Bless me, Readers, for I have sinned.
It has been – I don’t know, a very long, dark time – since my last communication. During that extended period I have used profanity almost constantly, harbored anger and vitriol in my heart and eaten enough carbohydrates to sustain a small metropolis. I have waited, in vain, for a calm to overtake my guts so that it felt safe to talk again. About things that matter, like Trader Joe’s and Taylor Swift – not about civil war, sedition and incomprehensible betrayal.
My earliest guiding principle when I began this blog was to avoid talking about politics, per se, because of two foundational beliefs:
- Anything that adds to the noise disappears in the noise.
- Life – and I guess survival, though it didn’t really appear to me in those terms at the time – is experienced in the spaces we share, not the echo chambers we choose.
And I’m here to tell you, I did a really, honestly, mediocre-bordering-on-shitty job. I talked about politics a little. I mean, anyone who could manage to comment on life in these United States without acknowledging and examining the widening, weird-ening political landscape is either supremely challenged or dissociative, and I am neither.
So I put a toe in the water here and there and advocated for what I believe is common sense, pragmatism and humanity. Hardly a radical stance. Although I fear the yard markers have been repainted when no one was looking.
For those reading this long in the future, let me catch you up: The date is January 12, 2021. Late last year there was a hotly contested Presidential election, which ended in a win for Democratic nominee Joe Biden versus incumbent President Donald Trump. The margin was not razor thin, but the results of the election (just the President part, not all the other election results that just happened to be on the same ballots) were challenged by the President and several million of his closest friends.
To be clear, the results of the election were challenged before the election was even held when the President said, repeatedly, in the press and in tweets, that any election that ended with him losing was a “rigged” election and therefore invalid. If you’re reading this WAY in the future, a tweet is a primitive form of electronic communication that used to be favored by hipsters and tech brands, and was co-opted around 2016 by old, white men (and one prominent orange one). Which is funny in hindsight in a way that could not have been less funny at the time.
So last week, on the day the Congress – as bitterly divided as the nation – came together to ceremonially approve the certified Electoral College votes that would end the election once and for all, the President and his minions had a rally in Washington, DC, the nation’s capitol, where he said the following, among other things:
- It’s a disgrace that the United States of America, tens of millions of people are allowed to go vote without so much as even showing identification. In no state is there any question or effort made to verify the identity, citizenship, residency, or eligibility of the votes cast. [ That is a lie.]
- “Sir, yes, the United States, the constitution doesn’t allow me to send them back to the States.” Well, I say, “Yes, it does because the constitution says you have to protect our country….When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules. [Nope. That’s not how law works.]
- It is also widely understood that the voter rolls are crammed full of non-citizens, felons and people who have moved out of state and individuals who are otherwise ineligible to vote. [It’s also widely understood these are the same voter rolls who elected you, and every member of Congress just a few blocks away.]
- If we allow this group of people to illegally take over our country, because it’s illegal when the votes are illegal, when the way they got there is illegal, when the States that vote are given false and fraudulent information….This is the most corrupt election in the history, maybe of the world. [Not even close to true, says your own Cybersecurity Division of Homeland Security and more than 50 individual court rulings, including by judges you personally appointed.]
- We won. We won in a landslide. This was a landslide. [No it wasn’t. No you didn’t.]
- We fight like Hell and if you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue…and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give….our Republicans, the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.
And then hundreds of people stormed the Capitol building for the first time since the British did it in the 1800’s, and they overpowered police, and chased legislators from their chambers, and destroyed property; and five people died, including a Capitol police officer who was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher.
He was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher by people to whom – not an hour earlier – the President repeated, “I/We love you,” nine times in less than a minute. People he called patriots.
I think we’re all caught up now, yes?
So clearly the time for being coy or temperate has passed.
This is the darkest moment of my lifetime, far darker than 9/11 because the threat is among us. I can help moderate the threat of someone flying a plane into my most valued buildings by taking my shoes off at the airport, but what am I supposed to do when the person next to me takes his shoes off just like I do – and then acts like this?
The response to this growing threat has been on some levels encouraging. First of all, the Democrats won back the White House and the Senate, which means – in Washington at least – we can begin to fix the damage. I say that as a lifelong registered Republican. Saying it makes my heart hurt. The courts have held firm, with even Conservative judges resisting the pressure to be partisan above being just. But far more people voted for Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016. More people voted for him after four years of exposure to his rants, lies and derision than before. More people voted for him after he was impeached than before.
They drank the Kool Aid. Buckets and buckets of Kool Aid.
How do you solve for that? I don’t believe half the country is racist and evil. I’m not blowing smoke here: I honestly don’t believe it. And I have proof.
I believe, and can cite examples for hours if you’re ever interested, that everything in nature, including human nature, exists in a bell curve. To elaborate, there are always small numbers (even when they are loud) on either extreme, with the great majority somewhere in the middle. Interestingly this universal truth is proven every election cycle when candidates need to focus on the extremist base in order to win a party primary (because radicals are more likely to vote in a primary), then reverse course and move toward center in time to try and win the general election.
So scientifically, half the population is not evil, not violent, not uncaring. Statistically speaking. They voted a certain way, but they did so based on information (or disinformation) they were given. Not because they just want to watch the world burn.
There are three reasons for this, and while I am citing those for you I will offer my recommendation for resolving each of the three reasons.
Capitalism: I am a capitalist, albeit without capital. I believe in the free market. I think Alexander Hamilton was a mensch. But capitalism is not government. It cannot be government and government cannot operate like business. As founder and CEO of a dozen enterprises over his career, Donald Trump was master of his domain (#Seinfeld) and the ultimate determinant of his fate. That is, within the rules of economics and the will of investors. Government doesn’t work that way, and it can’t. You can’t bend the rules on a gamble you won’t get caught. You can’t strong-arm other countries or especially groups of your own people. And most of all, you can’t govern based on self-interest. It’s called civil service for a reason. Our elected officials must operate in the best interest of others, of all of us, or what is the point?
RESOLUTION: We have emoluments laws on the books already, and these need to be guarded and enforced. Donald Trump was elected president on a platform of “drain the swamp” in Washington, tapping into mass discontent with what some perceived to be a governing culture driven by self-interest and out of touch with the electorate. Of course, The Donald DID drain the swamp, replacing it with his own, ginormous, singular and unrelenting self-interest, so: be careful what you wish for! Let’s hold our candidates accountable to us, and not just to individual priorities. Service starts like everything else, with the individual. Let’s try to take care of each other a little better, and challenge our leaders to keep up.
The internet and social media: When I was younger, there were obstacles to achieving great renown. In order to be published, you needed an agent. And a publisher. So, from the start, you needed to be something more than just interesting, more than just lucky. And once you attained these things, you had teams of people to help you with little things like spelling and grammar. People whose job it is to keep you from looking stupid. Today: forget it. Anyone can say anything to everyone, without barrier, without oversight and almost virtually without risk to oneself. Look at the Capitol incident: months, some would say years, of lie after lie after lie – despite being called lies by the platform itself! – resulted in a mob that could bludgeon a police officer to death. With a fire extinguisher.
The problem is complicated further by what we’ve come to call the echo chamber. Simply, the algorithms employed by social media companies were developed to be able to target consumers more precisely and effectively – invisibly, behind the scenes without anyone knowing. The byproduct of this advancement is that the more you’re interested in something, the more often you see stuff like it. Casual interest quickly can become almost complete immersion and this, even if wholly unintended, is sinister and ultimately dangerous to our society.
RESOLUTION: This is probably the hardest; there is no putting the genie back into the bottle. Some would say it’s government’s job to regulate these platforms, but when has that ever worked out well for anyone? Does anyone want their current Senator making decisions about their Twitter feed? So it has to be a community based, rather than governmental, push to require these platforms to adhere to standards that benefit the community over profit. Not instead of profit, just before profit. To do this, standards must be established and constantly refined, and competition nurtured. Like the two-party system, if my only online community choices are Facebook and Parler, we are headed in the wrong direction. Which is a nice segue into….
The legacy electoral system: Back in the day it made sense to have political parties and primaries and an electoral college. The country was young, and overwhelmingly rural. Communication was hard, and took a long time. Education was not guaranteed and far from universally available. Everything was absolutely, objectively simpler, including demography. Despite calling ourselves the Melting Pot, we were way more homogenous back in the day. It was common sense, and a proven strategy (see: organized religion), to group people according to core beliefs. It was a win-win: leaders and enablers had a platform from which to operate, and the populace got to lean back and enjoy the ride, and not work so hard to engage with the process. But today there is unyielding, rapid-fire communication, between and among everyone at once. Yes, the rules are different for the poor, just like they have been forever, but our legacy system relies on that, while the new reality promises at least the opportunity to mitigate it.
I shouldn’t have the ability to choose one of a thousand restaurants to eat in; one of a hundred churches to attend; and one of a dozen businesses to cut my fast-retreating hair; but one of only two political parties to represent my interests. And don’t say there are independent parties – they are, sadly, irrelevant. Similarly, there is no longer any need to try and subtotal the will of the people through electoral votes by state. Winner-takes-all is a Machiavellian concept, apropos (maybe) for business or certainly for war, but not at all for self-governance. If voters in my state decided on Rice Crispies over Frosted Flakes, 52% to 48%, why in God’s name should everyone have to eat Rice Crispies? A vote is a vote is a vote.
RESOLUTION: Easy. Change it! The principles of democracy are not at fault, only our legacy model to execute it. Things change, from technology to demography to the societal mores we find acceptable (more about that below). We need to contemporize how we enable democracy; to use everything we have to create a more level playing field. Let’s open up this puppy and stop telling ourselves that “there’s room in the tent” for everyone. Hey, there are more than 1,500 flavors of Kit Kat candy bars. Tell me again why we should have two political parties.
Oh, and I guess there’s also Trump himself, who is either the most unabashed mobster or the most pitiable, emotionally stunted shell of a human ever to hold the office of President. I don’t have a resolution for that, beyond the sun rising on January 21, 2021. And that sunrise doesn’t get us anywhere, it just gives us an opportunity.
And there is no guarantee that we will be able to dig ourselves out, not even a little one. Because, in addition to the three reasons cited above – which at this time remain unresolved – there is something called the Overton window. Named after lawyer and think tank pundit Joseph P. Overton, the eponymous window “is the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” The Overton window exists on a continuum of six states of perception, namely:
Obviously, and not by accident (the bell curve strikes again), the Overton window typically resides right near the middle of the scale, right around Acceptable and Sensible. If a political idea is too popular, it’s ripe for challenge and exploitation; if it’s too radical, it endangers the larger group or political party. You know, kind of like when a mob of people identifying themselves as patriots and Republicans storms the Capitol and threatens lawmakers and the democratic process itself. Like that.
Trouble is, when you flood the landscape with rhetoric that is Radical, bordering on Unthinkable, you not only advance and embolden fringe viewpoints, you effectively move the window in your direction. This is not new, and should not be surprising. How many of us have inflated requests – say, for resources at work – knowing that we could make do with less but counting on compromise to get us to where we need to be?
This is hard-wired into us. It is not discretionary or learned or changeable. Let me say that again: This human tendency to recalibrate “normal” based on exposure to radical ideas is part of our evolution, part of our DNA. How do I know?
When my daughter was real young, she was nonetheless a gifted negotiator. We have no idea where that ability came from. I remember, vividly, her at age 3 or thereabouts asking if she could have some cookies.
“No,” her mother and I replied. “It’s almost dinnertime.”
“Okay,” she said agreeably. “I’ll just have two.”
And you know what? We let her have those damn cookies. Because we were proud that she was so confident and smart. Because we were completely taken aback by how naturally she dodged our authority. And because she had changed the rules. Instead of complying with a firm “no” response she accepted our terms as endorsement of her making a decision that, in her mind, gave reasonable consideration to our stated concerns.
Gutsy. A little startling. And proof the window can be moved, even by a child.
So it’s more than desensitization, which is the concern I have had for four years now: I have been more concerned that the constant onslaught of bile would wear down the people in the middle, far more than I have been worried it would embolden people on the fringe. Turns out, it did both. But the Overton window is different, in that it is an objective portrayal of what the nation is willing to entertain with regard to their leaders and governmental policies. Move it right or left, even in small increments, and you can change the future.
Many Democrats are jubilant, having fought back the forces of evil and made tangible gains in the legislative and executive branches of government. And I congratulate them. I voted with them. Now consider this: If Donald Trump had been one iota more self-aware, one ounce more savvy, one inch more accommodating, he would have carried the White House, the Senate and quite possibly the House – if not today, then at the midterm elections. That’s right, all he had to do was suppress the crazy, needy bastard he is, just a teeny bit, and the thin margin of victory would have almost certainly gone his way.
Because the window moved. That should concern you. That should inform your dreams about the future, to say nothing of your actions.
Today, as I write this, the future is unclear. There are multiple movements to remove Trump (he no longer merits the title of “President” or even “Mister,” he’s just Trump) from office days before Joe Biden is inaugurated as the new President. There are credible threats of violent demonstrations in state capitols across the country. I’m frankly midway between disoriented, enraged and completely numb, if that’s even possible. I just don’t know what comes next.
I’m hopeful, I hope. But jeez, there’s so much work to do I didn’t know needed to be done. And only so much time.