Sunday, October 16, 2016

A toddler-aged letter about American politics

I feel completely emotionally unequipped to say anything about current events. I don’t think anyone is anywhere near horrified enough by the state of both global and American politics. …and this is not just because of the recent “election.” I don’t think national horror-levels have been where they should be for decades. (I’m also reasonably sure that this is not just because I grew up surrounded by curmudgeons.)

…but while cleaning out my file system I found this; something I wrote explaining American politics to someone within the context of an international class on Framing (i.e. The New Rhetoric) that we were taking, and which communicates my feelings more clearly than anything that I might manage to put into words right now:
The first thing you need to realize is that American political culture is centered around the idea of conflict. For example: the notion of ‘good triumphing…’ wins out over that of ‘problem solving’ a vast majority of the time. Successful frames almost always take the form of “defeating a problem” or “overcoming resistance.” We have what is essentially a two-party system, which precludes any sort of nuance or explicit compromise between the opposing ideologies. Implicit in all of American politics is the frame of ‘you have only two choices.’ As a result there is a sort of “bundling” of ideologies that takes place; you must, in effect, take a political party as a package.
Because of this, American political frames are often very shallow. The ‘conflict frame’ in particular motivates people to get involved, even if they have no real understanding of how the government works. So high voter turnout does not imply that those voters are truly invested in what happens. We are also very event-oriented. What I mean by this is that we tend to think of things in terms of isolated happenings, rather than as systems (i.e. something needs to blow up in order to get our attention). Once the Big Election is over we don’t care though, and very few people bother to participate in local government. Despite the fact that anyone can submit legislation, realistically, only the people we have elected to an office (or crazy people) tend to do so.
This tendency ends up making our process continually less democratic. There are also two other extremely undemocratic factors in American politics. One is that incumbents are rarely replaced in the Federal and State governments. Once you have a seat in the Senate or in Congress you are rarely replaced. Another is that elected officials can establish non-elected “agencies,” effectively extending their political influence beyond their terms of office.
Because of the fiercely partisan nature of our politics, you can never admit that you were/are wrong. This in turn makes actual compromise very difficult, as it is taken as an admission of inadequacy — as if your Party couldn’t solve everything on its own. Implicit in every debate is the idea that Your Party could fix everything if only the Other Party stopped getting in the way. In fact, any frame that denies the omnicompetence of your Party is likely to fail.
The same goes for Nationalism. Anything you say that can be twisted and made to look “unamerican” (an actual word, I’m not making it up, promise) immediately kills a debate. So humility, inclusivity, and the ability to adapt are all framed as negative in the American political scene. This is mostly because we are event-focused, and anything that doesn’t seem actively patriotic can be portrayed as negative.
Additionally, certain kinds of ethos-reliant rhetorical appeals do not work; you cannot claim to have superior knowledge or ability, even if you possess those things. We have a certain fondness for “experts” of course, but they are almost exclusively used when we agree with them, and we simply ignore them when we disagree, because, like everyone, we hate to admit that someone might know better than we do. In America this is socially acceptable, and, while it sounds cynical, misanthropic and just generally awful, we’ve basically managed to institutionalize ignorance.
So because most voters don’t really care about our rich and robust legal traditions, reason, or any of the other machinery of liberty, the thing that tends to work best in American politics is the “I’m just like you” frame. …and it tends to work precisely because it isn’t true; Americans are almost fanatical when it comes to pretending that class distinctions don’t exist. In this we are like Britain’s differently-evil-twin. We don’t want to actually do anything about class distinctions, but god forbid that you should mention them. So if a public figure appropriates certain symbols of Americana (e.g. eats hot dogs, or takes his kid to a baseball/football/whatever game) or talks in a certain convincing, “down to earth” way, that appeals to the average voter, it’s likely to work, even though we know that it’s a total sham. One reason for this is probably because once you’ve decided that you’re similar to someone, it’s much harder to disagree with them, and a lot of those kinds of decisions are subconscious. It’s also absurdly effective because American politics is dominated by catchphrases, watchwords, and shibboleths etc. etc. so much so that we tend to automatically tune those things out, and this particular frame is not necessarily verbal.
All of what I’ve said so far applies to both parties. However, it’s very neat, tidy and wrong to say that both parties are the same, even if it feels that way sometimes. To someone like myself, who is more libertarian (but please guys, should we ever attain a libertarian utopia, don’t be assholes) than anything else, of course they seem the same, but while they may share certain nauseating similarities, they do attract different kinds of people, and that’s not something that can be ignored.
Depending on the Party, appeals to tradition, to nationalism, to “Freedom” and “Rightness,” are all very popular. Basically, the last hundred years has been about how many Woodrow Wilson speeches you can rip off without anyone noticing. Increasingly the Right tends to talk about things like “restoring our former greatness,” and the Left talks about about fixing society and multi-lateralism. The key in American politics is to choose a frame that makes your opponent look passive and defeatist, regardless of your party.
Again, because our politicians rely so heavily on pathos and ethos to sway voters, the notion of… “piety,” is very important. I don’t mean it in a necessarily religious sense, but in older, more Roman sense. Most public figures spend a great deal of effort on proving their (dubious) moral competence. So most public debates center not around “the issues,” but the people discussing the issues, and their status as symbols for a larger political omnibus…
Obviously my political views have only been confirmed by everything that followed.

…and yeah, it goes on after that. And yeah, I write long letters. And yeah, I start sentences with conjunctions, and I write run-on sentences, and I play fast and loose with punctuation, because, hey, I was a grammar nazi for a long time, and there ain’t no grammar nazi like a reformed grammar nazi.

This is also on Medium. I'm not sure which I want to be using in the future, but it's not so hard to copy-and-paste until I decide.