Wednesday, October 24, 2018

#297 / Civil War II?

Do you think that our politics, today, can properly be denominated as "Civil War II?" Thomas Friedman, The New York Times pundit, does suggest something along those lines. Friedman's October 2, 2018, column was titled, "The American Civil War, Part II." Here is a brief excerpt:

I began my journalism career covering a civil war in Lebanon. I never thought I’d end my career covering a civil war in America.

We may not be there yet, but if we don’t turn around now, we will surely get where we’re going — which was best described by Senator Jeff Flake on Monday: “Tribalism is ruining us. It is tearing our country apart. It is no way for sane adults to act.” ...
When I look at all the people today who are propelling their political careers and fattening their wallets by dividing us, I cannot help but wonder: Do these people go home at night to some offshore island where none of this matters? Do these people really think their kids aren’t going to pay for the venom they sell and spread? Don’t worry, I know the answer: They aren’t thinking and they aren’t going to stop it.

What stops it? When a majority of Americans, who are still center-left and center-right, come together and vote only for lawmakers who have the courage to demand a stop to it — now, right now, not just when they’re leaving office or on their death beds.

David Brooks, another New York Times pundit, wrote a column a couple of days later that agreed with Friedman, though Brooks didn't use the Civil War metaphor.

The Daily KOS, which provides a consistently left-leaning political commentary, thought that Friedman's column left out something important; namely, that the two "sides" in our Civil War II aren't just groups with different political preferences, and they are not just different "tribes" in our world of identity allegiances. One side is essentially representing those who have cornered the market on wealth, and want to keep it that way. The other side is almost everyone else.

The picture at the top of this blog posting, and the following quote, show the way The Daily KOS is seeking to depict and describe our Civil War II:

While Friedman is recognizing how bad things are (and he’s not wrong on that), he’s still not clear that the real enemy is people with power and wealth who care about nothing but their own self interest.

I think The Daily KOS is right in what they're saying, but I don't believe their picture does this insight justice. Their "description" of our situation is correct, but their "depiction" of our situation has a flaw.

Since the days of Occupy Wall Street, those people identified by The Daily KOS as "the enemy" have properly been called the 1%. If that is a more or less accurate estimate of their numbers, and I do believe it is, then it is clear that there really isn't any "civil war" at all. In a civil war, there would have to be two sides, roughly equal in number, who must fight out their differing desires on the battlefield of politics. That's what the picture from The Daily KOS is suggesting, but if those coming in from the righthand side are actually only 1% of the entire civil society, the picture is wrong. There should only be a few soldiers on the righthand side - maybe two or three soldiers - along with that important dollar sign flag, intended to represent the immense wealth of the 1%. On the other side is where all the numbers would be. There would be an overwhelmingly large army coming from the lefthand side of the picture, all of them ordinary folks, but without any money, of course. 

If the battlefield is politics, and if our government is supposed to reflect the will of the voters, what is the problem? Since a significant portion of our population is not getting decent medical care, guaranteed higher education, worthwhile employment, decent pay, or adequate housing, why hasn't an army of ordinary folks overwhelmed those few "soldiers" whose power isn't their number but their with gigantic wealth? If democracy worked the way it's supposed to, you would think, we should have straightened out our national priorities long ago.

Back in the day when people were not afraid to be called "socialists" (that time may be coming back), this problem was identified as "false consciousness." In other words, lots of people are confused about what side they are actually on. Industrial workers vote for Trump, and he then guts the already-paltry protections they have been provided in the past. They are fighting for the wrong side. Political education should solve this problem, you would think. Somehow, though, that has never actually worked. The reality is that money seems to win every time. How do we escape from the politics of division, which is perpetrated, as Friedman says, by those with the money? 

I don't think that the "Civil War" metaphor is very helpful in getting us there. As I often proclaim in these blog postings, most people tend to act the way they think they are "expected" to act, and to see things in the way they are told they should see them. Wealth controls media, and the media is telling us that we are massively divided into warring tribes. But if we want to overcome the divisions that are crippling our society (something that both Friedman and The Daily KOS say they want), then postulating a "Civil War" in our society sends exactly the wrong message. 

The "Civil War" metaphor says that we are, in fact, "divided" as a society. And if "division" is the diagnosis, then we are all properly seeing ourselves as separate, tribe-like groups. Friedman's plea is that those who find themselves near the center of these perceived divisions should seek to make friends across the dividing line. That sounds like a completely ineffectual prescription (and this is exactly The Daily KOS complaint about what Friedman said). 

My suggestion is that we need to begin elevating the very opposite idea, the idea that we are "together in this." We need to build a new politics, in other words, on the idea that we are "unified." Real projects of real social and economic consequence would require us all to work together, and so we would learn, through our personal experience, just how much our individual and personal differences are of little import, in the context of our overall connectedness.

My specific suggestion is that we must organize at every political level to fashion a new national movement to achieve national goals that will have broad acceptance, and that will provide meaningful economic benefits to the 99%. I see the WPA as a model.

How many trees do we need to plant to combat global warming? Millions. That means jobs and a common purpose. How many solar panels should be installed wherever rooftops get sun? Millions. That means jobs and a common purpose. How many pre-kindergarten child care centers do we need to give every young child in our society a good start in life? How many drug outreach program do we need to undo the damage we see on the streets every day? How many new homes, price-restricted to be affordable to ordinary working families, must we construct? You get the idea! This is not, by any means, a total list. Millions and millions, and millions of good jobs. All such projects making clear our common purpose.

We need to redirect our political demands in a positive direction. If you don't mind me bringing up past mistakes, Hillary Clinton ran against the "deplorables," and Bernie Sanders ran on the idea of Medicare for All, and a free college education for our nation's youth. Bernie's idea was the better one, politically. Positive, not negative. But perhaps even Bernie didn't get it completely right. Bernie was advocating programs that the government should be providing to us. I say we need programs in which we ourselves will be engaged in doing what we know this nation needs to do. That's why I like the WPA model.

To pay for all this? Well, those three or four soldiers on the right, with their money flag, won't beat the majority if the majority actually begins demanding that our society make it possible for us, collectively, to achieve what we know we need to do. The selfish rich will have to disgorge. That is how they can contribute to the common project!

We can get on the right track by starting to work together, positively, to confront and overcome the challenges that will determine whether or not human civilization, and American democracy, will survive.

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