Some of my critics like to insist that I never admit that I’m wrong. Those readers who have been following me for any length of time know that this isn’t true, but like so many of the fashionable distortions of our age, it points to a truth it doesn’t actually express. What offends those critics, of course, is that I refuse to accept the supposedly self-evident truth of whatever part of the conventional wisdom they defend most heatedly. The mere fact that the conventional wisdom of our time is so reliably wrong, and my predictions therefore turn out to be correct far more often than theirs, simply adds to the irritation.
Be that as it may, I’m going to start off this third and final part of our conversation about the flight from reason in our time by talking about a prediction of mine that was flat-out wrong. I made it repeatedly in my previous blog, The Archdruid Report, beginning in 2009 with a post titled “Strange Bright Banners.” In that post I spoke of the way that political discourse in the US has been twisted out of shape in order to avoid talking about the ways that American politics has been corrupted by economic interests to the point of absurdity, and the vast blind spot opened up by the misuse of the term “fascism” as rhetorical ammunition.
Back then the Obama administration was busy trying to deal with the fact that most Americans couldn’t afford health insurance by forcing them to buy it anyway, under penalty of law, at whatever prices the industry wanted to charge. Obama was loudly insisting that health costs would go down and consumers could keep the plans and doctors they had, and people hadn’t yet discovered the hard way that these statements of his were outright lies—though a lot of us already had well-justified suspicions. At the same time, everywhere outside the bubbles where the comfortable 20% or so of the population lived, working Americans were being driven deeper into poverty, misery, and despair by federal policies that actively encouraged the offshoring of working class jobs and the importation of millions of illegal immigrants who could be used, and of course were used, to drive down wages and benefits to Third World levels.
None of that was accidental. All those things were part of a bipartisan policy consensus that put the profits of big corporations and the convenience of the affluent middle and upper middle classes ahead of the survival of working Americans. Looking out at the political landscape at that time, I thought that the desperation of the tens of millions of people who were plunged into poverty and misery by policies like the one Obama was pushing would lead to an explosion: at the very least, a revitalization movement of the sort sketched out in last week’s post; more likely, the rise of a massive domestic insurgency based in the mountain West and the South; just possibly, if enough of the rank and file of the military sided with the insurgents, civil war.
I was wrong. The desperate working classes didn’t get a revitalization movement. Instead, they got a canny businessman named Donald Trump, who figured out that speaking to their concerns was his ticket to power, coined slogans and symbols that challenged the bipartisan consensus where it was most vulnerable, forged the desperate masses into a potent political force, and rode it into the White House in the teeth of the united resistance of the entire political class. Once his campaign began to gain traction, the people who might have joined a revitalization movement or a guerrilla war joined the Trump campaign instead, and had the dizzying experience of watching their dreams come true on the night of November 8, 2016. Visit pro-Trump sites today and you’ll still find people talking in stunned tones about “the miracle”—the moment that night when they suddenly realized that for once, after so many disappointments and betrayals, their hopes and dreams and needs actually had a chance of fulfillment this side of Heaven.
Thereafter, as if in perfect mathematical balance, their opponents proceeded to create a pretty fair facsimile of a revitalization movement themselves. That, I suggest, is what’s behind the flight into mythic thinking I discussed in the first part of this sequence of posts. The comfortable classes of today’s America, and their equivalents in much of the English-speaking world, have taken Don Quixote’s route out of an unbearable reality, engaging in abstract ritual activities that have about as much to do with effective political opposition to Donald Trump as the Ghost Dance had in common with effective military resistance to the US Army.
Look at the ways that the soi-disant Resistance has turned to what amount to magic spells in an attempt to banish the unwelcome reality of Trump’s presidency. (We can leave aside here the actual magic spells being wielded, as they’ve proven just as ineffective.) First there were the overheated claims that the Electoral College would ignore the voters and put Hillary Clinton into the White House in Trump’s place. Then there were the overheated claims that Robert Mueller’s investigation into the various—one can’t avoid the pun—trumped-up claims of Russian collusion would by definition turn up impeachable offenses. (T-shirts churned out by various Democrat-oriented firms saying “It’s Mueller Time” and the like are now, I’m told, a hot property among Trump supporters.) There have been others, and each of them has fallen flat on its nose, because all of the claims amounted to “Trump will be thrown out because we hate him so much.”
The current political theater around impeachment in the House of Representatives is cut from the same cloth. It’s all handwaving, because impeachment doesn’t remove a president; he has to be tried, convicted, and removed by a 2/3 vote of the Senate. When the Senate is controlled by the GOP and Trump has a 95% approval rating among Republican voters, that’s not going to happen—not least because the entire charade is based on the claim that it’s wrong for Trump to do something that the Democrats insist was perfectly fine for Obama to do to Trump: that is, to investigate one of the other party’s presidential candidates during the election campaign, on charges of colluding with a foreign government. Thus the Democrats are setting themselves up for yet another gourmet meal of crow, and in the process they’re alienating more swing voters and handing Trump yet more ammunition he can and will use against them in the 2020 election.
But at this point we’re back where this discussion started, with the flight from reason Alan Jacobs and “Jane” both discussed so cogently in the essays quoted in the first post in this sequence. At a time when only cold, dispassionate, objective thinking can give the Democrats the edge they need to overturn the results of the 2016 election and reestablish the policies Trump has discarded, they’ve gone rushing in the opposite direction, embracing extremist policies—for example, free health care for illegal immigrants—as though nobody but their own hardcore adherents were watching, and comforting themselves with exactly the sort of fake polls that claimed Hillary Clinton would certainly win in 2016. What’s more, if you try to point this out, you can count on the same blank stare and reiteration of canned talking points I mentioned earlier—the response, in fact, that Don Quixote gave to anyone who tried to remind him that he wasn’t living in the world of Amadis of Gaul and the rest of the pop fiction of his day.
The question that needs to be addressed is why this is happening now.
We could start in many places, but the best of the lot just now may be the failed state we call California. I imagine most of my readers have heard that PG&E, the huge California power conglomerate, has been shutting off power to a million customers at a time whenever there’s a significant fire hazard. The reason for that is quite simple. PG&E has done such a poor job of maintaining its infrastructure and keeping its right-of-ways free of dead brush that the power grid itself has become a major source of rural fires in California. This isn’t because PG&E doesn’t have the money. It’s because the money has been diverted from the humdrum but necessary labor of maintenance into other, more mediagenic projects, or into inflated salaries and consultancy fees for the overpaid managerial caste.
Go from the charred forests of rural California to the festering urban sprawl of the San Francisco and Los Angeles regions, and you’ll encounter different modes of dysfunction. If you’re going to San Francisco, despite the advice of the song, don’t bother with a flower in your hair; plastic wrappers on the outside of your shoes would be considerably more useful, because the streets of the city are spotted with human feces. California’s main cities have catastrophic problems with homelessness, to the point that health officials in LA are struggling to get on top of an epidemic of typhus—yes, that would be the louse-borne disease most industrial nations got rid of a century ago. The state government is demanding billions in federal aid to deal with its homelessness problem; the Trump administration is pointing out that previous administrations already gave California billions in federal aid for that, and things have gotten steadily worse.
A decade ago, when I last spent significant amounts of time in California, things weren’t that dismal. They weren’t good—San Francisco was a grimy, crumbling, crime-ridden mess more or less on a par with Cleveland or Baltimore, far northern California showed all the familiar signs of rural impoverishment and malign neglect, and crime was so bad throughout the state that every single house had iron bars on its windows and iron gates to keep its doors from being kicked in—but the recent news stories were as startling to me as they were to most people from elsewhere. Conditions in California have been getting steadily worse for years, and at this point they’re nearing the point where widespread systemic failures become a real possibility.
All in all, California is rapidly approaching Third World status. It’s got all the standard features: collapsing infrastructure, intermittent public services, a widening chasm between the kleptocratic rich and the desperate poor, and a dysfunctional government good at rhetoric and buck-passing, but rather less skilled at providing basic services to its population. Oh, and let’s not forget mass outmigration; like most Third World states, California has huge outflows of people heading for less dysfunctional regions. Donald Trump hasn’t yet proposed building a wall to keep them out of the US, but some of his followers have, and I’m far from sure they’re joking.
The thing to keep in mind here is that California didn’t land in that predicament by doing any of the things that the collective wisdom of our times labels “regressive.” It didn’t emulate Arkansas, Alabama, West Virginia, or any of the other states our comfortable classes like to insult as “backwards.” Quite the contrary, people in rural Arkansas, Alabama, and West Virginia still have power when the weather’s hot and the wind picks up, and nobody in Little Rock, Birmingham, or Wheeling has to worry about hosing human excrement off their sidewalks. No, California got where it is by following exactly those policies that have been most loudly praised by the cultural mainstream as forward-thinking. It has progressed into its present condition.
It’s been a truism of American public life for quite a while now that where California goes today, the rest of the US will go tomorrow. In a very real sense, the populist uprising that put Donald Trump into the White House was what happened when large parts of the US looked at that prospect, shuddered, and said “No, thank you!” That’s particularly relevant because the same broad trends that brought California to its present state of crisis have been at work across the country for decades. Get outside the tightly sealed bubbles where the comfortable classes live out their pampered and extravagant lives, and you’ll find decaying infrastructure, decrepit buildings, and a pervasive sense that the best days are long past. That was what gave Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” its potency: a sense that the country was progressing somewhere no sane person would want to go, and that any move toward better things had to start by stopping the forward momentum and returning to things that had been left behind.
That, in turn, was exactly what Trump’s opponents rejected most heatedly. “We’re not going back,” Hillary Clinton snapped during the campaign. “We’re going forward.” The sustained attempt to tar Trump and his followers with the brush of racism wasn’t just an attempt to hold onto the urban African-American vote, the keystone of Democratic electoral strategy, though that was certainly a core part of it. It was also an attempt to paint the past in the worst possible light, so that Democratic voters wouldn’t be tempted to compare the conditions they lived in to those that had existed a few decades earlier, and ask why things had deteriorated so far since then.
And there we can glimpse what’s at the heart of the flight from reason, the plunge into a wholly mythic world, that has seized so much of the American Left since the 2016 election. That election was supposed to be the next great step forward in the grand march of progress, the election of America’s first female president to follow on the heels of its first black president. From within the mythic worldview, it didn’t matter that Obama discarded most of his campaign promises the moment the polls closed in 2008, and proceeded to do a really inspired imitation of the third and fourth terms of George W. Bush, complete with the drone strikes and foreign wars Democrats claimed they hated so long as it was Republicans who were doing them. Nor did it matter that Clinton promised to double down on those same policies. Her party affiliation and her gender made all other issue superfluous in the eyes of the faithful.
Then she lost, Trump took office, and conditions started to improve for a great many of the people who’d been left twisting in the wind by the bipartisan policy consensus I mentioned earlier. It wasn’t just the white working class who benefited, either; joblessness in the African-American community has dropped to its lowest level since statistics were first kept, and figures for other ethnic minorities have kept pace.
That, I suggest, is the thing that drove the flight into fantasy we’ve seen since that time. In the wake of the failed social revolution of the 1960s, the American Left made a devil’s bargain with the corporate world, and agreed to support economic policies that benefited corporations and their shareholders at everyone else’s expense, in exchange for an agreement by corporations to support cultural policies of the kind the post-1960s Left wanted to see. All this was obscured, as such bargains are generally obscured, by a deliberate ignorance toward the effect the economic policies had on the minority communities the Left supposedly wanted to help. Pundits and politicians alike loudly insisted that offshoring jobs and flooding the job market with illegal immigrants couldn’t possibly drive down wages, as of course they did; meanwhile efforts to help ethnic minorities on a broad scale gave way to mass imprisonment on the one hand—Hillary Clinton’s talk about “superpredators” may come to mind here—and on the other, arrangements that allowed a trickle of nonwhite people to rise into the managerial classes, so long as they unswervingly embraced the values of the corporate establishment.
That’s the skeleton that’s come dancing out of the closet in the wake of the 2016 election. It’s become impossible to avoid the fact that the neoliberal economic policies embraced by both parties until then were a total disaster for most Americans. Even Paul Krugman, who made his reputation in the media as a sneering bully putting down anyone who didn’t fall into line with neoliberal orthodoxy, has been forced in recent months to concede that he was wrong. Millions of Americans of leftward political views are being forced to come to terms with the fact that the experts they believed and the media they trusted were either lying to them or just plain wrong, and that they not only supported, but also profited from, policies that plunged a vast number of Americans into poverty and despair. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, and it’s all the harder to choke down when the orange-faced doctor who’s prescribed it has gone out of his way to flaunt his lack of concern for the delicate feelings of the comfortable classes.
Thus it’s not at all surprising that Democratic politicians in the House of Representatives have launched themselves into one politically motivated investigation after another in exactly the same spirit that sent Don Quixote charging at a windmill, or that a great many people of leftward views have taken on the persona of heroic fighters against fascism in a way that invites comparison with the young man who adopted the personality of an anime character. One of the core beliefs on which they founded their lives—the fond conviction that the world is moving toward a brighter and better future, and the policies that profit them personally are also the policies that are helping to drive that great going-forward—has shattered irrevocably around them. That’s what has them imitating the Ghost Dance and its many equivalents, dancing at the end of time, waiting for a miraculous redemption the world will not provide them.
Meanwhile the policies that might spare the rest of this nation a descent into Californian conditions have some chance at this point of being enacted. Those policies are straightforward enough: a phased withdrawal from military commitments abroad we can no longer afford; trade barriers to rebuild domestic manufacturing so that we’re prepared when the dollar stops being the world’s reserve currency and we can no longer import whatever we want and pay for it with IOUs; a sustained and thoughtful national conversation about how many immigrants we can afford to accept each year without driving our existing working classes into misery; a new federalism which will return social legislation to the individual states, and thus end attempts to impose a single moral ideology of left or right on the entire nation; and a reorientation of politics toward the logic of compromise and coexistence, which alone can restore some degree of relative harmony to so vast, diverse, and opinionated a republic as this one.
Will these prevent the slow decline I’ve called the Long Descent, the downward trajectory that winds up the story of every civilization? Of course not. Trump may go ahead and fulfill his promise to put more bootprints on the Moon in 2024 or so, reenacting the events of 1969—it’s indicative, isn’t it, that while other civilizations left pyramids and temples that have endured for centures, our supreme achievement, the moon landings, used rockets that turned to scrap metal the moment they did their job?—but that’s another ritual action, when it comes right down to it.
Yet some declines are faster than others. Back in the heyday of the peak oil scene, plenty of people discussed the value of economic relocalization in cushioning the decline, and each of the other steps I’ve sketched out above will also further that goal. The great American poet Robinson Jeffers said it best:
You who make haste haste on decay; not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.
We may have succeeded in dodging the mortal splendor, at least for the moment, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. While the dancers at the end of time trudge through their ritual steps, waiting for an imaginary future that was never going to happen in the first place, the rest of us might consider rolling up our sleeves and seeing what we can accomplish.