The civic poison of right-wing populism
I think we are in trouble--but I would put the matter differently than one of partisan-caused loss of tradition. The ultimate cause of our problems (which are also experienced to some degree or kind by everyone around the world) operates below the level of partisan policies and partisan bickering and is not completely controllable by any one side. I am referring to what in my field (anthropology) is called "social complexity", which is an increasing, ongoing development (since the dawn of humankind) and has finally reached a level of almost "runaway" complexity, a level of complexity which kicked in around the last third of the 20th century. Social complexity is understood as having the following features: (1)-greater numbers of people in society; (2)-greater expansion of arenas of interaction; (3)-the coming together of greater types of culturally different people; (4)-increasing socio-political awareness among societal members of their own circumstances vis-a-vis others (leading to dissatisfactions and demands for more rights) -- and (5)-accelerated rates of change resulting from the increasing growth and confluence of features 1-4. As I said, since the dawn of humankind, societies around the world have become increasingly complex and increasingly interrelated, albeit at different rates and degrees. But socio-cultural differences, awareness of differences, and socio-cultural change are very hard to take--and even the seemingly sunny and easy tolerance and universalism of Liberalism have not been able to contain the difficulties of super-complexity. Liberalism and Liberal Democracy are flailing now, at our current stage of social complexity (with Populism seemingly waiting in the wings to take over--but that will not solve our problems, either--because social complexity is not "solved" by any one partisan orientation; it can only be managed for better or worse).
The idea highlighted in the Ellmers essay discussed here of "loss" (and just the other day I read another installment of this loss notion dating to 2021 by Right-wing intellectual Victor Davis Hanson in National Review: "How Much Ruin Do We Have Left" -- https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/04/how-much-ruin-do-we-have-left/ ) is something that is equally experienced by people on the Left. We Leftists see the Trumpian/Republican doings as constituting a loss of what we view as the rule of law and Constitutional protocols and practices--along with a loss of civic discourse and civic exchanges.
However, I would list the problems before us not as loss but as questions to address, more connected to the phenomenon of increasing social complexity as: (1)-how to enable deep differences to co-exist civilly within a society; (2)-how to deal with institutional lag as our institutions prove increasingly incapable of keeping up with the accelerated rate of social complexity; and (3)-how to deal with the increasing differentials in wealth and poverty as the juxtaposition of a few billionaires with increasingly impoverished people creates great social instability.
As I noted, social complexity is not caused by any one side of partisan disputes in any country. It has been ongoing and growing as a natural feature of human development over the millennia. However, it can be managed--made worse or better by different policies. At the moment, I consider the policies of the Left to be better (although not perfect or free of flaws which are complicated enough to not easily discuss here). The "asymmetric polarization" discussed a few years ago by a number of analysts have outlined the ways in which policies and ideas emanating from the Right have been worse; but there are problems coming from the Left as well. All this requires a lot of clear sorting out in our efforts to manage (not solve) our problems.
The issue seems to me to be that liberals have always gotten to define the value-set for the ruling class in this country, and in so doing have done so have basically destroyed America. Where the issue comes in is that if the Republicans do not conform to the ideological box the Democrats and liberals put them into, they have to be demonized. That is all happening right now.
I work in education. The fact is that every progressive, liberally minded program has wreaked havoc on the system. I reject every piece of 'research' from every one of these so-called academics, who have never taught anything, and have never contributed anything useful in their careers. The whining of conservatives also needs to end as well. I made it through my education classes and wrote every paper explaining why the newest pedagogy was wrong. I never agreed, I never backed down, and I never changed.
I don't want to compromise. I don't want to join with liberals. Broadly speaking, equality is neither necessary or desirable. That a plumber or a welder makes more money than a teacher is fine with me. Conservatives need to never unite with the left. We don't have to. Supposedly this is a free country. Supposedly that means people have the right to choose their own path, which includes absenting themselves as fully as possible from the broader society.
Hard to know where to start with Ellmers’ essays (Ellmers, 2021, 2022). For example, he says “many native-born people . . . may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. . . . It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else” (Ellmers, 2021). This is just a trans-Atlantic version of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy in which a putatively impure subcategory is excluded arbitrarily from a general category to which, on its face, it belongs.
Who are those impure specimens? He’s certain he knows ‘em when he sees ‘em: “They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people” (Ellmers, 2021). But I’m guessing that principles like conceding a lost election, traditions like a peaceful transfer of power, and ideals such as ‘no person is above the law’ aren’t the ones he had in mind. Rather, he implies that “non-American Americans” include anyone who voted in 2020 for “the senile figurehead of a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism” (Ellmers, 2021). Despite Trump’s madcap ravings, the events of 1/6/21, the excommunication of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and “Schedule F” plans for gutting the civil service in favor of patronage, Ellmers apparently thought that described Biden voters.
He also condemned “the great majority of establishment conservatives [apparently regardless of who they voted for] who were alarmed and repelled by Trump’s rough manner and disregard for ‘norms’” as having been “almost totally clueless about a basic fact: Our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed.” (Ellmers, 2021). The nihilism is breathtaking. So I guess we can just dispense with ‘norms’ such as not threatening the lives of election workers and their families, not putting forth phony slates of electors or specious arguments about plenary vice-presidential powers, and not bringing weapons and a gallows to a “peaceful” demonstration.
In his more recent essay, Ellmers (2022) claims that “A recent poll indicated that large percentages of Republicans, and even a majority of Democratic voters, believe the FBI has become a Gestapo-like force in service of the Biden White House. This simply confirms what many MAGA supporters suspected in 2016: the system is rigged.” Leaving aside that the Gestapo never felt any need to obtain or produce a warrant based on “probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized” (let alone calling ahead and confining themselves to daylight hours) he was mistaken in claiming that a majority of Democrats agreed with the “Gestapo” question; 57% did not agree (Rasmussen Reports, 2022).
Or consider the following ‘populist’ viewpoint: “Perhaps the strangest and most offensive element of the current woke tyranny is that it is now normal and even expected of polished and powerful elites to denounce people for being male or heterosexual, for lacking a college education or working with their hands (“Why don’t you learn to code, dummy?”), for being Christian, and above all for being white. How is it possible, millions of MAGA voters wonder, that in a few short decades the most common characteristics of ordinary American citizens are now qualities that are officially shamed and penalized? (Ellmers, 2022). I’m willing to believe that millions of MAGA voters believe those things about those they consider their ‘woke’ adversaries. I’m also willing to believe that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to find some randos saying at least some of those things, but the totalitarian implication (e.g., “woke tyranny . . . normal and even expected of polished and powerful elites to denounce…”) is overwrought. Stupid people saying stupid shit on Twitter are not exactly Maoist re-education camps.
Ellmers’ more recent essay is mostly just handwaving and putting an intellectual gloss on what amounts to telling the aggrieved what they want to hear (e.g., about who is or isn’t an ordinary American citizen, or about an election being stolen). That is a lot easier than telling people who repeatedly have been lied to what they don’t want to hear.
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Ellmers, G. (2021, March 24). “Conservatism” is no longer enough. American Mind. https://americanmind.org/salvo/why-the-claremont-institute-is-not-conservative-and-you-shouldnt-be-either/
Ellmers, G. (2022, August 28). MAGA and the memory of America. American Greatness. https://amgreatness.com/2022/08/28/maga-and-the-memory-of-america/?fbclid=IwAR0t8Q8Q35HhQU6MvWvzQkYqXkZl-8e6rwsePmMBe-qXH9N9XIjbVsKumE4
Rasmussen Reports. (2022). ‘Biden’s Gestapo’? Trump raid hurts voter trust in FBI. https://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/public_surveys/biden_s_gestapo_trump_raid_hurts_voter_trust_in_fbi