Alternatives to Nihilism, Part Two: Lead Us Away From Here

An irony I’ve had the chance to relish repeatedly, over the five years or so since The Archdruid Report first ventured onto the blogosphere, is the extraordinary grip of convention and conformity on exactly those sectors of American society that take the most pride in their rejection of convention and conformity. It’s reminiscent of the scene from the Monty Python film Life of Brian in which a crowd of adoring followers, told that they are all individuals, chants back in perfect unison, “Yes, we are all individuals!”

It’s easy enough to laugh, but there’s much to be learned from the beliefs that are taken for granted by those who insist they take nothing for granted. The subject of today’s post is one of those, one that’s deeply entangled with the cult of nihilism I dissected in last week’s essay. It’s a credo that’s embraced with equal enthusiasm straight across the political spectrum from left to right, and from the middle of the road out as far toward the fringes as you care to look. There are few better examples of groupthink in contemporary American life, and yet nearly all the people who accept the notions I have in mind are convinced that they’re rebelling against conformity by conforming to a belief system shared by nearly everybody else in the country.

The credo in question? It’s the belief that all the decisions that really matter in the United States today are made by a small elite, insulated from the democratic process, who are pursuing policies that would be rejected by the American people if the latter had the chance to make up their own minds.

Those of my readers who happen to be Democrats may find it educational to sit down sometime with a stalwart Republican, perhaps over a couple of beers, and ask whether this is the case. You can count on getting an earful about the corrupt liberal elite that pulls all the strings in this country. If any of my readers happen to be Republican, and try the same experiment in reverse, they can expect an equal and opposite earful about the corrupt corporate elite that pulls all the strings in this country. Step outside the two main parties and ask the same question, and you’ll get at least thirty-one different flavors of the same claim, topped off, perhaps, by some follower of David Icke insisting that the corrupt elite that pulls all the strings is actually the cabal of evil space lizards that Ickes appears to have lifted from one too many viewings of the otherwise forgettable Eighties science fiction TV series V.

Nearly everyone agrees, in other words, that there’s a corrupt elite pulling the strings, even though no two factions can agree on who it is and what they want. Next to nobody challenges the assumption that democracy is a charade controlled by unseen hands. Still, I’m convinced that it’s high time to question that assumption, and to trace out its links to the cult of nihilism and the profoundly troubled national conscience that have exercised a corrosive influence on this country since the end of the Seventies.

It’s probably necessary to say right off that challenging the credo I’ve outlined here does not require believing in the fairy tale version of democracy too many schools still insist on dishing up to our children, in an apparent attempt to apply Huckleberry Finn’s famous definition of faith – "believing what you know ain’t so" – to the political sphere. In the real world, a democratic society is not a Utopia that guarantees everyone perfect liberty and equality. Rather, it’s simply one way of managing the chore of making collective decisions, in the context of a society that – like all human societies everywhere – distributes wealth, power, rights, and responsibilities unequally among its citizens. I tend to think that democracy deserves our support because, by and large, it produces fewer and less drastic human rights violations and allows somewhat more individual freedom than the alternatives, but those are relative distinctions, not absolutes, and democracy also has a bumper crop of problems of its own that are hardwired into its basic architecture.

For instance, democracies always have severe problems with corruption, because democracy is one of the few systems of government in which the rich aren’t automatically the ones who make collective decisions. In a hereditary aristocracy, say, the people who have the political authority also have most of the national wealth, and thus can afford the disdain for the merely rich that aristocrats so often affect. In a democracy, by contrast, there are always people who have wealth but want influence, and people who have power but want money, and the law of supply and demand takes it from there. Those who claim that the existence of political corruption in America shows that it’s no longer a democracy thus have the matter exactly backwards; it’s precisely because American national, state and local governments are more or less democratic that corruption flourishes here, as it has in nearly every other democracy on record.

There are plenty of other problems endemic to democracies. A glance over the ancient Greek literature on the subject, just for starters, will provide any of my readers who are curious about this with an uncomfortably exact autopsy of the current problems of American politics. Still, the most important problem with democracy is one that’s inseparable from the basic idea of handing decision-making over to the citizens as a whole, because no law of nature requires a majority to be right.

Now it’s central to most versions of the credo of elite rule I mentioned earlier in this post to claim that the majority is so thoroughly manipulated by the corrupt (insert partisan label here) elite pulling all the strings in this country that it can’t make up its own mind about anything that matters, and simply follows the lead of the elite. Democrats, Republicans, believers in evil space lizards, and nearly everyone else pass easily from this claim to the insistence that if the majority was able to think for itself, it would back the Democrats, Republicans, believers in evil space lizards, or whoever else happens to be speaking at the time. This may in itself suggest one of the motives for this very comforting notion, but there may be more going on here than simple sour grapes.

There is, to be sure, plenty of manipulation of the public in America, as in any other democracy, for reasons identical to those behind the prevalence of corruption in democratic systems. At any given time, there may be a couple of dozen organized groups or more trying to push some set of ideas on the public by fair means or foul. What is not often recognized is that the public is not merely a passive participant in this process. Multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns routinely flop because the American public, motivated by its habitual perversity, shrugs and walks away from the most carefully crafted marketing pitch to embrace some fad or fashion nobody on Madison Avenue saw coming. That is to say, manipulation works in both directions; those people who try to bend public opinion to their own ends can succeed only by telling the public what it wants to hear.

The same thing is equally true in politics, as a glance over the history of the last half dozen decades of American political life will show clearly enough. Perhaps the best example of all is the abandonment of the movement toward sustainability in the wake of the Seventies.

That movement was backed by a loose coalition with diverse and often conflicting goals, and it faced strident opposition from a large sector of the public, but it had the support of government officials who were worried about the price of dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and who also felt the perennial need of politicians to appear to be doing something about the crisis du jour, which at that point was the high cost of energy. Some members of both parties opposed the movement, though others on both sides of the aisle backed it; some corporate interests opposed it, while others recognized that alternative energy just might turn out to be the next big thing. The entire movement, however, was based all along on the gamble that the American public would be willing to tighten its belt and plunge into the transition to an ecotechnic society even when the bills started coming due in earnest.

On the other side of the game was a coterie of Republican politicians and strategists who guessed that when push came to shove, the American public would crumple. When a chapter of accidents put their candidate into the White House, they bet the future of their party on that guess, and won. The election that mattered here wasn’t Reagan’s relatively narrow victory in 1980, but his landslide in 1984, when most of the nation registered its approval of a policy shift that spared them the costs of the transition to sustainability. It was after the latter election that the axe came down on funding for appropriate tech, and Woodsy Owl’s iconic "Give a hoot – don’t pollute!" ads vanished from the airwaves.

Notice also what happened as the Eighties unfolded. It wasn’t just the American public that crumpled; the sustainability movement did, too. There were some who stayed the course, who saw that the plunge in energy prices bought by breakneck pumping of the North Slope and North Sea oil fields would turn out to be one of history’s classic short-term fixes, and kept the green flame lit. Still, by and large, most of the people who had been subscribers to Rain and Coevolution Quarterly, and had been nervously trying to work up the courage to accept the restricted lifestyles they knew would be required , talked themselves into believing that the time for that was over. Several commenters on last week’s post have recalled the guilty relief with which they, and so many other people, welcomed the end of gas lines and the return of cheap gasoline; it was a common sentiment at the time.

The price for that failure, though, was not limited to the collapse of a movement that might just have gotten us through the end of the petroleum age without a long and bitter age of contraction. The payoff the Reagan administration offered the American people was the same unearned prosperity that wrecks most democracies in the end. That payoff was cashed in, in turn, by cultivating a degree of fiscal irresponsibility no previous American administration had ever considered: cutting taxes, increasing government payouts, and simply borrowing the difference.

When the aftershocks of the dizzying 1987 stock market crash made the first Bush administration veer slightly in the direction of fiscal prudence, in turn, the mild economic contraction that followed was more than enough to allow Clinton to breeze to victory in 1992 with a platform that amounted to very little more than "I’ll make you richer than he will." That’s been the model of American politics ever since; it’s not accidental that the Republican and Democratic plans to "decrease the deficit" under discussion at this moment both involve big increases in government spending, because bribing the electorate and inflating financial bubbles for their benefit are essential to get or keep office these days.

It’s in this light that the behavior of the two main American political parties over the last thirty years needs to be understood. Since 1984, the Democrats’ strategy has been to denounce the Republicans during each presidential campaign and then, once in office, copy GOP policies letter for letter, with the occasional sop thrown to their erstwhile allies now and then for form’s sake. The hangdog, foot-scuffing spinelessness displayed repeatedly by Democratic politicians in the face of Republican pressure, I’ve come to believe, has its roots here; it’s hard to stand firm against the opposition if you’re covertly imitating all its policies.

The Republicans, for their part, have traveled an even longer road from their roots than the Democrats. Fifty years ago, the GOP was the party of small government, fiscal prudence, local autonomy, and a healthy distrust of foreign military adventures; for that matter, from the founding of the National Parks by Theodore Roosevelt to the sweeping environmental reforms enacted by Nixon, the GOP had at least as good a record on environmental issues as the Democrats. Had a delegate to a 1960 GOP county convention proposed today’s Republican policies, in other words, he would have been thrown out of the hall with enough force to leave a faceprint on the pavement. The near-total betrayal of its historic commitments and ideals by today’s GOP has left deep scars; I suspect that the shrill fury with which so many Republican spokespeople denounce everyone else comes from the deep and unadmitted discomfort they feel at that betrayal, and their own complicity in it.

Finally, the behavior of the Bush and Obama administrations in the wake of the 2008 crash needs to be understood in a very different sense than it’s usually given. Much of the economic history of the last thirty years has been driven by the need for the political establishment to keep giving the American public what it demanded, even when those demands could only be met by a series of increasingly risky high-stakes gambles and dubiously legal expedients. The borrow-and-spend Republicans of the Reagan years relied on the ability of global capital markets to absorb an endless supply of US Treasury debt, but the imbalances set in motion by that decision forced each administration deeper into market manipulations than the last.

The huge financial corporations that played so central a role in the housing bubble, and are equally central to the current attempt to inflate a new bubble, are by all accounts key players in these schemes. Certainly there’s plenty of corruption involved – again, that’s endemic to democracy – and huge and arguably dishonest fortunes are being made, but there’s also the hard fact that the big banks have become crucial organs of US economic policy and will be propped up by any means necessary as long as their usefulness remains. That policy has many goals, to be sure, but maintaining the facade of American prosperity demanded by the electorate, long after every real basis for that prosperity has evaporated, ranks well up among them.

Does all this mean that the electorate is uniquely responsible for what happened in the wake of the Seventies? It’s hard to think of any sense in which that notion could have meaning. An entire nation made a disastrous wrong turn at that time; millions of people, each in his or her own way, contributed to that wrong turn, and very, very few opposed it. At this stage in the game, trying to affix blame to any narrower subset of the nation may be popular but it’s also useless, as it simply feeds the nihilism this series of posts is anatomizing. Clinging to the fashionable belief in the omnipotence of evil elites is the extreme form of that blame game, and even more useless than most of the others. The hard but necessary task before us, instead, is to come to terms with the fact that our nation made a catastrophic mistake thirty years ago, and that most of us who were alive at that time either backed that mistake or acquiesced in it.

Ironically enough, given that this series of posts started with a reference to a bit of Seventies popular music, it was another Seventies band – Styx, in the closing lines of the 1975 hit Suite Madam Blue – that did as good a job as anyone of stating the challenge we as a nation faced at the close of that decade:

America, America, America, America
Red White and Blue
Gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child any more
Red White and Blue
Your future is all but past
So lift up your heart
And make a new start
Lead us away from here

We failed that challenge then. In the final part of this series of posts, we’ll talk about the options for meeting it now.