Tag Archives: chaos

The Masks Have Come Off

I’m not talking about masks against COVID–although the utterly bizarre fight against mandates protecting public health are certainly part of the picture. (I’m a pretty hard-core defender of civil liberties, but I never thought I’d see people arguing that the Bill of Rights gives them the “liberty” to infect and perhaps kill their fellow Americans…)

The mask that has come off of far too many American faces is the mask of sanity.

When we have former military officers promoting coups, millions of Americans agreeing that the country is being run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, members of the U.S. Senate calling legislation to protect voting rights “partisan” and ideologues of every stripe self-righteously pontificating to their chosen “choirs” rather than participating in efforts to right the ship of state–what can we call that, other than insane?

Actually, a comment to this blog by JoAnn recently contained an excellent descriptor: these are “Twilight Zone Americans.” 

We haven’t come very far from 1919, when in the wake of the First World War, Yeats wrote The Second Coming, with its often-quoted–and still painfully relevant– lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

I would argue that today, the “best”–i.e., the sane (these days, the bar is low)–don’t necessarily lack conviction. They are  simply uncertain in the face of complexity and ambiguity.  On issues where they recognize shades of gray; they hesitate to act.

As an article on the subject of ambiguity explained, we need only look at history, recent and otherwise, for examples of catastrophic blunders made as a result of leaders’ inability to deal with contingency and ambiguity. And particularly when people are under stress,  faced with what they see as existential threats, their resistance to ambiguity grows strongest. 

We’ve all known people–some famous, some familial–who have gone from one political extreme to another with equally “passionate intensity.” A distant cousin of mine is a perfect example. In college, he was far Left; in later adulthood, equally far Right–and in both cases,  belligerently and rigidly so. These extreme shifts aren’t evidence that True Believers (at least, the leftwing variety) have been “mugged by reality” and come to their senses, as a popular saying a while back had it. Rather, they are people for whom certainty is critically important–the content of their dogma may change, but their need for purity, their need to be on the right side of a bright line, doesn’t. That need overwhelms recognition of inconsistencies (not to mention patently improbable aspects) of whatever worldview they are wholeheartedly embracing.

In 2016, before the election that gave us the assault on national sanity that was and is Donald Trump, The Atlantic had an article titled “How American Politics Went Insane.” The intervening years have underscored much of the article’s argument, especially this observation:

There no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon.

The article described the then-contemporary political reality as chaos, and it’s hard to argue that much has changed. 

Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.

 Normalizing chaos ensures that the people’s business cannot be conducted. It’s insane.

Recent reports of state-level political wars–almost all, it must be noted, within the GOP, since the multiplicity of constituencies within the Democratic Party forces Democrats to recognize complexity–are consistent with the described decline, and with the Twilight Zone. Idaho is just one example.

Indiana isn’t all that far behind.

Increasingly, American politics isn’t an argument between partisans who disagree about policy; it isn’t even “warfare without guns” as one popular description has it. It’s a battle between people who still live in the ambiguous and messy real world and the growing number of “passionately intense” Americans who are willing to take up actual arms in defense of demonstrably insane “explanations” of the world.

We live in a scary time.

 

 

 

 

 

Are States Outmoded?

Indiana residents who follow state economic trends probably know the name Morton Marcus. Marcus–who sometimes comments here– used to head up a business school think tank at Indiana University, and even though he’s retired, remains a popular public speaker–not just because he is very knowledgable, but because he’s always been willing to speak his mind and share his often “unorthodox” opinions.

When I first joined the faculty at IUPUI, Morton’s office was down the hall, and he would sometimes pop in to discuss those opinions. I still remember a conversation in which he argued that states–whose boundaries have always been artificial–no longer made sense. Instead, he thought the U.S. should be governed through designated areas of economic influence: the Chicago region, the Boston region, etc.

I thought back to that conversation when I read a recent paper issued by the Brookings Institution. Many years later, Brookings scholars have evidently come to the same conclusion.

The paper began by noting the country’s haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbated by the failure to coordinate governance across local and state lines.

There are a number of ways in which the patchwork of state responses–and the tendency of many Republican governors and legislators to treat the pandemic as a political and economic problem rather than a public health crisis–is leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths. The recent majority decision by Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court justices to the effect that the state’s Democratic governor lacked the authority to order a uniform state response is just an extreme example of the chaos caused by internal state political struggles.

Even without the politicization of Covid-19, however, state lines complicate government’s response. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained the problem during a  briefing about plans to deploy contact tracing:

“If I turn up positive, yeah, my residence is in Westchester County, but I work in New York City, and I would have contacted many more people in New York City than I did in Westchester…If you’re going to do these tracing operations, you can’t do it within just your own county, because you will quickly run into people who are cross-jurisdictional.”

The paper pointed out that the multiple governance dysfunctions caused by state lines aren’t limited to those highlighted by the pandemic:

Before the arrival of the coronavirus, our planning processes formalized many inequities within and across regions, ranging from hospital bed availability to housing inventory to environmental racism…

Before the coronavirus arrived, both established metropolitan regions and “megaregions”—combinations of two or more metro areas—were consolidating at unprecedented levels. This brief presents evidence documenting these trends, and makes the case for new state and federal policy frameworks to address cross-jurisdictional equity problems that emerge when everyday activities happen in a mega-region.

The paper describes the changes in residential and commercial activity over the past decades, resulting in the creation of what the authors call “large polycentric regions, or a “megapolitan America.” Jobs, housing, and consumption now occur across multiple state and municipal jurisdictions. Significant numbers of people commute between cities or town centers. Etc.

The paper describes several of these regions, and the inequities within them, and I encourage those of you who are interested in the data to click through and read the entire paper. But living in Indiana, I was particularly struck by this description of one problem caused by the mismatch between legal jurisdictions and contemporary realities:

The lack of regional governance institutions is particularly problematic for addressing equity problems within regions. For example, a worker may live in a lower-cost municipality and work in a wealthier one. The revenues generated in the wealthy area will not normally support the services available in the worker’s lower-cost neighborhood if it is in a different county.

We have the opposite situation in the Indianapolis region: workers who commute to Indianapolis from wealthy suburbs in other counties. These commuters use the infrastructure and public services paid for by cash-strapped Indianapolis (where state government agencies and nonprofit statewide organizations occupy roughly 25% of the real estate and are exempt from property taxation), but their taxes go to their already flush home counties.

The Brookings paper provides one more example of an over-arching and increasingly dire problem–the failure of America’s governing institutions to keep pace with contemporary realities. Structures like the Electoral College, the filibuster, the way we conduct and finance elections, and the way we allocate governance responsibilities among local, state and federal authorities are just a few of the systems that no longer serve their intended purposes.

A blue wave in November is an absolutely essential first step toward addressing America’s creaky governing infrastructure.  Given the percentage of voters who remain in the cult that was once the GOP, however, I don’t have high hopes for the thoroughgoing reforms we need.

Tearing Down the Bastille

This blog has a lot of very perceptive readers. The fact that my “day job” precludes my weighing in on conversations among commenters doesn’t mean I don’t read what is posted, and I was particularly struck by the following observation, in a comment to last Tuesday’s post on the politics of resentment:

I would describe the executive orders and Congress’ legislative “agenda” (such as it is) so far as governing by revenge. Nothing done or proposed has any constructive elements in it. You’d think they were tearing down the Bastille.

As another commenter remarked, the mob won, and they’re cheering every brick that comes down, even when it lands on them.

I’m certainly aware–as the old academic adage has it–that the plural of anecdote is not data. But the image of “tearing down the Bastille” is eerily consistent with the attitudes of the Trump people I have encountered.

Most of the Trump voters I know personally ( I’m happy to report that I don’t know many–but then, I live in one of those diverse urban bubbles) nurse attitudes that I can only characterize as racist and misogynist. In at least two cases, both older white men, their bigotries were on  display long before Trump emerged. They both were among the fringe crazies who appeared to “lose it” when Obama was elected; it was obvious that they experienced the ascension of a black man to the White House as incomprehensible and deeply disturbing, not to mention a personal affront. (In an email, one of them recently characterized President Obama as a “Fabian socialist progressive.”  I have no idea what that terminology is supposed to mean, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t either; he just knows that the black guy must be a commie.)

I have also been made aware, however, of Trump voters who seemed less motivated by racial animus or sexist attitudes than by a general hostility to “the system,” and a desire to tear it down. For these voters, Trump’s intellectual and emotional deficits and general buffoonery were assets–his lack of experience, his ignorance of government, his recklessness, volatility and especially his eruptions of uncontrolled anger–all promised chaos, and chaos was precisely what they wanted.

I am unable to fathom a fury that reckless. I can only assume that it is the result of a life experienced as deeply unsatisfying coupled with a conviction that things will not or cannot improve, and that the only satisfying course of action is therefore a destructive one.

If the destruction hurts a lot of innocent people, well, those are the breaks.

Whatever the motives of the 26% of (disproportionately white and elderly) eligible voters who cast ballots for Trump, the rest of us are left with a choice: man (or woman) the barricades and try to minimize the harm being done, especially to the powerless and  disadvantaged; or sit on the sidelines and watch the bricks fall.