Summary: A quick response to the comments and emails about the previous post (and the new article by Fallows). We are angry sheep! Here us roar!
As usual, James Fallows of The Atlantic goes to the heart of the matter. From his new article, an email from a university librarian in the Midwest:
I’ve never actually written to a journalist before, but I was one of the 1,252 people arrested this weekend in front of the White House. I also live in the rural Midwest and your source is right. People are close to revolt. I think it will be a five year process of movement building, but even my very conservative staff of library assistants all cheered me on when I told them what I was doing. The people I interact with here and the ones I met in DC are all fed-up at a deep and fundamental level.
All of the people I know who are capable of rational thought also understand that the combination of (we’re rural so pretty much everyone gets climate change) climate change and energy issues, lack of jobs, and the refusal of government to provide us with basic services means that a new revolutionary social movement is needed. Food prices are soaring, gas prices are making it hard for people to get to low paying jobs, and the amount of suffering because of lack of access to medical care is dire.
… How far does Congress think they can push before they get pushed back?
These are the words of someone annoyed with life. Sad, but there is near-zero basis here for political regime change. He mentions some liberal causes (e.g., anthropogenic climate change) with little broad popular support. He’s unhappy about some unchangeable features of the world today (e.g., high food and energy prices). He vents some typical partisan steam, such as “All of the people I know who are capable of rational thought” agree with me. He does not show any commitment to action: working for a candidate, circulating petitions, making contributions, hosting discussion groups, etc.
This dreaming about revolt is especially nauseating in a Republic. We elect our representatives every two years. Fantasizing about revolt is the opiate of people too lazy to work the political machinery designed by the Founders.
Revolts occur when people have political grievances and see regime change as a solution. There is nothing pointing to a solution in most of the political whining that passes for political analysis in 21st America. Nor the basis for a broad revolt in the Left’s panic about climate change and the Right’s crusade against taxes and social security.
What will the American people do?
The most likely response of the America people is nothing. How did the Romans respond to the death of the Republic? Passively, with irony, detachment, or resignation. The philosophically inclined adopted Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Hedonism. The religiously inclined adopted one of the mystery religions (esp popular in the Army), or something different like Christianity or Judaism.
For more information
(a) News about the frightened sheep formerly known as Americans:
- “The shadow of suspicion falls in the Mall of America“, Salon, 7 September 2011 — “Visitors who have done nothing wrong are winding up identified in counterterrorism reports”
- “A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Our Liberties Ten Years After 9/11“, ACLU, 7 September 2011
- Glenn Greenberg’s analysis of the ACLU report, Salon
(b) “US House Members in their Constituencies“, Richard F. Fenno Jr, American Political Science Review, September 1977 — Hat tip to Matt Corley. Excerpt:
I should not have been surprised, therefore, when I heard every one of my seventeen members introduced at home as “the best congressman in the United States.” But I was not prepared to find each of them polishing this individual reputation at the expense of the institutional reputation of the Congress. … Individual members do not take responsibility for the performance of Congress; rather each portrays himself as a fighter against its manifest shortcomings. Their willingness, at some point, to stand and defend their votes contrasts sharply with their disposition to run and hide when a defense of Congress is called for. Congress is not “we”; it is “they.” And members of Congress run for Congress by running against Congress. Thus, individual explanations carry with them a heavy dosage of critical commentary on Congress.
Other posts about this on the FM website
The previous post in this series: A Washington Insider looks at America, but does not understand what he sees, 7 September 2011
About American politics:
- Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
- About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process, 17 June 2009
- More about the tottering structure of the American political regime, 17 August 2009
- Please put on every milk carton: America’s political class is MIA, 17 November 2009
- Campaign finance reform = incumbent protection, 20 December 2009
- The breakdown of the American political system, pointing to a new and better future, 2 February 2010
- More people participating in politics: is this good for America?, 20 June 2010
- Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
- Which political party will best protect our liberties?, 10 September 2010
- Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 1 September 2010
- Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?, 29 October 2010
- We have the leaders we deserve. Visit McDonald’s to learn why., 30 October 2010
7 thoughts on “Hear the cattle bellowing in the chutes. Will they revolt?”
I have to agree with your conclusion for the moment. We need to lose a lot more before we resort to pick forks and shot guns. But even you have to admit those days are closer than they have been in my lifetime.
The problem is that we don’t elect our representatives every two years, money does. Working the political machinery designed by the Founders would be nice if it were working, but it is corrupted again by money and power (buying candidates and representation.) We are beyond working for a candidate, circulating petitions, making contributions, hosting discussion groups, etc. You do something akin with your website and it is very hard for me to notice success in changing anything even though I agree with most of your opinions. A mass movement as the excerpt implies is a way to change things, but we don’t have all of the ingredients, most importantly, a capable leader.
“we don’t elect our representatives every two years, money does.”
.Real live people pull the lever (or punch the chad, etc). To say that “money does” is an abstraction. That does not make the statement wrong. All scientific and, more broadly, logical analysis requires finding useful abstractions. I believe — guessing — that this formulation exacerbates our key problem. We are detached, passive — no longer willing to work the political machinery the Founders designed. Saying that money elects just provides another excuse.
Perhaps I am wrong, and that information will spark outrage — and renewed involvement by citizens. But money has dominated elections to a high degree for decades (probably an increasing degree), and I see no useful outrage. Just emotionalism and cries of “not my fault”.
My theory (wild guess, grasping at straws) is that we need to make Americans nauseous at ourselves. So that disgust, shame, and anger power revival.
The great counter-example of the Tea Party, a minority that is re-involved. But in a parochial way — an older white middle class fearful of its lost economic and political power, applauding demagogues who pander to their religious, racial, and ethnic prejudices. This is the problem with relying on a rising economic and social stress to drive reform. It produces pressure, but often an irrational and divisive response.
So I have a solution. But not a good one, nor one in which I have much hope. So I disagree with you on this. But weakly.
Re: “This dreaming about revolt is especially nauseating in a Republic.”
No, it isn’t. in fact, it is just what Thomas Jefferson meant by his famous quote concerning the tree of liberty and the blood of patriots and tyrants. Jefferson cautioned us that when the people fear govt. – as is the case now – there is tyranny, but when the govt. fears the people – manifestly the case now – there is liberty.
Revolts, it should be noted, do not have to be violent in nature.
“We elect our representatives every two years.”
So what? How has this changed anything? The two-party system has been co-opted and is no longer answerable to the will of the electorate. It might be if we had a third choice on the ballot – something like “none of the above, vacate the ballot and start over” – but we do not and are reduced to choosing the lesser of two evils. Such a political regime assures us only of one thing – political devolution and a race to the bottom.
“Fantasizing about revolt is the opiate of people too lazy to work the political machinery designed by the Founders.”
Perhaps they aren’t too lazy, but lack the knowledge to function as citizens, given that almost none of our schools has taught civics in many years. And your charge of laziness is ridiculous, given that all you appear to be doing is sitting on the sidelines yourself, making sarcastic remarks. Big deal…. anyone can do that. Cynicism of the kind you affect is a disguise for indifference and passivity, a “sophisticated” way of appearing to do something without actually risking or doing anything.
(1) Jefferson refers to actual revolt, as in “blood of patriots”. I said “dreams of revolt.” One refers to actions; the other to a substitute for action. That you confuse the two is a symptom of our problem.
As a good 21st century American, you appear unclear about the “responsibility” thing. That we vote (or don’t even bother to vote) to maintain the system does not by some strange calculus relieve us of responsibility for the outcome. That others seek to influence our votes is life on Earth (how could it be otherwise?). Whining about “the system” is reification run rampant, treating an abstraction as if it were real.
This might make sense if we tried and failed, but is pitiful as an excuse for inaction.
(3) Lack of knowledge
The people I know, of all classes, understand quite well how the Republic functions, in theory and reality I was a social worker many years ago, and dealt with members of our underclass. Many of them understand this with a clarity seldom found in our privledged upper classes.
This reminds me of Dear Abby in the 1970s writing about young unwed mothers in the inner cities. If only someone told them about contraceptives! In fact most of those women knew quite a bit about sex in all dimensions, probably more than did Dear Abby. There were other factors at work, not primarily ignorance.
(4) “Sitting on the sidelines…anyone can do that”
There are two levels to this.
(a) About the FM website
(b) Also interesting is your aggressive guessing about my personal activity. Don’t quit the day job, as your psychic skills do not work. I have been active as in the Republican Party for thirty years (and as a radical for several years during the 1970s)>
The fact is the majority of people in the US do not know nor care about the republic. This is evidenced by low participation rates (beyond voting). Some may vote, but they don’t really care about much beyond their own concerns and very little else. In a country this size, a significant number must care, and in meaningful terms, or the republic withers and dies. Voting is only the last step, but the first have never been taken, (I include myself in this. I vote but do nothing else.)
Meaningful political change is hard work, but even most of the politically conscious are too lazy to do much more than complain. The Internet is probably the biggest contributor to non-action. Rather than actually doing something constructive, like focusing on reality and trying to understand opposing points of view, almost everyone politically minded sits around whining and reinforcing their own ideology. (I do not include myself in this.) The Internet can be used for organizing, but it generally is used in a very limited way to organize a single event that makes everyone who attends feel good about themselves for a day and that’s about it.
That said, I think the federal republic is already dead, having been killed by apathy, but state and local politics can still mean something. However, the lower tiers of government, which actually provide services, are being strangled by the death of the federal republic.
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