I’m going to attempt to make this accessible to most readers, because it’s an important topic that deserves wide distribution. If you’re not familiar with my work on Knowledge Structures, you’d be well served by understanding the march of complexity outlined here.
OK… here goes!
For those of us that have watched politics for a while (for me, about 45 years!) one of the disturbing things, as many others have noted, is the polarization that has occurred in our discourse. My guess for when this started getting out of hand was around 1994, when the then-elites in the Republican Party — Newt Gingrich being key here — just couldn’t tolerate the notion that a bona-fide White Cracker — that would be William Jefferson Clinton — had ascended into the White House. It didn’t matter that Clinton was smart, nor that he basically was a then middle-of-the road Republican. It was the first latter-day dynamic clash of the Class Wars in this country.
But since Clinton really didn’t do much that the Republican Party at the time wouldn’t support (remember NAFTA?) the only way to really get at the fact that a pragmatic usurper had taken over the caste system that is Washington, DC, and was actually doing a pretty good job was to trot out the “mistress” argument (no surprise that a powerful man had a mistress – many Presidents had.) The calliope started playing, and, well, the circus came to town.
Things were changing in my world as an activist as well. I was very involved with forest politics at the time (I wrote a book that’s actually not too bad!) and it was in that 1994-1995 time frame that USFS officials really just started lying about stuff. Or rather lying about stuff under scrutiny. There had been plenty of backroom deals regarding timber sales since forever — the endless parade of reform legislation, from the original Organic Act of 1897, to the National Forest Management Act of 1976, attests to that. But that was when they started lying directly to our faces in the forest protection movement. It was wild.
There were submerged memetic dynamics going on that I think contributed to the ability of bureaucrats to lie far more freely. One was the burgeoning population of the US — 263M folks at the time. As well as the growth of the wealth gap that had been well underway since 1973. The combination of more people in the system, working more hours, accelerated the independent relational decline, and subsequent (lack of) empathy development of the population. And then, if you follow this blog, led to a decline in number of intuitive complexity thinkers in small communities and large, that then affected the quality of all levels of governance.
I watched this happen in the timber wars. I started my activist career under the tutelage of a hippie/Indian back-to-the-lander named Leroy Lee. We’d actually be out there in the rural communities, and while there was friction between our viewpoint and theirs, the other reality was that there was also a spirit of “let’s make a deal” between rational actors on both sides that would de-conflict the emerging timber wars. There’s a complicated story there that I don’t want to tell today. But the short version is the little guys had realized that the larger corporate interests were going to lie to do what they wanted, and they were watching.
And then the early ’90s came, and all those smart folks (or rather, more evolved folks) that had read the writing on the wall moved out of those rural communities. They re-established themselves in regional centers where they could be successful with their ensemble of blue-collar skills, which were not insignificant. Many were independent mechanics, welders and heavy equipment operators, and they moved on.
But what was left behind was no longer the group with independent drive — there were far more hierarchical workers, with little actual knowledge of the woods. They were the millworkers, and were basically stuck. Looking back, I can see now that the dichotomous path was set, and there would be no more compromise or even discussion of conditions on the ground.
And strangely enough — the date of all that was in that 1994-1996 window. A more evolved, pragmatic, and grounded group of people had walked out the door, or rather migrated out of the rapidly depleting timber belt. And they were not replaced — automation at all levels had lessened the need for that whole workforce. It was just who was left was not going to be the thinkers we needed. Additionally, a mill population was also easily manipulated by the mill owners, most of who did not care about their communities, and a fair number of them were psychopaths. I’m not going to name names (though I could) — but this bunch was more than happy to use whatever manipulative techniques they could on their workforce to make them hate us more. Not that it did much — most of the good stuff was gone, and if there’s a wartime analogy, it was much like the Western Front in 1916. The line wasn’t going to move. It was governed by increased extraction costs (a lot of the timber was really to hell-and-gone far) as well as depleted supply and declining demand.
And so the memetic stage was set, that most of the nation couldn’t easily acknowledge. Things had dichotomized — there was a Right Wing, fed far too often by the toxic politics in the Red States, with conflicts that could never resolve. And there was at the time a still modestly rational Left Wing, that was for all intents and purposes a moderate conservative front, working under the aegis of Neoliberalism.
But moderation can only last without large-scale trauma. There was the election of GW Bush in 2000, with all the conflict, followed up by 9/11, which was terrible, of course. But then that was followed up by the Global War on Terror, and that involved two land invasions that, 20 years later, we are still extracting ourselves from. Compared to our last war with Vietnam, we did not experience a refugee crisis from the afflicted countries. But we brought home the trauma in the pointlessness of it all, and if there was an opportunity to escape from the dichotomous thinking of the war, I haven’t seen it. It’s important to remember that literal millions protested the Iraq War. But it made no difference, and was probably a point in our discourse where we went from goal-based protesting to performative gathering. Mores the pity.
And various factors accelerated out devolutionary decline. I’ve written here about the effects of both the income gap and the accelerating obesity/metabolic syndrome epidemic here. Population in the US is currently at 331M people, with the majority of this fueled by immigration, full of the various pros and cons regarding economic benefit and cultural stability. But putting all of this aside, we’re a number still far above Dunbar’s Number, which says you can roughly manage 150 relationships (I’m assuming these are essentially Independently Generated more-Empathetic Relationships) that human brains can handle. Worse, through a combination of state-based population growth as well as a concentrated takeover of state legislatures by the Republican Party, the path to retreat for a more stable polis at the state level was basically cut off. The only way to win, simply because of the numbers of people involved, was for folks to yell at each other.
And then there was Donald Trump — a bona-fide narcissistic psychopath, and a man actually ahead of his time in the use of social media for accomplishing his aims. Donald Trump HAS had a large effect on our politics. But the stages of economic decline, cultural dilution, and an increasingly distant set of national, state and local governments were already in play. Only 20 years ago, I could have an easy audience with one of my national senators, or even the governor of the state. Those avenues are closed off to me at the state level.
And the idea that I might have a relationship where I would shake the hand of either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris is utterly preposterous. I’d have to save 20 or 30 people from burning buildings to even have a shot. Trump had an intuitive sense that this kind of disconnection mattered, which likely fueled many of his messages. He was theoretically a billionaire but still talked about getting an RV and driving from Florida to NYC for a vacation with Melania. Such utter bullshit. But in the world of performative politics, it was back to the future of the movie Network. Like it or not, he was a man ahead of his time.
That leaves us to the ‘Now’. Like it or not, while Trump’s election was not decided by election fraud, it was decided by COVID. The Democrats doubled down their bet on the notion that Trump had killed a bunch of us with his administration’s pandemic response. It was a risky bet, and I cannot believe that all the Ds touting that line didn’t know the reality of the futility of our pandemic response. I was worried that the pandemic would end, Trump would declare it an act of divine endorsement, and we’d be stuck with four more years of that psychopath.
But it didn’t happen. Trump lost, with all the hullabaloo that has gone on since then. But here’s the crux of this piece. I had hoped that the Ds, having dispatched Trump with COVID hysteria, would immediately see the need to get back to normal, and focus on the real issues of governance of our nation — repairing our infrastructure, laying in a pragmatic path to combat global warming, some restoration of environmental laws, and attacking the the two real Monsters in the Room — the obesity epidemic, and the income gap.
That did not happen. Instead, we saw a media elite that simply won’t let COVID pass seasonally. A band of institutional academics doubled down on persecuting anyone looking at a more rational, mitigation approach to dealing with COVID. At the same time, the now-Democratic power elite doubled down on performative pabulum regarding racism. There is no question that racism still exists in the U.S. — that has always been my view. But having worked with minority students across-the-board for the past 30 years, the biggest problems I’ve seen all have to do not with someone hating on them. It has to do with the fact that they are broke.
And increasingly, I’m also seeing this in my lower-class white students as well. As Presidential candidates go, Bernie Sanders got this big-time. But he lost, and it still remains to be seen if Joe Biden can reel in his dichotomous thinking pumpers. Rachelle Walensky, head of the CDC, is one of the most dispiriting figures in all of this. I’ve watched her various pronouncements, and it’s simply impossible to believe that SHE believes her apocalyptic pronouncements. But she’s locked into the dichotomous discourse.
What happens when a country is locked in the back-and-forth of dichotomous discourse is not that a single issue totally dominates the country’s agenda. If that were the case, we’d see at least one bill moving forward for addressing, let’s say, African American reparations. What we see instead is not so much an issue-matching, but a meta-matching of v-Memes between Right and Left. The Right has election theft, and now COVID restrictions. The Left (still) has Trump, COVID and racism.
And there is no more oxygen in the room for anything else to be discussed, let alone anything with nuance. The news space is still filled with chronic, limbic moralizing (“see, poor people are making too much of unemployment and won’t return to work!” or “all those right-wingers are granny killers and hate their neighbors because they won’t wear masks!”) even after various trains have left the station.
One of the most interesting areas that could use a little nuance is the election fraud issue. Here, various Red States have centered in on the issue of identification as necessary for voting. There is scant evidence that we have ANY problem with illegal voting, let alone enough to change an election. Let’s get that straight.
But are we a modern country if everyone in this society doesn’t have some form of verifiable identification? That’s the real problem here. Without verifiable identification, you can’t use the banking system. You’re shut out of more venues than just voting.
Yet one can see how quickly we descend into fear-based, dichotomous thought at the idea of a national system of identification. Everyone who drives is already part of that system, in spades, already. Yet people will be screaming about microchips in their butt, and 5G particles in vaccines. And if one starts launching such a national campaign, the media will amplify the one exception in a country of 330M where that particular idea went wrong.
I’ve been advocating in my local op-eds for moving past all of this through a more goal-based reasoning approach. In education, Critical Race Theory is the new bugbear, with Right Wingers rightly pointing out CRT has racialized advocates wanting to blame every past problem on white people. But the Left, instead of deflecting and re-centering the debate about the fact that in many rural school districts, if kids don’t get fed at schools, then they basically don’t get fed, we see teachers’ unions doubling down on arguing against racist narratives, and using CRT as a tool they say is vital.
One of the things I’ve learned as a classroom teacher for over 37 years is students mostly don’t understand most of what I talk about. Absorbing the details of CRT is not foremost on their minds. But by arguing about it, it destroys the details of what’s really wrong in our school systems — class-based flight to private schools, and education that builds agency and the ability to act independently, and morally in our students. As well as poorer students even getting to eat a healthy diet. I attended and presented in a school in rural Idaho about 15 years ago. 90% of the kids were on school breakfast assistance. And that breakfast was a plastic bowl of Sugar Pops and 2% milk. What this means is that we are stuck in the screaming match. And the brain pattern to boot, which then meta-affects everything else that we do.
That ongoing destruction of complexity in thought is going to wreck society. We have too many people, with too many differentiated needs, that need at least some of us to be thinking out-of-the-box, as well as weaving lots of apparently disparate threads together that can launch us upward from a mental evolution perspective. But we can’t get there from here if all we do is play our own version of Dr. Seuss’ Tweedle Beetle book.
Here’s the thing that the ostensibly Progressive Left needs to wake up and see. Right now, the Right is really selling a version of societal nihilism — the idea that “government doesn’t work, and government is making society worse, so let’s get rid of all of it except folks with guns, both formal and informal.” That vision of society really doesn’t appeal to most folks.
But the latest version of progressivism — moral screaming about folks wearing masks and enforcing NPIs, while businesses close because of pandemic management — makes lots of people pretty angry. Not everyone is crazy on either side, but my insight is that those with less political alignment are going to throw in with the nihilists. That means reversal at the midterms, and then it’s back into the dichotomous thinking blender.
The way out is to ignore the poles of the debate. I won’t even discuss the political Right, because there’s such little desire there to yield on cultural issues. But for those on the Left, you play the dichotomous game at your peril. The constant performative screaming about issues that don’t materially affect people’s lives is theater. It’s pro-wrestling, as this amazing piece makes abundantly clear. And it’s going to stop, or the majority will wall off themselves from the screamers. High conflict people always make a big splash when they show up on the scene. But over time, societies have to get back to some degree of homeostasis. Those same high conflict people, just like a splinter in a hand un-removed, will get the white blood cells surrounding them and a blister that will eventually spall off. That’s the way nature works.
The thing for progressives to realize is that there is a time element in this. People’s lives are finite. There’s only so much misery folks can tolerate.
I wish I had some Guiding Principle I could confidently give to anyone attempting to get involved in politics today. Here’s a shot — if you feel the need for theater, ask yourself what the policy you’d like to see might look like if enough people attended the circus. Would it materially improve those people’s lives? If not, maybe give the rest of us a rest. We’re all a bit worn out at this point.