I'm tagging this post 'science' instead of 'politics' for a simple reason:
I am sick of politics.
The past two years in America have convinced me that politics at the federal level are so fundamentally broken that participation is not only futile, it actually does more harm than good.
Here's the basic reason why American politics is insane, and thus, why the USA as a united entity is doomed.
Understanding of how human societies work is barely past the level of pseudoscience. Most political coverage in the media as well as a significant chunk of the 'knowledge' amassed by social scientists is deeply flawed. So deeply flawed, the average person has no idea. It takes the ten-plus years I've spent in academia, reading and working across the many disciplines, just to come up with the words to describe how little the supposed 'experts' actually know about how politics operate in the real world.
Virtually all political coverage and analysis you'll find in the United States relies on assumptions about people that have been out of date for more than a century. Scratch just beneath the surface of almost any argument, any reporting, and you will find a whole series of ideological assumptions that simply do not match up with how people behave in reality. Economics, Political Science, Sociology, Geography, Anthropology, Psychology - they are all caught in a miasma of bad theory stemming from the basic fact that academics, the people whose job in society is supposed to be (as many will claim) 'knowledge production', are all trained in and (if they want to get a PhD, at least) forced to pledge allegiance to ideas popularized by a group of dead white men who lived (mostly) in the 18th and 19th centuries.
More harm has been done to the practice of science than all the legions of flat-earthers and theologians could ever accomplish by the uncritical and frankly racist acceptance of the pernicious idea that there exists some universal Greco-Roman philosophical heritage upon which we base all legitimate science. Most of the 'hard' sciences have escaped the consequences of this disastrous mythos by grace of the fact that the underlying data they work with is physical, not human, in nature. But for those sciences that do (like economics, politics, et al.) have human behavior at their root, the standing assumption of the universal superiority of the Greco-Roman philosophical heritage has undermined their entire claim to validity. It has introduced bias of such magnificence into the study of humanity, and is directly responsible for the ongoing under-representation of non-white, non-male perspectives in science, because the Greco-Roman heritage is racist and sexist down to the core.
In any event, what I'm trying to say is that the so-called 'experts' in politics constantly get things wrong, are perpetually surprised by events like the fall of the Soviet Union, failure in America's 'War on Terror', the crash of 2008, and the 2016 election, because they are unable to see past the blinders imposed by their ideology.
And the media, of course, takes this failure in the academic system of knowledge production, and magnifies it into an ongoing social crisis. There is probably no better example of how this operates in practice than in the way the media habitually describes divisions in American politics and culture in Manichean terms, that is, they portray politics and elections as being a fight between two major teams - right/left red/blue conservative/liberal - with a group of undecideds caught in the middle. Swing voters, as they are usually called. So the conventional wisdom goes, the winner in an election is the team, the party, able to turn out its own base as well as win over the majority of the swing voters. States where the margin is usually close in a given election are called swing states, and attached a higher degree of importance in the election.
There are actually good scientific reasons for the existence of this apparent division between two major ideological poles, and they come down quite simply to the way the Constitution was written in the 18th century. There are many different ways to put together a democracy, and the US happens to have one with a 'first past the post' rule governing who is said to have 'won' a race, which for good reasons that can be pretty effectively described in mathematical terms. The result (which could be modified, if we were to get back to Amending the Constitution, like we used to when the time came for major reforms) is the perception of two ideological poles, two major coalitions battling it out.
But perception is not reality, at least not always. And both the right and the left in America are actually far more diverse than the media will usually tell you, and even the big parties, the republicans (GOP) and (DNC) are not actually coherent entities, but composites of multiple sub-parties, each with their own agenda, united more by the fact that the structure of our elections require them to be than any sort of actual desire to work together. America's system in effect takes all the dynamics of a multi-party democracy and shoves all the crucial competition between sub-parts under the surface, into party primaries and stuff like that.
The reality of America is that there exists no single 'One America', nor does there exist a dualistic Red America and Blue America. In a country of 325 million or so people, with all the inherent diversity of opinion and perspective that entails, it is impossible to reduce the collective down to a unity or duality or even a trinity. The fact that the media continues to do so is down to its own interest in maximizing advertising revenue - and nothing else, if we're being honest. Politics, to a media company, is just another entertainment genre. With subscriptions waning as the internet offers access to a bewildering array of content, all publications - even the supposed national 'paper of record' (as if there really could be such a thing) - like the New York Times is forced to cater to advertisers in order to survive.
And advertising isn't concerned with quality reporting, or deep analysis of ideas - it is concerned with efficiently getting readers' attention, and their clicks. There's a serious moral hazard at play in journalism, which claims as a profession to hold to certain ethics, but remains deeply bound to the more mundane material requirements of running a business. Which, the way the present internet is structured and dominated by Google and Facebook, forces publications to pay particular attention to their niche, to the group of readers who have similar characteristics, tastes, and preferences, and so who can be efficiently advertised at/to.
The reality of contemporary journalism is that writers must produce content that advertisers will be happy with. And advertisers operate on a competitive landscape where efficiency matters a great deal. The net result of their mutual relationship is a tendency towards clickbait that you can see throughout the web, as well as an active attempt to cultivate a particular niche, which in the world of media means catering to a particular set of readers. And - this is why we all get to suffer from a world of 24/7 news, every headline clickbait-ier than the last - readers respond to this niche-cultivation. People like having their own beliefs confirmed, and strongly dislike having them challenged. So every media outlet, from the New York Times to the Guardian to the Atlantic to Breitbart, has a strong incentive to give their readers the stories they will read in large numbers, because that makes it easier and more profitable to advertise to them.
Over the past few years, we've all heard terms like 'fake news' thrown around, and there's no shortage of writers out there willing to wring their hands (metaphorically speaking) over this sudden supposed change in humans, that they'll often allege is the internet's and Facebook's fault, and call for more effort to be spent weeding out misleading content. The irony is that the American media is itself one of the greatest sources of misleading content in the world. Whatever you read, whether it be a liberal outlet like Salon, Nation, Mother Jones, or the New Yorker; a 'moderate' outlet like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, or Vox; a conservative rag like Fox News, Breitbart, or the New York Post - all are doing exactly the same thing to you. They're all trying to cater to what you already believe to be true, in order to keep your eyes on their pages and your fingers clicking their ads.
This isn't to say that fake news and alternate facts aren't a serious problem - they are. But a major problem with the fake news and alternative facts debate is the niggling problem of what counts as a fact in the first place. You might immediately read that and get your hackles up, but I invite you to think on the problem just for a little bit. Knowledge, knowing, is actually a more difficult concept than it seems at first glance - as even a cursory read of Greco-Roman philosophy will teach you (this is what the Socratic Method is actually all about - showing how contingent knowing actually is). We all perceive through our senses, but sensory perception is intrinsically bound up with a lifetime of experiences, which tells us what thing we perceive are relevant or not, a threat or an opportunity, and so on. We all see the world through slightly different eyes, and we communicate our differing perspectives in order to come up with an estimate, a working model of whatever situation we're considering to one another in order to collectively define what reality is.
Think of it like this: how do you know you aren't insane? How do you know you aren't, right now, hallucinating, or under the influence of drugs, or plugged into virtual reality? Answer - you don't. You can't, not for sure. But if you can communicate what you perceive to someone else, they can (and usually will) tell you if they don't see what you are seeing. If you both see the same things, you have a great deal more confidence that those things are real - or at least, that they aren't entirely a figment of your imagination. This is part of why humans communicate, in fact - we do it to pass signals about our perception of the environment to one another, to try and better understand the fuller nature of whatever we're looking at.
So how does this play into American politics? Simple. To understand what is happening, we all read the work of others. But in doing that work, in constructing narratives about what is real (something humans do almost from birth), we have to make decisions on what parts of what is going on are more important than others. Communication requires a certain degree of actively ignoring all that you could communicate, so that you can efficiently transmit the stuff that's presently important. And that crucial operation, that 'filtering', so to speak, is a learned behavior. The process of interacting with others across a lifetime serves to create shared 'filters' that impact how we perceive what is important, and how observations are relevant to us.
The media forgets this - or, worse, it actively manipulates this natural human tendency. In a way, the written word is one of the most dangerous human inventions, because it creates an illusion of permanence. I write something, post it online and it is there, visible for all to see, ostensibly forever. But in the moment, as I compose this (thankfully neither cat has decided to seize control of my lap, where I put my keyboard) I'm trying to take a bunch of convoluted thoughts I think are important, and choose the right words in English to convey these thoughts. I am all but guaranteed to make mistakes, and worse, in ten years the words I've chosen now and the way I've strung them together may be perceived by a reader very differently than I imagine, as I type them out. Language changes, cultural values shift, because these are things held and used by people, and over time, people's assumptions, preferences, and knowledge all change.
The underlying disaster in American politics is that media representations of the entire enterprise are deeply flawed, and biased towards producing the illusion of constant tension, antagonism, and struggle - because that's what people buy. The New York Times is no different, when you get right down to it, than the National Enquirer. Just, in the case of the former, a lot of people with wealth and power read the thing, care about what people who read it think. And so the NYT can pretty much spew out the same missing-the-entire-point nonsense, year after year, and continue to attract readers - becuse it gives them what they want.
So how is this leading to America's demise? Simply put, our fearless leaders think they know way more than they do, because they too are caught in echo chambers of their own devising. All Americans are, and we have been for a long time. The basic reason why so many people approve of Trump attacking the 'liberal' media is that those outlets he attacks are perceived, by a great many Americans, as having actively excluded their ideas, their perspective on reality, for decades. They refuse to realize that 'conservative' and 'liberal' are as much cultural-linguistic groups as actual political affiliations, that they themselves mush together an incredible amount of diversity into one outwardly coherent package, and that 'swing' voters are primarily people disenchanted by the entire nightmare of a system, that is objectively leading to worse and worse outcomes for the majority of Americans as time goes by.
The reality is that America has been dividing for a very long time. It has always been a nation of 'tribes', each with their own view on reality and mode of expressing it. The entire conceit of the United States of America has been growing ever more hollow with each passing year. The internet has simply lowered the cost of discovering the information, the signal, needed to perceive this hollowness and degradation, and people are now aware of exactly how little America's politicians and elites do, have done, to mitigate terrible structural problems with our political, economic, and social systems.
2016 was a warning that 20+ years of drift are now past the point of no return. Economic anxiety produces a need for explanations among a population, and America's entrenched racism has given Trump the golden opportunity someone was eventually going to take to offer a darkly familiar 'explanation' - others are keeping us from our just due.
I am convinced that America's liberals and progressives, the 'Resistance', as they like to play-act it, are so wrapped up in a delusional view of the situation rooted in a longstanding self-narrative about their being the 'future' or whatever, that they simply can't accept that it doesn't matter that they're closer to being 'right' on most matters these days than the average conservative. The Trumpist right is now fully united around their belief that they have only a short time to act before America is irreversibly turned 'liberal', which to them means, pretty much, 'brown'. The centrist and left-leaning media in America has spent a generation doing what the Simpsons does - condescending to anyone who isn't a white suburban liberal (a category containing many just as racist and sexist as any Trumpist) while also laying the blame for the oppression of what they call 'minorities' (soon to be a majority in the part of the country where I live) at the feet of rural white conservatives. They are unable to realize that they have played a major role in pushing conservatives - who are disproportionately white and rural - into their present trap. And so far as I can tell from reading their media, they've essentially decided that 2016 was a simple accident, and that if they re-play the same script in 2020 the Blue Wall will return, and they'll waltz into the White House.
Note that there has recently been talk of Clinton running again in 2020. And that sage voices call for Joe Biden, another geriatric white Boomer, to run, because he speaks the language of the denizens of the Rust Belt. Warren and Sanders, more old white northeasterners, are also touted as front-runners, along with a celebrity or two - Oprah or Beto - just for buzz, is my guess. Repeating the DNC's usual condescending practice, Booker and Harris are already getting tagged as the acceptable minority candidates, to be held up through the Iowa Caucus and then cast aside for the battle they perceive to be most critical - the Biden neoliberals vs. the Sanders-Warren progressives.
As the German paper Deutsche Welle put it recently (can't find the link now, dammit) - over the next two years we can expect the hostilities in DC to escalate a hundredfold. Everything the Democrats do to rein Trump in, he'll portray as swamp politics as usual. Everything he fails at, he'll blame on them. The media will continue to breathlessly report everything he says on Twitter, no matter how clear it gets that he gaslights them. Everyone will chatter their echo chamber's conventional wisdom, and the Democrats will descend into their brutal civil war come early 2020, because they all believe Trump will be easy to beat.
And then the war will come. The Neocons will not give up the chance to attack Iran and finally get payback for 1979, and they'll play wag-the-dog during the election. The economy will go into recession as a result of these trade wars eventually, though the flood of deficit spending may keep the economy goosed through to 2021 or 2022... and then when the crash comes, it'll be even harder. A macroeconomy is like a fault system - longer it goes without 'adjustment', the more tension builds up and the bigger the boom is when it finally goes.
And 2020 itself will be the ugliest political battle of modern history. My expectation is that it will come down to Wisconsin, Arizona, and/or Florida, and I don't see any way voter suppression isn't an order of magnitude higher than it already is, particularly in Florida. The conservative 'movement' has no option but to ensure victory, even through... shall we say... extra-legal means. The popular vote will go Democrat again, and probably by an even higher margin, but the electoral college is what matters, and with a Trump-packed Supreme Court there exists a serious chance of legal challenges to statewide results sending the election, in effect, to the Supreme Court.
The Democrats will lose because they will think 2020 to be a simple numbers game, where 'swing voters' will save them in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They're already chattering about the Blue Wall, claiming that moderate suburban candidate successes in 2018 presage a shift back to the Dems in 2020 in these critical states. Perhaps. But I suspect they're drawing conclusions about the composition of the 2020 electorate from inadequate data. Less than 50% of eligible voters turned out in 2018 - a record, but still less than turnout in a presidential election. A huge chunk of voters sat this one out, and they'll be the ones to decide 2020. But the DNC creates its own reality, and the battle between wannabe-presidents is already ramping up. I fully expect them to miss, just like the Clinton campaign did in 2016, the important signs, and run another terrible Presidential candidate like Gore, Kerry, and Clinton, trying to cater to swing voters who don't exist.
The Democrats' success relies in realizing how tribal America really is, and coming up with post-partisan narratives that appeal to those tribes who are disenchanted with and divorced from mainstream politics. They need to start ignoring the media more, and focus on learning how to talk to Americans. They need to set aside wonky policy that only nerds like me care about, and focus on telling a different American story - and representing that story. They only win in 2020, faced with voter suppression that will discourage turnout and may include overt political violence by white supremacists in crucial states, as well as an administration full-willing to rig the outcome in its favor, by truly massive turnout among black, latino, and progressive voters.
They only get this by running someone who can look and represent the America-to-come, and that is best done by recruiting two women, one of them a veteran and one of them multi-racial, to be the anti-Trump. They must run on a platform that specifically denies the existence of left-right duality, and instead embraces linking of key issues, in the good old-fashioned horse-trading sense. That is, they link the need to better serve our veterans with the outrageous amount of money given to the Pentagon, emphasizing that half of all our federal income tax dollars, $2,000 per person (and much more, on average, per tax-paying household!) go to the Department of Defense while the Veterans Administration - y'know, the folks who actually care for our veterans after DC's wars break their bodies and minds - gets only a scant 6.5% or so. They need to link the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions and combat climage change with the need for a complete reboot of our rural economies, pouring money into economically-disadvantaged areas to help them set up green energy infrastructure and land management work that will create jobs for generatiosn to come. They need to link the problem of inequality with the lived experiences of disadvantaged Americans from all of the country, rural places included.
Me, though, I doubt this will happen. There seems to be no creativity, no risk-taking, left in this society so dominated by suburban white liberals, college-educated types who appear to have gotten good at memorizing facts to pass tests, but not to actually think critically. America needs a political movement infused with start-up like energy, that can find new ideas and new ways to do politics.
I suspect that if I had a few billion $ (Jeff Bezos? Bill Gates? Elon Musk? Anybody want to be my angel investor? There's a contact page on this site!) I could put together an effective alternative political movement, in large part because I'd staff the thing with veterans - people who know how to get things done. Unfortunately, this seems as likely as winning the lottery, about as probable as my fiction writing blowing up such that I become the next J.K. Rowling (hey, another billionaire I would like to think would fund something truly innovative. Dumbledore's Army, like any army, needs resources!).
In absence of me or anyone else pulling that off, though, I see little hope for America's future as a united entity. My assessment is that by the late 2020s the USA will be functionally, if not formally, divided into social-economic-political regions. I just don't think all the king's horses and men can put the thing back together again at this point, and as for the dream of some progressive revolution - so far, progressives can't seem to organize their way out of a phone booth well enough to do any real damage to conservatives on a national scale. They do local organizing well (hey, even I voted for Ocasio-Cortez, and she wasn't even running in my district - I just don't like Kurt Schrader) but at the national level? They get played by the DNC ever time.
So how does the USA break up? An interesting question (to me), and one I've discussed before. In fact, I'd like to do another iteration, this time using actual GIS data to produce a better map, with useful atlas-type statistics. Just need to find the time.
But until then, here's a list (in descending order of probability) of ways the USA might go down over the next few years -
- Trump is a 2-term 'president', dying in office in 2022, replaced by Mike Pence, who loses in a 2024 election that sees a 3rd party take electoral college votes for the first time in decades, throwing the ultimate result to Congress, which picks the quietest, safest, most ineffective option. Federal paralysis continues, and states like California and Texas increasingly pursue their own agenda, eventually foreign policy, leading to an effective breakup with DC still clinging on to rapidly declining authority. Call this the UK Empire to Commonwealth option.
- The Dems pull it off in 2020, only to face an obstructionist Senate and Supreme Court, and a major recession in the president's first term. Many conservative-leaning states pursue a hard states-rights agenda, and gridlock ensues in DC. 2024 resolves little to nothing, and a national muddle continues for the rest of the decade, until economic crisis and foreign policy blunders drive either a Constitutional Convention or unofficial breakup. Call it the Soviet option.
- 2020 is so bitter and marred by violence and allegations of foreign interference that despite the Supreme Court deciding the outcome, the legitimacy of the federal government itself is perceived to be gone. Whether through overt refusal to follow federal policy or through a Constitutional Convention movement, within a few years the states agree to an effective division of the country with states grouped together into regions that are functionally independent. Call it the Yugoslavia option.
- The country actually pulls it together, with a post-partisan movement offering a set of new solutions and breaking the stranglehold of the two major parties. A period of national renewal begins, along with systematic reforms designed to take pressure off the overloaded DC system and stop it from being, in effect, a prize to capture that generates material returns to those with access. Greater autonomy is granted to self-defined regions, comprised of groups of counties seeing selves as holding common interest Call it the EU option.
- Years of increasingly dire rhetoric and nuclear saber-rattling between the USA and Russia boil over, and a conventional conflict or proxy war in the Middle East spirals into a nuclear confrontation. Perhaps Russia strikes first, either by decapitating the US leadership by firing low-flying, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from a submarine in the Delaware Bay into the Capitol during some future State of the Union or by attempting a limited disarming strike at the ICBM silos in the Midwest, or America strikes first, using nuclear weapons at the tactical level somewhere and provoking a Russian nuclear response. Doesn't really matter, because while neither side is likely to escalate to city-busting (cities, in Russian nuclear strategy, are better as hostages than targets) huge swaths of the environment in the middle of both countries will be contaminated by fallout, and there will be millions of refugees to resettle. Call it the MAD option.
So what does this all mean for me? Well, part of the reason I'm spending all day writing this, instead of editing Bringing Ragnarok like I really should be, is so I can stop thinking about it so much. I sincerely doubt anything I do will affect the outcome, unless, again, I win the lottery (metaphorically speaking). Then, sure, I'll take what resources I have and enter the fight. But until then, I have my family and my livelihood to consider. But as a passive observer, here are the options - assuming the USA is in fact, done for - in descending order of how much I'd like them to happen.
- Americans get it together, figure out we need systematic reform down to the fundamental level and the creation of a whole new political architecture, and get the job done. We figure out how to have a limited, popular Constitutional Convention, and actually re-draw our internal political boundaries to take into account contemporary realities, and, well, just be a little less obviously insane. Like, no more having states on two sides of a major mountain range, where people live very different sorts of lives. Just, does not work.
- Canada decides that it could use a little more population and territory, and with popular approval annexes Washington and Oregon. Probably also Minnesota, Vermont, and Maine, maybe others. As new provinces hopefully we can keep both our existing federal and state constitutions, then harmonize them with Canada's equivalent.
- California decides to go independent, but figures out that it is a lot better off splitting itself up into four states, and incorporating Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawai'i, and the Pacific dependencies - themselves also redistricted. Then we go our happy independent way as sort of Germany on the Pacific.
- Cascadia moves from being a hippie/racist (there are different groups who like the idea for different reasons) fantasy to a practical, political reality, uniting everything from Northern California up through British Columbia into a happy little Scandinavia on the Pacific.
- We Europeans all just decide this whole colonization business is a huge mistake, and we all go back to Europe, leaving the continent for the Indigenous Americans and, I hope, apologizing for all the genocide along the way.
Truth be told, looking at America's history of slavery, genocide, atomic bombs, racism, sexism, and attempts to build an empire (that's what 'superpower' really means, after all), I can't honestly say I even mind that much if America dies. Today, for example, I read a report indicating that America's wars in my own lifetime have killed at least half a million people, many if not most innocent civilians. 7,000 American military personnel died, ten times that number have been injured, a hundred times that number have been scarred forever by their experiences. And all of it, for nothing. Just more tax money going to the Pentagon to the defense industry to shareholders' pockets and, whatever is left, into bombs that we give to Saudi Arabia to drop on children in Yemen.
The truth is, though our media won't say it, can't say it, I suspect, so caught in their self-delusion about America being exceptional and special, or whatever, to realize they've been lying to themselves for decades - America is an evil state. One of the worst of modern times. It murders so many people, at so many levels, and then tells the victims' families that whatever we do is justified, because, in short, we're better.
This is wrong. This is evil, pure and simple. We are all Orcs, and because we won't confront the nature of our Orcish mythos and our Orcish leaders, we are blood-complicit, through our tax dollars, in the murder of innocents. Year after year. No matter who is in charge.
And that's the science of the thing. The diagnosis of the disease. a disease no doctor can treat, MD or (especially) PhD.