Summary: As we start a New Year and end this series about resolutions, here is a summary of American politics as I see them. It points the way to reform and a better future, if we are willing to pay the price.
Time has disproved most of Marx’s economics, but it has validated much of his sociology. As income inequality has returned to the peak of the Gilded Age (and still rising), the class structure has returned.
Marx’s schema of the classes accurately described 19th century society, but George Orwell gave us a model of a class structure that better fits modern America. There is the bourgeois, the top few percent who own most of America (the 1% own over a third; the top 3% over half). There is the inner party, the highly paid senior leaders of our political, non-profit, and business institutions. There is the outer party of managers, small business-people, and professionals. There are the proles, America’s workers, and the underclass.
The bourgeois and inner party are America’s insiders. They have a common interest in preserving the political and social systems that have given them so much, so most are conservative in the literal meaning of the term. They might like to tinker on a small scale, shifting America to the Left or Right — but not radical change. They have leisure time, autonomy, security, and agency (the ability to influence events), which gives them a perspective on the world radically different than that of the lower classes (everybody else).
People in the upper classes prefer to marry within their class, just they did in the 19th century (see Pride and Prejudice). The professional and managerial classes call it “associative mating“. The rich marry each other; they call it “good sense”. That is why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy (nor could your daughter). Like their Gilded Age forbearers, they live on a scale almost unimaginable to the lower orders. Bill Gates’ palace is 6,000 sq ft larger than Hearst Castle.
The middle class
Our political system makes the outer party potentially powerful. Jefferson (and later Jackson) saw farmers, merchants, and craftsman of America as the foundation of the Republic. Those classes were wiped out during the Gilded Age. The outer party is their politically impotent remnants. As employees the Outer Party lack the economic independence that Jefferson believed made them indomitable and wise, unlike the equally liberty-loving but feckless mobs of Paris. The routines of their lives keep them busy. The 1% see that they are fragmented into tribes of Left and Right.
The lower classes
The proles and underclass are uninterested in politics, unless aroused and channeled by the elite’s institutions. Political machines and unions made them powerful in our past; only shards of these remain today.
Why we love fake news
Most media firms target the outer party – the large body of people interested in current events and with the income to either pay for it or to attract advertisers. To survive they must understand what the outer party wants. The media provide a mirror in which we can see ourselves.
The outer party wants simple stories that explain events in terms of good guys and bad guys. Cheer our team! Thrill at tales of the bad guys’ dastardly deeds! They want stories that provide entertainment and catharsis plus a sense of belonging to a community (a virtual tribe). Politically ineffectual, they want to believe themselves engaged. So they consume information (becoming well-informed) and write posts or comments (21st C letters to the editor).
This explains American’s odd disinterest in experts’ past record of failed predictions and bad advice (e.g., Paul Ehrlich on the Left, Larry Kudlow on the Right). Who cares if what we read about the world is accurate, since we have no intention of using this information. A collector of maps doesn’t ask if the maps are correct; they want pretty maps — with colorful dragons on edges. Only those navigating to a destination demand accurate charts.
We see more clues from what the outer party avoids. They don’t want responsibility. It’s no longer in many (most?) Americans’ minds that we have responsibility for the actions of our government, which would mandate our involvement — or that we have the power to run America, which would mandate our action. It’s depressing to read about the years of difficult work needed to reform America. It’s boring to read about the technical details of political tactics.
The right fetishizes individual action and considers collective action an anathema. On the Left calls to action are either ethereal (replace capitalism!), trivial (vote for Hillary, support her neocon and Wall Street allies!), or personal (recycle bottles!). The 1% approves of all these, excellent diversions from effective political action.
Brilliant minds in the media business understand us, and so their products provide infotainment packaged as serious news and analysis. Fox was one of the first to realize this and the most determined to provide what we want — and so became the largest beneficiary from the evolution of Americans from citizens to subjects. To survive most of the news media must follow in their footsteps, or find patrons in the 1% to fund them (e.g., Jeff Bezos for the Washington Post, Pierre Omidyar at The Intercept).
Life moves fast on the internet, and the big nodes that get the traffic are those that have adapted to the outer party of a New America (posts about political reform on the FM website get 1/4 of the usual pageviews). This is the underlying story about fake news, one too disturbing to mention in polite company.
The Mandarin characters for “crisis” do not mean “danger” and “opportunity”. But that’s a powerful and optimistic way to see a crisis, like the one I believe has begun. The Republic has had such moments before and come out stronger than it began. If we try, it can again.
I have faith in all you — in us — so that more citizen involvement will make a better and stronger America. I suspect we cannot imagine the eventually result. Perhaps a better Second Republic (founded on the Constitution). Perhaps a Third Republic.
I do not ask you to share that faith. I ask you only to have faith in yourself, and see us as the crew of America — not its passengers. Pitch in and help. For ideas what to do, see Reforming America: Steps to New Politics.
For More Information
- Can we organize the political reform of America? Our past shows how.
- The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy.
- Why the 1% is winning, and we are not.
- We are alone in the defense of the Republic.