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The passionate discussion and often insightful responses my 4thof July post unleashed has forced me to think more deeply about the issues it raised. In the process I have tried to place my argument in a more explicitly spiritual framework, both because this is a spiritual site and because I try and keep my own political ideas in ultimate harmony with my spiritual beliefs.
Without going into the reasons why, I think embodied existence, which we Pagans generally regard as sacred, exists in a perpetual tension between needs rooted in our physicality and love, which is also rooted in our physicality. Need leads us to treat beings as things, to be used by us. Love leads us to treat what we might otherwise regard as things as beings worthy of care, affection and more. We always have needs and we always have the potential to expand our hearts. The tension is unavoidable. It is built into any spiritual path rooted in sacred immanence.
To me a spiritual perspective privileges love over need. Needs can never be completely met, especially when they leave the realm of the physical and become increasingly psychological. In the absence of love psychological needs grow endlessly, seeking to fill what only love can satisfy. Acquiring more is an endless treadmill. Love eliminates most needs and redeems the rest by placing them within a larger context. And this brings us back to power.
Power in the sense I use it is the ability to get the things we need or think we need, or to keep them when they are threatened. Consequently, as beings with needs we inevitably need power. But a paradox then enters in, one captured by two otherwise very different men: the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the British liberal thinker Lord Acton. Acton said, and his sentiments have been repeated for many purposes many times, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.”
Nietzsche’s comment is less well known, which is a pity: “Power makes stupid.”
To combine them: power tends to corrupt and make stupid, and absolute power tends to absolutely corrupt and make absolutely stupid.
This I think sheds light on contemporary America and its current vicissitudes. Our country has grown too powerful for its own good.
Not winning the Cold War
The Soviet Union lost the Cold War, but the United States did not win it.
World War Two and the Cold War that followed decisively changed America from what it was before. After WWI we shut down almost all our armaments production, and disbanded most of our armed forces. After WWII we beefed them up because of the Soviet threat. This threat lasted until the 1980s, by which time a large portion of America’s industry and labor depended on defense spending. There was no serious peace dividend after the Soviet Union imploded, and ‘defense’ spending has trended upwards ever since, until it now totals about ½ the entire world’s spending on armaments. We are now told Iran, a country with little navy, little air force, no ICBMs, little manufacturing base, and on the other side of the globe surrounded by hostile powers, is a threat to the United States.
The Soviet Union lost the Cold War, but in the sense of the country and values we sought to protect by engaging on America did not win. America was transformed in the process into something increasingly unrecognizable from what we were in 1941.
America has become corrupted and stupefied by power.
We see this in a ruling oligarchic elite who every day proves its unfitness for power. It cannot take the long-term view and cannot place any limits on its rapacity, no matter how wisely self-interested the former or indefensible the latter. The old English Tories knew that to preserve their privileges they needed to treat English labor better than he liberals did. They did. It was the German conservative Otto von Bismarck who established the German equivalent of Social Security before World War I, to safeguard the Kaiser from political challenge from the left. One argument for expanding home ownership in the United States during the Depression was that home owners had a strong stake in the status quo. In all these instances elites were wise enough to check their rapacity for their own long-term good.
Not so with America’s current crop of incompetent and ingrown top dogs. They want it all, and they want it now.
We also see this mental and moral pathology with all too many rank and file Americans who look contemptuously on international law and standards of decency because we are strong enough to do so. They eagerly support the oligarchs because these people provide them with good theater denouncing “old Europe,” the French “surrender monkeys,” and other insults to people they have never visited and know nothing about.
Americans whose fathers and mothers taught their them that unlike totalitarian despotisms like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, we did not torture now joke about it and evidence no awareness or care about either the moral consequences of such violence, or even of testimony by people in the field that torture does not work and sometimes backfires. It is hard to find a better case of power corrupting and making stupid.
Americans are not uniquely prone to these ills. If Mexicans or Nigerians were the most powerful I have not doubt that they would indulge in their own versions of the same. But America is are currently the most powerful country, and so Americans are currently the most prone to this kind of corruption and stupidity. From the elite to the rank and file, a great many Americans have been corrupted and made stupid by their sense of having more power than anyone else.
As a result, our own democratic institutions grow steadily weaker. We now have our midnight knock on the door, or rather the door kicked in, by SWAT teams. We have secret prisons. We have torture. We have a business and political aristocracy that holds itself above the law, a truly bipartisan alliance against the constitution and the American people. For years polls have indicated that most Americans oppose wars before they are entered upon, and they are still entered upon. Americans oppose increases in defense spending and increases happen every year under ever administration. Americans wanted Social Security and Medicare safe, and leading figures in both parties ignore them and attack these institutions, and we are left guessing whether the Democrats, who created these programs, will begin gutting them to benefit the oligarchy Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but if they do no one will be truly surprised. Americans want the rich taxed rather than services cut, and the rich are not taxed and services are cut. This is not a democracy.
These considerations lead me to one argument about the current size of the United States being too big. We cannot handle it morally or intellectually. We cannot use our power wisely. Our elites become more ingrown and stupid, and the population as a whole seems willing to grumble a bit until they are shown another circus where others die in a celebration of our power. These citizens treat the responsibilities of citizenship with all the insight and care as being the fans of a soccer team. Of course this does not include all elites or all citizens. A few elites are innocent as are a larger percentage of citizens, but the proportions of the relatively wise do not breed confidence.
A smaller country would be a wiser and better behaved one, in part because it knows it is smaller.
Another argument for why we are too big
Contemporary “free market” advocates continually tell us that business hates regulation and needs freedom. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Established business hates regulations they do not control and fears freedom. Regulations they control guarantee profits and freedom serves the new entrepreneur, the innovator, who uses it to challenge the status quo.
Now we have corporations regarded as too big to fail. In a free society such corporations would be regarded as also too big to exist, and be broken up. Instead they get endless favors from their subservient lackeys in both parties, dependent as the politicians are on them for funds to run for and keep office and anticipating lucrative positions afterwards, should they ever eave office. They care for voters as much as credit card companies care for their customers.
The bigger the political body the easier it is to be manipulated and controlled by corporate wealth because the harder it is for plain citizens to be heard. Fifty states with different policies are more difficult for a corporation to dominate than one national policy. This is why they sought national standards for organic food. As soon as these standards were achieved, corporate agribusiness set about reshaping them for corporate convenience and consumer deception, as they had intended all along. This was not a new tactic and could have been predicted by anyone who knew how corporations operated. I know because I did.
What corporations do with organic standards they do with everything else. The bigger the political institution the greater their relative power. Even the most conscientious politicians has limited time and attention, and at the national level only big organizations get his or her ear. Corporations and their lobbyists have the edge, and thes do not want competition, they want a safe and predictable business environment skewed to their advantage.
National centralization assists corporatism and so destroys democracy, and that is another reason why the United States is too big. Better to have 50 different state standards. Businesses would still try and manipulate them, but that would benefit small-scale businesses and local ones over national ones. In the process that would also benefit the power of citizens.
Powerful citizens might actually take the time to learn about issues where they believed their views mattered. As the country got smaller citizens would become less stupid because their views would matter more.
And finally: Tea Partyers and NeoConfederates
Finally we get to the issues that sparked my column. Can the United States solve its pressing problems with the presence of a culture that consistently elects people who act like the current Republican Party?
To survive a democracy needs people on all sides who comprise a working majority of the population who are willing to compromise with those they disagree with in order to attend to common issues. Period. That’s it. That’s the minimum. Absent that, they rest is useless.
This reality is why many tribal societies cannot form stable democracies whereas when borders are drawn so that they basically resemble tribal boundaries, they can. Botswana is the most successful democracy in subSaharan Africa, and that is why.
The United States cannot survive when a significant part of the country sees itself as at war with the rest. It has nothing to do with whether there are some otherwise decent people foolish or ignorant enough to contribute to the demise of the country they think they love. There are such people. Plenty of them. They can be found in every country.
Tribalism is why Yugoslavia fell apart while it had remained united when under Tito’s dictatorship. It is why the states that formed after Yugoslavia fell apart have been democratic and some have been very successful, such as Slovenia and Croatia. I have been told by people who were traveling there before the civil war that the Yugoslavs were wonderful people. But they were so aware of their ethnic and religious differences that when unscrupulous politicians tried to divide the country along ethnic and religious lines, they succeeded. War and slaughter was the result.
National identity cannot simply be taken for granted. In a sense it is created and recreated every day in people’s minds and deeds. It is created y the media, the schools, and our daily interactions with one another. And it can be destroyed the same way, or replaced by another identity.
A memo by Pat Buchanan in the Nixon administration urged Republicans to deliberately split the country along lines of “values.” As they did they succeeded in destroying the Democratic coalition that created a majority based on economic issues. But this was a short-term success of winning former Southern Democrats without Eastern Republicans learning their party had changed decisively. As northern Republicans learned how alien the party was becoming many shifted to the Democrats. Republicans lost many of their Eastern seats and found a new power base in the former Confederate South. This strengthened their focus on “values” issues.
The problem with basing your party on values is that values cannot be compromised as easily as splitting a budget in different ways. When emphasizing values drives a wedge into a nation it weakens it by weakening people’s identification with common symbols and history. Future historians may well name Pat Buchanan as the man who set in process the dynamic that ultimately destroyed the United States.
The Southern neo-Confederate culture see themselves as uniquely virtuous, a vision reinforced by their forms of Christianity. Mexicans, liberals, Muslims, gays, single moms, Europeans, and for some, Blacks, Catholics, Mormons, and other “wrong kinds of Christians” all are inferior citizens or aliens. Their identifications are essentially tribal, and their tribe has had its identity reinvigorated by the growth of liberal values elsewhere since the 60s, the growth in numbers of nonwhite Americans, and in getting their own means to isolate themselves from national dialogues through Fox and the incessant efforts of Republican politicians. Rupert Murdoch will likely be named by future historians as the second most poisonous man in our country after Buchanan if the country does not survive. Think Yugoslavia.
These attitudes have spread beyond the South, and Phillips American Theocracy is the best discussion of the process I have read. But their base is in many of the states in the old Confederacy.
We who are not a part of that culture cannot change it. Perhaps a more tolerant younger generation within it will, but we cannot do it from the outside any more than we can make Islamic cultures liberal. Both must do it on their own. How fast they can do it may well determine the fate of the United States.
Democratic countries are comprised of people most of whom put democratic principles ABOVE and specific issue. This enables everyone to be a good loser and a good winner. As soon as a part of the country puts certain principles above democratic procedures they become a threat to others if they seek political power. The Republican Party has made it clear they put many principles above democratic rules. That is why they are acting as they do in Washington and elsewhere. And this part of the Republican Party has a base of power, which we all know is largely Southern based. They cannot dominate the country, there are not enough of that tribe, even when northern sympathizers are included.
What they can do is make the country ungovernable. The constitution was never written for a country composed of two groups seeing themselves as at political war with one another, and much of James Madison’s genius was employed in explaining such dangers and how the constitution would hopefully minimize it, as it did with one exception for two centuries.
An ungovernable United States has two fatal vulnerabilities. First, it cannot accomplish anything constructive because one party subordinates everything to defeating the other. It cannot be allowed to try its policies because if the policies work, its own chances of gaining power will be hurt. So it functions as a disloyal opposition.
Second, in our system it is essentially impossible to have a viable third party. The election rules make it impossible except when one party or more is dissolving, as before the Civil War. Consequently, even a hideous republican Party might win not because people support its policies, but because voters are disgusted with the corrupt alternative, an alternative the Republicans have succeeded in rendering impotent on matters of policy.
If they win, they have proven their willingness to attack free elections in their effort to cement their power.
To put it bluntly, if parts of the South and anywhere else put tribal loyalty ahead of the country as a whole, America is already dead. But a smaller better America can arise in their absence, and perhaps once they attain the “purity” they want they might even get good at democracy themselves. I honestly doubt it, but maybe.
The Nine Nations of North America
I like Joel Garreau’s the Nine Nations of North America and have often recommended it to others. The patterns he found have lasted for decades afterwards, and showed up clearly years later when I looked at a county by county map of who went for Gore and who for Bush. He wrote that New England was closest to Ecotopia (from Weatern CA to southern AK) and I feel as at home in New England as I do in western California and Washington – and I feel like I am in a foreign country in many ways when in my home states of Virginia and Kansas.
However, none of that means we must divide into 9 or more nations if people were free to choose. Whether that happens has to do with the nature of a good constitution and how different one place is from another. Dixie has always been very different because its elite chose a different course for development once slavery became very profitable soon after independence. Many maybe most Southern leaders were antislavery in 1789, very few were 60 years later, and that changed nearly everything. Again, see Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy. The rest of the country has not been so influenced by this pathology.
As for the rest of the country, we may not always agree on what to do, but we can agree on fair rules for deciding what to do. That is essentially what our constitution currently is – a document that tried to adopt rules all participants found fair for making decisions knowing that occasionally the decisions would run against their preferences. Its inner logic was not so much due to political theorists giving a road map but to the fact that if anyone found the rules not to be fair, their state would likely not sign on. Its “conservative” attackers are trying to turn it into a prescription about what to do, and that does require unity.
The constitution doesn’t much say what was to be done, it says how to do whatever people wanted to do, and precluded certain areas from anyone exercising power over others, like freedom of speech and freedom of religion, to keep the discussion open and to prevent one of the worst forms of oppression they knew about. Those protections were never perfect and always had to be interpreted, but on balance they worked.
But the constitution depends on people being willing to be good losers and respect the losers when they win. That is what is disappearing in the Republican ruled parts of the country, as I explained in my July 4 post.
E Unum Pluribus?
(Please pardon the bad Latin if I got it wrong.)
I am coming from a space that puts the survival of democratic procedures and religious freedom at the highest level of my strictly political priorities. I also put protection of the earth at an equally high level. It is one thing to say that we can differ about how to facilitate democracy, religious freedom, and the well being of the earth. It is quite another thing to reject these values as anything from irrelevant when inconvenient to being bad because liberals like them. I can live with the first, I do not want to live with the second.
In this I think I am in keeping with the best of our American tradition. Everyone should ponder the Declaration of Independence not just as a document under glass in the Smithsonian, to be looked at worshipfully, but even more as a document giving reasons good for all people at all times as to why they and not governments are the ultimate authority. As Thomas Jefferson put it in that document
governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
So – if New England and Ecotopia leave and freedom is strengthened for all, so what? Many of us have been to Canada, have friends there, and some of us, myself included, think the Canadians do some things better than we do. If we were not so power besotted we might learn from them. How is an independent Canada less or more threatening than in independent New England or Ecotopia? Consider Jefferson’s statement about not being bothered if the Mississippi valley party of the US ever split off from the East as a result of getting too big after the Louisiana Purchase that I gave in my discussion thread after the July 4 post. Democratic Europe today is doing pretty well despite having many independent countries. Norway left Sweden and both did well. Slovakia left Czechoslovakia, and the Czechs especially are doing just fine. Washington, DC, has become a city dominated by the power drunk in both parties and most of the country except the obscenely rich is hurting.
Some might worry about war between spin offs from the original union. I do not so long as they are democratic. You can download my earliest published piece why democracies do not fight democracies by clicking my politics by going here and scrolling down to the obvious title. I’ve developed the argument some since then and that will be published this fall, but the essentials remain unchanged. I do not see a serious antidemocratic threat anywhere but Dixie.
If Marlon is right perhaps talk of secession will encourage the younger saner part of Southern society to get more active and vote these thugs out. That would be good, although we still have to deal with the problems of national power drunkenness and corporatism. But if not, in my opinion the South leaving will not necessarily trigger a dissolution and if it did that would not unduly upset me because I care more for people than I do for states. This is exactly the sentiment in the Declaration of Independence by the way.
(The only thing I can see as a theoretically good reason to think American unity is important for the rest of the world is a distant hypothetical threat from China, which we should remember has a nation essentially as big as it is as a neighbor- India. But when and if the need is great alliances can arise or new forms of federation can be tried.)
And so, it seems to me there are two reasons the US might be too big and powerful for its own good and one reason why it might be beginning to collapse on its own. Especially if the latter is happening, the wisest thing we can do in my opinion is discuss the possibility and consider what alternatives might exist. The more we discuss it the more those whose actions are leading to that outcome will need to seriously think about what they are doing. And should it eventually come to pass, the better prepared we will be to handle the tumult and disruption that will take place in the short run as peaceably and effectively as possible.