture education can tie together virtually all the issues that we care deeply about. Runaway inequality and runaway finance are linked to runaway global warming. The forces causing runaway inequality are connected to the rise of the prison population and the expansion of private prisons where we now warehouse millions of our impoverished youth. It’s tied to the attack on union rights, the decline of good paying jobs, the harassment of immigrants and the failure of our corporate-run health care system. This educational process helps us see that our issue silos are in fact deeply connected.

3. Safe space for Dialogue: A strong educational process provides an excellent venue to have dialogue with those that do not immediately share every progressive value or position. I’ve done runaway inequality workshops with Trump voters and the response has been positive. They too want to understand why the richest country in the history of the world cannot provide decent paying jobs and adequate public services for all its people.

4. Developing and Spreading a Common Agenda: Such an educational process also leads naturally to testing and sharing a common agenda to reverse runaway inequality. Such an agenda, in the form of a petition, can serve as an educational tool, and, if it catches on, a way to shift the public debate towards a social-democratic agenda. (See here for national polling results on how young people reacted to such an agenda.)

Learning from the Populists of the late 19th Century

Over a century ago, small farmers, black and white, in the Midwest and South organized a potent mass movement to challenge the power of Wall Street. They called for cooperative enterprises, public banks, public ownership of railroads and telegraph, a progressive income tax and many other limits on corporate power. Their agenda led to many state and nation reforms as well as paving the way for the New Deal and its tight controls on Wall Street.

“Building a fairer and more just society will require a massive educational movement. As the Populists taught us, it can be done.”

The key to their organizational successes was education. They fielded 6,000 educators to help build their chapters and spread the word in the 1880s and 1890s. Today we would need about 30,000 to do the same, given the growth of our population.

Building such a network, however, requires having faith in the power of education. It requires that we understand that runaway inequality ties us all together and can only be tackled through a broad-based common movement with a common agenda. This educational process asks us to have the confidence and courage to engage in dialogue with a wide range of people who also care about building a better society for themselves and their families.

None of this will come easy. Our silos provide us with strength. We take pride in our identities and are empowered by them. Also, it is very difficult for us to even imagine what a common movement might look like, let alone how to build one. But we can be sure of one thing: Building a fairer and more just society will require a massive educational movement. As the Populists taught us, it can be done.

(For those willing to take that leap, please join us in building the runawayinequality.org educational network. We need you. We need each other.)

Stop Crying About the Size of Government. Start Caring About Who Controls It. – Evonomics

The role of the state in the economy By David Sloan Wilson and Daron Acemoglu, By Evonomics: The Next Evolution of Economics, March 24, 2016

Excerpt

Economist Daron Acemoğlu: ” We cannot benefit from so many things we take for granted without a powerful state, but then civil society and our institutions need to be even more powerful in order to be able to control the state, particularly since a capable state in a complex society could be a formidable tool of extraction that countless politicians, bureaucrats and organized interests would want to use it for their own benefit or agenda. Put differently, trying to dominate society is in the DNA of the state, but this is no reason to belittle how much of our security, prosperity and even social development we owe to state institutions.”  http://bit.ly/2ihG22l

Full text:

In an address that I recently gave at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, I praised Friedrich Hayek as a pioneer for describing economic systems as products of cultural group selection. I also pointed out that his views require updating—unsurprising, given all that we have learned about cultural multilevel selection since he wrote. The updating is not trivial but strikes at the heart of what Hayek stands for in modern political discourse—the ideal of a free market economy unimpeded by state planning. Here is a key passage from The Fatal Conceit.

Rome gave the world the prototype of private law based on the most absolute conception of several property. The decline and final collapse of this first extended order came only after central administration in Rome increasingly displaced free endeavor. This sequence has been repeated again and again: civilization might spread, but it is not likely to advance much further, under a government that takes over the direction of daily affairs from its citizens. It would seem that no advanced civilization has yet developed without a government which saw its chief aim in the protection of private property, but that again and again the further evolution and growth to which this gave rise was halted by a ‘strong’ government. Governments strong enough to protect individuals against the violence of their fellows make possible the evolution of an increasingly complex order of spontaneous and voluntary cooperation. Sooner or later, however, they tend to abuse that power and to suppress the freedom they had earlier secured in order to enforce their own presumably greater wisdom and not to allow ‘social institutions to develop in a haphazard manner’ (to take a characteristic expression that is found under the heading ‘social engineering’ in the Fontana/Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought (1977) [Routledge edition p 32].

There you have Hayek’s portrayal of world history. No one is better qualified to provide an update than MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, author (with James A. Robinson) of the magisterial Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. I was prompted to contact him for an interview not because of his magnum opus, but because of a quirky little study of post offices and patents in 19th Century America that is available on the Social Science Research Network and came to my attention via Twitter.

DSW: Welcome, Daron, to Evonomics.com.

DA: Thank you very much David. That’s a great pleasure to be having this conversation with you.

DSW: Let’s ease into the big issues with your new study (with Jacob Moscona and James Robinson). What did you show about 19th Century America and why is it relevant to 21st Century America and the world?

DA: Let me start with some background. James and I are in the process of working on a new book, and also writing a number of papers related to it. The book, provisionally entitled Living with the Leviathan, is about the role of the state, and very much relates to the Hayek quote you started with. When is it that the state acts like an unabashed agent of some political elite, repressing society and extracting resources from it, and when is it that it works towards the public good, developing capacity, imposing and implementing fair laws, providing public services, and protecting its citizens? We touch on this issue a little bit in Why Nations Fail, but do not dig sufficiently deep. The more one investigates this issue, the more one realizes that something we pay little attention in social science is central in reality: some states just do not have the capacity to provide services, enforce laws, or guarantee security. Much of our new book is devoted to developing a historically-grounded theory of why this state capacity develops in some places and not in others (spoiler alert: we disagree with the dominant view in political science and sociology on this topic that such capacity has to be preceded by a powerful leader or political group imposing their will against other powerholders and ultimately the monopoly of violence over their society).

In any case, without making my answer even longer, the paper with Jacob is one of a series of papers we have been working on trying to make the case that state capacity does indeed matter greatly, thus justifying our investigation and theorizing on the roots of state capacity in the first place.

The context of the paper is the US in the 19th century, which is often viewed as a society with a weak state. This is not entirely untrue. But the weakness of the US federal state is often exaggerated. What’s worse is that from this observation of state weakness, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that it was the weakness of the US state that laid the foundations of economic growth. We wanted to critically investigate this issue. This little paper starts by noting that the U.S. Postal Service, which was the largest federal agency and employer at the time, was playing a pivotal role not only in connecting the country, but bringing a range of services to distant corners of the United States. It’s also a symbol of the presence of the federal state. All of this made us wonder whether counties that got the post office became more likely to innovate and patent. The empirical evidence we present strongly supports this hypothesis: the opening of a new post office is associated with a significant increase in patenting in the county. We cannot categorically rule out other factors leading both to the introduction of new post offices and a simultaneous pickup in patenting in some counties, but our evidence suggests that this is unlikely to be driven by any obvious omitted factors or reverse causality. So what we are finding is a suggestive piece of evidence that even in the US society with its quintessentially weak federal state, state presence may have played a defining role and innovations.

This finding is also relevant because many people, including most recently Robert Gordon in his new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, places great emphasis on technological innovations undergirding US growth, but his vision, by and large, is one of “exogenous technology,” not significantly affected by institutions or other economic variables. Our finding pushes against this view, showing that state presence, presumably because of the enforcement of property rights and the provision of public services it provides, was likely a major determinant of innovations, even in 19th-century US.

DSW: I love the quote from Tocqueville, writing in 1831, that you provide in your article: “There is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods…I do not think that in the most enlightened districts of France there is an intellectual movement either so rapid or on such a scale as in this wilderness.” Let me see if I understand your thesis correctly by breaking it into parts:

1) A large-scale society requires an infrastructure to function as a corporate unit. A post office system for a nation is like a nervous system for an organism.

2) Creating a societal-level infrastructure requires decisions made and implemented on behalf of the society as a whole. The U.S. Postal system did not and could not emerge spontaneously from individuals or sub-units of the nation acting in their narrow self-interests.

3) Only some states are structured to make decisions on behalf of the whole state. Others are structured to benefit a small group of elites at the expense of the rest of the state. This is the distinction that you make between inclusive and extractive societies in Why Nations Fail.

Does this accurately represent your thesis?

DA: Yes. This is part of our argument, but there is a little bit more to it. The post office is also a marker for the presence of the state more broadly. If a place is capable of housing a post office, it means that it has some basic level of law enforcement and protection, and it is on the radar screen to be monitored and regulated by the federal government (even if that monitoring and regulation is quite light for much of the 19th century). In other words, it is likely to be enjoying all of the things that most modern states provide and we take for granted.

Some think that human cooperation can develop in a spontaneous way (Hayek comes close to this at times), or because cooperation creates an edge, the forces towards the evolution of a psychology of group cooperation are going to ensure that tribes, villages or even bigger polities can develop a sophisticated order without the state. The famous book by Robert Ellickson, Order without Law, claims that the complex relations between farmers and ranchers in Shasta County, California happens not thanks to the law, but without any reference to the law, instead relying on informal norms that have evolved over time. This may well be true, but is not the general pattern of what happens without law and the state playing the role of conflict resolution and law enforcement in much of the world. In Why Nations Fail, we explain why Somalia is so dysfunctional, linking this to the almost complete absence of conflict resolution from the state. Even small disputes in Somalia can spiral into feuds or even clan warfare because there is no central authority to resolve these conflicts. The one big difference between Somalia and Shasta County is, of course, that in the former there really isn’t the state, whereas everything that happens in Shasta County happens under the shadow of the state. For example, if a group of ranchers decide that these informal social norms aren’t working for them and take up guns and shoot some of the farmers, they know that it will be the US marshals coming after them.

As a general rule, and this is consistent with the Hayek quote you started with, no civilization has flourished economically, and I would also say socially, without a state powerful enough to provide security, property rights protection, dispute resolution and some amount of public goods to its citizens. It is also the case, and this is something we emphasize a lot throughout Why Nations Fail, that most states throughout history and even today serve the interests of the political elite and are part of their economic problems, not their solution. But this is not because the state is unnecessary or evil, but because of who controls it and what capacities it has invested in and developed.

We are trying to push this perspective to shift the debate from one of whether the state is doing too little or too much in general, to one of how it is that we can get the best out of the state. The answer is fundamentally a political one. We cannot benefit from so many things we take for granted without a powerful state, but then civil society and our institutions need to be even more powerful in order to be able to control the state, particularly since a capable state in a complex society could be a formidable tool of extraction that countless politicians, bureaucrats and organized interests would want to use it for their own benefit or agenda. Put differently, trying to dominate society is in the DNA of the state, but this is no reason to belittle how much of our security, prosperity and even social development we owe to state institutions.

DSW: Right! One contribution of evolutionary biology is to push this scenario back to the dawn of our species. Most primate societies are despotic and extractive in human terms. Our distant ancestors managed to control the ambitions of its most powerful members, or to establish a system of reverse dominance, as Christopher Boehm puts it in his books (1,2). Just about everything distinctively human flows from the benefits of inclusiveness that reverse dominance brings. Then the same eternal conflict between within- and between-group selection took place among human societies during the long sweep of human history, leading to the relatively cooperative mega-societies of today, as recounted by Peter Turchin in his new book Ultrasociety. Before continuing, I wonder if you could comment on what the long evolutionary view and an explicit theory of genetic and cultural multilevel selection adds to your own background in historical and institutional economics.

DA: Great question. I wish I knew the answer fully.

In any case, here is a, perhaps unusual, view.

I don’t think we can understand modern society purely or even largely appealing to its evolutionary roots in the savanna or in the context of small-scale societies. This is because what defines a lot of modern society is state-society relations, and the state, as we understand and conceive it today, did not exist during the long duree of our evolution. Let me try to explain this with an example. Imagine that somebody you trust quite a bit, say your uncle, comes to you and says that he wants to see your bank accounts and all of your transactions going back four years. You would probably balk at the idea. However much you used to trust the guy, there must be something fishy if he wants to see so much of your bank account and private life. But imagine the state, in the form of the tax authority, does this. You would probably not be happy about it, but you would consent, and your trust in the institutions of the state as a whole would not be dented. In Denmark, where trust in the state is even more ingrained, this information is available to the state without even having to ask you. Why am I proposing this thought experiment? Because it illustrates that we have much more trust in the institutions of the state than even the people who are very close to us (and of course this is absolutely not true if you live in much of sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, the Andean, or much of South Asia for a good reason, this trust in state institutions has, understandably, not formed in these societies).

I don’t think this is easy to understand with the existing theories of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology or even group selection. Though it’s not my place to comment on evolutionary biology and psychology as an outsider, since you’ve asked me to do it, let me add one other thing before wrapping this up. I have read and enjoyed Christopher Boehm’s work. But, to me, it poses a puzzle rather than fitting nicely into our body of understanding. How can we be simultaneously biologically so well prepared for being cooperative and egalitarian, while at the same time we are also clearly so well prepared to be despotic, hierarchical, murderous and “extractive” (borrowing a term from Why Nations Fail)?

One possibility, which I find very plausible and unifying, is that what evolution has endowed us with is a set of modules. Then it’s a great survival strategy to be able to tap into different modules and go with it. Some of those modules emphasize egalitarian cooperative behavior, while some others emphasize taking orders in a hierarchical situation, especially when that hierarchy is maintained by force or threat of force; some others emphasize the ability to be despotic and extractive, and yet others tap into hatred, murderousness and violence. Being one of these things is probably inferior to having a flexible set of modules for being able to adapt to one’s environment. If you are in a small-scale society run by a despot, it’s probably better for you and your family to be obedient and respectful than egalitarian and cooperative by nature. If you happen to be in the inner circle of the despot, then a natural proclivity to giving orders and exploiting others would come in handy. But if you are in an egalitarian situation without a clear hierarchy backed up by force, then all we know from your work and others on group selection being cooperative yourself would be quite beneficial when you take all of the payoff consequences into account.

This is probably not entirely contradictory to some parts of modern thinking in evolutionary social science, but I haven’t quite seen it expressed in this way and its consequences drawn out. The most important consequence for me is that we really have to find the right institutions and social relations to bring out the right modules in humans.

DSW: Thanks for these candid thoughts. I think that your vision comes close to dual inheritance theory, as expounded by Richerson & Boyd, Henrich, Turchin, Jablonka & Lamb, Paul, and others. The genetically evolved mind provides a large number of building blocks for cultural evolution to act upon, although the building blocks are not quite the “modules” imagined by some evolutionary psychologists (interested readers should go here for more on that topic). The reverse dominance mode of social organization is an addition to the much more ancient dominance mode that predates our species, so we are primed to operate in either mode, as you say. Insofar as every culture is an independent evolutionary experiment, building blocks get assembled in different ways. The products of cultural evolution include institutions, norms, etc., that are essential for the operation of any given society and that replicate through non-genetic means. Most of this work has taken place only during the last two decades so it’s new for everyone.

Returning to the focus of our interview, if I understand you correctly, a leviathan worth wanting must possess the following features. First, it must be strong enough to create capacity. Second, it must be inclusive enough to create capacity for the common good. Even when these conditions are met, however, there is the question of how to create capacity in a large-scale social system that is very complex. Centralized planning won’t work. Totally unregulated markets won’t work. So what will work?

DA: Yes, you have hit the nail on its head. It must be strong enough to create capacity, but inclusive enough so that these are the capacities to protect the citizens, public goods, enforce laws in a way consistent with the rule of law, and undertake the right type of regulation. And this requires inclusivity, and strong controls on the state, less it will go in its usual business of dominating, repressing and exploiting others. That’s exactly why James Robinson’s and my new work departs sharply from the consensus in political science and sociology about the importance of first building a leviathan with an unrivaled monopoly of violence. Once you do that, you have the card stuck against going in an inclusive direction: not much of the resistance to the state is left in society, and then it will be quite difficult to build a powerful civil society, accountability and checks against the state and its agents.

DSW: I’m reminded of two of my favorite examples in Why Nations Fail. Power had to be wrested from the monarchy before England could become an inclusive society. And the first British colonies in America were forced to become inclusive (unlike the Spanish colonies in Central and South America) because the lower ranking members had the option of leaving and becoming pioneers.

DA: My answer to your question of how to create capacity very much builds on this observation. It is not an engineering problem. That’s why when it is approached like an engineering problem, like something we can design and impose on society as it was done in Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, it doesn’t work, for powerful segments of society will resist it. So yes indeed, central planning doesn’t work, but not only for the reasons that Hayek emphasized (that a central plan can never aggregate the information, wisdom and creativity of society). It doesn’t work also, and perhaps more majorly, because the central plan also creates a particular distribution of political power in society, based on command and control. Once you have that, you have already created a platform for exactly the worst type of state-society relations, and everything else will unravel following it. The same thing can be said for unregulated markets, because sometimes they concentrate power in the hands of a few businesses and families that start with political power, privilege or the right sort of assets. But the healthiest sort of regulation doesn’t come from above, because some bureaucrat deems it necessary, but it comes from the bottom-up demands of regular people for protection or for the right sort of level playing field for them to go ahead in life.

This is why, I would say, there’s a huge difference between our view and the classic interventionist views (for example, associated with economists such as Keynes, and more recently Krugman or Stiglitz). For every intervention that is on the table, one should do a cost-benefit analysis not just in terms of economic gains and losses, but in terms of political factors. Does this make it more likely that the control of civil society, extant social norms and institutions over politicians, bureaucrats, security services, and elites will be eroded or even perhaps irreparably damaged? This is perhaps a conservative test, but a test I would never want to give up for temporary, short-lived economic gain.

DSW: This is very much in keeping with multilevel selection theory and the concept of major evolutionary transitions, which requires the suppression of disruptive self-serving behaviors within a group before the group can function as an adaptive unit. This is true at any scale, from a hunter-gatherer group to regulation at the planetary level. Which current nations are doing the best job as benign leviathans in your opinion? Also, can the same analysis be performed at the scale of the 50 states within the Unites States? I have mind graphs from The Spirit Level, a book that deserves to be read alongside Why Nations Fail and Ultrasociety, in which their analysis of states within the US conforms well to their analysis of nations. Could the scale of analysis be pushed down even further?

DA: I would point to Scandinavia and Canada as powerful leviathans that are nonetheless subject to the control of society, norms and institutions.

And yes, absolutely, this analysis can be applied to states and even lower-level polities. In fact, a lot of services today in the United States, in much of Latin America or India are provided at the municipality level, and the politicians that citizens and voters have to control are first and foremost their mayors and local politicians and policemen. A lot of my research, and research by other political economists today, is about these subnational-level politics and economics.

But this decentralization, though generally useful and empowering for society, also has a dark side. It can be a way of weakening the state or maintaining the weakness of the central state. If you look at the United States, for instance, many of its most salient problems are a consequence of two centuries of state weakness, and by that I mean both weakness of the federal state and also weakness of all state institutions that individuals interact with. So as a result, you still have extreme poverty, very low quality education and low social mobility in much of US South today. As a result, you have wanton police brutality against our African-American citizens, which the most powerful president on earth can do nothing about. Of course, one has to understand why that state weakness emerged and persisted in the United States, and some of it was a bargain that handsomely paid off in other respects. But today we are also paying the price for that state weakness.

DSW: I think of this as the cultural equivalent of multi-cellularity. A multi-cellular organism is composed of trillions of cells that must be healthy at the cellular and organ levels for the multi-cellular organism to be healthy. In the same way, for a large-scale human society to work well, it must be organized as smaller-scale units that work well and are properly coordinated for the benefit of the whole. This is a daunting task that has been accomplished largely by unintended cultural group selection in the past, as Hayek was wise to note. But it needs to take place through intentional cultural evolution now more than ever before, realizing that this doesn’t mean command and control. I think that Vincent and Elinor Ostrom were reaching in the same direction with their concept of polycentric governance.

So, you’ve distinguished your position from both the command and control perspective associated with Keynes and the unregulated market perspective associated with Hayek. Is there a third way and is there any hope of implementing it in the current American political environment (you’ve already pointed to Canada and the Scandinavian nations as exemplars)?

DA: I like this analogy to a multi-cellular organism. But there are several key differences. First, it’s rare for a higher-level cell to pursue a strategy of total exploitation that will entirely decimate the lower-level cells. But it happens in the context of human relations. Think of Caribbean plantation colonies, such as Barbados or Haiti, in the 17th and 18th centuries. These places were some of the richest in the world, but more than 80% of the population, the slaves producing sugar and other valuable commodities, lived under such harsh conditions and with such low incomes that a good share of them died before the age of 30. This is by no means an unrepresentative picture of extractive institutions when they are unchecked. Second, our lives cannot be made sense of without the institutional framework under which we live — which might be fairly well-functioning institutions like the ones we are used to in the Western world or institutions supporting extraction such as those in the Caribbean plantation colonies. Third, I think these institutions are also central for making sure that the smaller-scale units work well, are coordinated and their information and inputs are transmitted to the higher levels. We are the only life form on earth whose existence is so much intertwined with institutions and how they function.

This also gives me an opening for answering your question. I think there’s always a third way. The state and its institutions are some of our most sophisticated creations, and some of our most dangerous ones. Many things we depend on today, and many more we take for granted such as law and security, emanate from these state institutions, but also the history of the state is the history of murder, genocide, war, repression and exploitation. The third way is, broadly and loosely speaking, any arrangement that controls these abominable aspects of the state while still trying to benefit from the wonderful things that it has made possible. James and I call it “inclusive state”, but it’s an ideal type, not a reality. All states have their dark side, even the Canadian and Scandinavian ones I mentioned as exemplars of better practice in this respect, and as I have already noted as well, it’s always a work in progress.

Is it possible to make progress towards this inclusive state in the United States at the moment? I would’ve said yes 15 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago, but today I do feel more pessimistic than ever about the United States and about the world. Of course, I’m not surprised that there is a huge amount of discontent among some segments of the voting public, and some of this is entangled with fear from and hatred against immigrants and minorities. But the extent of this hatred has been a shock to me. How accommodating our general discourse has been to this adds insult to injury. It’s not only that. The polarization and gridlock in Washington cannot but make one pessimistic about the prospect of any positive institutional change. When the political system doesn’t work, sometimes protests and pressure from civil society force it to work. But we have seen in the United States that that doesn’t go anywhere either. (And the situation in the world at large makes it easy to be pessimistic about everything political today).

Of course, we should not lose hope, and in the past, US institutions have shown an amazing ability to self-reform and change, for example, on the issue of slavery, then during the progressive era, then in the context of machine politics and corruption in the cities, and then for the civil rights struggle. Perhaps it can happen again. Perhaps we can still hope.

DSW: Perhaps a clear theoretical framework, which I think is emerging thanks to people such as you and your colleagues, will contribute to solutions. This has been a great conversation and best of luck with your endeavors.

DA: Thank you very much David. It’s been both fun and instructive for me. I was just getting used to this conversation. I will miss it. Until next time.

 

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After 75 years of progress, was last week a hinge in history?

By Lawrence Summers, washingtonpost.com, June 4, 2017

full text

excerpt:

…It is possible that last week will be remembered as a hinge in history — a moment when the United States and the world started moving on a path away from the peace, prosperity and stability that have defined the past 75 years.

For all that has gone wrong in the past three-quarters of a century, this period has witnessed more human betterment than any time. The rate of fatalities in war has steadily declined, while growing integration has driven global growth and improvement in life expectancy and living standards. Progress is too slow, and not well enough shared, but Americans have never lived so well. This has been driven by remarkable developments in human thought, especially in science and technology, and a relatively stable global order that has been underwritten by the United States.

Will these trends continue? …No longer. We may have our first post-rational president. Trump has rejected the view of modern science on global climate change, embraced economic forecasts and trade theories outside the range of reputable opinion, and relied on the idea of alternative facts rather than evidence-based truth.

Even for conservative statesmen such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Henry Kissinger, the idea of a community of nations has been a commonplace… H.R McMaster, national security adviser, and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, who have been held out as the president’s most rational, globally minded advisers… have taken to the Wall Street Journal to proclaim that “the world is not a global community” and advanced a theory of international relations not unlike the one that animated the British and French at Versailles at the end of World War I. On this view, the objective of international negotiation is not to establish a stable, peaceful system or to seek cooperation or to advance universal values through compromise, they wrote, but to strike better deals in “an arena where nations, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses compete for advantage.”

In service of this theory, the president in the past two weeks renounced any claim to U.S. moral leadership by failing to convincingly reaffirm traditional U.S. security commitments to NATO and abandoning participation in the Paris global climate agreement. The latter is probably our most consequential error since the Iraq War and may well be felt even longer….

It is essential that leaders in U.S. society signal clearly their disapproval of the course the administration is taking. History will judge poorly business leaders who retain positions on Trump administration advisory boards because they hope to be in a position to cut favorable deals…

What is to be done? The U.S. president is not America. The world will be watching to see whether Trump’s words and deeds represent an irrevocable turn in the nation’s approach to the world or a temporary aberration. The more that leading figures in U.S. society can signal their continuing commitment to reason, to common purpose with other nations, and to addressing global challenges, the more the damage can be contained. And, of course, Congress has a central role to play in preventing dangerous and destabilizing steps.

 

Read more on this issue:

Dana Milbank: Trump, the caricature of the ugly American, demeans us all

Trump just betrayed the world. Now the world will fight back.

The Post’s View: Trump turns his back on the world

Laurence H. Tribe: Trump must be impeached. Here’s why.

Eugene Robinson: Trump is abdicating all the country’s moral power

The Post’s View: Trump’s moral blind spot

Lawrence Summers is a professor at and past president of Harvard University. He was treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and an economic adviser to President Barack Obama from 2009 through 2010.

Follow @LHSummers

 

Donald Trump Poisons the World

by David Brooks, New York Times, JUNE 2, 2017 – excerpt

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath….In the essay, McMaster and Cohn make explicit the great act of moral decoupling woven through this presidency. In this worldview, morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest…. The problem is that this philosophy is based on an error about human beings and it leads to self-destructive behavior in all cases.The error is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations — for individual status, wealth and power. But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful… Good leaders …seek to inspire faithfulness by showing good character. They try to motivate action by pointing toward great ideals…By behaving with naked selfishness toward others, they poison the common realm and they force others to behave with naked selfishness toward them….By looking at nothing but immediate material interest, Trump, McMaster and Cohn turn America into a nation that affronts everybody else’s moral emotions. They make our country seem disgusting in the eyes of the world….

full text

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.

The essay explains why the Trump people are suspicious of any cooperative global arrangement, like NATO and the various trade agreements. It helps explain why Trump pulled out of the Paris global-warming accord. This essay explains why Trump gravitates toward leaders like Vladimir Putin, the Saudi princes and various global strongmen: They share his core worldview that life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance.

It explains why people in the Trump White House are so savage to one another. Far from being a band of brothers, their world is a vicious arena where staffers compete for advantage.

In the essay, McMaster and Cohn make explicit the great act of moral decoupling woven through this presidency. In this worldview, morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest.

We’ve seen this philosophy before, of course. Powerful, selfish people have always adopted this dirty-minded realism to justify their own selfishness. The problem is that this philosophy is based on an error about human beings and it leads to self-destructive behavior in all cases.

The error is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations — for individual status, wealth and power. But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.

People are wired to cooperate. Far from being a flimsy thing, the desire for cooperation is the primary human evolutionary advantage we have over the other animals.

People have a moral sense. They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples. From their first moments, children are wired to feel each other’s pain. You don’t have to teach a child about what fairness is; they already know. There’s no society on earth where people are admired for running away in battle or for lying to their friends.

People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness. N.Y.U. social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has studied the surges of elevation we feel when we see somebody performing a selfless action. Haidt describes the time a guy spontaneously leapt out of a car to help an old lady shovel snow from her driveway.

One of his friends, who witnessed this small act, later wrote: “I felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I felt like singing and running, or skipping and laughing. Just being active. I felt like saying nice things about people. Writing a beautiful poem or love song. Playing in the snow like a child. Telling everybody about his deed.”

Good leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt and Reagan understand the selfish elements that drive human behavior, but they have another foot in the realm of the moral motivations. They seek to inspire faithfulness by showing good character. They try to motivate action by pointing toward great ideals.

Realist leaders like Trump, McMaster and Cohn seek to dismiss this whole moral realm. By behaving with naked selfishness toward others, they poison the common realm and they force others to behave with naked selfishness toward them.

By treating the world simply as an arena for competitive advantage, Trump, McMaster and Cohn sever relationships, destroy reciprocity, erode trust and eviscerate the sense of sympathy, friendship and loyalty that all nations need when times get tough.

By looking at nothing but immediate material interest, Trump, McMaster and Cohn turn America into a nation that affronts everybody else’s moral emotions. They make our country seem disgusting in the eyes of the world.

George Marshall was no idealistic patsy. He understood that America extends its power when it offers a cooperative hand and volunteers for common service toward a great ideal. Realists reverse that formula. They assume strife and so arouse a volley of strife against themselves.

I wish H. R. McMaster was a better student of Thucydides. He’d know that the Athenians adopted the same amoral tone he embraces: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Athenians ended up making endless enemies and destroying their own empire.

7

 

We, the Plutocrats vs. We, the People, Saving the Soul of Democracy

Excerpt and highlighting by Phyllis Stenerson 5/10/17
In one way or another, this is the oldest story in our country’s history: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a metaphysical reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others….Every claim of political equality in our history has been met by fierce resistance from those who relished for themselves what they would deny others… despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature — or perhaps because of them — something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion (contrary to what those Marshall housewives believed) that we are all in this together. American democracy grew a soulThe truth of our country isn’t actually so complicated.  It’s in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: we’re all in this together…  our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery and to the survival of democracy.  When we claim this as the truth of our lives — when we live as if it’s so — we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people.”

The religion of inequality — of money and power — has failed us; its gods are false gods.  There is something more essential — more profound — in the American experience than the hyena’s appetite.  Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.

There is a vast difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud, a democracy in name only.  I have no doubt about what the United States of America was meant to be.  It’s spelled out right there in the 52 most revolutionary words in our founding documents, the preamble to our Constitution, proclaiming the sovereignty of the people as the moral base of government:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What do those words mean, if not that we are all in the business of nation-building together? Now, I recognize that we’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints. ..

Sixty-six years ago this summer, on my 16th birthday, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town of Marshall where I grew up. It was a good place to be a cub reporter — small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something every day.  I soon had a stroke of luck.  Some of the paper’s old hands were on vacation or out sick and I was assigned to help cover what came to be known across the country as “the housewives’ rebellion.”

Fifteen women in my hometown decided not to pay the social security withholding tax for their domestic workers.  Those housewives were white, their housekeepers black. Almost half of all employed black women in the country then were in domestic service.  Because they tended to earn lower wages, accumulate less savings, and be stuck in those jobs all their lives, social security was their only insurance against poverty in old age. Yet their plight did not move their employers.

The housewives argued that social security was unconstitutional and imposing it was taxation without representation. They even equated it with slavery.  They also claimed that “requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.”  So they hired a high-powered lawyer — a notorious former congressman from Texas who had once chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee — and took their case to court. They lost, and eventually wound up holding their noses and paying the tax, but not before their rebellion had become national news.

The stories I helped report for the local paper were picked up and carried across the country by the Associated Press. One day, the managing editor called me over and pointed to the AP Teletype machine beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing our paper and its reporters for our coverage of the housewives’ rebellion.

I was hooked, and in one way or another I’ve continued to engage the issues of money and power, equality and democracy over a lifetime spent at the intersection between politics and journalism. It took me awhile to put the housewives’ rebellion into perspective.  Race played a role, of course.  Marshall was a segregated, antebellum town of 20,000, half of whom were white, the other half black.  White ruled, but more than race was at work. Those 15 housewives were respectable townsfolk, good neighbors, regulars at church (some of them at my church).  Their children were my friends; many of them were active in community affairs; and their husbands were pillars of the town’s business and professional class.

So what brought on that spasm of rebellion?  They simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogativesFiercely loyal to their families, their clubs, their charities, and their congregations — fiercely loyal, that is, to their own kind — they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.  They expected to be comfortable and secure in their old age, but the women who washed and ironed their laundry, wiped their children’s bottoms, made their husbands’ beds, and cooked their family’s meals would also grow old and frail, sick and decrepit, lose their husbands and face the ravages of time alone, with nothing to show from their years of labor but the crease in their brow and the knots on their knuckles.

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in our country’s history: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a metaphysical reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

“I Contain Multitudes”

There is a vast difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud, a democracy in name only.  I have no doubt about what the United States of America was meant to be.  It’s spelled out right there in the 52 most revolutionary words in our founding documents, the preamble to our Constitution, proclaiming the sovereignty of the people as the moral base of government:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What do those words mean, if not that we are all in the business of nation-building together?

Now, I recognize that we’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints.  Early America was a moral morass.  One in five people in the new nation was enslaved.  Justice for the poor meant stocks and stockades.  Women suffered virtual peonage. Heretics were driven into exile, or worse. Native people — the Indians — would be forcibly removed from their land, their fate a “trail of tears” and broken treaties.

No, I’m not a romantic about our history and I harbor no idealized notions of politics and democracy.  Remember, I worked for President Lyndon Johnson.  I heard him often repeat the story of the Texas poker shark who leaned across the table and said to his mark: “Play the cards fair, Reuben. I know what I dealt you.” LBJ knew politics.

Nor do I romanticize “the people.” When I began reporting on the state legislature while a student at the University of Texas, a wily old state senator offered to acquaint me with how the place worked.  We stood at the back of the Senate floor as he pointed to his colleagues spread out around the chamber — playing cards, napping, nipping, winking at pretty young visitors in the gallery — and he said to me, “If you think these guys are bad, you should see the people who sent them there.”

And yet, despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature — or perhaps because of them — something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion (contrary to what those Marshall housewives believed) that we are all in this together.

American democracy grew a soul, as it were — given voice by one of our greatest poets, Walt Whitman, with his all-inclusive embrace in Song of Myself:

“Whoever degrades another degrades me,
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me…
I speak the pass-word primeval — I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms…
(I am large — I contain multitudes.)”

Author Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has vividly described Whitman seeing himself in whomever he met in America. As he wrote in I Sing the Body Electric:

“– the horseman in his saddle,
Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,
The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles and their wives waiting,
The female soothing a child — the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn –”

Whitman’s words celebrate what Americans shared at a time when they were less dependent on each other than we are today.  As Townsend put it, “Many more people lived on farms in the nineteenth century, and so they could be a lot more self-reliant; growing their own food, sewing their clothes, building their homes.  But rather than applauding what each American could do in isolation, Whitman celebrated the vast chorus: ‘I hear America singing.’” The chorus he heard was of multitudinous voices, a mighty choir of humanity.

Whitman saw something else in the soul of the country: Americans at work, the laboring people whose toil and sweat built this nation.  Townsend contrasts his attitude with the way politicians and the media today — in their endless debates about wealth creation, capital gains reduction, and high corporate taxes — seem to have forgotten working people. “But Whitman wouldn’t have forgotten them.” She writes, “He celebrates a nation where everyone is worthy, not where a few do well.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood the soul of democracy, too.  He expressed it politically, although his words often ring like poetry.  Paradoxically, to this scion of the American aristocracy, the soul of democracy meant political equality.  “Inside the polling booth,” he said, “every American man and woman stands as the equal of every other American man and woman. There they have no superiors. There they have no masters save their own minds and consciences.”

God knows it took us a long time to get there.  Every claim of political equality in our history has been met by fierce resistance from those who relished for themselves what they would deny others. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it took a century before Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a hundred years of Jim Crow law and Jim Crow lynchings, of forced labor and coerced segregation, of beatings and bombings, of public humiliation and degradation, of courageous but costly protests and demonstrations. Think of it: another hundred years before the freedom won on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War was finally secured in the law of the land.

And here’s something else to think about: Only one of the women present at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 — only one, Charlotte Woodward — lived long enough to see women actually get to vote.

“We Pick That Rabbit Out of the Hat”

So it was, in the face of constant resistance, that many heroes — sung and unsung — sacrificed, suffered, and died so that all Americans could gain an equal footing inside that voting booth on a level playing field on the ground floor of democracy.  And yet today money has become the great unequalizer, the usurper of our democratic soul.

No one saw this more clearly than that conservative icon Barry Goldwater, longtime Republican senator from Arizona and one-time Republican nominee for the presidency. Here are his words from almost 30 years ago:

“The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution.  They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of constitutional liberty: an independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people.  Applying these principles to modern times, we can make the following conclusions: To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe that their vote counts.  Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups that speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community.”

About the time Senator Goldwater was writing those words, Oliver Stone released his movie Wall Street.  Remember it? Michael Douglas played the high roller Gordon Gekko, who used inside information obtained by his ambitious young protégé, Bud Fox, to manipulate the stock of a company that he intended to sell off for a huge personal windfall, while throwing its workers, including Bud’s own blue-collar father, overboard.  The younger man is aghast and repentant at having participated in such duplicity and chicanery, and he storms into Gekko’s office to protest, asking, “How much is enough, Gordon?”

Gekko answers:

“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars… You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip.  We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it.  Now, you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, Buddy?  It’s the free market. And you’re part of it.”

That was in the high-flying 1980s, the dawn of today’s new gilded age.  The Greek historian Plutarch is said to have warned that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Yet as the Washington Post pointedout recently, income inequality may be higher at this moment than at any time in the American past.

When I was a young man in Washington in the 1960s, most of the country’s growth accrued to the bottom 90% of households.  From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, in fact, income grew at a slightly faster rate at the bottom and middle of American society than at the top.  In 2009, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez explored decades of tax data and found that from 1950 through 1980 the average income of the bottom 90% of Americans had grown, from $ 17,719 to $ 30,941.  That represented a 75% increase in 2008 dollars.

Since 1980, the economy has continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits have migrated to the top.  In these years, workers were more productive but received less of the wealth they were helping to create. In the late 1970s, the richest 1% received 9% of total income and held 19% of the nation’s wealth. The share of total income going to that 1% would then rise to more than 23% by 2007, while their share of total wealth would grow to 35%. And that was all before the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.

Even though everyone took a hit during the recession that followed, the top 10% now hold more than three-quarters of the country’s total family wealth.

I know, I know: statistics have a way of causing eyes to glaze over, but these statistics highlight an ugly truth about America: inequality matters. It slows economic growth, undermines health, erodes social cohesion and solidarity, and starves education. In their study The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that the most consistent predictor of mental illness, infant mortality, low educational achievement, teenage births, homicides, and incarceration was economic inequality.  

So bear with me as I keep the statistics flowing.  The Pew Research Center recently released a new study indicating that, between 2000 and 2014, the middle class shrank in virtually all parts of the country.  Nine out of ten metropolitan areas showed a decline in middle-class neighborhoods. And remember, we aren’t even talking about over 45 million people who are living in poverty.  Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2013, that top 1% captured 85% percent of all income growth.  Even after the economy improved in 2015, they still took in more than half of the income growth and by 2013 held nearly half of all the stock and mutual fund assets Americans owned. 

Now, concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefitting proportionally.  But that isn’t the case.

Once upon a time, according to Isabel Sawhill and Sara McClanahan in their 2006 report Opportunity in America, the American ideal was one in which all children had “a roughly equal chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they were born.”

Almost 10 years ago, economist Jeffrey Madrick wrote that, as recently as the 1980s, economists thought that “in the land of Horatio Alger only 20 percent of one’s future income was determined by one’s father’s income.” He then cited research showing that, by 2007, “60 percent of a son’s income [was] determined by the level of income of the father. For women, it [was] roughly the same.” It may be even higher today, but clearly a child’s chance of success in life is greatly improved if he’s born on third base and his father has been tipping the umpire.

This raises an old question, one highlighted by the British critic and public intellectual Terry Eagleton in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

”Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality?… Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality?”

The answer, to me, is self-evident.  Capitalism produces winners and losers big time.  The winners use their wealth to gain political power, often through campaign contributions and lobbying.  In this way, they only increase their influence over the choices made by the politicians indebted to them. While there are certainly differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic and social issues, both parties cater to wealthy individuals and interests seeking to enrich their bottom lines with the help of the policies of the state (loopholes, subsidies, tax breaks, deregulation).  No matter which party is in power, the interests of big business are largely heeded.

More on that later, but first, a confession.  The legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here’s mine: plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. As the late (and great) Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Of course the rich can buy more homes, cars, vacations, gadgets, and gizmos than anyone else, but they should not be able to buy more democracy. That they can and do is a despicable blot on American politics that is now spreading like a giant oil spill.

In May, President Obama and I both spoke at the Rutgers University commencement ceremony.  He was at his inspirational best as 50,000 people leaned into every word.  He lifted the hearts of those young men and women heading out into our troubled world, but I cringed when he said, “Contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left as well as the right, the system isn’t as rigged as you think…”

Wrong, Mr. President, just plain wrong. The people are way ahead of you on this.  In a recent poll, 71% of Americans across lines of ethnicity, class, age, and gender said they believe the U.S. economy is rigged.  People reported that they are working harder for financial security.  One quarter of the respondents had not taken a vacation in more than five years.  Seventy-one percent said that they are afraid of unexpected medical bills; 53% feared not being able to make a mortgage payment; and, among renters, 60% worried that they might not make the monthly rent.

Millions of Americans, in other words, are living on the edge.  Yet the country has not confronted the question of how we will continue to prosper without a workforce that can pay for its goods and services.

Who Dunnit?

You didn’t have to read Das Kapital to see this coming or to realize that the United States was being transformed into one of the harshest, most unforgiving societies among the industrial democracies.  You could instead have read the Economist,arguably the most influential business-friendly magazine in the English-speaking world.  I keep in my files a warning published in that magazine a dozen years ago, on the eve of George W. Bush’s second term.  The editors concluded back then that, with income inequality in the U.S. reaching levels not seen since the first Gilded Age and social mobility diminishing, “the United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”

And mind you, that was before the financial meltdown of 2007-2008, before the bailout of Wall Street, before the recession that only widened the gap between the super-rich and everyone else. Ever since then, the great sucking sound we’ve been hearing is wealth heading upwards. The United States now has a level of income inequality unprecedented in our history and so dramatic it’s almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around.

Contrary to what the president said at Rutgers, this is not the way the world works; it’s the way the world is made to work by those with the money and power.  The movers and shakers — the big winners — keep repeating the mantra that this inequality was inevitable, the result of the globalization of finance and advances in technology in an increasingly complex world.  Those are part of the story, but only part. As G.K. Chesterton wrote a century ago, “In every serious doctrine of the destiny of men, there is some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men.  But the capitalist really depends on some religion of inequality.”

Exactly.  In our case, a religion of invention, not revelation, politically engineered over the last 40 years. Yes, politically engineered.  On this development, you can’t do better than read Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science.

They were mystified by what had happened to the post-World War II notion of “shared prosperity”; puzzled by the ways in which ever more wealth has gone to the rich and super rich; vexed that hedge-fund managers pull in billions of dollars, yet pay taxes at lower rates than their secretaries; curious about why politicians kept slashing taxes on the very rich and handing huge tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are downsizing their work forces; troubled that the heart of the American Dream — upward mobility — seemed to have stopped beating; and dumbfounded that all of this could happen in a democracy whose politicians were supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. So Hacker and Pierson set out to find out “how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.”

In other words, they wanted to know: “Who dunnit?” They found the culprit. With convincing documentation they concluded, “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”

There you have it: the winners bought off the gatekeepers, then gamed the system.  And when the fix was in they turned our economy into a feast for the predators, “saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on Americans as workers, investors, and taxpayers.” The end result, Hacker and Pierson conclude, is that the United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely getting by.

Bruce Springsteen sings of “the country we carry in our hearts.” This isn’t it.

“God’s Work”

Looking back, you have to wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs.  In the 1970s, Big Business began to refine its ability to act as a class and gang up on Congress.  Even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, political action committees deluged politics with dollars. Foundations, corporations, and rich individuals funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. Political strategists made alliances with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, to zealously wage a cultural holy war that would camouflage the economic assault on working people and the middle class.

To help cover-up this heist of the economy, an appealing intellectual gloss was needed.  So public intellectuals were recruited and subsidized to turn “globalization,” “neo-liberalism,” and “the Washington Consensus” into a theological belief system.  The “dismal science of economics” became a miracle of faith.  Wall Street glistened as the new Promised Land, while few noticed that those angels dancing on the head of a pin were really witchdoctors with MBAs brewing voodoo magic.  The greed of the Gordon Gekkos — once considered a vice — was transformed into a virtue.  One of the high priests of this faith, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, looking in wonder on all that his company had wrought, pronounced it “God’s work.”

A prominent neoconservative religious philosopher even articulated a “theology of the corporation.”  I kid you not.  And its devotees lifted their voices in hymns of praise to wealth creation as participation in the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.  Self-interest became the Gospel of the Gilded Age.

No one today articulates this winner-take-all philosophy more candidly than Ray Dalio.  Think of him as the King Midas of hedge funds, with a personal worth estimated at almost $16 billion and a company, Bridgewater Associates, reportedly worth as much as $154 billion.

Dalio fancies himself a philosopher and has written a book of maxims explaining his philosophy. It boils down to: “Be a hyena. Attack the Wildebeest.” (Wildebeests, antelopes native to southern Africa — as I learned when we once filmed a documentary there — are no match for the flesh-eating dog-like spotted hyenas that gorge on them.)  Here’s what Dalio wroteabout being a Wall Street hyena:

“…when a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is this good or bad? At face value, this seems terrible; the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently evil behavior exists throughout nature through all species… like death itself, this behavior is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life… [It] is good for both the hyenas, who are operating in their self-interest, and the interests of the greater system, which includes the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution, i.e., the natural process of improvement… Like the hyenas attacking the wildebeest, successful people might not even know if or how their pursuit of self-interest helps evolution, but it typically does.”

He concludes: “How much money people have earned is a rough measure of how much they gave society what it wanted…”

Not this time, Ray.  This time, the free market for hyenas became a slaughterhouse for the wildebeest. Collapsing shares and house prices destroyed more than a quarter of the wealth of the average household.  Many people have yet to recover from the crash and recession that followed. They are still saddled with burdensome debt; their retirement accounts are still anemic.  All of this was, by the hyena’s accounting, a social good, “an improvement in the natural process,” as Dalio puts it.  Nonsense.  Bull.  Human beings have struggled long and hard to build civilization; his doctrine of “progress” is taking us back to the jungle.

And by the way, there’s a footnote to the Dalio story.  Early this year, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, and by many accounts the richest man in Connecticut where it is headquartered, threatened to take his firm elsewhere if he didn’t get concessions from the state. You might have thought that the governor, a Democrat, would have thrown him out of his office for the implicit threat involved.  But no, he buckled and Dalio got the $22 million in aid — a $5 million grant and a $17 million loan — that he was demanding to expand his operations. It’s a loan that may be forgiven if he keeps jobs in Connecticut and creates new ones. No doubt he left the governor’s office grinning like a hyena, his shoes tracking wildebeest blood across the carpet.

Our founders warned against the power of privileged factions to capture the machinery of democracies.  James Madison, who studied history through a tragic lens, saw that the life cycle of previous republics had degenerated into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy. Like many of his colleagues, he was well aware that the republic they were creating could go the same way.  Distrusting, even detesting concentrated private power, the founders attempted to erect safeguards to prevent private interests from subverting the moral and political compact that begins, “We, the people.” For a while, they succeeded.

When the brilliant young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he was excited by the democratic fervor he witnessed.  Perhaps that excitement caused him to exaggerate the equality he celebrated.  Close readers of de Tocqueville will notice, however, that he did warn of the staying power of the aristocracy, even in this new country.  He feared what he called, in the second volume of his masterwork, Democracy in America, an “aristocracy created by business.”  He described it as already among “the harshest that ever existed in the world” and suggested that, “if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.”

And so it did.  Half a century later, the Gilded Age arrived with a new aristocratic hierarchy of industrialists, robber barons, and Wall Street tycoons in the vanguard.  They had their own apologist in the person of William Graham Sumner, an Episcopal minister turned professor of political economy at Yale University.  He famously explained that “competition… is a law of nature” and that nature “grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.”

From Sumner’s essays to the ravenous excesses of Wall Street in the 1920s to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News, to the business press’s wide-eyed awe of hyena-like CEOs; from the Republican war on government to the Democratic Party’s shameless obeisance to big corporations and contributors, this “law of nature” has served to legitimate the yawning inequality of income and wealth, even as it has protected networks of privilege and monopolies in major industries like the media, the tech sector, and the airlines.

A plethora of studies conclude that America’s political system has already been transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy (the rule of a wealthy elite).  Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, for instance, studied data from 1,800 different policy initiatives launched between 1981 and 2002.  They found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”  Whether Republican or Democratic, they concluded, the government more often follows the preferences of major lobbying or business groups than it does those of ordinary citizens.

We can only be amazed that a privileged faction in a fervent culture of politically protected greed brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then blamed government and a “dependent” 47% of the population for our problems, and ended up richer and more powerful than ever.

The Truth of Your Life

Which brings us back to those Marshall housewives — to all those who simply can’t see beyond their own prerogatives and so narrowly define membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.

How would I help them recoup their sanity, come home to democracy, and help build the sort of moral compact embodied in the preamble to the Constitution, that declaration of America’s intent and identity?

First, I’d do my best to remind them that societies can die of too much inequality.

Second, I’d give them copies of anthropologist Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeedto remind them that we are not immune.  Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for describing how the damage humans have inflicted on their environment has historically led to the decline of civilizations.  In the process, he vividly depicts how elites repeatedly isolate and delude themselves until it’s too late.  How, extracting wealth from commoners, they remain well fed while everyone else is slowly starving until, in the end, even they (or their offspring) become casualties of their own privilege.  Any society, it turns out, contains a built-in blueprint for failure if elites insulate themselves endlessly from the consequences of their decisions.

Third, I’d discuss the real meaning of “sacrifice and bliss” with them.  That was the title of the fourth episode of my PBS series Joseph Campbell and the Power of MythIn that episode, Campbell and I discussed the influence on him of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality of human nature.  So he puzzled about why some people override it and give up their lives for others.

“Can this happen?” Campbell asked. “That what we normally think of as the first law of nature, namely self-preservation, is suddenly dissolved. What creates that breakthrough when we put another’s well-being ahead of our own?”  He then told me of an incident that took place near his home in Hawaii, up in the heights where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains.  People go there to experience the force of nature, to let their hair be blown in the winds — and sometimes to commit suicide.

One day, two policemen were driving up that road when, just beyond the railing, they saw a young man about to jump.  One of the policemen bolted from the car and grabbed the fellow just as he was stepping off the ledge.  His momentum threatened to carry both of them over the cliff, but the policeman refused to let go.  Somehow he held on long enough for his partner to arrive and pull the two of them to safety.  When a newspaper reporter asked, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed,” he answered: “I couldn’t… I couldn’t let go.  If I had, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.”

Campbell then added: “Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman? He had given himself over to death to save a stranger.  Everything else in his life dropped off. His duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own career, all of his wishes and hopes for life, just disappeared.” What mattered was saving that young man, even at the cost of his own life.

How can this be, Campbell asked?  Schopenhauer’s answer, he said, was that a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical reality, which is that you and the other are two aspects of one life, and your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time.  Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life.

Sometimes, however instinctively or consciously, our actions affirm that reality through some unselfish gesture or personal sacrifice. It happens in marriage, in parenting, in our relations with the people immediately around us, and in our participation in building a society based on reciprocity.

The truth of our country isn’t actually so complicated.  It’s in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: we’re all in this together.  We are all one another’s first responders.  As the writer Alberto Rios once put it, “I am in your family tree and you are in mine.”

I realize that the command to love our neighbor is one of the hardest of all religious concepts, but I also recognize that our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery and to the survival of democracy.  When we claim this as the truth of our lives — when we live as if it’s so — we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people.”

The religion of inequality — of money and power — has failed us; its gods are false gods.  There is something more essential — more profound — in the American experience than the hyena’s appetite.  Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.

© 2016 Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. His previous shows on PBS included NOW with Bill Moyers and Bill Moyers Journal. Over the past three decades he has become an icon of American journalism and is the author of many books, including Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, Moyers on Democracy, and Bill Moyers: On Faith & Reason. He was one of the organizers of the Peace Corps, a special assistant for Lyndon B. Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He is the winner of more than 30 Emmys, nine Peabodys, three George Polk awards.

The rise of American authoritarianism

by Amanda Taub, VOX.com, March 1, 2016

Excerpt: A niche group of political scientists may have uncovered what’s driving Donald Trump’s ascent. What they found has implications that go well beyond 2016. Trump has found the key to appealing to authoritarians, which makes him dangerous. The ability of any political party to respond to the anxieties of this group of people is very limited. Do we have institutions and structures in place to prevent the dark side of this growing trend? This is a long but essential article to read and understand..At the time, even Hetherington and Weiler [the researchers] did not realize the explosive implications: that their theory, when followed to its natural conclusion, predicted a looming and dramatic transformation of American politics. But looking back now, the ramifications of their research seem disturbingly clear… .

Full text

The American media, over the past year, has been trying to work out something of a mystery: Why is the Republican electorate supporting a far-right, orange-toned populist with no real political experience, who espouses extreme and often bizarre views? How has Donald Trump, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly become so popular?

What’s made Trump’s rise even more puzzling is that his support seems to cross demographic lines — education, income, age, even religiosity — that usually demarcate candidates. And whereas most Republican candidates might draw strong support from just one segment of the party base, such as Southern evangelicals or coastal moderates, Trump currently does surprisingly well from the Gulf Coast of Florida to the towns of upstate New York, and he won a resounding victory in the Nevada caucuses.

Table of contents

I. What is American authoritarianism?
II. The discovery
III. How authoritarianism works
IV. What can authoritarianism explain?
V. The party of authoritarians
VI. Trump, authoritarians, and fear
VII. America’s changing social landscape
VIII. What authoritarians want
IX. How authoritarians will change American politics

Perhaps strangest of all, it wasn’t just Trump but his supporters who seemed to have come out of nowhere, suddenly expressing, in large numbers, ideas far more extreme than anything that has risen to such popularity in recent memory. In South Carolina, a CBS News exit poll found that 75 percent of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States. A PPP poll found that a third of Trump voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country. Twenty percent said Lincoln shouldn’t have freed the slaves.

Last September, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst named Matthew MacWilliams realized that his dissertation research might hold the answer to not just one but all three of these mysteries.

MacWilliams studies authoritarianism — not actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.

So MacWilliams naturally wondered if authoritarianism might correlate with support for Trump.

He polled a large sample of likely voters, looking for correlations between support for Trump and views that align with authoritarianism. What he found was astonishing: Not only did authoritarianism correlate, but it seemed to predict support for Trump more reliably than virtually any other indicator. He later repeated the same poll in South Carolina, shortly before the primary there, and found the same results, which he published in Vox:

 

As it turns out, MacWilliams wasn’t the only one to have this realization. Miles away, in an office at Vanderbilt University, a professor named Marc Hetherington was having his own aha moment. He realized that he and a fellow political scientist, the University of North Carolina’s Jonathan Weiler, had essentially predicted Trump’s rise back in 2009, when they discovered something that would turn out to be far more significant than they then realized.

That year, Hetherington and Weiler published a book about the effects of authoritarianism on American politics. Through a series of experiments and careful data analysis, they had come to a surprising conclusion: Much of the polarization dividing American politics was fueled not just by gerrymandering or money in politics or the other oft-cited variables, but by an unnoticed but surprisingly large electoral group — authoritarians.

Their book concluded that the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies.

This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which “activated” authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.

Trump embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive

These Americans with authoritarian views, they found, were sorting into the GOP, driving polarization. But they were also creating a divide within the party, at first latent, between traditional Republican voters and this group whose views were simultaneously less orthodox and, often, more extreme.

Over time, Hetherington and Weiler had predicted, that sorting would become more and more pronounced. And so it was all but inevitable that, eventually, authoritarians would gain enough power within the GOP to make themselves heard.

At the time, even Hetherington and Weiler did not realize the explosive implications: that their theory, when followed to its natural conclusion, predicted a looming and dramatic transformation of American politics. But looking back now, the ramifications of their research seem disturbingly clear.

Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians’ fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms.

A candidate like Donald Trump.

Even Hetherington was shocked to discover quite how right their theory had been. In the early fall of 2015, as Trump’s rise baffled most American journalists and political scientists, he called Weiler. He asked, over and over, “Can you believe this? Can you believe this?”

This winter, I got in touch with Hetherington, MacWilliams, and several other political scientists who study authoritarianism. I wanted to better understand the theory that seemed to have predicted, with such eerie accuracy, Trump’s rise. And, like them, I wanted to find out what the rise of authoritarian politics meant for American politics. Was Trump just the start of something bigger?

These political scientists were, at that moment, beginning to grapple with the same question. We agreed there was something important happening here — that was just beginning to be understood.

Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics

Shortly after the Iowa Republican caucus, in which Trump came in a close second, Vox partnered with the Washington-based media and polling company Morning Consult to test American authoritarians along a range of political and social views — and to test some hypotheses we had developed after speaking with the leading political scientists of the field.

What we found is a phenomenon that explains, with remarkable clarity, the rise of Donald Trump — but that is also much larger than him, shedding new light on some of the biggest political stories of the past decade. Trump, it turns out, is just the symptom. The rise of American authoritarianism is transforming the Republican Party and the dynamics of national politics, with profound consequences likely to extend well beyond this election.

I. What is American authoritarianism?

For years now, before anyone thought a person like Donald Trump could possibly lead a presidential primary, a small but respected niche of academic research has been laboring over a question, part political science and part psychology, that had captivated political scientists since the rise of the Nazis.

How do people come to adopt, in such large numbers and so rapidly, extreme political views that seem to coincide with fear of minorities and with the desire for a strongman leader?

To answer that question, these theorists study what they call authoritarianism: not the dictators themselves, but rather the psychological profile of people who, under the right conditions, will desire certain kinds of extreme policies and will seek strongman leaders to implement them.

The political phenomenon we identify as right-wing populism seems to line up, with almost astonishing precision, with the research on how authoritarianism is both caused and expressed

After an early period of junk science in the mid-20th century, a more serious group of scholars has addressed this question, specifically studying how it plays out in American politics: researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.

The field, after a breakthrough in the early 1990s, has come to develop the contours of a grand theory of authoritarianism, culminating quite recently, in 2005, with Stenner’s seminal The Authoritarian Dynamic — just in time for that theory to seemingly come true, more rapidly and in greater force than any of them had imagined, in the personage of one Donald Trump and his norm-shattering rise.

According to Stenner’s theory, there is a certain subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies. These tendencies can be triggered or “activated” by the perception of physical threats or by destabilizing social change, leading those individuals to desire policies and leaders that we might more colloquially call authoritarian.

It is as if, the NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has written, a button is pushed that says, “In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.”

Authoritarians are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump — and will persist as a force in American politics

Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order — diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order — are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.

This is, after all, a time of social change in America. The country is becoming more diverse, which means that many white Americans are confronting race in a way they have never had to before. Those changes have been happening for a long time, but in recent years they have become more visible and harder to ignore. And they are coinciding with economic trends that have squeezed working-class white people.

When they face physical threats or threats to the status quo, authoritarians support policies that seem to offer protection against those fears. They favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats. And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this action.

If you were to read every word these theorists ever wrote on authoritarians, and then try to design a hypothetical candidate to match their predictions of what would appeal to authoritarian voters, the result would look a lot like Donald Trump.

But political scientists say this theory explains much more than just Donald Trump, placing him within larger trends in American politics: polarization, the rightward shift of the Republican Party, and the rise within that party of a dissident faction challenging GOP orthodoxies and upending American politics.

More than that, authoritarianism reveals the connections between several seemingly disparate stories about American politics. And it suggest that a combination of demographic, economic, and political forces, by awakening this authoritarian class of voters that has coalesced around Trump, have created what is essentially a new political party within the GOP — a phenomenon that broke into public view with the 2016 election but will persist long after it has ended.

II. The discovery: how a niche subfield of political science suddenly became some of the most relevant research in American politics

This study of authoritarianism began shortly after World War II, as political scientists and psychologists in the US and Europe tried to figure out how the Nazis had managed to win such wide public support for such an extreme and hateful ideology.

That was a worthy field of study, but the early work wasn’t particularly rigorous by today’s standards. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno, for instance, developed what he called the “F-scale,” which sought to measure “fascist” tendencies. The test wasn’t accurate. Sophisticated respondents would quickly discover what the “right” answers were and game the test. And there was no proof that the personality type it purportedly measured actually supported fascism.

More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label “authoritarians” doesn’t do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)

If this rise in American authoritarianism is so powerful as to drive Trump’s ascent, then how else might it be shaping American politics?

But the real problem for researchers was that even if there really were such a thing as an authoritarian psychological profile, how do you measure it? How do you interrogate authoritarian tendencies, which can sometimes be latent? How do you get honest answers on questions that can be sensitive and highly politicized?

As Hetherington explained to me, “There are certain things that you just can’t ask people directly. You can’t ask people, ‘Do you not like black people?’ You can’t ask people if they’re bigots.”

For a long time, no one had a solution for this, and the field of study languished.

Then in the early 1990s, a political scientist named Stanley Feldman changed everything. Feldman, a professor at SUNY Stonybrook, believed authoritarianism could be an important factor in American politics in ways that had nothing to do with fascism, but that it could only reliably be measured by unlinking it from specific political preferences.

He realized that if authoritarianism were a personality profile rather than just a political preference, he could get respondents to reveal these tendencies by asking questions about a topic that seemed much less controversial. He settled on something so banal it seems almost laughable: parenting goals.

Feldman developed what has since become widely accepted as the definitive measurement of authoritarianism: four simple questions that appear to ask about parenting but are in fact designed to reveal how highly the respondent values hierarchy, order, and conformity over other values.

  1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Feldman’s test proved to be very reliable. There was now a way to identify people who fit the authoritarian profile, by prizing order and conformity, for example, and desiring the imposition of those values.

In 1992, Feldman convinced the National Election Study, a large survey of American voters conducted in each national election year, to include his four authoritarianism questions. Ever since, political scientists who study authoritarianism have accumulated a wealth of data on who exhibits those tendencies and on how they align with everything from demographic profiles to policy preferences.

What they found was impossible to ignore — and is only just beginning to reshape our understanding of the American electorate.

III. How authoritarianism works

In the early 2000s, as researchers began to make use of the NES data to understand how authoritarianism affected US politics, their work revealed three insights that help explain not just the rise of Trump, but seemingly a half-century of American political dynamics.

The first was Hetherington and Weiler’s insight into partisan polarization. In the 1960s, the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values — a position that naturally appealed to order- and tradition-focused authoritarians. Over the decades that followed, authoritarians increasingly gravitated toward the GOP, where their concentration gave them more and more influence over time.

The second was Stenner’s theory of “activation.” In an influential 2005 book called The Authoritarian Dynamic, Stenner argued that many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been “activated.”

The social threat theory helps explain why authoritarians seem so prone to reject not just one specific kind of outsider or social change, such as Muslims or same-sex couples or Hispanic migrants, but rather to reject all of them

This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect. In response, previously more moderate individuals would come to support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque.

Other researchers, like Hetherington, take a slightly different view. They believe that authoritarians aren’t “activated” — they’ve always held their authoritarian preferences — but that they only come to express those preferences once they feel threatened by social change or some kind of threat from outsiders.

But both schools of thought agree on the basic causality of authoritarianism. People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.

The third insight came from Hetherington and American University professor Elizabeth Suhay, who found that when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.

But Hetherington and Suhay found a distinction between physical threats such as terrorism, which could lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians, and more abstract social threats, such as eroding social norms or demographic changes, which do not have that effect. That distinction would turn out to be important, but it also meant that in times when many Americans perceived imminent physical threats, the population of authoritarians could seem to swell rapidly.

Together, those three insights added up to one terrifying theory: that if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats.

This theory would seem to predict the rise of an American political constituency that looks an awful lot like the support base that has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to propel Donald Trump from sideshow loser of the 2012 GOP primary to runaway frontrunner in 2016.

Beyond being almost alarmingly prescient, this theory speaks to an oft-stated concern about Trump: that what’s scariest is not the candidate, but rather the extent and fervor of his support.

And it raises a question: If this rise in American authoritarianism is so powerful as to drive Trump’s ascent, then how else might it be shaping American politics? And what effect could it have even after the 2016 race has ended?

IV. What can authoritarianism explain?

In early February, shortly after Trump finished second in the Iowa caucus and ended any doubts about his support, I began talking to Feldman, Hetherington, and MacWilliams to try to answer these questions.

MacWilliams had already demonstrated a link between authoritarianism and support for Trump. But we wanted to know how else authoritarianism was playing out in American life, from policy positions to party politics to social issues, and what it might mean for America’s future.

It was time to call Kyle Dropp. Dropp is a political scientist and pollster whom one of my colleagues described as “the Doogie Howser of polling.” He does indeed appear jarringly young for a Dartmouth professor. But he is also the co-founder of a media and polling company, Morning Consult, that had worked with Vox on several other projects.

When we approached Morning Consult, Dropp and his colleagues were excited. Dropp was familiar with Hetherington’s work and the authoritarianism measure, he said, and was instantly intrigued by how we could test its relevance to the election. Hetherington and the other political scientists were, in turn, eager to more fully explore the theories that had suddenly become much more relevant.

Non-authoritarians who were sufficiently frightened of threats like terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians

We put together five sets of questions. The first set, of course, was the test for authoritarianism that Feldman had developed. This would allow us to measure how authoritarianism coincided or didn’t with our other sets of questions.

The second set asked standard election-season questions on preferred candidates and party affiliation.

The third set tested voters’ fears of a series of physical threats, ranging from ISIS and Russia to viruses and car accidents.

The fourth set tested policy preferences, in an attempt to see how authoritarianism might lead voters to support particular policies.

If the research were right, then we’d expect people who scored highly on authoritarianism to express outsize fear of “outsider” threats such as ISIS or foreign governments versus other threats. We also expected that non-authoritarians who expressed high levels of fear would be more likely to support Trump. This would speak to physical fears as triggering a kind of authoritarian upsurge, which would in turn lead to Trump support.

We wanted to look at the role authoritarians are playing in the election

The final set of questions was intended to test fear of social change. We asked people to rate a series of social changes — both actual and hypothetical — on a scale of “very good” to “very bad” for the country. These included same-sex marriage, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and American Muslims building more mosques in US cities.

If the theory about social change provoking stress amongst authoritarians turned out to be correct, then authoritarians would be more likely to rate the changes as bad for the country.

In the aggregate, we were hoping to do a few things. We wanted to understand who these people are, in simple demographic terms, and to test the basic hypotheses about how authoritarianism, in theory, is supposed to work. We wanted to look at the role authoritarians are playing in the election: Were they driving certain policy positions, for example?

We wanted to better understand the larger forces that had suddenly made authoritarians so numerous and so extreme — was it migration, terrorism, perhaps the decline of working-class whites? And maybe most of all, we wanted to develop some theories about what the rise of American authoritarianism meant for the future of polarization between the parties as well as a Republican Party that had become both more extreme and internally divided.

About 10 days later, shortly after Trump won the New Hampshire primary, the poll went into the field. In less than two weeks, we had our results.

V. How the GOP became the party of authoritarians

 

The first thing that jumped out from the data on authoritarians is just how many there are. Our results found that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians, with 19 percent as “very high.” That’s actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare1.

The key thing to understand is that authoritarianism is often latent; people in this 44 percent only vote or otherwise act as authoritarians once triggered by some perceived threat, physical or social. But that latency is part of how, over the past few decades, authoritarians have quietly become a powerful political constituency without anyone realizing it.

Today, according to our survey, authoritarians skew heavily Republican. More than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters. More than 55 percent of surveyed Republicans scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians.

And at the other end of the scale, that pattern reversed. People whose scores were most non-authoritarian — meaning they always chose the non-authoritarian parenting answer — were almost 75 percent Democrats.

But this hasn’t always been the case. According to Hetherington and Weiler’s research, this is not a story about how Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus. It’s a story of polarization that increased over time.

They trace the trend to the 1960s, when the Republican Party shifted electoral strategies to try to win disaffected Southern Democrats, in part by speaking to fears of changing social norms — for example, the racial hierarchies upset by civil rights. The GOP also embraced a “law and order” platform with a heavily racial appeal to white voters who were concerned about race riots.

This positioned the GOP as the party of traditional values and social structures — a role that it has maintained ever since. That promise to stave off social change and, if necessary, to impose order happened to speak powerfully to voters with authoritarian inclinations.

Democrats, by contrast, have positioned themselves as the party of civil rights, equality, and social progress — in other words, as the party of social change, a position that not only fails to attract but actively repels change-averse authoritarians.

Over the next several decades, Hetherington explained to me, this led authoritarians to naturally “sort” themselves into the Republican Party.

That matters, because as more authoritarians sort themselves into the GOP, they have more influence over its policies and candidates. It is not for nothing that our poll found that more than half of the Republican respondents score as authoritarian.

Perhaps more importantly, the party has less and less ability to ignore authoritarians’ voting preferences — even if those preferences clash with the mainstream party establishment.

VI. Trump, authoritarians, and fear

Based on our data, Morning Consult data scientist Adam Petrihos said that “among Republicans, very high/high authoritarianism is very predictive of support for Trump.” Trump has 42 percent support among Republicans but, according to our survey, a full 52 percent support among very high authoritarians.

Authoritarianism was the best single predictor of support for Trump, although having a high school education also came close. And as Hetherington noted after reviewing our results, the relationship between authoritarianism and Trump support remained robust, even after controlling for education level and gender.

Trump support was much lower among Republicans who scored low on authoritarianism: only 38 percent.

But that’s still awfully high. So what could explain Trump’s support among non-authoritarians?

I suspected the answer might lie at least partly in Hetherington and Suhay’s research on how fear affects non-authoritarian voters, so I called them to discuss the data. Hetherington crunched some numbers on physical threats and noticed two things.

The first was that authoritarians tend to fear very specific kinds of physical threats.

 

Authoritarians, we found in our survey, tend to most fear threats that come from abroad, such as ISIS or Russia or Iran. These are threats, the researchers point out, to which people can put a face; a scary terrorist or an Iranian ayatollah. Non-authoritarians were much less afraid of those threats. For instance, 73 percent of very high-scoring authoritarians believed that terrorist organizations like ISIS posed a “very high risk” to them, but only 45 percent of very low-scoring authoritarians did. Domestic threats like car accidents, by contrast, were much less frightening to authoritarians.

But Hetherington also noticed something else: A subgroup of non-authoritarians were very afraid of threats like Iran or ISIS. And the more fear of these threats they expressed, the more likely they were to support Trump.

This seemed to confirm his and Suhay’s theory: that non-authoritarians who are sufficiently frightened of physical threats such as terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.

That’s important, because for years now, Republican politicians and Republican-leaning media such as Fox News have been telling viewers nonstop that the world is a terrifying place and that President Obama isn’t doing enough to keep Americans safe.

There are a variety of political and media incentives for why this happens. But the point is that, as a result, Republican voters have been continually exposed to messages warning of physical dangers. As the perception of physical threat has risen, this fear appears to have led a number of non-authoritarians to vote like authoritarians — to support Trump.

An irony of this primary is that the Republican establishment has tried to stop Trump by, among other things, co-opting his message. But when establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio try to match Trump’s rhetoric on ISIS or on American Muslims, they may end up deepening the fear that can only lead voters back to Trump.

VII. Is America’s changing social landscape “activating” authoritarianism?

But the research on authoritarianism suggests it’s not just physical threats driving all this. There should be another kind of threat — larger, slower, less obvious, but potentially even more powerful — pushing authoritarians to these extremes: the threat of social change.

This could come in the form of evolving social norms, such as the erosion of traditional gender roles or evolving standards in how to discuss sexual orientation. It could come in the form of rising diversity, whether that means demographic changes from immigration or merely changes in the colors of the faces on TV. Or it could be any changes, political or economic, that disrupt social hierarchies.

What these changes have in common is that, to authoritarians, they threaten to take away the status quo as they know it — familiar, orderly, secure — and replace it with something that feels scary because it is different and destabilizing, but also sometimes because it upends their own place in society. According to the literature, authoritarians will seek, in response, a strong leader who promises to suppress the scary changes, if necessary by force, and to preserve the status quo.

This is why, in our survey, we wanted to study the degree to which authoritarians versus non-authoritarians expressed a fear of social change — and whether this, as expected, led them to desire heavy-handed responses.

Our results seemed to confirm this: Authoritarians were significantly more likely to rate almost all of the actual and hypothetical social issues we asked about as “bad” or “very bad” for the country.

For instance, our results suggested that an astonishing 44 percent of authoritarians believe same-sex marriage is harmful to the country. Twenty-eight percent rated same-sex marriage as “very bad” for America, and another 16 percent said that it’s “bad.” Only about 35 percent of high-scoring authoritarians said same-sex marriage was “good” or “very good” for the country.

Tellingly, non-authoritarians’ responses skewed in the opposite direction. Non-authoritarians tended to rate same-sex marriage as “good” or “very good” for the country.

The fact that authoritarians and non-authoritarians split over something as seemingly personal and nonthreatening as same-sex marriage is crucial for understanding how authoritarianism can be triggered by even a social change as minor as expanding marriage rights.

We also asked respondents to rate whether Muslims building more mosques in American cities was a good thing. This was intended to test respondents’ comfort level with sharing their communities with Muslims — an issue that has been particularly contentious this primary election.

A whopping 56.5 percent of very high-scoring authoritarians said it was either “bad” or “very bad” for the country when Muslims built more mosques. Only 14 percent of that group said more mosques would be “good” or “very good.”

The literature on authoritarianism suggests this is not just simple Islamophobia, but rather reflects a broader phenomenon wherein authoritarians feel threatened by people they identify as “outsiders” and by the possibility of changes to the status quo makeup of their communities.

This would help explain why authoritarians seem so prone to reject not just one specific kind of outsider or social change, such as Muslims or same-sex couples or Hispanic migrants, but rather to reject all of them. What these seemingly disparate groups have in common is the perceived threat they pose to the status quo order, which authoritarians experience as a threat to themselves.

And America is at a point when the status quo social order is changing rapidly; when several social changes are converging. And they are converging especially on working-class white people.

It is conventional wisdom to ascribe the rise of first the Tea Party right and now Trump to the notion that working-class white Americans are angry.

Indeed they are, but this data helps explain that they are also under certain demographic and economic pressures that, according to this research, are highly likely to trigger authoritarianism — and thus suggests there is something a little more complex going on than simple “anger” that helps explain their gravitation toward extreme political responses.

Working-class communities have come under tremendous economic strain since the recession. And white people are also facing the loss of the privileged position that they previously were able to take for granted. Whites are now projected to become a minority group over the next few decades, owing to migration and other factors. The president is a black man, and nonwhite faces are growing more common in popular culture. Nonwhite groups are raising increasingly prominent political demands, and often those demands coincide with issues such as policing that also speak to authoritarian concerns.

Some of these factors might be considered more or less legitimately threatening than others — the loss of working-class jobs in this country is a real and important issue, no matter how one feels about fading white privilege — but that is not the point.

The point, rather, is that the increasingly important political phenomenon we identify as right-wing populism, or white working-class populism, seems to line up, with almost astonishing precision, with the research on how authoritarianism is both caused and expressed.

That is not to dismiss white working-class concerns as invalid because they might be expressed by authoritarians or through authoritarian politics, but rather to better understand why this is happening — and why it’s having such a profound and extreme effect on American politics.

Have we misunderstood hard-line social conservatism all along?

Most of the other social-threat questions followed a similar pattern2. On its surface, this might seem to suggest that authoritarianism is just a proxy for especially hard-line manifestations of social conservatism. But when examined more carefully, it suggests something more interesting about the nature of social conservatism itself.

For liberals, it may be easy to conclude that opposition to things like same-sex marriage, immigration, and diversity is rooted in bigotry against those groups — that it’s the manifestation of specific homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

But the results of the Vox/Morning Consult poll, along with prior research on authoritarianism, suggests there might be something else going on.

There is no particular reason, after all, why parenting goals should coincide with animus against specific groups. We weren’t asking questions about whether it was important for children to respect people of different races, but about whether they should respect authority and rules generally. So why do they coincide so heavily?

What might look on the surface like bigotry was really much closer to Stenner’s theory of “activation”

What is most likely, Hetherington suggested, is that authoritarians are much more susceptible to messages that tell them to fear a specific “other” — whether or not they have a preexisting animus against that group. Those fears would therefore change over time as events made different groups seem more or less threatening.

It all depends, he said, on whether a particular group of people has been made into an outgroup or not — whether they had been identified as a dangerous other.

Since September 2001, some media outlets and politicians have painted Muslims as the other and as dangerous to America. Authoritarians, by nature, are more susceptible to these messages, and thus more likely to come to oppose the presence of mosques in their communities.

When told to fear a particular outgroup, Hetherington said, “On average people who score low in authoritarianism will be like, ‘I’m not that worried about that,’ while people who score high in authoritarianism will be like, ‘Oh, my god! I’m worried about that, because the world is a dangerous place.’”

In other words, what might look on the surface like bigotry was really much closer to Stenner’s theory of “activation”: that authoritarians are unusually susceptible to messages about the ways outsiders and social changes threaten America, and so lash out at groups that are identified as objects of concern at that given moment.

That’s not to say that such an attitude is in some way better than simple racism or xenophobia — it is still dangerous and damaging, especially if it empowers frightening demagogues like Donald Trump.

Perhaps more to the point, it helps explain how Trump’s supporters have come to so quickly embrace such extreme policies targeting these outgroups: mass deportation of millions of people, a ban on foreign Muslims visiting the US. When you think about those policy preferences as driven by authoritarianism, in which social threats are perceived as especially dangerous and as demanding extreme responses, rather than the sudden emergence of specific bigotries, this starts to make a lot more sense.

VIII. What authoritarians want

From our parenting questions, we learned who the GOP authoritarians are. From our questions about threats and social change, we learned what’s motivating them. But the final set of questions, on policy preferences, might be the most important of all: So what? What do authoritarians actually want?

 

The responses to our policy questions showed that authoritarians have their own set of policy preferences, distinct from GOP orthodoxy. And those preferences mean that, in real and important ways, authoritarians are their own distinct constituency: effectively a new political party within the GOP.

What stands out from the results, Feldman wrote after reviewing our data, is that authoritarians “are most willing to want to use force, to crack down on immigration, and limit civil liberties.”

This “action side” of authoritarianism, he believed, was the key thing that distinguished Trump supporters from supporters of other GOP candidates. “The willingness to use government power to eliminate the threats — that is most clear among Trump supporters.”

Authoritarians generally and Trump voters specifically, we found, were highly likely to support five policies:

  1. Using military force over diplomacy against countries that threaten the United States
  2. Changing the Constitution to bar citizenship for children of illegal immigrants
  3. Imposing extra airport checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent in order to curb terrorism
  4. Requiring all citizens to carry a national ID card at all times to show to a police officer on request, to curb terrorism
  5. Allowing the federal government to scan all phone calls for calls to any number linked to terrorism

What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality. The scale of the desired response is, in some ways, what most distinguishes authoritarians from the rest of the GOP.

“Many Republicans seem to be threatened by terrorism, violence, and cultural diversity, but that’s not unique to Trump supporters,” Feldman told me.

“It seems to be the action side of authoritarianism — the willingness to use government power to eliminate the threats — that is most clear among Trump supporters,” he added.

If Trump loses the election, that won’t remove the threats and social changes that trigger the “action side” of authoritarianism

This helps explain why the GOP has had such a hard time co-opting Trump’s supporters, even though those supporters’ immediate policy concerns, such as limiting immigration or protecting national security, line up with party orthodoxy. The real divide is over how far to go in responding. And the party establishment is simply unwilling to call for such explicitly authoritarian policies.

Just as striking is what was missing from authoritarians’ concerns. There was no clear correlation between authoritarianism and support for tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 per year, for example. And the same was true of support for international trade agreements.

These are both issues associated with mainstream GOP economic policies. All groups opposed the tax cuts, and support for trade agreements was evenly lukewarm across all degrees of authoritarianism. So there is no real divide on these issues.

But there is one more factor that our data couldn’t capture but is nevertheless important: Trump’s style.

Trump’s specific policies aren’t the thing that most sets him apart from the rest of the field of GOP candidates. Rather, it’s his rhetoric and style. The way he reduces everything to black-and-white extremes of strong versus weak, greatest versus worst. His simple, direct promises that he can solve problems that other politicians are too weak to manage.

And, perhaps most importantly, his willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to the minority groups that authoritarians find so threatening. That’s why it’s a benefit rather than a liability for Trump when he says Mexicans are rapists or speaks gleefully of massacring Muslims with pig-blood-tainted bullets: He is sending a signal to his authoritarian supporters that he won’t let “political correctness” hold him back from attacking the outgroups they fear.

This, Feldman explained to me, is “classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive.”

IX. How authoritarians will change the GOP — and American politics

To my surprise, the most compelling conclusion to come out of our polling data wasn’t about Trump at all.

Rather, it was that authoritarians, as a growing presence in the GOP, are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump — and will persist as a force in American politics regardless of the fate of his candidacy.

If Trump loses the election, that will not remove the threats and social changes that trigger the “action side” of authoritarianism. The authoritarians will still be there. They will still look for candidates who will give them the strong, punitive leadership they desire.

And that means Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics, with potentially profound implications for the country.

It would also mean more problems for the GOP. This election is already showing that the party establishment abhors Trump and all he stands for — his showy demagoguery, his disregard for core conservative economic values, his divisiveness.

We may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians

But while the party may try to match Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric, and its candidates may grudgingly embrace some of his harsher policies toward immigrants or Muslims, in the end a mainstream political party cannot fully commit to extreme authoritarian action the way Trump can.

That will be a problem for the party. Just look at where the Tea Party has left the Republican establishment. The Tea Party delivered the House to the GOP in 2010, but ultimately left the party in an unresolved civil war. Tea Party candidates have challenged moderates and centrists, leaving the GOP caucus divided and chaotic.

Now a similar divide is playing out at the presidential level, with results that are even more destructive for the Republican Party. Authoritarians may be a slight majority within the GOP, and thus able to force their will within the party, but they are too few and their views too unpopular to win a national election on their own.

And so the rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.

And although the latter two groups are presently forced into an awkward coalition, the GOP establishment has demonstrated a complete inability to regain control over the renegade authoritarians, and the authoritarians are actively opposed to the establishment’s centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platform.

Over time, this will have significant political consequences for the Republican Party. It will become more difficult for Republican candidates to win the presidency because the candidates who can win the nomination by appealing to authoritarian primary voters will struggle to court mainstream voters in the general election. They will have less trouble with local and congressional elections, but that might just mean more legislative gridlock as the GOP caucus struggles to balance the demands of authoritarian and mainstream legislators. The authoritarian base will drag the party further to the right on social issues, and will simultaneously erode support for traditionally conservative economic policies.

And in the meantime, the forces activating American authoritarians seem likely to only grow stronger. Norms around gender, sexuality, and race will continue evolving. Movements like Black Lives Matter will continue chipping away at the country’s legacy of institutionalized discrimination, pursuing the kind of social change and reordering of society that authoritarians find so threatening.

The chaos in the Middle East, which allows groups like ISIS to flourish and sends millions of refugees spilling into other countries, shows no sign of improving. Longer term, if current demographic trends continue, white Americans will cease to be a majority over the coming decades.

In the long run, this could mean a GOP that is even more hard-line on immigration and on policing, that is more outspoken about fearing Muslims and other minority groups, but also takes a softer line on traditional party economic issues like tax cuts. It will be a GOP that continues to perform well in congressional and local elections, but whose divisions leave the party caucus divided to the point of barely functioning, and perhaps eventually unable to win the White House.

For decades, the Republican Party has been winning over authoritarians by implicitly promising to stand firm against the tide of social change, and to be the party of force and power rather than the party of negotiation and compromise. But now it may be discovering that its strategy has worked too well — and threatens to tear the party apart.


Correction: Matthew MacWilliams is a PhD student at UMass Amherst.

http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism

Why Progressives Need a Long-Term Strategy, Built on Values – BillMoyers.com

By John Atcheson | May 8, 2017 http://billmoyers.com/story/progressives-need-long-term-strategy-built-values/

Ever since Trump got elected, there’s been a lot of talk about resistance. As the country marked Trump’s first 100 days, it reached a crescendo. Then Republicans in the House passed Trump care — one of the cruelest Bills in recent memory. The reason they can screw so many people with relative impunity, is that they’ve invested decades in creating a mega-narrative that insulates them from consequences.

The alternative is to continue to lose elections at all levels, as Democrats have been doing with increasing frequency since they abandoned the New Deal and adopted the raw deal.

Certainly, we must resist Trump’s destructive agenda in every way we can. But if progressives are to recapture the hearts and minds of America it will take far more than just resisting. It will require that progressives develop a long-term strategy that addresses the needs of people, not plutocrats, that is based on values, not tactics.

And that has to start with reclaiming the Democratic Party from the neoliberals. The alternative is to continue to lose elections at all levels, as Democrats have been doing with increasing frequency since they abandoned the New Deal and adopted the raw deal. And if progressives cannot take over the Democratic Party we will have to start the long, slow slog toward building a third party and hope that there’s enough left of the country and the planet to salvage by the time we succeed.

How Conservatives Took Over America

We can learn a lot from conservatives, because they executed a successful silent coup, more than four decades in the making, funded by and conducted on behalf of the oligarchy. We’re not talking about some shadowy conspiracy featuring clandestine meetings, passwords, secret handshakes, James Bond supervillains, Freemasons or…gasp…even the Trilateral Commission. This coup was more like a flock of vultures moving in tandem only because they were pursuing a shared vision of their own self-interest — which was to relentlessly fleece us to feather their own foul nests. But if it wasn’t a coherent junta, it was fueled by money. Lots and lots of money. And it had a blueprint — The Powell Memo.

The strategy focused on:

  • creating a conservative infrastructure in the form of foundations, think tanks, endowed academic chairs and media-savvy spokespeople at all levels;
  • deregulating the media, Wall Street, banks and industry in general (and purchasing the media outright once regulatory constraints were removed);
  • discrediting government as the source of anything good or valuable;
  • starving government of receipts with the purpose of shrinking it, assuring government couldn’t function;
  • creating wedge issues to exploit hate, fear, greed, xenophobia and other aspects of the lizard brain; and
  • creating the myth that markets would provide all good things by pure serendipity.

The strategy has culminated in their spectacular success at all levels of government — they now control both branches of the legislature in 32 states and the governorship in 24 of those states, as well as both houses of Congress and the presidency at the federal level. But an even starker measure of their success is how corporations and the uber-rich have prospered at the expense of the rest of us. The top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans now have as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, democracy is all but dead in the Unites States, the press is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Oligarchy and both parties dance to its tune.

Government — once the champion of the working man, the author of the New Deal and the architect of the longest sustained and broadly share period of prosperity in US history, has become the enemy. Meanwhile, the free market, which exploited workers, defiled the environment and operated outside of any moral framework, is now believed to be the font of all things good, delivered by pure serendipity. As a result, broad sections of society — including much of the press, the establishment wing the Democratic Party, much of academia and the public policy infrastructure and of course Republicans — believe taxes are bad, regulations are bad, small government is good, public programs are bad, and the markets (i.e. the oligarchy) will automatically provide great things if we just get government out of the way. This is the camouflage under which such nonsense as laissez-faire, trickle-down and supply-side economics keep getting resurrected, no matter how often it fails.

Republicans Strategic Approach Will Make it difficult to Win the House until 2022

For another example of the power of long-term strategic thinking over mere opposition or identity politics, consider project Redmap — a Karl Rove effort that all but assures that Republicans will control the House until at least 2022 — and that assumes Democrats stop navigating by their hood ornaments and get strategic. If they don’t, then Republicans will control the House for much longer.

As recounted in David Daley’s Ratf**ked, Republicans targeted key races in the state legislatures with an eye toward gerrymandering the hell out of the House elections. The results have been dramatic. In 2012, the first year the full effect of redistricting could be seen, Democrats got 1.7 million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans won 33 more congressional seats. And for all the talk — and the need — to take back Congress in 2018, it will be extraordinarily difficult for Democrats to do in the face of such a stacked deck.

Here’s the timeline for leveling the playing field. Democrats would have to launch an effective attack on Republican legislators at the state level in 2018 and 2020, then wait for the census results and draw reasonable districts that actually represent the people. As a result, the first time Democrats could face Republicans without their gerrymandered advantage will be 2022, again, assuming Democrats get their act together.

If this frightens you, it should. Even more frightening is the fact that Republicans are just two states shy of being able to convene a constitutional convention and the Koch Brothers — funders of the coup — are pumping money into an effort to put them over the top.

How Democrats Lost America – and Why They’ll Continue to if They Don’t Change Course

While conservatives are playing political chess and thinking several moves ahead, Democrats are playing political checkers and focusing on short-term excuses for losing the election — like the Russian email hacks — which as Norman Soloman pointed out, gives them a pretext to continue to blame their defeat on the Russians, rather than the fact that they ran candidates who put Wall Street over Main Street.

It is precisely this embrace of neoliberalism that has caused the Democratic Party’s long, slow slide into irrelevance. Back in the 1960s, half the registered voters claimed to be Democrats; today, 29 percent do. Republicans have been hovering somewhere near 25 percent during the same period, while winning elections.

The reason Republicans win as a minority party is because Democrats have embraced neoliberalism and rejected true progressivism and the New Deal. As a result, turnouts at election time are typically low, and it’s the Democrats and disaffected independents who don’t turn out. The difference between the “trickle-down, supply-side” con of the Republican Party and the Democrats’ embrace of the free market, deregulation, lower taxes, markets-know-best agenda that Bill Clinton brought to the party with the Democratic Leadership Council is simply too small to excite the people.

If Democrats want to win again, they will need to embrace real progressive values, restore a measure of diversity to the press and media by restoring regulations that allowed the FCC to bust monopolies, and invest in the needed infrastructure — foundations, think tanks, academic chairs, etc., to carry a populist message and to reveal the treachery of the Republicans’ economic con game.

As you read this, there’s a fight on for control of the Democratic Party. Incredibly, the old-guard neoliberal establishment is doing all they can to hold onto the status quo that enabled a dangerous know-nothing like Trump to assume the presidency.

Scary stuff.

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections, tentatively titled, WTF America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track, which will be released in the spring. Follow him on Twitter: @john_atcheson.