Tuesday, April 24, 2018


From the I Naibi Tarot deck of Giovanni Vecchetta, 1893.
Here's another big idea about what's going on since the 2016 election, and how it ends, from Dylan Matthews at Vox: that it doesn't end, or not in any satisfying way: maybe we get rid of Trump relatively soon, that is, and maybe we don't, but the dysfunctionality of our poor old model of government, the lameness of it, isn't going away any time soon. There's not a happy ending, or a cathartic ending, or a redemptive ending. The lovers' misunderstanding won't be resolved, the wicked will mostly remain unpunished, no new king will show up out of exile.

There's no reason to think Adam Davidson is wrong, particularly, in contending that the Trumpery itself has come to the top of the wheel of Fortune and has begun its inevitable trajectory to death. There's no special reason, in Matthews's view, to think he's right, either, or, at least, to think it's such a crucial question:
What I want to argue with, instead, is the broader intellectual tendency — a yearning, really — of which Davidson’s piece is a part. This yearning is for something, anything, to end the death loop that American democracy appears to be trapped in, for a big, dramatic blowup to fix the system’s ills. In the liberal imagination, that blowup typically takes the form of Trump’s removal from office, an event that sets us back to a path of normalcy and sane politics.
This yearning is understandable — but it is both dangerous and misplaced. Ending the Trump presidency will not fix, or even substantially ameliorate, most of the problems plaguing the American political system. They were mounting for years before he took office — indeed, they made him possible — and they will continue to plague us for years after he leaves.
Matthews has been thinking about the French Revolution, which took endless turmoil, psychodrama, riots, and catastrophic war from 1789 to 1815 to end up more or less where it started, with a corrupt and bankrupt old monarchy that couldn't carry out its responsibilities to the people, and couldn't survive. And another revolution eventually, and another monarchy, and another revolution, and another empire, and so on. 

It's startling to think how many turning points there were in those first 25 years when one faction or another was certain that everything would now be completely different: in the dissolving of the Estates into a single national assembly, or the execution of the king, or the Terror, or the Thermidorian reaction, or the appointment of the First Consul or the crowning of the emperor. So many apparent opportunities to change everything, and so much that didn't really change at all. And it wasn't even all bad! The psychopath butcher Napoleon (with a much better attention span and reading ability than you-know-who) gave the world the metric system and the concept of a coherent code of written laws. Capitalism flourished and the people mostly had enough to eat, poets rhapsodized and showgirls showed. By a couple of centuries later, they'd largely eliminated poverty and provided universal medical care and retirement security and exquisite special attention to motherhood, which would have gratified Napoleon a lot, and everybody's still pissed off, in a delightfully French way.

I had a horrible thought myself, the other day, and didn't know what to make of it. Remember how we used to laugh at Jill Stein and Susan Sarandon, two years ago, for their faith that electing Trump president could "heighten the contradictions" and hasten our own revolution or whatever we hoped to call it? It occurred to me that we might be more or less thinking that way ourselves, now, in our longing to get rid of Trump, expecting so much to flow from it. We might be becoming indistinguishable from the Trump voters who say, "Let's smash everything!" We might be saying it's a good thing Trump got elected, because we're starting to realize how little would have been accomplished in a Clinton presidency, with a furiously hostile Congress, and getting from there to a false idea that the depredations of the current moment could lead to something better.

Matthews thinks these fantasies, utopian and dystopian too (we're headed for fascism! military coup! civil war!), are a function of our nature:
Humans, as the late literary critic Frank Kermode argued in his book The Sense of an Ending, crave narrative structure. “We are surrounded by [chaos], and equipped for coexistence with it only by our fictive powers,” he writes. We can’t see the world as a sequence of events, one right after another, with no end or resolution in sight. “To see everything as out of mere succession,” he observes, “is to behave like a man drugged or insane.”
We can’t see what’s happening to American politics as just a succession of events that, in themselves, mean nothing. They have to be leading up to a climactic Götterdämmerung in which our slate is wiped clean. This is the yearning behind bold predictions of the Trump administration’s collapse, or of a dramatic descent into tyranny at Trump’s hand.
But we need to get away from it; as we work on getting rid of Trump (which Matthews agrees is a good thing), we need to accept that it's not going to solve all, or even many, really, of our political problems. We need to train our minds on the idea of muddling through, he says, which is a little depressing if you think of yourself as being on the left; "muddling through" is such a hobbitty, Tory concept, smelling of Burke and Russell Kirk. But then again, it might just be inevitable, the only thing that's really on offer. We might try saying it's not so much what we want as what we're going to get regardless, and we might as well try to do it right:
But if muddling through is to lead anywhere, we ought to be prepared for it, and prepared to make the most of it, rather than thinking a deus ex machina like a civil war or revolution or impeachment will blow the whole thing up in a stroke. That kind of conviction can breed complacency or disdain for good incrementalist ideas. And it can breed fatalism about what’s possible in the current system by setting the standard for success impossibly high.
I don't get at all what Matthews expects us to think about his own positive proposals, for a set of constitutional reforms that are both kind of unsexy-sounding and impossible to implement:
An unsatisfying litany of heavy political lifts, most of which will fail, and each of which on its own would only mildly improve matters if adopted. We should abolish the filibuster and Electoral College and eliminate midterm elections by having the House, Senate, and president serve concurrent four-year terms. We should adopt the Fair Representation Act to end gerrymandering and move toward proportional representation. We need a robust right to vote in the Constitution, public financing for elections, and more transparency for corporate and nonprofit political spending.
What would be the reason, in this time when we're supposed to be scaling down our expectations to avoid crushing disappointment, for focusing on these fantasies, reasonable and desirable as they may be?

I'd like to see more ideas of the incrementalist kind that could be worked on for the sake of preserving things that are being destroyed by the Republican hegemony of the moment, that are already being worked through the courts and some particular state governments (California!), in regard to doing something about the Trumpian corruption, the interest conflicts and self-dealing and selling of favors (by the Pruitts and Zinkes as much as or more than Trump himself), and the Trumpian disregard of the law in regard to the protection of immigrants, minority groups (especially in the mass incarceration question), women; and of the natural environment from pollution and greenhouse gases. But thought out in an unglamorous, one-thing-at-a-time way, in recognition of the understanding that it's not going to be a revolution after all.

I realize I'm trailing off into some aggravated lameness here, or the idea of a New Left consevatism, whichever is worse. Thoughts?

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