Reversion to the Political Mean, Part 4 – No Easy Answers
To quote my mother, “There are no easy answers”. I believe the only possible way to a new stability is by working with the system we have. We must strive to make it perfect and be able to settle for just making it better...and then keep working. And we have to bring everyone we can along with us. America is two things, a nation and an idea. The idea part is what makes it different from other nations. The idea is freedom and justice for all. All means everyone.
The nation without the idea is of no use to the world and deserves what it will get, which is decline and destruction from within. That means we have to live up to the idea. The idea without the nation is like a soul without a body, nice maybe, but not relevant to this world. That means we have to protect it physically, borders and all. We can do both: live up to it and protect it. We have to do both. There is no choice.
There are bad people in our nation, sometimes in national leadership, and evil is done by them. That must be called out for what it is. But there aren’t nearly enough bad people to elect their own into leadership without millions of ordinary Americans who believed those bad people were their only choice. Why? We have to find out and address their concerns in a real way. Focusing on those leaders and the few of their followers who are like them isn’t the real work. Focusing on the issues that created their success with the millions of others is. We are not supposed to agree with each other, but we have to live with each other.
If we ever believe that if we, our particular tribe, were in control everything would be all right, we have failed to understand the deeper problem. Even assuming our tribe is made of “better people”, which I doubt in general, we must understand that isn’t what makes our nation work. What makes our nation work is differences being put aside when the election is over. We must always reach out to those whose tribes lost. Some people are lost to us, but not most. If we make an attempt, many will give us a chance. We will not be able to govern otherwise.
If we are going to reverse the trend back toward feudalism, it will be through the one thing that seems impossible now: learning to talk and listen regularly to each other across the rapidly growing walls of tribal identities. From constant dialogue comes mutual understanding and respect. From that we can identify our common interests and realize that making allowances for the needs of everyone is in everyone’s best interest, even if none of us ever quite gets our own way about it. We must first focus attention on those of us systemically left behind such as Black Americans, poor Americans, and undocumented immigrants who are undocumented mostly because of a catastrophically broken immigration system, while never forgetting that the ultimate goal is the same one voiced by Americans from Jefferson to Douglas to Lincoln to King: all Americans must have equal opportunities simply because they are Americans.
The goal of liberal capitalist democracy is nothing less than to create a new political mean for human society, which will become an attractor for any temporary trend away from it. That new mean rests on channeling the natural human survival instincts, both individual and tribal, into an environment for healthy competition based on a rule of law respected by everyone—including the government—with provisions for putting a floor under the losses of losers of the competition, so that everyone feels safe enough to avoid hopelessness. As James Baldwin noted, “...the most dangerous creation of any [society] is that man who has nothing to lose.” *
We must nurture a national organism with mechanisms for peaceful change built in, as the founders envisioned. Successful tribes of all kinds naturally resist change, but it is in the interests of all to embrace it. Schumpeter called it creative destruction. If someone has a better way, the old way must be allowed to fail. It can’t be propped up artificially for short term reasons, like protecting jobs in a declining industry. We can have ways through unemployment and retraining policies to support the workers in transition, but a company that is failing must go. If a fall from success is understood not to mean a fall all the way to the bottom and offers hope of future recovery, it can be at least grudgingly acceptable. One way or another, constant peaceful change is what the American dream is based on, so it is a necessary goal not just for companies, but for all social institutions.
All sides always have some common interests. Henry Ford’s greatest contribution to the world wasn’t the invention of the assembly line. That was just the tool he used to achieve pricing for his vehicles low enough that his workers could afford to buy them. That meant other workers could afford to buy them also. That meant he could sell a lot of cars. His world changing insight was that a company has to protect and nurture its workforce in order to succeed. It is in ownership’s interests that employees can afford to live in line with the pursuit of happiness. That means things like living wages and affordable housing are in the owner’s interests. Because the employees depend on the company for their wages and benefits, the success of the company is in the employees’ interests.
The fiction of conflict of interest between employees and owners must be addressed constantly. It is a dialogue within the same tribe. The collective success of the company and the personal success of the employees are common goals. Honest labor unions are a critical voice in any company. If they represent employees successfully to management, they are partners in the long-term success of the company. There will always be disagreement and sometimes heated ideological conflict, but at the end of the day, each side relies on the other for the success of the company on which they both depend.
This isn’t always how it works, of course. Both sides are made of fallible humans. There have been and will be companies that treat employees like slaves. There have been and will be labor unions as corrupt and dysfunctional as a criminal gang. When the relationship works, though, everyone benefits. These are the companies (and societies) that last.
For another take on this point, here is a TED talk by self-described plutocrat, Nick Hanauer. It’s 20 minutes and worth watching, because he’s not speaking to you and me. He’s speaking to his fellow one-percenters. We’re just a fly on the wall. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2gO4DKVpa8&feature=youtu.be
Over the years, American change lurches back and forth and is inefficient and frustrating. What we have to stay focused on is what brings us together. I have read that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 of the thirteen new States of the new Union was just as rancorous and volatile as our Congress can be today. But having just been through a bloody revolutionary war, they had at least one common understanding: they had to leave that convention with a working government.
We need to remind our leaders of that today. If you lose a vote, don’t just gripe and walk away, keep talking and arguing your point. Wait for your time to come. If you win a vote, don’t demonize or attempt to crush the other side. Respect them for the millions of Americans they represent. Try to understand why so many people supported them. That doesn’t mean you will agree with them, but maybe it will inform how you speak to them about what you do believe. Don’t leave anyone behind who will listen, and always BE that person who will listen. It can be painful, but the more you do it, the more you learn how to reduce the pain and become more effective yourself, and, yes, you may even learn something. That’s not a bad thing!
Building this nation into its promise, is a hard, never-ending task. We can neither hole up and call it done, because it happens to be working for us at the moment, nor can we throw up our hands and say it can’t be done. Both paths are a defeat.
We are in a lot of danger today because we are ignoring the basic truth that we need each other—everyone of us. That understanding, which is what the framers of the Constitution understood (reluctantly, I’m sure), and which we seem to have forgotten, is what can save us.
Having lived through both the counterculture of the 60s and the Tea Party movement a decade ago, it looks to me like they were two sides of a coin. Both were against things without much detail as to what to build in their place. That’s what characterizes revolution, and it doesn’t end well. It seems to be an ironclad rule that the leaders of a successful revolution lose control of the revolution. It never ends up where they intended.
Revolutionary leaders in general seem good at attacking power but not good at being in power. Before they can learn those skills, other people who are good at being in power step in and take over. They never have the same intentions. The Tea Party was in some ways a successful revolution, and I don’t think they ever envisioned Trump as the result, nor do I think they are very happy about it. Some are saying so.
If some version of our liberal democratic capitalism tempered by an appropriate amount of social welfare and truly equal access to education for all becomes the baseline trend around which human society varies, we may be able to sustain our existence, not just as a species, but as a civilization. This is far preferable to the winner-take-all tribal conflicts of the new feudalism toward which we seem to be headed.
Taking control of our nation requires first taking control of ourselves and beginning to engage with each other in a serious, respectful way. This is not easy, but if it were, it wouldn’t be worth much. There are no easy answers.
July 5, 2020
*Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Vintage International, 1993, p. 76.