In case you missed the announcement, I’m shifting my base of operation from Medium back to this blog. Rather than working for weeks and kicking out biggish posts there, I’m going to publish small chunks here. Occasionally, the chunks will coalesce into longer articles that will go back out to Medium.
Emotional Truth and Political Lies
What’s below is not part of the new approach in that it’s part of a longer article that’s already in progress. I’ve got the early part written and am only fine-tuning. The last parts are still a word salad. As things get firmed up, I’ll post them here.
This excerpt is a recap of a dozen or so articles written between 2016 and today. It’s also the counterweight to a repeating theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us! We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.
Here is a draft of the first sections. Please kibitz. First, an overall outline.
- Intro (draft included here)
- Decentered Identity (draft included here)
- Grounding (draft included here)
- Emotion Truth / Political Lies Touchstones (this and subsequent sections to follow)
- Setting the Stage
- Those that Work and Those That Don’t
- Deaths of Despair
- A Smaller Them
- Wrap Up
We Need a Smaller Them
Emotional Truth, Political Lies — Our Plot So Far
There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.
–Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021)
The neoliberal project was focused on designing institutions — not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy.
-Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (2018)
On November 6th, 2016, I was jolted out of my assumptions about our political landscape. My hijacked attention has been focused on the contradictions of our weird political culture ever since. I’ve been reading and thinking, hoping to internalize the contradictions and write my way out. I’m part way there. This is my interim report.
I have elsewhere presented the case that, to survive, we need a bigger Us. This presents the corollary: we need a smaller, more focused Them.
Something odd is going on. Folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum have been consistently acting against their own interests — or so it seems to me. Clearly, they don’t see it that way.
In my six-year journey to try and understand the dynamics of US politics, I have come to believe that it’s, in fact, “identity politics” at the core — but not in the way the term is commonly used.
The destruction of working-class jobs unmoored working-class* identities (particularly among older White males) and left a big chunk of the population adrift generating death and pain, some serious craziness, and a lot of cold-hearted political exploitation.
(*The term working class is a bit misleading since the blast zone includes not just warehouse, factory, and service workers but farmers, shopkeepers, tradespeople of various types, and so on…mostly, but not exclusively, the folks working for hourly wages unbuffered by employer-supplied health insurance and retirement benefits. I’m not sure a working-class/middle-class distinction has meaning currently.)
We commonly believe that our identity is something deeply personal, idiosyncratic, and tucked away ‘inside,’ but that isn’t accurate. Identity is how we feel, true, and what we do and think. Critically, it’s also how people respond to us. It’s the stories we hear about who we are and the stories we can tell about who we are. And it’s a lot more generic than we like to believe.
Identity is often significantly based on jobs; catastrophic job losses over the last 60 year has resulted in the widespread destruction of working-class identity. A large segment of the population has been cut adrift, economically for sure, but also in terms of self-respect and a grounded identity — in short, exiled from key pillars of a meaningful life. These concerns have not been adequately addressed by either political party. Exploited, yes. Addressed, no.
The mix of engendered emotions — rage, outrage, despair, feelings of betrayal, ‘paranoia’ — is inherently dangerous to the established power structure and needs to be redirected to prevent effective action…something that might reverse the ongoing shift of income and resources from the lower 80% to the upper 20% of our population. It doesn’t matter whether this shift has been deliberate (oh, no, conspiracy) or enacted through mindless machinations of capitalism’s push toward monopoly and regulatory capture. The results remain.
To restate, folks are miserable as a result of their systematic immiseration. They have done nothing wrong, yet they’re steadily losing ground. That’s genuinely a pisser, and they’re pissed — if not in a spiral of despair — and looking for clues as to who might be responsible.
I’ve found some tools that I think are key to understanding how this is playing out and hopefully pointers to things that might help counter it. They follow in as compressed a form as I can manage. This summarizes a series I call Emotional Truth and Political Lies.
Before We Start, a Bit of Grounding
…analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
–Testing Theories of` American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens , Gilens and Page (2014)
Gilens and Page’s study analyzed the policy preferences of different groups and compared them to actual policy outcomes in 1779 policy cases.
They found that economic elites and business interest groups have a disproportionate amount of influence on policy decisions and argue that this influence can be attributed to a variety of factors: primarily the role of money in politics, the limited access that average citizens have to policymakers, and the influence of the media.
The tax code, regulatory environment, and funded services have been shaped primarily by the economic elite. If that aligns with the needs of everyday people, it’s a happy accident.
What’s the takeaway?
- If you want to blame someone for how things are, it might make sense to target the folks actually controlling it! If the ‘Deep State’ is a group of actors controlling the system from the shadows, then big donors are the actual Deep State.
2. It is important not to conflate the targeted semi-mythical ‘urban elites’ with actual economic elites.
Gilens and Page define the economic elite as the top 1%. The top 1% represents about 1.3 million households who roughly make more than $500,000 a year out of a total of 128 million households in the US. Of the 128M, there are 108M urban households (versus 20M rural) — which gives us 106.7M urban non-elites. (See chart above.) And that assumes that all economic elites should be subtracted from the urban column — clearly not the case.
3. A PS, it’s unlikely that many of the people making things worse for almost everyone else are conscious of that. They might make good neighbors. (There are, of course, a few evil geniuses.) As a result, an ‘are they good people?’ analysis is not up to the task.
…to be continued…