Many deep down believe only violence will fix the broken American political system. Others predict more violence between ideological followers, even a second Civil War. White nationalists are convinced Charlottesville was just the beginning.
How did we get here, where Nazis and KKK openly march with assault rifles in the streets of America in 2017? What caused this?
The reasons we got here are:
- Because the education system is terrible
- Because there’s widespread abuse of history
- Because the media feeds frenzy for profit
- Because real suffering is both ignored and exploited
1. The education system is terrible
Americans’ education is quantifiably terrible. Their academic rankings in the world are well-below that of other developed countries. Their lack of civic education leaves Americans ignorant about how their form of government works and doesn’t work. Abstinence-only curriculum can be directly linked to issues like spikes in sexual infections and teen pregnancy, and the equivocation of creationism with science muddies the average capacities of young Americans to critically think for themselves. Compounding this, the corrupt and often feckless charter school system siphons public money and leaves students worse off. The smartest people want to tear down the North American education system and start over.
The largest contributor to what happened in Charlottesville, and part of the larger trend of disturbing American politics is the lack of an education that equips young people and citizens with the tools to organize a more effective society. This includes problem-solving, understanding biases and history, and putting aside ego and pragmatically resolving resource issues.
Civics at its core is about group problem solving. More of human history was about co-existing in small hunter-gatherer groups, focused on survival. Within these groups, negotiation was comparatively easy as people knew each other.
Going from that arrangement to a modern one where most people are crowded into cities, divided into pointless lifestyle tribes, working their unhappy lives away, wiling away spare time with hobbies, friends or finding distraction in entertainment, hunter-gatherers they are not. But they are voters, and that matters a whole lot.
We are expecting fallible human beings to pick the people who will be smart enough to shape everyone’s futures without fucking up. To expect it of an individual is a great responsibility. To expect it of a group, given the known psychology of mobs, is madness.
But what would an individual have to know? And how can that be multiplied across a group?
Unfortunately, high school social studies got in the way of civics education. Arguably that education wouldn’t have been well-received anyway, but school curricula is hard-line against perceptions of partisanship, which basically excludes what both Democrats and Republicans have wrong, or have agreed to not talk about.
What this leaves is a sanitized, fantasy version of what people need to know in order to produce and elect the best leaders. This needs to change, because as illustrated by the failures of government in the 20th century, the goal to education after Auschwitz is essentially the paraphrase of JFK’s famous line, “Those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable.”
Where that education needs to start is imparting how powerful and invasive governments can be, especially when they go awry. Governments create the framework within which everyone else draws their designs. Regulations for business, real estate, art, public expression, family, love, driving, sewage, pets, all roads lead to some form of law. This places immense responsibility on those within government as public servants and those outside government who choose its leaders to arrive at and justify their decisions in the pursuit of their vision for society.
The nation-state, like any organization, is made from a loose vision and mission statement, a national mythology of “what it’s about”. The organization is given a structure or skeleton by its constitution and law-making but an organization’s ethics and values are ultimately of those who inhabit it, performing its rules in pursuit of the vision. Organizations, like individuals, pursue perfection but there is never a perfect organization.
In large part this is because organizations can deviate from their vision and mission, deviate from their intended and founding purpose. Organizations can be corrupted by those who hold power and who use it for selfish purposes. This applies no less to corporations and unions. Humans, rules, and power remain the same factors. There is a hierarchy, a pyramid, and those at the top, on the inside, are the most influential decision-makers.
Civic education is about teaching citizens about how organizations are created, and how they become corrupted. It’s not a question of “if” either.
Democracy is meant to allow those elsewhere on the pyramid to choose those who govern from the top of the pyramid. They are, after all, affected by the decisions of those who govern.
It could very well be that humans are not naturally democratic. Democracy requires a sense of fairness, and humans at least naturally possess that. But to say “democratic” means a proficiency with a systems and how they work, and humans, I think it’s safe to say, are shit at systems-thinking.
Like driving and literacy, democracy takes training and practice. We bemoan the lack of evidence-based policy-making but ignore the fact we don’t have an evidence-based democracy. Voters do not vote based on being told ugly truths.
Evidence-based decision-making is as much about speaking truth to power as it is power listening to truth when it’s spoken and giving credit where it’s due. In a democracy speaking truth to power means speaking truth to the voters. But truth is not measured in appeal. Our elections are, however. This creates a paradox that, if left ignored, harms the nation-state over time.
There’s an old line that goes “voters get the government they deserve.”
We live in an unprecedented age of mass democracy. We have an unprecedented experiment with universal suffrage, but we are not controlling for its Lowest Common Denominator (LCD): public education. We expect voters to elect good leaders who won’t lead us into blunders, but never trained people to know how to elect a good leader.
By proxy with our consumer culture we have trained consumers out of voters, and that’s what politicians appeal to. Public ignorance is an important resource. Politicians lie to voters because they know they’re a market for lying to.
So if you want better politicians, you will need better voters.That’s what America’s education system has done.
And what about the racism? That part’s in our DNA. Homo sapiens have not yet evolved beyond the impulse for in-grouping/out-grouping. If not completely dispelled, racism and tribalism can at least be understood through education.
Considering how many genocides and racial cleansings and racially motivated misery inflicted between homo sapiens in the 20th century, it was to be fervently hoped “Never forget” would mean truly changing education after Auschwitz.
Civic education teaches us about our biases. Our biases shape our experience of the world, and can harm us immensely. In the same way we educate people to read and write and drive, we need people to be educated about group politics, what to expect, what to look for, how to ask questions, and how to negotiate and problem-solve with others who think differently than they do.
“Those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable.”
We are making violent change inevitable by restricting citizens’ ability and capacity to constructively engage in debate to resolve issues, and by corrupting the traditional avenues of electoral politics with special and narrowed interests.
Many independents, many supporters of Bernie Sanders, many supporters of Donald Trump, all believed the existing Establishment system needed overturning. Bernie was ousted by Hillary Clinton’s camp despite his 60-point increase in polls (and remains the most popular politician in America), and Clinton was considered decidedly Establishment in an anti-Establishment year.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were similar in that they each diagnosed the same problem of flawed government and economic systems, but framed their “us-vs-them” arguments very differently. Bernie along class lines, Trump along racial lines.
Given America’s history of racism and nativism, the “us-vs-them” threads were powerful arguments, and coupled with the Establishment’s uninspired, corrupt choice of Hillary, went with the anti-Establishment racist pick of Donald Trump.
White nationalism was bolstered by Trump’s election. Many white nationalists believe only violence will win the power required to reshape society. This stems from the failure of American systems to give each generation the tools to effect non-violent change and negotiate inter-group competition. This education would also have likely taught many away from white nationalism as a refuge for their pain.
But how did white nationalists come to these racial beliefs?
2. There is widespread abuse of history
The oft-quoted line is that without knowing history it is doomed to repeat itself, but more accurately, it’s that people will make the same mistakes. The abuse of history is the abuse of the scientific methods to study history, and we have certainly done enough to devalue history as a pursuit, let alone a useful tool in a democracy.
These days a history degree qualifies you to make coffee.
If history is a guide to our present troubles, its gatekeepers and diviners wield significant impact on how we interpret and react to the present and thusly wield power over our future.Without the tools a civic education would bring, Americans are vulnerable to the clever rhetoric of racists and anti-Semites. In the absence of education, we are easier to be led astray.
The abuse of history allows figures like David Irving mold a convincing sculpture of a more benign Nazi Germany that gives “historical cover” to White Nationalists persuading others during their initiation processes. A little something like
“Germany was trying to assert itself, special interests within and outside the country prevented that. Germany proudly reacted and war is a terrible thing but never was it deliberate to rape and kill all those Slavs, Russians and Jews, if that happened as we’re told. And by the way, those special interests still exist today and are part of why you are so downtrodden.”
The capacity for racism is in our DNA. And it is terrifyingly easy to become racist because you all need is to feel inadequate and want to be part of a group, something larger than yourself. Circumstance will present opportunities to think in racial “us-vs-them” outlook.
Poor whites, for their part, are already betrayed by an unfair economic system. White Nationalists in Charlottesville chanted “Jews won’t replace us” and had slogans like “Diversity is a code-word for white genocide”. Victimhood is key in in-grouping/out-grouping and racism, seeking to create an inner circle of people who ‘really know what’s going on’ and draw identity and tribe from the camaraderie.
The United States, for its part in this development, has a long history of racial strife (slavery didn’t help) and fought a cultural Cold War where the Left was seen as the natural enemy of the “normal” traditions.
The Left took over Russia and became enemies of the US, and so the Left in the US was an enemy too. Anti-communism is as old as communism, but what got labeled under communist activity extended beyond traditional definitions.
For decades there was persecution of those whose idea of loyalty was to disagree with its government’s actions while loving the country and people who elected that government. It was, essentially, an unhealthy attitude toward disagreement.
Rhetoric about the destruction of the country at the hands of foreign invaders, subversive leftist intellectuals fuelled division between Americans. It was even believed that if gays can hide their sexuality, they can hide Communist sympathies, and most were fired from their jobs after being found out.
In the same way the Confederacy has lived on, while the Cold War supposedly ended, it never went away.
Today, Americans increasingly prefer to couple with others of the same partisan affiliation, even compared to coupling during the Cold War. In 1960 parents were asked if they’d be “displeased” if their child marries someone from a different party, to which 5% said they would, while in 2010, 40% of parents said they’d be “upset”.
The terms “Left” and “Right” were adopted from the French courts, where to the right of the French King sat the nobility, whose status and interests were vested in the preservation/enhancement of the status quo. To the King’s left, sat the rabble. The chosen few eloquent and important enough to represent the masses sat opposed to the nobility, and whose interests often lay in opposition to the Right.
This was an essentially feudal set-up, but it has caused untold misery to the pursuit of basic human and civic rights for women, gays, people of colour, and many others.
It probably didn’t help that Karl Marx spoke eloquently of this dynamic:
The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.
There is great utility in racism as a means of dividing the working class against itself, to distract from an economic disparity that benefits primarily those at the top of the pyramid. A feature of our broken politics is convincing the dispossessed their interests lay in defending a fundamentally unfair, broken status quo.
(Pictured: Little Rock integration protest, 1959. “Race Mixing is Communism”)
It’s very easy to be racist. All you need is to feel inadequate and yearn to belong to a tribe. The unfair economy provides the former and skin colour and ethnicity an easy avenue for the latter.
Given America’s history of racism toward African-Americans, including slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation, and the centuries of cultural indoctrination to “otherize” non-whites, white American demagogues have plenty background to draw from for racist us-vs-them rhetoric. A crucial mitigating factor would be an education system that teaches America’s history and its range of human behaviours in an unflinching light, in light of how humans, rules, and power work.
Americans overlook this much of history because they are not trained to look. High school students in Iowa were disciplined for social media pictures showing them posing in KKK hoods, holding rifles and burning a cross. Was this calculated racism or gross ignorance of history and misguided tribalism?
In either case, these kids are growing up in segregated communities. In many cities the populations are still highly separated, created by decades of both legal and illegal “red-lining” (where banks refuse to lend based on race) and spoken and unspoken racial covenants that prevented African-Americans from buying better property.
(The orange dots represent five white people, the green dots represent five black people. More on mapping segregation can be found here at The New York Times)
Compounding this, convincing cases can be made of the Holocaust’s fabrication, just as convincing cases can be made of Bigfoot’s existence, mermaids, and countless other topics. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. The History Channel and Discovery Channel, once-vaunted places of learning now have shows about truckers and aliens, relegating history and science to “what-if” fantasies.
In the same way humans can debate and sift and parse through difference pieces of evidence, we can also be overpowered by carefully crafted messages that press upon psychic nodes like inadequacy, despair, and humiliation.
It is now well-understood that Hitler’s rise to power was very centrally predicated on the Treaty of Versailles’s over-punishment of Germans, one that created the humiliation that could be exploited through passionate us-versus-them rhetoric.
The parallels between Nazi Germany and the American South are important. The American South, believing itself overly punished for what they felt was a righteous war of defence against Northern Aggression, feels wronged. There is real shame in losing a war, and this leaves a resource pool of public opinion that can be exploited, and habitually is.
There is opportunity for great personal and financial profit exploiting divisions. Politicians and news networks derive ratings and support by formulating speeches, policies, and news stories that speak to historical and psychic nodes of race, shame, humiliation and economic despair.
Which brings us to…
3. The media feeds frenzy for profit
It should not be overlooked how much power vested interests have in shaping public opinion. Since Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays championed public relations (itself a euphemism for “propaganda”) in the early 20th century, right-wing news adopted and employed often the same public relations specialists to interpret and cater news to Americans. News is a business, and these specialists knew how to maximize value.
As the Internet has risen, people are calling journalism a dying profession, or speculating that it was “overrated” and simply being outmoded by technology. But this ignores the fact that journalists have to be recognized as outmoded to be fired, and media businesses have to be incentivized to remove their investigative journalism departments. But remove them they did.
It wasn’t just because the Internet came around, it’s because people are more hardwired for distracting entertainment than they are for serious news.
Investigative reporting is a type of journalism that is not meant to be entertaining and didn’t start out that way. Stories of corruption and institutional incompetence and cover-up were not meant to entertain but inform citizens. It was “serious” news. It was the news that millions of people tuned in to watch every evening. This was in the days of there only existing a handful of channels too so everyone was essentially on the same page.
But investigative reporting didn’t distract people when they got home from a long day of work and all they wanted was to just escape by flipping on the boob-tube and forget about the world’s problems. Worse, investigative reporting was expensive, and took months and years to properly research and break a story, and the outcome was the gamble “would people care enough to do anything?”. When presented with more choices on TV, and given the magnitude and futility of caring about serious things, people chose entertainment.
The American Neil Postman warned of television’s effects, most famously in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, arguing that what we love will oppress us far more than what we hate. As Postman put it comparing Aldous Huxley and George Orwell,
Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
Our limitless capacity for distraction bears the question: distraction from what?
There is a reason why the press is specifically mentioned in every constitution of the free world. Those who search for the truth, who root out the gross mismanagement by the powerful, those individuals are vital to the survival of the group. Investigative journalism is an absolute requirement to spreading the news of what is happening in the central governing structures of a society and civic education is a requirement to instruct how to receive and interpret news.
But journalists have to eat too. Journalism might be a calling for some, but distributing it, financing its production, those business aspects are often, and increasingly governed by factors like ratings and entertainment value, because that’s what drives the inflow of money to finance journalism at all.
News used to be a loss-leader for companies and that was accepted because the pursuit of facts, truth, and holding government and powerful entities accountable was considered worthy of investment. Now, the news has to be popular for the right to exist.
There is a strange hope in the hybrid infotainment of comedian journalists. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver actually hired the investigative journalists that were cut from major papers and news networks. The HBO show “Newsroom” also had investigative reporters on staff who did the research for the show’s news content. It has to be entertaining for the right to exist.
But what do you do when Fox News has tipped the scales toward its twisted version of reality it has called “Fair and Balanced”? And other major news networks, its managers and executives whose kids attend the same private schools as the executives of Fox, follow suit in their own way?
The most influential players in delivering news decide what is allowed in debate, and what is not. Put it this way: If the two sides on TV don’t bring it up, is it really an issue? What if neither side brings it up, or what if they both dismiss it?
What if a multi-billion dollar industry with bottomless production value ignored the issues that affects you most, like having support caring for a sick relative or a disabled child, and instead told you to work harder because a brown-skinned person could undercut you and take away your livelihood and leave you worse off caring for that relative?
There is even a term for this: Inverted Totalitarianism. It is a type of managed democracy where an Establishment’s core policies remain unchanged despite contentious elections and because of continual propaganda being used to keep voters debating within the boundaries of acceptable discourse.
Think how neither Democrat nor Republican Parties really differ on Wall Street corruption, a never-ending War on Terror, or depriving the military-industrial machine. Some of the most hurtful policies for poor people came in under President Clinton, but he is loved the same way Democrats are for being on “the side of the little guy”.
Really it’s politics by stereotype.
We have an unprecedented experiment in suffrage where everyone can vote despite not being trained to know how to look at the news and critically think through problems with people who have different ideas and values. This is an essential requirement of a healthy democracy, and has been left stagnant for generations. When people are distracted from hard questions about the structure and nature of their society, they are targets for those with easy answers.
Fox News perfected a formula for outrage. Given the endless streams of mismanagement and injustice, there was plenty feelings to exploit. Leveraging the feeling of resentment and harnessing it in the service of the status quo benefactors, Fox has been able to mislead conservatives for over a generation about the causes of their own misfortunes and further the division between Americans.
Roger Ailes, the late head of Fox News, got his start in Nixon’s administration. From Politico:
Ailes also encouraged Nixon to practice the politics of resentment that came naturally to him, creating the basic formula used by Reagan, both Bushes and countless lesser conservative politicians: playing on the public’s sense that powerful liberal [interests] were getting ahead at the expense of Middle America.
When the Nixon White House became irregularly invested in controlling public opinion, any hit to investigative reporting was welcomed. It didn’t save Nixon, but it was a powerful proof of concept for the Republican Party.
And the formula was great for ratings. People tune in and watch, far more for Fox News than any other news channel, and those higher ratings meant greater leverage to obtain more advertisers and more money.
But how the news is presented is not morally neutral, and neither is it power-neutral. Someone is being represented when newscasters talk about record corporate profits but don’t mentioned wages stagnating for decades and 63% of Americans would have to go into debt to pay for an unexpected $500 cost.
What is chosen to be shown as “the world” by news organizations shape people’s sense of what’s happening, their agency and responsibility to act, and how much power they feel they should have.
What’s the outcome of this? Well, public opinion is rarely the public’s opinion. Someone else made that.
4. Real economic pain is both exploited and ignored
The pain that Americans feel is real. 62% of Americans make less than $40,000 a year while trying to navigate medical care on a poor diet, go to college on the flimsy promise of something better, and have kids in a society where giving birth without insurance could mean an indentured existence.
All the while any time Americans turn on TV they’re being fed entertainment out of one side of the mouth and having their opinions shaped to fit the interests of the Establishment out of the other.
The traditional means of obtaining information has been corrupted by opaque interests, steering conversation along predictable pathways, separating debate into two manageable sides.
Politicians sniff this too. American politicians are hyper-aware at a cunning level the contours of political culture: that there’s two main sides and you got to play off the familiar tropes like “tax-and-spend liberals” and goodly ‘small-town morals’ (if you’re conservative) and well-meaning, citizen-intellectuals and socially backwards, uneducated right-wingers (if you’re liberal). Politicians grow and exploit this market for personal and partisan gain.
This is where the politicians’ reputation for hypocrisy comes from. They preach one thing, blasting an incumbent for something, then when they get into power they practice the same thing they preached against while out of power. This shouldn’t be a mystery. Humans are hypocrites when it’s in their interests to be one. And power is a great motivator of interests.
Politicians that talk about the economic uncertainty Americans face are aligning themselves with the downtrodden, which is now the majority of America, while raking in billions in campaign donations from the very not-downtrodden.
Between 2007–2012, the top 200 corporations in America invested $5.8 billion lobbying Washington. Those same companies enjoyed $4.4 trillion in government subsidies and funding. For every dollar spent on American politicians, companies reap $760 in return.
Income and wealth inequality are major producers of the misery, resentment and humiliation experienced by millions of Americans.
People get that when the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune hold more wealth than 140 million Americans that something is deeply wrong, but that sense is being directed to red herrings and scapegoats in order to keep the mob from the palace gates.
People get it when both dollar stores and high-end luxury retail stores are soaring in numbers while middle-income retailers decline that there’s growth only for the super rich.
To get an idea where the mindset was at for the 2016 election, a survey conducted found 19% of Clinton supporters said their lives were “worse off than it was 50 years ago” while 81% of Trump supporters said yes to the same question.
How did we get here, where Nazis and KKK openly march with assault rifles in the streets of America in 2017?
The political sphere is harming millions of people with decisions made for the country but serving only the establishment. The incompetence of the American government to self-correct and remove corrupt players continues.
Without education, voters are doggedly appealed to by their base impulses for tribalism by an industry that is rewarded to feed divisive mechanisms in the brain, and now we have a fragile fringe that is creeping inward, its unmoored members violently snapping.
The problem with democracy is that truth is not measured in appeal, but politics and elections are. Speaking truth to power means speaking truth to the people, but people don’t vote based on being told what they needed to hear, and don’t reward politicians for telling them things they can’t like.
Societies rise and fall on their ability to effectively organize their leadership and decision-making. We’ve reduced people’s ability to appreciate nuance and complexity and then asked them to exercise great power and responsibility by organizing leadership.
This essential problem, one addressed by historical and civic education, is damning America to a spiral of distraction, corruption, and as seen in Charlottesville, increasing tribal violence. The violence is the signifier of something wrong in the body politic and given its factors, is there doubt we will see more?