I'm a critical thinker and a free-thinker. I'm a PhD from the University of Chicago who's currently teaching IB Theory of Knowledge and Dual Enrollment American Government & Intro to Political Theory in a high school magnet program at Coral Gables Senior High. Florida International University (where I have taught as an adjunct professor) is the college side of the Dual Enrollment program. But that's just credentials. I think German, but I talk Irish, if you know what I mean!
I want to begin this part of my series on Rousseau with a disclaimer. This series does not pretend to be a full analysis of the whole of Rousseau’s Social Contract. Rather, it pulls from Rousseau some ideas of wide impact which he perhaps problematizes better than any other writer.
And problematizing these ideas, while good for analyzing them down to their roots, is often not good as a basis for pragmatic political arrangements. For that purpose, I think Locke and Madison are far more useful.
Rousseau stands to those two in the same sort of relation in which I think Plato stands to Aristotle: Plato is brilliant for illuminating the problematic basis of political foundations, but if you want to know how to make constitutions work better, go to Aristotle.
Consequently, just as there are ideas in Rousseau very much worth pondering down to their roots, their are also other ideas, or aspects of those very same ideas, to be wary of.
Having said that, I will now proceed to my final task, to contrast the paradox of sovereignty as it is manifest in Rosseau, and his contemporary progeny, the radical critics of Enlightenment rationalism (the postmodernist and anticapitalist Left and the sectarian, traditionalist, and nativist Right).
One last disclaimer: within the limits of blog writing, I can only deal with contemporary positions in the broadest terms, as they are prefigured in Rousseau. (This will give us all something to do later, as my time frees up from the constraints of my last few weeks as a paid employee, harnessed to agendas not my own).
The Enlightenment’s Version of the Paradox of Sovereignty
Rousseau is often considered the first critic of the Enlightenment.
To grasp Rousseau’s version of the paradox of sovereignty, one must first grasp the Enlightenment’s version.
In Hobbes, sovereign power stands above the laws in its bare essence: law is a pure convention; it is whatever the sovereign says it is.
In Locke, sovereign power ( a term which he avoids using) can only exist as a conscientious judgment, made by one willing to take charge and claim their sovereign right, in the hope that their judgment matches the judgment of the reasonable and the just, that is to say, matches the judgment of History or God, from the secular and religious perspectives, respectively.
Locke, along with Montesquieu, is a key founder of liberalism (classic liberalism, not the contemporary distinction within classic liberalism of its more progressive and more conservative forms), the Enlightenment’s version of sovereign power.
Liberalism begins with the separation of powers, hence limited government.
Limited government replaces arbitrary personal rule with the rule of law, a shared constitutional order recognized across partisan boundaries, and elections which allow for the rotation of parties in power and which indicate the consent of the governed.
A second strand of liberalism is to confine government within limits that establishes, distinct from the public realm controlled by the state, a private realm beyond the state’s control (unless and until the government determines it to pose a threat to public health or stability, in which case, national security preempts, during the emergency, the sanctity of the private realm).
This first appears in Locke in the doctrine of religious tolerance.
In Locke’s view, the union of religious authority with sovereign power has led historically to the corruption of religion by power (private beliefs fueling bellicose public factions), rather than the purification of power by religion.
While Locke ranks religious salvation above civil harmony, he relegates it to the private realm to protect it from the perversions arising when the dominant party uses religion as a pretext for stripping those who dissent from them of rights, property, and often life itself.
Locke’s solution means the separation of church and state, not the denigration of the church. The state is meant to be a shared public attachment of all members regardless of the denominations and beliefs which may divide them.
While progressives within the liberal tradition fully support the separation of the functions of the state from those of the church, Conservatives within that tradition view church-based morality as underpinning the state, and thus are reluctant to honor that separation, routinely relying on church-based solidarity as a force in political life.
So there is friction within liberalism about how nominal or substantial that separation is.
Nevertheless, even in liberal government, whoever holds the sovereign power, dictates how the government’s monopoly on legal force will be deployed in the interests of the state. For that is the irreducible residue of the paradox of sovereignty: someone must claim it to use it, and (in republics) someone else will always (publicly) dispute that claim.
And this dispute will take place either within the rule of law or not, and even if within, each party to the dispute will have all the usual incentives to play as close to the boundaries of the rule of law as they can, without going over them, or at least not to the extent of precipitating their collapse.
A stark model of this is presented by Locke in the Second Treatise on government, Chap. III, Section 21, the Old Testament story of Jephtha, in which a centuries-old territorial dispute between multiple tribes leads to a war in which both parties feel their claim is just.
The actual story of Jephtht and the Ammonites (Judges 11) is a confusing tale of political chaos, of perpetual tribal and civil wars, in which the Hebrews intermingled with other tribes, territories and birthrights are constantly fought over, and in which Jephtha seems, by most interpretations, to perform a human sacrifice. There is much to disagree and argue about here, and it is argued about by scholars of both the Old Testament and of Locke.
It’s hard to draw a point form this confusion, but perhaps that is Locke’s point: when each has the right to judge for themselves what is just, civil discord is inevitable and civil war an ever-present risk when divides widen to chasms (we’re not there yet).
In Locke, then, the paradox of sovereignty is that, when viewed (as Locke thinks necessary) from the perspective of rights, the exercise of sovereign power necessarily divides citizens into parties, yet republics, if they are to endure, must maintain a consensus about their shared constitution, despite their partisan differences.
In (what I now hope to be) a fifth and concluding part of this series, I will consider the post-enlightenment view of the paradox of sovereignty (or at least offer some thoughts on it), of which Rousseau is the first great precursor.
A warning: I’m not a fan of the post-Enlightenment, certainly not of its most extreme tendencies, nor of what seems to me to be its political naivete. To be blunt: the political tendencies of the post-Enlightenment looks to me less like a form of politics than like an escape from politics, a denial of the context within which politics actually occurs, and thus a blind alley, a road that leads nowhere.
Institutions cannot help but reward loyalty over innovation. For the bricks of institutions are mortared by conventions, and the safest path for anyone whose livelihood depends on that institution is to routinely repair the existing mortar to its original state — that is, to preserve the doctrines and dogmas as they have been passed down, and to resist change. That is why transformational change must so often be initiated from outside, by the likes of Socrates or Christ.
Societies work that way too, so the most static parts of society resist change with a ferocity proportional to how unsuited they are to the coming changes.
A dictum of Bruce Lee, quoted from a blog post (http://barryeisler.blogspot.com/) by Barry Eisler (a writer of interesting thrillers, including the John Rain series): “Absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is uniquely your own.”
For Locke, all legitimate power is based on morality. For Hobbes, all sustainable morality is based on power (hats off to Leo Ramsey-Watson, promising student of political theory). The question of politics, then, is how to construct a government that balances legitimacy and sustainability. Kant’s answer is that, in human history, sustainability comes first, legitimacy later. (Likewise, self-replicating organisms develop before intelligent ones.)
The Net hasn’t made us smarter, it’s just made the echo in Plato’s cave more resounding.
In my last post, I digressed from Rousseau to offer a framework for thinking about Rousseau’s views on the roles of convention and sovereign power in the emergence of legitimate authority (Social Contract, I.1-5), views dramatically different from any expressed before, views revealing one of the transformational gear shifts of modernity.
But let us return to the pages of The Social Contract itself, and see how this framework avails us.
Before Rousseau, when one wanted a model of pure justice one looked above both nature and society to God.
Plato (in the myth of Er, The Republic, Book IX) and the early Christian fathers (e.g., Augustine, The City of God) spoke of a realm of judgment after death ruled by the perfect justice of God.
Machiavelli agonized about whether the model prince, doing evil when necessary in pursuit of the common good, would be pardoned or condemned by God (De Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell).
Locke saw God’s Law of Nature (matched and validated by the light of natural reason) as already ruling over the state of nature between men.
But with Rousseau, as later with Marx, God becomes a veil behind which the real rulers on Earth work their magic, presenting their conventions of justice asnaturaland as ordained by the powers above (Social Contract, II.7).
The People, according to the Gospels of Rousseau and Marx
Rousseau and Marx look, instead, to a model of pure justice below the actual rulers (and thus innocent of their wrongdoings), in Rousseau the people, in Marx the proletariat).
But, as Rousseau acknowledges (and Marx, too), the people (the proletariat, in Marx’s case) are the first ruling class not yet capable of self-rule. Rousseau acknowledges this in II.6’s final paragraph and in II.7.
Marx’s unconvincing answer to this problem is the dictatorship of the proletariat, by which he means the rule, not of the proletariat, but of a vanguard party (a splinter of the old ruling bourgeois class), which dictates to the proletariat the proletariat’s own interest, which the vanguard party claims the sole privilege of understanding and enforcing. Marx’s rationale: being blind, the proletariat must yield its power to those who, having sight and foresight, will see for it, ruling it with the power they draw from it. (Editorial note: Thus have ruling classes ever justified their seizure of power.)
Marx then asserts, with no discernible justification, that such a party would not develop a sense of itself as a ruling class with its own interest as a class.
Perhaps Marx thought that economic classes alone could separate humankind into distinct interests and classes. Madison argues in Federalist Paper #10 (paragraphs 7-8) that interests and governmental powers inexorably converge, due to the inherent natures of both human beings and of fundamentally necessary government actions. Madison’s points seem both better argued and far better supported by history and empirical observation.
Madison and Marx theorized about the role interests would play in the new and unprecedented forms of government about which they each theorized.
Madisonian democracy works about as Madison speculated it would.
Marx’s theorized communist regime did not.
It never succeeded among the industrial proletariat of advanced nations, but only in the rural peasantry of backward, pre-industrial ones.
More to my point, however, when Marxist-inspired parties succeeded in gaining power, entrenched revolutionary elites ruthlessly defended their monopoly on power while failing to provide long-term growth, with one notable exception.
Only in the case of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Maoist China did a Communist Party anywhere finally match capitalist societies in advancing their economy — and only by adopting capitalist, market-driven guidance for the growth-oriented parts of its economy, and only while tapping foreign capitalist markets by export, foreign capital invested in China, and the Hong Kong halfway house between the Communist Party and foreign capital. (Hong Kong, it seems, has outgrown its usefulness to China, as China forecloses on its erstwhile halfway-house.)
The paradox of sovereignty is here manifest in the submission of the supposedly sovereign proletariat to a self-appointed ruling party, which maintains itself in power, while allegedly knowing the people’s interest better than the people themselves.
Founders & their Legends
Rousseau’s enigmatic answer to the question “How does a merely natural herd of humans become a people?” is the figure of the legislator, the founder shrouded in myth, who first converts a human population into a people, giving it a constitution of laws and customs — its general will — which it must ratify by its acceptance, with the legislator then departing to leave the people to act as its own sovereign (II.7).
The paradox of sovereignty is here manifest in the necessary imposition of a general will from above (i.e., by the legislator) who then disappears, so that the people may be its own sovereign.
Rousseau’s examples of founders are figures shrouded in myths: Sparta’s Lycurgus, Athens’s Solon, Rome’s Numa and Servius).
Interestingly, these are the same sort of figures to whom Machiavelli referred a quarter-millenium before (Solon, Rome’s Romulus, Judea’s Moses and Persia’s Cyrus). How strange that the most wildly utopian of political idealists should appeal to such similar types of founders as the most brutally cynical of political realists!
In Book II, Rousseau shows us what the general will must be (II.1-6), how it must come into existence (II.6-10), and the range of variations within which the general will may match the differing natures of peoples while remaining a general will.
In my next post, I will conclude this discussion of Rousseau (the current plan, anyway) by contrasting how the paradox of sovereignty is handled, respectively, by the high Enlightenment thinkers and by Rousseau and subsequent critics of the Enlightenment.
In Chapters 1-4 of Book I of The Social Contract, Rousseau shows the inadequacy of nature as a basis for legitimate authority.
In Chapters 5-8 he stakes out the lines along which legitimate authority can arise through convention.
The sovereign in Rousseau is the point of tangency between nature and convention.
Nature is physical, while convention is cultural.
Nature is amoral, while within conventions morality becomes possible.
Nature is value-free, uncaring, and devoid of values, while convention is the embodiment of values in social practices.
From this perspective of nature — the nature of the scientists, not of the Romantics — where else could morality come from but convention?
Apart, that is, from a supernatural force that, like convention, dictates terms to mere nature, commanding obedience from human beings. And which, not incidentally, gives rise to a moral order that must be enforced with punishments by both society and the sovereign power above society, and whose definitive conventions are known as moral commandments or moral laws.
Digression on the Functional Origin of Values
In what way is convention “the embodiment of values in social practices”?
Conventions are actions routinely repeated by members of a particular society.
Members repeat those actions whose performance or products their society values. They do so either because they, like most others of that society, values them or because, since others value them, they must perform them to fit in or to trade for things they do value but cannot produce on their own.
Only animated life values things, because only animated life has needs, which all begin from the survival needs of the precarious life of the organism itself.
Only animals able to generalize beyond their particular conditions — which reasoning makes for the first time possible — can escape the immediate needs imposed by their environment at the present moment, and the impulses triggered by those needs.
By generalizing particular problems, reasoning beings can devise solutions that are more general, more comprehensive, and often more complete than the improvisations of the moment. By treating the problem as general, they convert it from a problem of the moment into a class of problems for which a class of solutions is required.This makes possible the creation of step-by-step techniques (to be improvised and refined, then taught and learned). Each step in this process is justified only by a possible future use, for present uses require already developed processes.
If the process results in a formed object apart from itself, we call that object a product.
If the process results in a formed object apart from itself, that is used in further processing, we call that product a tool; it is the generalizing power of reasoning that makes us the tool-making animal
If the process produces no object apart from itself, we call that process:
a technique or skill if it serves some further purpose
a virtue if we value it, not merely for its outcome, but also as a character trait and a way of being honored within our culture.
The products, tools, techniques, and virtues of a culture make it more or less adaptive to both its general environment and to the competition between cultures for resources available within that environment. For obvious reasons, every culture values those things which allow it to survive, compete, and prosper.
Values thus derive from reasoning processes directed toward imagined future problems categorized in classes, while impulses are unmediated responses to present stimuli.
While values do not wholly escape the compulsions of causality, they dramatically change its nature. For while the immediate problem requires a solution improvised on the spot, it also begins a rational process of imagining, planning devising, and inventing, which changes the conditions of the next encounter between the rational being and that class of problem. So, now, the response is structured both by causal stimuli and by the rational techniques, products, tools and virtues derived from reason for general purposes.
Human culture has begun to shape human destiny, and in ways that the purely physical processes of nature could not have done by themselves.
The Sovereign Power
Sovereign power is the power to compel in the name of authority.
It compels, through laws, cultural habits, and codified social practices and expectations, what members of that society can do, can have, and can use: what products they can acquire, what tools they can wield, what skills they can train in, and what values they must honor, both in public and in private (e.g., the Ten Commandments, the laws of Deuteronomy, sumptuary laws, kosher and halal, ghettoization, segregation, occupational prohibitions, the right to bear arms).
This compulsion, sanctioned by the sovereign, is executed both through public punishments and rewards (i.e., status, honors, property, or income) and through private praise and blame (e.g., gossip, shunning, bullying, reputation, expectations of submissive behavior)
In this way, sovereign power, a human creation, mimics nature in claiming a power to compel, although this power is upheld, not by universal laws that happen always and without recourse, but by elaborate social systems of authority and subservience, of rewards and punishments, and of praise and blame.
The Paradox of Sovereignty
The paradox of sovereignty is that if there is to be an enforceable law at all, there must be a power above the law. And that law — and the sovereign power to enforce it — must be, in some way, self-justifying, a trait it shares with every form of wrongful rule and misrule.
“Thou shalt have no other Sovereign before me, and thou shalt follow my laws above all others.” That is the sovereign claim, not only of the Lord God Jehovah of the Hebrews, but of every form of sovereign power.
I’m being just a little playful here. Just and unjust rule share the trait of being , ultimately, self-justifying, but there are differences.
Despotic self-justification issues directly from the naked power to compel, with little in the way of meaningful intermediaries or procedures between the claim and the expectation of submission.
Constitutional self-justification, by contrast, adheres to constitutional procedures that specify numerous intermediary powers and authorities (limited government, separation of powers, etc.) and many procedural limitations and phases between the first expression of a desired political policy and its implementation (the rule of law, constitutionalism).
Legitimate governments also spill much ink in elaborate and carefully thought out and expressed justifications of the form and proper uses of sovereign power.
The self-justification of legitimate sovereign power revolves around reason, rationality, and some notion of the common good. (This is manifest in Platonism, Aristotelianism, the great medieval reconciliations with the three branches of the Abrahamic faiths with Aristotelianism, those of Aquinas, Averroes, Avicenna, Al-farabi, and Maimonides, as well as in Enlightenment rationalism.)
However, those notions are notoriously flexible and open to interpretation, having given rise to a variety of regime types, each with their own justifying ideology. And while many are threadbare (monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, fascism), not all are so easily dismissed.
Those attaching different weights to the principles of liberty and equality within some kind of balance between the two look to me most reasonable, both ideally and empirically.
To sum up, sovereign power, however well justified in its own terms, must stand above the laws, for only sovereign power can create enforceable laws. For through sovereign power alone can moral convention control forces found in nature; and, while obligation relies upon shared moral conventions, compulsion comes only from forces of nature.
In other words, if obedience to conventions is always, at bottom, voluntary, the pains and deprivations inflicted as punishment rely only on universal laws of nature, whether one consents to one’s punishment or not.
Rousseau’s most famous and influential work, The Social Contract, published in 1762, begins with a clarion call to revolution: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”.
Yet this work is far more than a call to arms. It is also a call to live up to the full moral potential of a human being and moral agent. This show in the easily overlooked second line: “One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.”
This work pivots on the concept of the general will, a strange and difficult term, even in the work that is its birthplace. But its residue is pervasive in a fuzzy modern concept shared across most of the political spectrum (libertarians and anarchists being the exceptions), namely, that of the people.
Rousseau introduces the concept by degrees, beginning with its formal definition in Book I, Section 6 (hereafter, I.6): “the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community”.
Two Perspectives: Ideal & Empirical
This sounds rather totalitarian to modern liberal ears (and Rousseau-inspired thinking runs that risk). Rousseau knows this, so he immediately seeks to reassure us: “for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others”.
This is not all that reassuring, again, to modern liberal ears, for what if the general will (or the nameless many of “society”) want something for themselves that no right-thinking person would want for themselves?
Here each may insert their own darkest dystopian nightmare: the surveillance state (Bentham’s panopticon), the enforced equality of the dictatorship of the proletariat (imposed coercively by the ever-ruling Communist Party), or the patriarchal theocracy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, among them.
It’s good to be wary of this possible interpretation, to which Rousseau opens himself in ways that the far more prudent and cautious Locke did not. Rousseau shouts from the rooftops what Locke whispers in veiled asides.
Yet both point to what I call the paradox of sovereignty , though Locke does so much more subtly and cautiously (see my 3-22-2020 post with that title).
In brief, the paradox of sovereignty is that the source of law must necessarily be above the law, for in founding a society and its laws, it performs an act of fiat, not unlike that with which God creates the world, in the traditional understanding.
It is equivalent to the emergence of a moral agent from within an amoral mechanical nature (composed entirely of objects acting under the compulsion of causal laws, as described by science) — a being able and willing to give itself laws, which nothing but a moral agent can either conceive of or follow. The laws moral agents follow, they follow only because they choose to; nothing done from compulsion counts as a moral purpose, though it can serve the nature-derived purposes of survival, utility, or pleasure.
This strict demarcation of nature form convention — and that special form of convention we call morality — propounded systematically by Kant, was first expressed here in Rousseau’s Social Contract. Rousseau’s general will was the inspiration for Kant’s categorical imperative.
I am suggesting that Rousseau’s general will should be viewed as a moral imperative (at best, only approximately embodied in any particular government and society), not as the all-powerful will of a nebulously-defined people, as self-interpreted by some charismatic leader or self-elected one-party regime.
Yet it is still necessary to consider how Rousseau’s thought opens the door to that, whether or not that is its intention and deepest meaning. So, to read Rousseau well, we must always alternate between the ideal view of his intended moral imperative and the empirical view of how government on his principles is likely to occur, and with what deformities.
Rousseau himself admits that man’s ascent from the natural liberty of his natural state as just another animal to the civil liberty made possible by the social contract, is an aspirational ideal that, in actual practice often instead degrades him below his natural state (I.8).
Two more Perspectives: Intoxicated & Sober
I want to introduce a second pair of perspectives needed to make sense of this singularly flamboyant, mischievous, and paradoxical writer. Whenever judging about the practical upshot of Rousseau’s thought, think of this most fractious of great thinkers (some see in him signs of paranoid schizophrenia), using double vision (in a foretaste of the alcoholic metaphor) as the two Rousseaus, whom I affectionately refer to as intoxicated Rousseau and sober Rousseau.
They are really just personifications of the strong and weak interpretations that define the range of possible interpretations (see Rule II.1 “Exposing Weak From/Strong Form Equivocation”; click on Rules in the black navigation bar at the top of your screen, via the 3 horizontal bars for phones).
Applying the two Rousseau perspective to his formulation of the general will (4th & 5th bullet-points, above), intoxicated Rousseau does mean the absolute abandon of one’s individual rights, judgment, and conscience to the general will, the voice of the people. In the the real world of empirical history, that looks like writing a blank check for whoever gains the heights of political power. I, along with Locke, consider that a dangerous and irresponsible expression, far more likely to result in despotism than in freedom or good government.
But sober Rousseau has a different interpretation: in entering into the social contract, one has agreed to abide by the shared procedures constitutive of one’s government, when the procedures have largely been adhered to in good faith.
Example #1: When a proper trial has occurred, but one disagrees with the verdict, one cannot take the law into their own hands and execute a private vigilante justice upon the acquitted.
Example #2: When a proper election has occurred. but one disagrees with the outcome, one cannot refuse to honor that outcome.
Example #3: When one is bound to military service for one’s country, but one disagrees with current policy, one cannot simply ignore it; civil disobedience, certainly as Henry David Thoreau formulated it, allows protest, but only when one willingly accepts the punishment lawfully determined for resistance to the law
So, we really don’ yet know what really Rousseau means with his general will. Book II of The Social Contract is where Rousseau expounds the characteristics, limits, scope, and origin of the general will and its embodiment in the sovereign. Until then, we must treat it as a placeholder concept; what I mean by that is explicated in Rule I.2 “Function-Stipulated Definitions”, with variants at Rules I.9-10 black navigation bar).
The general will turns out to be, not some fractious or averaged-out summation of the multiplicity and variety of viewpoints that make up public opinion, but a rare social condition — when a people is formed by a founding legislator who proposes a concrete system of laws and customs that embody, as well as any actual government and society can, the universal principle upon which, alone, a truly fair and just society can be founded.
For more on the paradox of sovereignty in Rousseau and others, my next post should arrive next weekend.
…those whose livelihoods are threatened by the urban Blue District digital economies, Green New Deal, emerging world of global equality, and the coming moral equivalency of every lifestyle choice (or, at least, the trending ones).
…those whose self-image is threatened by urban Blue District talk of the new woman and her new possibilities
How does it strike the heartland woman who made her choice, who committed her life, to being a wife and a mother, to putting aside her dreams of personal accomplishment, to raise a family. She may not be pleased to hear that her life was a waste and worthless, that worth is only to be found in careers outside the home and in personal achievement.
The heartland homemaker is a bit of an inconvenient person for the more extreme feminists, the ones who don’t just ask for all options open to all, but who denigrate the choices that many others have made, and continue to make.
You may not choose the life of the stay-at-home Mom, but do you have the right to deny or denigrate the choices of those who do and have done?
…those whose self-image and proud heritage is threatened by the norms of city life lived among strangers as singles, couples, or at most small nuclear families (instead of within extended families in church-based communities), with sensible urban gun regulations, every imaginable variation in lifestyles, customs, and cultures, and seemingly unbounded permutations of sex & gender expression and identity.
The Appalachian South, Midwestern and Western states began as frontier communities beyond the Eastern seaboard. Open but hostile lands where settlers could establish a homestead and, wielding plow and rifle, raise a family. Guns are essential parts of their history and their rural culture. They live closer to the land than city folk, and move through the country in a different kind of harmony than city folk, the harmony of an apex predator, the roots of our biological nature.
To them, the urban love of nature looks like a touristic affectation. What do we know of nature, living in our canyons of steel, glass, and cement?
As one rural resident said in defense of gun ownership, “Out here, we’re 30 minutes from the nearest police station. By the time they get here, we’re dead unless we have our own guns””.
Guns mean something entirely different in an urban environment.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? There are two communities, two environments, each trying to make nationwide decisions binding on the other community, based on the experiences of their own community only.
One nation, two communities, and doing a piss-poor job of dealing with one another as fellow-citizens.
None of this means that the response of Red District rural communities to the coming changes is either good for the country or always in their own best interest, but it makes it more human, more familiar, and more understandable.
Nor are all the pet causes of Blue District voters as benign and benevolent as they seem. For example, greenbelt zoning is designed to preserve parkland, open spaces, and nice views, making life more pleasant for existing city dwellers. Who could be against that, except rapacious property developers?
But there’s a problem. Booming digital metropolises like San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Washington are becoming too expensive for those outside the rising elite of the digital economy; and this is one of the contributing factors to growing inequality and declining social mobility.
Blue district voters, it seems, are not perfectly wise or benevolent either!
The flyover nation sees a Blue future as destructive of their livelihoods and ways of life. They see it as dismissive of their values, as devaluing and detrimental to their own prosperity. The coming digital, greener economy, passionately championed by the Progressive Left, will be a tsunami shock to the livelihoods and way of life of America’s rural community, once this country’s advancing frontier, now its trailing backwaters.
Change, when seen to be necessary, can be negotiated. Americans, themselves a tidal wave of change to the rest of the world, have always found new hopes and new paths forward in the face of change.
And those too eager to pride themselves on their progressive views spare too little thought for how it will impact those in the declining parts of the nation, the flyover country, the economically imploding land of the left-behind.
Turning defensive and belligerent, many in the rural Red Districts have put their faith in a man not worthy of it, a man with a genius for exploiting divisions, tapping into grievances, and offering easy slogans and superficially comforting words.
Idealism & the Politics of Context-free Politics
The problem with youthful and idealistic politics is that it attempts to solve political problems by removing them from the political context, of treating political problems as if they could be resolved in the heady world of ideas alone.
“If only they could just see that our ideas are right!” That means you know they don’t see. You’ve retreated into the imaginary world of the perfect ruler of the perfect electorate. You imagine yourself as the benevolent dictator who would make the world right, and then everybody would see that you were doing good for them, too.
Only that’s not gonna happen. So, now you grow self-righteous and bitter. They’re bad. You must oppose them at every podium and block them whenever they make a move.
And they see you in the same way, and act in the same way towards you. And now we have arrived at the perfect storm of polarization. Now we are a house divided.
Politics can never be about anything but differences within unity.
Yes, there must be an initial unity. That unity is a constitutional and procedural unity. We all agree to abide by these rules. We agree to abide by them as we work out our differences.
Yes, this initial unity was established by, and in the interests of, whoever had the power to establish it. Usually (in the West) white, male, property owners (everywhere else, male property owners or Marxist revolutionaries, who were surprisingly often the sons of male property owners, sons with Daddy issues).
But working within that unity, we have gradually expanded the unity to be more and more inclusive. Not without friction, not without bitterness. Never smoothly, never gracefully. To do more than this would be to be better than human. And we have rarely, if ever, achieved that. But still, we move forward.
I see Biden’ primary victory and the swift coalescence of the Democratic party behind that as an acknowledgement of this. That the way forward is to bridge the gap, without simply pretending it’s not there, as the beginning of the movement away from ever-deepening polarization, as the gradual peripheralizing of actions and actors, on both the Right and the Left, who deepen the divide.
Nowadays, whenever a politician speaks, there’s a sign language translator to translate their remarks for the deaf and dumb. And when Fauci speaks, there’s Trump to translate for those who are just dumb.
You can’t do a Wuhan handshake anymore; with social distancing, you can’t get close enough to tap shoes.
When you go to the bank wearing your mandatory mask, wear your blue disposable gloves too. That way they know you’re not a bandito!
How to hook up during a pandemic? With a full-body condom.
And which of us will ever forget the most important 20 seconds of our lives?