Our Government Is Absurd

WE DESERVE A BETTER ONE

A few weeks ago a white supremacist terrorist used an assault weapon to carry out a hate-based slaughter of innocent people–again.

About a week later another man used an assault weapon to slaughter elementary school children–again.

There are a lot of uncertainties surrounding these brutal and senseless acts. What motivated the shooters? How can potential victims defend themselves? Why is this epidemic of mass violence such a continual presence in the United States when it is almost unheard of in any other advanced nation?

We know what we want our government to do.

There are a lot of uncertainties, but one thing is as certain as the sunrise. Our government will do nothing to address this issue. Almost everyone in this country wants our government to act. We even have an idea as to what the government should do. The government will not do it. Period. End of story.

This is not a post on gun control. We can look at any number of important social issues that need to be dealt with. These are issues with clear, even proven solutions. None of which will be enacted in any meaningful way.

Climate change? We’re talking about a growing crisis with existential consequences for all of humanity. We have the technology and the resources and the desire to deal with climate change. Don’t count on it.

Health care. Our healthcare system leaves millions of Americans with inadequate coverage and is a leading cause of financial hardship for Americans. The last meaningful reform was enacted twelve years ago and was the result of overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress and control of the White House. Yet still, the reform fell far short of what the people wanted. Since then, most Americans want to see something akin to a Single-Payer healthcare system. Single-Payer works all over the world and is predicted to save trillions of dollars. President Biden proposes a less radical, but still very popular public healthcare option. Count on these reforms to never happen.

We did manage to get an infrastructure bill passed by the skin of our teeth. This is after forty years of rotting, neglected infrastructure barely eking out a C- from the American Society of Civil Engineers. In many of the categories, the United States scored D’s. This from the nation that invented the Federal Highway System. To get this bill passed, however, the government had to sacrifice an even larger, more comprehensive reform that could have brought the U.S. into the 21st century.

The government also managed to pass some very pressing and expensive relief measures, but it took a global pandemic to get that to happen. Unfortunately, we simply cannot count on global level catastrophes to galvanize government action all the time. See the paragraph about Global Climate Change. Indeed, if we had a Democratic president, it’s unclear that even these necessary packages would have passed.

There are three things we can count on from our government. We can count on our government to pass legislation when the investor class supports that legislation. Most notably, this includes tax cuts and deregulation for the very folks who have a tendency to collapse the global economy every now and then. Related, the government can be counted on to raise military spending. In this last round, when Joe Manchin was explaining that we just couldn’t afford $3 trillion to build a twenty-first-century society, he was voting for a $7.6 trillion military spending bill that was even larger than the Commander in Chief was asking. Finally, we can effectively count on the U.S. government to deadlock on policies that might improve the lives of all Americans. We can count on the U.S. government turning its back on working citizens.

Working people can count on the government doing nothing for them.

Then, when the cameras are turned on, almost all of our public officials will spew plaudits and honoraria to “American Democracy” and announce that the United States is the freest country on Earth. It’s this ritual, mindless peonage to democratic values that undergird the absurdity that is the American Government. Our political talking heads wrapping their motives in the flag and lauding democracy while acting to either undermine or disregard the Demos creates an Orwell in Wonderland disassociation between the real and ideal world.

Our leadership should just come out and say, “look, everyone, this isn’t a democracy. This is an oligarchy and we are going to serve the highest bidders. If you want us to pay attention to you, raise a disposable million and maybe we’ll talk. Otherwise, just go about your business and make our constituents money and be happy with the scraps you get.” Then our government might make some kind of sense. Of course, if they did that, we’d burn it all down. So, they’re not going to say that. Instead, they’ll try to perpetuate some semblance of democratic legitimacy while undermining democracy backstage. At some point, the front stage will become too absurd to sustain. We are currently approaching the realization that our government is a Beckett play.

Government absurdity arises from three factors that amount to a disjunction between how we as citizens understand what a democratic government should be and should work, and how it actually works. Discourse about “government” is really an understanding of the social institution known as The State. The State is a bureaucratic arrangement by which power is aggregated, exercised, and legitimized within a given social geography. What we now know as nation-states evolved around the rise of powerful and wealthy kings. During the 18th century, when our Founders were building our current government, The State was responding to the growing wealth and power of the merchant class with their increasingly capitalist interests and their more republican ideologies.

Regardless, The State as an institution operates in the service of the economic elite, whether that is a king, a landed nobility, or a merchant class and/or finance capitalists. The state is a body constructed to serve the needs of the few. It was this understanding of the state that motivated our Founding Fathers to create the federal government that we know. Initially, the Founders believed that their interests lie in a weak confederation of states. When this turned out to be a mistake, the Founders got together and created a federalist system in which their national interests were recognized and negotiated in contrast to their regional interests understood as “states’ rights.” The nation was a typical 18th-century agrarian society with a unique opportunity to expand a vast colonial empire to the west. Regionally, some segments of this nation, called states, were more progressively aligned to merchant trade and a nascent industrial movement. Others, often larger regions, were culturally aligned to fading feudalism based on large, landed estates.

This was the world that our nation was constructed to govern. A regionally divided elite in transition from feudal aristocracy to industrial capital. The designs were sensible in the context of their time. A bicameral legislature to balance the needs of small states and large states. A federalist structure by which the interests of the nation as a whole could be delineated from the regional interests of the states. Even the status of slavery and the compromises associated with that dying enterprise made sense for the time.

Furthermore, The State constructed by the Founders was an unabashedly elite enterprise. Small-d democracy was certainly not incorporated into the design. Quite the opposite. The American State was specifically designed to be anti-democratic at just about every level.

This became problematic in light of growing democratic movements in the 19th century. For a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this post, the Demos was activated and mobilized in historic ways in the 19th century. The Demos is that part of the population that does the work necessary for the functioning of any given society but has little if any intrinsic control with regard to the overall direction and organization of society. In Marxian terms, the Demos has its labor, which it exchanges for access to resources. The elite controls the resources for which the Demos must negotiate. In the 19th century, however, the Demos in much of the world become interested in giving its labor to institutions intent on overthrowing the existing national order.

The State was mobilized by the elite to assert order by the most direct means at its disposal. The State, as defined by Max Weber, is the institution legitimately empowered to use violence toward social ends. But in the 19th century, this state violence was a tricky affair. After all, it was members of the Demos that had to carry out the actual work of violence in the interests of the state. If the Demos refused to back down, or chose to meet violence with violence, the results were less than orderly. So The State evolved a secondary function. The State became the primary negotiator between the Elite and the Demos. In other words, The State became democratic to the extent that it had to respond to the needs of the Demos as a body, but The State was not and would never be itself a democratic body. Its primary function remained the service of the elite.

One function of all institutions is to create knowledge. In essence, the institution tells a story about its own value as a social body. This story motivates the behavior of those involved in the institution. Individuals who do the work of the institution more or less accept the story as part of their own identities, or the stories that they tell about themselves. In terms of The State, the story State Institutions tell about themselves is one of public service, dedication to the nation, patriotism, and democracy, or a sense of mutual benefit and responsibility with the Demos.

These stories don’t have to be true in any rational or empirical sense, but they have to be good. In other words, they must more or less align with the real lived experience in such a way that those involved in the institution can make sense of their experiences within that order. When the stories, or discourses, no longer align with the lived experience, the result is what I call Social Schizophrenia. When the discourse becomes schizophrenic individuals must either reject the stories and thus reject the value of the institution, or they must embrace delusions by which they can continue to justify their identities in association with the institution. Regardless, Social Schizophrenia is not sustainable.

The institutional edifice of the American State as it was constructed in the 18th century with only subtle modifications in the 19th and 20th centuries, is simply no longer sustainable in the 21st century. We no longer live in an agrarian, regionally distinct transition between feudalism and modernism. The United States is a central component of a globalized World System that is becoming more integrated, more multi-cultural and pluralistic, and more urban. Furthermore, it faces challenges at the planetary scale. The United States government exists in a world beyond even the wildest imaginings of our most brilliant founders. It is also the conduit of power arrangements that the Founders could never have foreseen. The United States is the centerpiece of multi-national elites governing complex commodity and production chains that extend from the poorest, most rural environments to high orbit. Two hundred and fifty-year-old structures are simply not going to get the job done.

The structural challenges associated with a State designed to meet the needs of an 18th-century elite, and evolved to do so under democratic pretensions, however, are only the beginning. Theoretically, there is no reason why our government as constructed cannot govern a 21st-century global nation-state in the interests of the capitalist elite while maintaining a democratic discourse. It would require some relatively minor readjustments that would not upset the status quo in any meaningful way. But our government cannot make those adjustments because of a phenomenon I’ll call The .400 Hitter rule.

In 1996, one of my intellectual heroes, Stephen Jay Gould, published an explanation for the loss of the .400 hitter in baseball. As any baseball fan knows, Ted Williams was the last major league player to hit over .400. He batted .406 in 1941. George Brett and Tony Gwynn are the only hitters to come close to the magical .400 mark. The standard explanation for this is that they simply don’t make hitters like Ted Williams anymore.

Gould, however, had a different explanation. Gould’s thesis was that the loss of the .400 hitter is the inevitable result of improvement in overall play causing a shrinking in the bell curve and a fewer “right-tail” performances at the margins. As Gould explains, “Dedicated performers are constantly watching, thinking, and struggling for ways to twiddle or manipulate the system in order to gain a legitimate edge.” In other words, baseball has been around for a long time, and the players and managers have figured out the most optimum ways to get the results that they want. Better training. More acute use of data. Reading the other players better. Overall play and performance improve, but that means that the really amazing stuff that excites the audience, the stuff that happens at the right tail of performance, becomes less likely. Baseball, once America’s pastime, is suffering a loss of enthusiasm from its traditional fan base. If baseball is to remain relevant, it must make significant changes.

This rule can be applied to the United States government. It’s been around, relatively unchanged, for a long time. Every stage of government, especially at the national level, has been mastered, from elections that are meticulously and professionally arranged stage performances to defining voter districts, to the arcane procedures of legislation. The boring, everyday stuff can get done, the inside slider, the double play, an occasional infrastructure bill. The big stuff, the grand slam, the triple play, the no-hitter, the building an energy grid of the future, universal health care, simply doesn’t happen anymore–no matter how much the fans might want it.

So, we’re stuck. As it stands, we have a State awash with outdated bureaucratic rules designed and implemented by an industrial elite. We have an entrenched two-party system that nobody is satisfied with. The majority party controls both chambers of the legislature and the executive, but can’t get anything done because, procedurally, all it takes to stall legislation is for one staffer in one Senate office to send an email that in essence forces a sixty vote supermajority requirement to pass legislation. The only way any party can get a sixty vote majority is if, say, one party is in charge when the elite collapse the global economy while the nation is engaged in two military quagmires. Then, one party might just be able to get a temporary sixty vote majority.

In that event, any legislation supported by the Demos that might pass will ultimately be overturned by six members of the Supreme Court, five of whom were nominated by Presidents who had lost the popular vote because of the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. Even the most sensible legislation will be watered down by compromise to reach the sixty vote threshold and so filled with loopholes that a professionally trained cadre of lawyers will be able to access the unaccountable federal courts to whittle the laws and policies down to nothing before any of the benefits can be felt.

Frankly, until elites are on board with any particular legislation, there is almost no chance that it will pass in any meaningful way. The Demos is almost completely locked from the process. The absurdity is made worse when the most basic interests of the Demos contradict the worst interests of the elite. The Demos wants gun regulations, but gun manufacturers stand to lose billions of dollars. The Demos wants a livable planet, but that means leaving trillions of dollars of oil in the ground. The Demos wants clean drinking water, air, beaches, housing, health care, education, an end to the drug war, safe and equitable communities, economic security…but…

…our politicians are busy planning their next performance to try to sell us an increasingly irreconcilable story about democracy and freedom. One side wants to make an issue out of Critical Race Theory and trans people peeing in the wrong bathrooms to justify embracing fascism. The other is pretty much beholden to whatever Joe Manchin wants to do…which is nothing.

If the United States government is to remain relevant, it will have to make significant changes. Without these changes, the Beckett play that is the United States government will become increasingly absurd, increasingly dysfunctional, and increasingly meaningless.

In this state of schizophrenia, the United States will fail.


Citation

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York, NY. Harmony Books.

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