Fractured Republic - Part 1

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Before diagnosing why politics is going to Hell (and what can be done to stop it from getting there), a quick announcement that starting this week Critical Voter will be available on all major ebook platforms including iTunes, Barnes and Noble/Nook, Kobo and all of the other channels managed by the Smashwords publishing service.
 
In honor of this extended availability, and in hopes of spreading the word that you can end this election season better off than you started it, I’ve dropped the ebook price to $2.99 in all channels, including Amazon.
 
Speaking of Amazon, you can still get the print version of the book from the world’s largest Internet book retailer.

And with that business behind us, onto our Fractured Republic.


The Power of Doubt

In general, it’s tough to get someone to change their mind by winning an argument with them. 
 
You might be able to sway an audience watching you argue that you are right and your opponent wrong.  But the best you can probably do for that interlocutor you’ve defeated (or she can do for you if she is victorious) is plant a seed of doubt that might open the mind to new ways of thinking after typical emotions related to defeat are given time to subside.
 
Like individuals, organized groups tend to become defensive when confronted by problems in their belief systems.  Once it becomes impossible to ignore those problems, however, doubt takes hold.  As the Pragmatic philosopher Charles Peirce pointed out, doubt is an itch we are evolutionarily wired to scratch, even if such scratching can take place in healthy or unhealthy ways.
 
In this issue of Degree of Freedom News, I’d like to kick off discussion of a healthy approach taken to one of the greatest doubt generators in a generation: the implosion of the Republican Party.
 

Ka-Boom!

I don’t think I’m breaking my vow of non-partisanship by pointing out that the nomination of Donald Trump has left the Republican party divided, confused and looking for answers to how such a thing might have happened.  Even Democratic partisans should be interested in such a phenomenon since they might be just one skilled demagogue away from seeing their own party go up in flames in a similar manner.
 
Getting back to the GOP, before the Primary season the party was brimming with confidence.  Previous elections had led to remarkable gains in the House and Senate, and their momentum was extending downward as the party gained control of more and more state and local governments.  In fact, the only prize that had eluded them was the White House, a problem the 2016 election was going to solve.
 
After all, in the two previous elections they had run against Barak Obama who was both an historic candidate and a skilled campaigner.  This time they’d likely be running against Hillary Clinton, also an historic candidate but one with heavy baggage who lacked the kind of campaign charisma that can make up for other shortcomings.
 
And, unlike the Democrats, Republican voters had over a dozen strong candidates to pick from as members of both the front and back benches (as well as a few outsiders) threw their hats into the ring.  Given all this talent, it was just a matter of determining which smart, capable (likely mainstream) Republican would go head-to-head with Hillary.  Sure, the media was continuing to spin their tales of an imminent Republican civil war.  But what do you expect from a Fourth Estate that had long ago become a mouthpiece for the other side?
 
And then Trump happened.  Or, more specifically, he defied all predictions of demise at the hands of “real Republicans” by showing that those civil war media fairy tales might have some merit.  For not only was the party not united around conservative principles (principles leaders thought were shared by most of the nation), but it turns out that a large chunk of GOP voters were ready to nominate someone who didn’t share those principles in order to poke those leaders in the eye. 


Our Fractured Republic

Amidst this Vesuvius of doubt, some Republicans have decided that their own ideas needed rethinking and one of the more interesting catalysts for this process was a book by Conservative think-tanker Yuval Levin called The Fractured Republic
 
The book begins by diagnosing both mainstream political movements in America – liberalism and conservativism – as suffering from the same malady: nostalgia.  Actually double nostalgia since each party secretly longs for the general state of world just after World War II when America’s post-war dominance was so great that the country could pretty much do anything it liked.
 
Now what it did during this period was to consolidate political and economic power in centralized institutions such as large corporations (which grew at the expense of the small enterprises) and national government (which expanded at the expense of local rule).
 
During that period commonly referred to as “The 60s,” the power of government was turned towards solving social and economic problems while the cultural center of the nation began to fragment in ways simultaneously constructive and alarming.  This, claims Levin, is the period those who profess to be Democrats secretly long for, a time when it was accepted that government was the answer to social ills and the freedom of individuals to choose their own identity the highest virtue. 
 
Republicans, in turn, look back to the 1980s which they see as a return to post-war American confidence and cultural cohesion, albeit one where the rights of individuals, at least with regard to their right to make their own economic choices, became sacrosanct.  Under this rubric, it was the market which became the mechanism whereby people would assert their all-important individual freedom.
 
This nostalgia is magnified by the fact that it was the Baby Boomers, a generation who’s every desire and interest was magnified and pandered to for decades, who navigated the eras which are the subject of today’s nostalgia politics.  And if you don’t believe this nostalgia thesis, then why the hell are we still trying to determine which Republican candidate most resembles Ronald Reagan?  And why did the platform for this year’s failed Democratic insurgency resemble the set of "non-negotiable demands" we saw issued on college campuses in 1969?
 

What Nostalgia Blinds Us To

As members of both parties fight it out over whether we should return to the era of Gilligan’s Island vs. Facts of Life, history and economics have been moving in ways that open questions for which 20th century nostalgia politics has no answers.
 
Most importantly, a century of hollowing out the mediating institutions which once bound together the nation leaves us with nothing to talk about other than individual freedom (defined by either personal fulfillment or the market) and how many of life’s problems (from taking care of aging parents to paying for college) the federal government should take off our backs. 
 
In many ways, Levin’s critique mirrors others that have emerged in the wake of the politics of doubt that has gripped not just the nation but the world in the last few decades.  And it is to those critiques I will turn to in the next Degree of Freedom News.

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