Monday, November 14, 2016

Calmer thoughts about the election

I am happy to report that my initial distress following the election didn't result in a downward depressive spiral, as I had feared. Instead, two friends came over Wednesday afternoon and cheered me up. John brought chocolate after work.  I woke up Thursday with a lot more optimism.  Sure, this election is bad news and bad things will probably happen as a result of it.  However, I can create enough distance for myself to live my life, and I don't need to feel guilty about doing this because it's not like my distress was helping anyone.

Facebook has been nastier than expected; I thought this would happen if Clinton won (because Trump supporters would be livid) but I did not think that I would see so much anger and mockery from Republicans if they won.  Clinton supporters, too, have been very upset and not all of them have been trying as hard to keep civil as I have.

So I've been turning from the immediate fears I have to reflecting on deeper trends.  What does it mean, that nationalist movements are gaining steam around the world?  How exactly would one even define these movements?

Fitting this into my usual frames of reference, I would say that Trump-ism is, first and foremost, zero-sum.  All his rhetoric and his policies support this: he feels America is losing and other countries are winning, and he wants other countries to lose so America can win.  A good deal, to him, follows not the ideal of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, that everyone walks away feeling like a winner, but that you win and the other guy loses.  His trade policy is, "Other people are doing better than us out of our trade deals, so we should stop trading."  His foreign policy is, "Other countries are getting more out of alliances than we are, so we should stop honoring those alliances."  In short, America first.  The same attitude is common in nationalist movements in other countries, such as Brexit.

Now I have admitted in the past that some conflicts really do have zero-sum solutions.  Land ownership for agriculture is a big one, which is why I've grudgingly abandoned agrarianism.  But trade and world peace are, in my opinion, perfect places for non-zero-sum thinking -- and it's exactly that sort of thinking that has made the world as prosperous and peaceful (comparatively) as it currently is.

The second thing I would point to comes more from Trump's followers than himself -- it's placing the unit of mattering on a culture rather than an individual.  That is, they don't simply value the human rights and happiness of the people they live alongside, but also the preservation of their community in its current state.  If, for instance, they come from a dying factory town, they don't just want to be retrained for new jobs, or move to a different state where there are factory jobs available. They want to bring back their town the way it was, factory jobs and all.  And this is often the same sentiment that is interpreted as racism -- a desire to keep their culture intact, rather than changed by immigration.  I don't have a lot of sympathy for this, personally, because I am primarily an individualist.  But I don't think those who feel this way are necessarily just "racist" or "xenophobic."  Perhaps a better word would be "nostalgic"!  Because of course change happens, regardless of how hard you fight it, but it's happening particularly fast at the moment and I understand if it feels very unsettling.

The Better Angels of Our Nature discusses this divergence between individual rights versus cultural and communal values.  The author comes down very hard on the side of individual rights, pointing out that liberal democracies which consider themselves to be defending the rights of whichever individuals happen to live there (America, Canada, modern European nations) do a lot better than countries which see themselves as preserving a certain kind of culture (Nazi Germany, Islamic democracies, ethnocentric Balkan states).  But then, that sort of depends on your measure, doesn't it?  It's true that individual rights are preserved more in the individualist societies, but it's also undeniable that social change has tended to be rapid, including the decline of religion.

And the third major issue is a mistrust of global elites.  In our increasingly globalized world, it is very hard to draw the line between "there's a global conspiracy pulling all the strings behind the scenes in order to rip off the little guy!" and the actual truth, which is .... that in fact there are a lot of wealthy people, both in politics and business, who wield an undue influence, buddy up to each other, and don't care very much about you.  It's not so much a conspiracy as a situation in which the incentives don't always line up for decent behavior.

Thus, if you've read at all into the details of any political question -- as I have, on the topic of food and farming -- you reach the part of the story where elected representatives get together with the owners of massive corporations in a back room and work everything out between them.  And guaranteed, it's not what you or any ordinary person would have wanted.  I don't actually believe that all elites, or all multinational corporations, or all politicians, are as corrupt as all that.  Sometimes they deal with each other to actually make the world a better place; sometimes they aren't really working with each other at all because they're a diverse gang that wants different things.  But it's not unreasonable to be untrusting of these people.  The only unfortunate part is when people start to demonize anything that goes along with being "elite," such as expertise, and only trust people who are complete outsiders and thus totally clueless about the complexity of the system.

The really miraculous thing is that Trump managed to pass himself off as not a part of this untrustworthy crowd.  But once he had done so, and so many elites (for good reasons) expressed their dislike of him, that seemed like proof that he was a good guy -- on our team, not the elites' team, because if he were one of them, they would like him.  Which would work better if the global elite really were a massive conspiracy with a single set of goals rather than the messy tangle it really is.

The second question is, why now?  What has caused such a sudden backlash, when a short time ago it looked like the world was on one long march in a progressive direction?

1.  Economics.  I am not convinced by the narrative that Trump was elected by poor factory workers who lost their jobs -- because all the evidence is that Trump supporters were mostly middle-class.  However, I think there's a good argument for a broader kind of causality.  The whole developed world was doing very well in the early oughts, and suddenly we had our recession in the US, along with similar issues around the world.  That led a lot of people to feel that they're doing less well than they once were, or than they expected to be, and to blame global elites (some of whom absolutely were responsible).  And I think it also caused people to lose faith in the capitalist/democratic system that's been working so well up to now.  If it can't prevent recessions or austerity measures, what good is it?

2.  Islamic terrorism.  While xenophobia always finds something, real or imagined, to latch onto -- inventing global Jewish conspiracies or Catholic immigrant mafias -- in this case, the feared outsider group actually does contain some people who will literally kill you.  So it spurs a panicky backlash as a single terrorist attack reverberates around the world, leaving people thinking, "What if that happens here? We must block these scary outsiders from entering or it will happen here for sure."  Repeated attacks increase the fear, and also drive further reduction of faith in democratic pluralism.  Democracies get along really well with one another, we know this, but are they equipped to handle radical Islamic states and terrorist groups?

3.  Enlightenment values have been a victim of their own success.  Just as vaccination rates for a disease drop when people have never seen the disease -- imagining that polio could never come back or that diphtheria can't have been so bad, because no one has ever seen either -- faith in democracy drops as people lose familiarity with the alternatives.  Europe has been at peace so long we imagine it will always be at peace and can never be otherwise.  Human rights have been defended so long that many people have been telling me that we really don't need to worry about racism any longer, no matter what racist things some leaders say, because it's just dead and won't come back.  And I think that's a dangerous assumption.  There are reasons for the level of peace in the world right now -- stuff like free trade and alliances -- and if you axe those things, there is no reason to assume the standard level of peace and prosperity the developed world enjoys would continue.

4. Putin????   Okay, this one is more of a conspiracy theory than a reflection.  But I have been quite shocked lately to hear of how many  of these nationalist parties have been sponsored or supported by the Russians.  There have been cases of the Russians hacking into news networks before elections to display fake ISIS propaganda, or leaking juicy details about establishment candidates to help nationalist ones.  I can't be sure of this; my only source was in TIME magazine and they put all their best stuff behind a paywall.  (I read it in the doctor's office.)  But it's something worth thinking of.  If Putin himself is a nationalist, and he feels threatened by the united strength of Europe and the US, might he not wish to fracture that unity by encouraging go-it-alone attitudes in each country?

* * *

So that's what I think is going on.  I don't think it really matters that Trump is a playboy millionaire with a history of general skeeviness; I don't think that's why anyone voted for him.  Honestly, it may have helped, by getting Trump a lot of free coverage in a primary field where it was hard to get noticed.  Rather, his win is a triumph of anti-Enlightenment forces: zero-sum over cooperation; nationalism over globalism; culture over individual.

But that doesn't mean, of course, that we will now see a world or even a nation run by only these forces.  Half the country -- well, more than half -- never agreed with Trump in the first place, and many of those who did support him did so simply for partisan reasons, as our two-party system encourages.  It may be that he screws things up so bad in his first two years that he loses the Senate again, and the next two years accomplishes little or nothing.  Then again, it may be that his reluctance to uphold our alliances results in a nuclear Iran or Russia encroaching on the Baltic states.  I don't know, and this uncertainty is scary.

I do feel some confidence, however, that the Enlightenment values Trump's movement opposes are the exact reasons why the world is going as well as it is: why developed nations no longer fight one another; why individual rights are being championed so well.  Yes, the capitalist/democratic/progressive/globalist system has flaws -- its ability to be manipulated by the few people able to understand its complexity being one of those flaws.  Yet I think these flaws can be battled from within that system rather than trashing the whole thing.  That's the main reason I've opposed Trump all along -- though don't get me wrong, I detest him as an individual too.  He opposes everything which has been making the world a better place for the past sixty years: free trade, international alliances, pluralism.  (I could write a whole post on the ways immigration makes the world a better place -- maybe I should.)

Yet I am going to try not to read Trump's win as the definitive victory of the forces of darkness.  It's a setback, hopefully a temporary one.  Most of the world still wants to move forward, not backward, and there are ways to do it even if the most powerful man in the free world isn't on your side.

Recommended reading:
Don't Mourn, Organize - Thing of Things
White Riot - Vox [Note: facts very interesting. Tone very inflammatory.  If you are a typical conservative who absolutely cannot handle anyone thinking that anyone you like is racist, it will make you mad.]

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