On Safari in Trump’s America
The trip was predicated on the optimistic notion that if Americans would only listen to each other, they would find more that united than divided them. This notion—the idea that, beyond our polarized politics, lies a middle, or third, path on which most can come together in agreement—is Third Way’s raison d’etre. It is premised on the idea that partisanship is bad, consensus is good, and that most Americans would like to meet in the middle.
But what if there is no middle? What if, beyond policy prescriptions and ideas how to help the country, lies a fundamental philosophical schism which can never be bridged any more than matter and anti-matter can be mixed?
Of course the problem with the Third Way folks is that they wanted to find political consensus, and they “found” it:
… The Viroqua representatives were eager to extol the virtues of their community. It was an oasis of sanity, an organic farmer in a pink-and-blue plaid shirt said—unlike the dismal city where he’d grown up. “There was no culture with which to identify, just television, drinking, maybe sports,” he said. “There’s nothing to aspire to. You’re just going through life with a case of Mountain Dew in your car.”
The cafe owner—a bearded man in a North Face fleece—had recently attended a town hall held by the local Democratic congressman, Ron Kind, a Third Way stalwart and former chair of the House’s centrist New Democrat Coalition. “I’m not, like, a jumping-up-and-down Berniecrat,” the man said. “But what you see in these congressional meetings is a refusal to even play ball” with ideas considered too extreme, like single-payer health care. “All these centrist ideals,” he said, “are just perpetuating a broken system.”
This was a direct attack on the very premise of Third Way’s existence. These were not the ideas of the middle 70 percent. These were not the voices of an America that wanted to find mutual understanding with its neighbors. They were, essentially, separatists, proud of their extremism and disdainful of the unenlightened.
That moment of doubt does not appear in the report that Third Way released, which distills the group’s conclusions from the tour I joined. …
The report surprised me when I read it. Despite the great variety of views the researchers and I had heard on our tour, the report had somehow reached the conclusion that Wisconsinites wanted consensus, moderation, and pragmatism—just like Third Way.
But if you don’t examine your own ontological stack–if you don’t examine the core assumptions and core philosophies which motivate your own thinking–then really you have few lessons to learn:
“I’ve come to the conclusion that most of our divisions have to do with lack of understanding,” [Nancy Hale] told me. “And I don’t mean in some kind of academic way, I mean in a very human way. …”
A true Democratic operative.
But what, at the bottom of the ontological stack, is a fundamental schism?
What if there is no compromise between “top-down” solutions and “bottom-up” solutions? What if there is no middle ground between The Divine Right of Kings and The Will Of The People? What if there is no such thing as “partial-enslavement”, what if you can’t just be sorta pregnant?
When I read stuff like this, my mind goes back to Thomas Sowell’s excellent book A Conflict of Visions, Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. In his book, economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell postulates two fundamental underlying visions of humanity:
The Unconstrained Vision (generally held by liberal-progressives)
Sowell argues that the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good. Those with an unconstrained vision distrust decentralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and systemic processes that constrain human action. They believe there is an ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never acceptable. Collateral damage is merely the price of moving forward on the road to perfection. Sowell often refers to them as “the self anointed.” Ultimately they believe that man is morally perfectible. Because of this, they believe that there exist some people who are further along the path of moral development, have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and therefore can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society.
and the Constrained Vision (generally–but not always–held by conservatives in the US).
Sowell argues that the constrained vision relies heavily on belief that human nature is essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested, regardless of the best intentions. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs. Those with a constrained vision favor solid empirical evidence and time-tested structures and processes over intervention and personal experience. Ultimately, the constrained vision demands checks and balances and refuses to accept that all people could put aside their innate self-interest.
It is a coincidental but oblique confirmation of this idea that the constrained vision of man as unchanging, self-interested, and flawed that Justice Janice Brown makes in her excellent speech “A Whiter Shade of Pale”: Sense and Nonsense — The Pursuit of Perfection in Law and Politics when she refers to the U.S. Constitution and her discomfort in Justice Holmes dissent in Lochner:
That Lochner dissent has troubled me — has annoyed me — for a long time and finally I understand why. It’s because the framers did draft the Constitution with a surrounding sense of a particular polity in mind, one based on a definite conception of humanity. In fact as Professor Richard Epstein has said, Holmes’s contention is “not true of our [ ] [Constitution], which was organized upon very explicit principles of political theory.” It could be characterized as a plan for humanity “after the fall.”
“The fall,” of course, refers to the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden, after Adam ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And it refers to the idea of Original Sin, which in some corners is interpreted not so much that man is evil, but that free will gives us the capacity for evil.
In other words, “human nature is unchanging and man is inherently self-interested.”
Also, keep in mind “self-interested” is not the evil horror that is sometimes suggested. Many on the Unconstrained Left consider the idea of self-interest as inherently destructive and evil: consider the number of times we hear about “greedy” companies and the horrors of “greed” and self-interest.
Yet, in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, Adam Smith’s prequel to the more famous “Wealth of Nations”, observed:
The administration of the great system of the universe … the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension: the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country…. But though we are … endowed with a very strong desire of those ends, it has been entrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts. Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce by them.
The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.
In other words, mankind is finite, unable to comprehend much beyond our own immediate sphere of influence. We were then created as “self-interested” and “selfish”: determined to help ourselves and our families–yet in this great system where I produce your daily bread for my own benefit and not yours, somehow we are lead by an “invisible hand”, which is, in a real sense, the invisible hand of God.
I point out these two examples (though there are countless others ranging from the Federalist Papers to modern-day economists and philosophers) to illustrate the idea that Thomas Sowell’s notion of the constrained man as burdened Original Sin is not a new idea unique to Sowell’s writings, but reflects a range of ideas from Locke (and his idea of the mind as tabula rasa, with knowledge determined only by experience), through Hume and Smith to Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind,” which establishes belief in transcendent order and natural law as a cornerstone of conservative thought.
(The one place where I depart from Russell Kirk is in his apparent belief that Western Civilization can only hold if it is held by Christians. To me, the idea of a constrained vision of man, led by self-interested people who are unable to conceive of those beyond our own line of sight, but somehow organized by the spontaneous chaos of billions of people seeking to live our lives in freedom–is a universal one. The constrained idea of man and the idea of “original sin”–that is, that we are born with free will but no understanding how to act, that we are finite beings only able to understand what we experience–is one that can be understood as true by Atheists and Muslims and Jews alike, even as they reject the more technical concept of Christian “Original Sin.” And it is Russell Kirk’s mistake he could not separate the philosophical idea that man is finite from his own deeply held Christian faith.)
The thing about this theory, of two conflicting visions–one of a perfectible man which can strive towards Utopia, be it Marx’s communist paradise or the paradise of a Socialist Utopia, another of mankind “after the fall” who may aspire to the better angles of our nature but are forever groveling in the dirt–is that this conflict can never be reconciled.
You either believe mankind can be elevated: that we can create a better society by improving mankind as a species. Or you do not.
You either believe growth and salvation is a personal affair, or a societal affair.
You either believe there are “the anointed”, those Bodhisattvas who can lead us as a society to salvation–whose very presence cause “the rise of the oceans … to slow, and our planet … to heal”.
Or you believe there are no anointed, no Bodhisattvas who can take our pain–and all that is left is for each of us to cut our own way through the jungle. That it is for us alone to find our own full potential as individuals, to use our freedom to express ourselves, to discover ourselves, and to pursue contentment and stability and pass those values as we find them to the next generation.
There is no middle ground.
Sadly for The Third Way who went on a safari in Middle America to help chart a course for Democrats to follow, this lesson was lost on them.
But then, they weren’t even looking.
It was gratifying to Nancy Hale to find, in the end, that America wasn’t lost. To be sure, there had been moments that made her wonder. But as she looked back on it, she had managed to edit those moments out of her memory. The American people, she concluded, were not as divided and irreconcilable as the election made them seem. Progressive neoliberalism was not a lost cause. The world she believed in before—the world she preferred to inhabit—was the one she and her fellow American explorers had managed to find: not a strange land at all but a reassuring one.
And so liberals go back to the same old thing: to chart a new course to Utopia that can be successfully taught to the rubes of Middle America, to find a new Bodhisattva who can teach that new way, and for those Bodhisattvas to walk amongst the common people rather than stay in the ivory towers and think tanks within the Beltway.
How frustrating it must be to be a liberal today.
To see a country embracing what they see as a fundamentally divisive President who tweets all sorts of nonsense at 3 in the morning. To see a country turn its back on “compromise”–compromises which seem based in the notion that there is, indeed, an obvious way forward. To see a country systematically reject the calm Bodhisattvas and technocrats capable of lowering the level of the seas and healing the planet, and embrace someone who seems bent on destroying their noble works.
How frustrating it must be to encounter people who seem to be fighting against their own self-interest–rejecting policy prescriptions and taxpayer assistance which are designed to help communities in trouble.
And if only they would listen; if they would only allow themselves to be changed, to find the compromise position that could lead us to a better world, to a better Utopia.
But they don’t.
And as a liberal, you can’t help but conclude that most people are just fucking stupid.
But sadly most Liberals seem unwilling to look at themselves, and recognize that to those like myself who believe in a constrained vision of mankind, what lurks at the bottom of the liberal ontological stack seems unrepentantly evil.
Not just “incorrect,” not just “uncomfortable”–but evil.
Because if you consider that in order to reform society you must fundamentally remake mankind (through education, through limiting choices, through force if needed), and remake mankind in your own vision as a people able to appreciate those beyond our own line of sight as you explain them to us, to instinctually sacrifice for the betterment of The State, what you are really arguing is against freedom. You are demanding I follow your Gods and Bodhisattvas and Leaders, and stop thinking for myself.
You’re demanding enslavement.
And to those of us who are believers in the Fall of Man, what you are doing is complaining that we are refusing to follow you into slavery for “our own good.”
Fuck you. I’d rather go hungry than be a well-fed slave.
Don’t believe me that this is what lies at the heart of a Liberal–the unconstrained view that mankind can be made better if only led by the right Bodhisattvas? That the modern liberal-progressive movement doesn’t care about freedom as a fundamental concept, but only in a limited idea of “freedom” as picking from a State-approved menu of choices?
Just look at the move by the Workers World Party–a Socialist front group reportedly funded by Russia–pull down the statue in Durham. Look at the Left as it shuts down free speech by using violence.
And understand to a conservative these do not look like the exception. They look like the drive to Utopia and the desire to improve mankind, but with the soft glove removed and the bare knuckles exposed.
What we hear is that “you will be improved and society will be made better. And while we want to do this through education and pursuasion and by eliminating ‘bad-think’, we will make you better even if we have to beat you to an inch of your life and send you to the Gulag.”
Sadly the Third Way doesn’t see all of this, doesn’t recognize the ideological and ontological burden they bring when they seek “compromise.”
They don’t realize their prescriptions won’t work because they are unwilling to look at themselves. They are unwilling to find compromise because to find compromise you must be willing to admit that perhaps you are wrong, perhaps your assumptions are incorrect.
And at the end of the day, their attempts seems more about figuring out a better way to lead the lambs to the slaughter.