Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Main Cause of the Badness

From Sergei Eisenstein's ¡Qué Viva México!, 1933, via Screen Dance Studies.

Looking for David Brooks's column in yesterday morning's Times, I found a whimper with a headline so stale and dispirited ("How Democracies Perish") that I thought I must be looking at an old column I'd dealt with already, and figured he'd taken the whole Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend off.

As it turned out, of course, the title was so familiar because it was ripped off, from a book that's to be released on Tuesday and is already being talked about, Steven Levitsky's and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die, an assessment of the present danger to democracy, such as it is, in the United States. Brooks had written a new column—it merely looked like an old one, which isn't that unusual—and it's not totally boring, once you get down inside. Not that he's writing about Levitsky's and Ziblatt's book or even aware that he's indirectly referencing it; he's on the new book with a melancholy title that came out last week:

Everybody agrees society is in a bad way, but what exactly is the main cause of the badness? Some people emphasize economic issues: The simultaneous concentration of wealth at the top and the stagnation in the middle has delegitimized the system. People like me emphasize cultural issues. If you have 60 years of radical individualism and ruthless meritocracy, you’re going to end up with a society that is atomized, distrustful and divided.
But some emphasize the intellectual. The people who designed our liberal democratic system made fundamental errors, which are now coming home to roost. Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen falls into this camp. His new book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” is a challenge to those of us who want to revive the liberal democratic order. It will attract a cult following among those who are losing faith in the whole project.
1. Radical inequality isn't an economic issue, it's a moral issue. A society organized to produce endlessly increasing, apparently unlimited wealth for some five percent of its population while everybody else is running in place is morally wrong. Just because the argument has a number in it doesn't change that.

2. "60 years of radical individualism and ruthless meritocracy" isn't a thing at all. In a ruthlessly meritocratic society David Brooks would be a headwaiter at a moderately good restaurant and Donald Trump would have spent most of his life in jail. Cultural individualism is not a moral issue but a cultural descriptive parameter, developed by the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede (the European social scientist most frequently cited in peer-reviewed academic publications worldwide, though his name has never been mentioned in The New York Times, let alone a Brooks column).

And first, it's not a characteristic you can look at properly on its own; you need to consider it in the context of other dimensions. In Hofstede's perspective, the US is certainly a very markedly individualistic society, no. 1 in fact among the countries his outfit has scored, which goes along with a particular valuing of achievement (which is not the same thing as meritocracy; Americans admire achievement but our low level of power distance precludes allowing ourselves to be ruled by that kind of test-taking merit, in comparison to, say, France or Singapore), along with high diversity, precise communication, high tolerance for emotional expression, and an agonistic style of resolving conflict. But so is the Netherlands. The difference between the US and the Netherlands is particular in the cultural masculinity of the former, comparable to Nigeria's though nowhere near as high as Japan's, where the Netherlands is at the extreme feminine end of that scale; and its extreme short-term orientation, comparable to that of Argentina, where Dutch culture is oriented to the long term.
Via Hofstede Insights.
And second, sudden shifts, as in "the United States became radically individualistic on or about 1959", are very unlikely. Research by Sjoerd Beugelsdijk, Robbert Maseland, and André van Hoorn suggests that these properties are relatively stable over the relatively long term, but if anything has been happening over the past 60 years it is that the US is becoming relatively more like other countries; less individualistic and masculine, more likely to avoid uncertainty and plan for the long term.

Finally, if these categories are to be of any use, you need to start by recognizing that nobody's going to be able to directly change cultural dimension scores by adding more bowling leagues or churches or whatever Brooks might want to add to the mix, because the cultural dimensions are a function of the very broad environmental and demographic variables. A hypothesis on the current emergency might start out by looking at the mismatch between our politics, somewhat stuck in the hyperindividualistic, hypermasculine moment of the 1830s, and our culture, which has really become more collective (think hippies and Millennials) and feminine and maybe less tolerant of uncertainty. The dominant political class (older white men from warm and mostly inland climates), more and more reactionary in the face of these threatening cultural developments, has fought them with increasing fury over the last four or five decades, culminating in the savagery of the Trumpian last stand, but it's doomed to fail unless it destroys us in the attempt.

3. I can't get interested in Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, which apparently complains that the influence of "Machiavelli and Locke" has made the American founding documents incoherent, as if founding a nation requires a perfectly logical system, leading to internal contradictions that will cause the system to collapse, starting sometime around now. Brooks seems to be fascinated by the way it agrees with him on his usual hobbyhorse, but backs away nervously when he starts realizing the implication that democracy is toast:

Once family and local community erode and social norms dissolve, individuals are left naked and unprotected. They seek solace in the state. They toggle between impersonal systems: globalized capitalism and the distant state. As the social order decays, people grasp for the security of authoritarianism. “A signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness,” he observes. He urges people to dedicate themselves instead to local community — a sort of Wendell Berry agrarianism.
Deneen’s book is valuable because it focuses on today’s central issue. The important debates now are not about policy. They are about the basic values and structures of our social order. Nonetheless, he is wrong. Liberal democracy has had a pretty good run for 300 years. If the problem were really in the roots, wouldn’t it have shown up before now?
"It's valuable because it agrees with me, but I don't agree with it." Even if Brooks's fears are justified, and I really don't think they're entirely wrong on the communitarianism question (I just wish he'd recognize that the excessive individualism is on the Paul Ryan right), it's policy that can help. Not sitting around weeping over the decaying social order but working toward an equitable distribution of wealth and civil rights, toward giving those who aren't rich a chance to be communitarian. Like Norway, where nobody wants to immigrate to the US.

For a little more optimism, check out this remarkably cheery piece by Corey Robin in The Guardian:
Indeed, for all the talk of increasing authoritarianism and Republican hegemony, there are signs that the United States is more open and freer today – and the Republicans less hegemonic – than it has been a while.

Best thing you'll probably read about Brooks today is by Jonathan Chait on Tuesday's column:
Four days ago, David Brooks broke the news in the New York Times that President Trump is actually a sober-minded and competent public servant. “People who go into the White House to have a meeting with President Trump usually leave pleasantly surprised,” he reported. “They find that Trump is not the raving madman they expected from his tweetstorms or the media coverage. They generally say that he is affable, if repetitive. He runs a normal, good meeting and seems well-informed enough to get by.”
It is safe to say that this column has not aged well in the short time since its publication....
... during which the shitholes were, I won't say the least of it, but there was certainly a lot more, and the normal good meeting and well-informed enough to get by were not much in evidence.

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