Books discussed in this essay:
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch, (W.W. Norton and Company, New York) (1995)
Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., New York) (2016)
The Great Acceleration: How The World is Getting Faster, Faster by Robert Colvile (Bloomsbury, New York) (2016)
demagogue, n. 1. a person who tries to stir up the people by appeals to emotion, prejudice, etc. in order to become a leader and achieve selfish ends. 2. in ancient history, a leader of the common people.
(Webster’s New World Dictionary, Cleveland and New York, 1959)
What comes from expecting the worst out of politics is that when, on occasion, something worse than the worst happens, the blow falls lightly. Following the heady and noble days of the civil rights movement of the early 60s, the ascendency of the shadowy paranoid and bandbox criminal Richard Nixon to the Presidency was just such an event, with Lyndon Johnson and his war the “worst” out of politics, and Nixon something worse yet. Not a single American was surprised that a besieged Nixon assembled an enemy list, secretly taped his Oval Office conversations (capturing for posterity his rabidly anti-Semitic rants, framed here and there by bourbon-fueled sentiment), funded with cash a massive cover-up of the Watergate affair, and engaged in wildly pathetic self-pity. Having crashed through the stop sign of the worst in American politics, most of us enjoyed the subsequent circus as a cruel necessity. Those days during which the worst was a bungled burglary and got worse only because a paranoid inhabited the White House now seem halcyon indeed. Endless war, now described by our Nationalist fringe as a multi-generational war against “Islamic Terrorism”, social and economic inequality that exceeds Depression era levels, a twenty-four hour news cycle dominated by talking heads, pundits and fake news scams, along with political gridlock and Billionaires who fund outrageous attack ads—coupled with a permanently disengaged, partially employed, and failing underclass, has led to inchoate anger that only recently congealed on the Orange Head of one Donald J. Trump, Reality TV Star, borderline sociopath, narcissist, tax-dodge, habitual liar, bully and all-around dope. His election (in the “Electoral College” at least) has brought up the question again of what happens when the worst is followed by something worse. The worst would have been Hillary Clinton in the White House; something worse was The Donald himself in the White House. A number of our fellow citizens were outraged and vented in public. Others, mostly minorities, held seminars and planned the Underground Resistance. I decided to find out why it happened, and how. This turned out to be not so hard.
Luckily for the perplexed, two books (one recent, one twenty-years old) provide major answers to the question, Why? One new book about “technology” by a writer who can only be described as an innovation cultist, succinctly sums up the question, How?
In books like “The Agony of the American Left” (1969) and “The Culture of Narcissism” (1979), political and cultural critic Christopher Lasch established himself as a major interpreter of the “post New Deal” American project. In 1995, when Bill Clinton had been in the White House a few years, Lasch wrote a book that brilliantly and convincingly analyzed the American democratic malaise; a malaise characterized by a citizenry “much more sanguine about the future than they used to be.” Alarmed by the decline of manufacturing and the loss of jobs; the shrinkage of the middle class; the growing number of poor and homeless; the decay of cities and the flourishing traffic in drugs, most Americans saw fierce ideological battles being fought in state-houses and in Congress over peripheral issues. It was the central premise of Lasch’s new book “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” that a growing Elite had lost touch with the people and that the unreal and artificial character of American politics reflected their insulation from the common life, plus a conviction that “the real problems are insoluble.”
Of course, Lasch observed, there had always been a privileged class in America. However, in the nineteenth-century, wealthy families were usually settled in one locale over several generations. Old families recognized responsibility to their city and region, endowing libraries and museums, parks, orchestras, universities, hospitals and other civic amenities. These days, Lasch argued, the mobility of capital and the emergence of finance and global markets tended to produce a new rootless elite, bonded only to their common “heritage” of elite universities, elite jobs, and elite bank accounts. Ambitious people understand that “a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead.” Further adumbrating his basic premise, Lasch wrote, “The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it; a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middle-brow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy. Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture.” Lasch further observed that “multiculturalism” suited this new elite to a T, conjuring up as it did exotic cuisines, exotic styles and exotic tribal customs with no questions asked and no commitments required. They were at home “only in transit” to a high-level conference, a business meeting, an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Lasch concluded, “Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world—not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.” The then-current catchwords were not democracy but “self-esteem”, not equality but “diversity, compassion, and empowerment”, locutions that express the hope that the deep divisions in American society can be bridged by “goodwill and sanitized speech.”
To those in the nineteenth-century who gave it any thought, democracy worked best when it rested on a broad distribution of property. An extreme of wealth, set against an extreme of poverty, would give rise to the “mob”, defined as a degraded laboring class, “at once servile and resentful” (in the eyes of the wealthy), lacking the “qualities of mind and character essential to democratic citizenship.” It was important, then, to ensure that self-reliance, responsibility, and initiative, rested in a wide group of citizens whose “competence” resided in the ability to practice a craft and manage a quantum of property. Widely distributed prosperity ensured a smoothly functioning democratic entity. Put another way, democracy works best when people depend mostly upon themselves, their friends and neighbors, functioning as a community. Lasch, citing the rise of segregated (by profession, income and wealth) suburbs, the hollowing out of craft jobs, dwindling public services and disappearing civic amenities, argued that the widening gap between elites who resided in suburbs or rapidly expanding “urban corridors” spelled the end of democracy and the collapse of “civic life.” Lasch concludes, “In our time, however, the democratization of abundance—the expectation that each generation would enjoy a standard of living beyond the reach of its predecessors—has given way to a reversal in which age-old inequalities are beginning to reestablish themselves, sometimes at a frightening rate, sometimes so gradually as to escape notice.”
This changing class structure is taking place all over the “industrialized, democratic” world. In America, people in the upper 20% of the income structure “now control half the country’s wealth”—a figure that has become worse since Lasch wrote those words in 1995. The Walton Family from Arkansas owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of American families taken together. Lasch pointed to a growing “contingent labor force” (part-timers, contract laborers, seasonal workers, undocumented workers), the reduction of jobs covered by pension plans and health insurance, the devaluing of a college education (both by tuition inflation and by unemployment), as well as the inelegant pattern known as “assertive mating” (where wealthy men and women marry each other), as accelerating factors in the de-classing of workers and artisans. It isn’t hard to see why “feminism” appeals to elites, providing as it does the indispensible basis for their “prosperous, glamorous, gaudy, sometimes indecent lavish way of life.”
This new class, tentatively defined as “symbolic analysts” by Robert Reich (then Secretary of Labor for Clinton), consisted of professional and managerial elites, groups whose identity rested not so much on property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise. “Their investment in education and information, as opposed to property, distinguishes them from the rich bourgeoisie, the ascendancy of which characterized an earlier stage of capitalism, and form the old proprietary class—the middle class in the strict sense of the term—that once made up the bulk of the population.” Twenty years ago, at the dawn of the internet, such elites comprised professional brokers, bankers, real estate developers and promoters, engineers, consultants of all kinds, system analysts, scientists, doctors, publicists, publishers, advertising executives, lawyers, entertainers, journalists, television producers and directors, artists, writers, and university professors. The class had always included financiers on Wall Street. Educated at “elite private schools” and “high quality suburban schools”, they enjoy every advantage their doting parents can provide. They get advanced degrees in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. They are “skeptical, curious and creative” (these days, Richard Florida has defined them as the “creative class”), brainworkers who produce “insights” in a variety of fields from marketing to finance and arts and entertainment. They exhibit a “capacity to collaborate” and to “discern larger causes, consequences and relationships.” Since their ability relies on “networking”, they tend to settle in “specialized geographical pockets” populated by people like them. These privileged communities—Cambridge, Silicon Valley and Hollywood (to which now can be added dozens of other “innovation sites” denominated “tech corridors”) represent the epitome of intellectual achievement and attract their own mob of satellite workers, the “in person servers” like voice coaches, yoga instructors, fencing trainers and dancing instructors, among many others. These specialized geographical pockets don’t resemble traditional communities at all. Populated by transients, the pockets and elites who live in them lack continuity.
Here, it is important to note what Lasch calls a “jaundiced observation”, “that the circles of power—finance, government, art, entertainment—overlap and become increasingly interchangeable.” Back then (was it so long ago now?) Robert Reich turned to Hollywood as a compelling example of the “wondrously resilient” kind of community in which there is a concentration of creative types. In Lasch’s words, “Washington becomes a parody of Tinseltown; executives take to the air waves, creating overnight the semblance of political movements; movie stars become political pundits, even presidents; reality and the simulation of reality become more and more difficult to distinguish. Ross Perot launches his presidential campaign from the “Larry King Show.” Hollywood stars take a prominent part in the Clinton campaign and flock to Clinton’s inaugural, investing it with the glamour of a Hollywood opening. TV anchors and interviewers become celebrities; celebrities in the world of entertainment take on the role of social critics.” Reich, an apostate now, back then worshipped the new world of “abstraction, system thinking, experimentation, and collaboration” and was incongruously made Secretary of Labor, the one category of employment—“routine production” that had no future at all.
Concomitant with the rise of these new professional elites (and very current among financiers) was the theology of Meritocracy. Under Ortega y Gasset’s formulation, mass culture combined “radical ingratitude” with an unquestioned belief in possibility. Owing no debt to the past, mass man was “heir to all the ages” and blissfully unaware of his debt to others. These habits of mind now infest the professional elites who attribute their own rise in the world only to the intrinsic structure of the meritocracy itself. In the nineteenth-century it was thought that “opportunities to rise” were important enough in themselves, but that “dignity and culture” are needed by all “whether they rise or not.” Modern professional elites feed themselves a diet of illusion that their rise rests solely on their own merits. It allows them to “exercise power irresponsibly precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead.” Seeing common schools as sentimental, elites now focus on “self-esteem”. Members of the Labour Party in Britain, who can, send their children to private schools.
Thus, the “aristocracy of talent” (beloved of elites) only appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege. “The talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues.” Their children attend expensive private schools. They insure themselves against medical emergencies and hire private security guards, and see no point in paying for public services they no longer use. In their gated enclaves, they seem indifferent to national decline. Nationality, when global capitalism holds sway, no longer seems interesting. The movement of money across borders renders the “whole idea of place” fluid. Even back then Robert Reich recognized the “darker side of cosmopolitanism”, reminding us that people have little inclination to make sacrifices or to accept responsibility for others because “we share a common history or culture.”
These folks gladly pay for private and suburban schools, private police, private systems of garbage collection; but they have relieved themselves of the obligation to contribute to the national treasury.
For Lasch, “the world of the late twentieth century presents a curious spectacle.” United now, capital and labor flow freely across borders through the agency of markets. Everywhere the middle class is in decline; but at no time have there been more ethnic, religious and national wars (this was twenty years ago!). It turns out that the fate of nation states was bound up with the fate of the middle classes, whose outlook was always more nationalistic, jingoistic and militarist than elites of any sort. Yet despite its unattractive features, middle class nationalism contributed to the national sense of place and to respect for historical continuity. In sum, Lasch writes, “Whatever its faults, middle-class nationalism provided a common ground, common standards, a common frame of reference without which society dissolves into nothing more than contending factions, as the Founding Fathers understood so well—a war of all against all.”
More than twenty years later and only a few things have changed. What was once the “worst” is now worse. Added to the sum total of this foolhardiness is the blindness of the Democratic Party, top-to-bottom, to the malaise described by Christopher Lasch in 1995. Only these days, the malaise has become nationalist outrage, militant white identity politics, ethnic backlash, and fist-pumping xenophobia. This travail is the subject of Thomas Frank’s new book “Listen, Liberal, or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, a scathing indictment of the Democratic Party and its “innovation liberalism of the rich”, its “centrist” philosophy, its “politics of hope” (and all the stale clichés that go with it), its advocacy of “bipartisanship” and, above all, its abandonment of the laboring people of this country in favor of a platform catering to elites, though the platform steeps itself in self-evident virtues like “esteem”, “multiculturalism” and “diversity”, each soaked in a rich admixture of “education”.
Frank’s book might well begin (it does not) with President Obama’s State of the Union speech to congress in 2011—the part where he addresses this country’s working people, those who once had a “job for life” with decent wages. According to Frank, the president “gave a powerful description of what had happened to them with deindustrialization: their shattered towns, their ruined lives, their piddling paychecks.” This would be the point where a Democrat would unroll his plans to reverse this disaster and talk about failed trade deals, the need for public works, breaking up the big banks, reinstituting the firewall between investment banking and commercial banking and a huge push against monopoly. Instead, Obama said that nothing could be done for them. “So yes,” Obama said, “the world has changed.” What has happened to working people was real. Then Obama revealed his signature plans—he announced that he “would encourage American innovation.” He would “spur more success stories.” He called on students to study harder and for more people to go to college. In a policy document, the president revealed that “America’s future economic growth and international competitiveness depends on our capacity to innovate…to win, we must out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” For the Democratic Party this was not the beginning of the end, it was the end of the end.
To Frank’s mind, the beginning was Madison’s recognition in Federalist Paper No. 10 wherein the future president identified “unequal distribution of property” as the main cause of political “faction.” Somewhat later, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a fiery Democrat in the Jacksonian tradition, identified two factions, one the party of property and the other the party of the people. In those days (1840s) the Democrats fancied themselves the Party of the People and whatever conflict arose—whether between creditors and debtors, railroads and farmers, bankers and tenants, owners and workers, the Democrats tended to side with the downtrodden. In Franklin Roosevelt’s day, it was a battle against “economic royalists” that caused the president to say, “The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor—these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right…throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly.” In all these years, in fact up and through the mid-1990s, the working people of this country carried enormous clout within the Democratic Party. Identifying with common people, supporting unions, laborers, and the working class in general, Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives for the better part of seventy years, while Republicans steadfastly represented the rich and propertied classes. As Frank notes, today, the House of Representative is “dedicated obsessively to the concerns of the rich—cutting their taxes and chastising their foes…” Even as the common people express bitter cynicism about Wall Street bailouts and corporate welfare, about continued deindustrialization and unfair trade deals, about immigration and national decline, the Democratic Party drones on about the problems of partisanship and education. There is, in effect, no longer a Party of the People. Frank’s book charts that path.
The new constituency of the former Party of the People is—following Lasch, a rarified elite, an elite that has evolved since Lasch pinned them down in 1995, an elite that now calls itself the “knowledge class”, or “creative class”, and that includes not only professionals and managers (the so-called “symbolic analysts of Robert Reich), but also “innovation cultists” (in Frank’s polemical terminology), hedge fund managers and
financial heavyweights in the Federal Reserve System, international NGO do-gooders, Charitable Foundation types trading in international compassion, as well as bi-coastal entertainment moguls and “start-up” VC’s—venture capitalists, from any of the many innovation enclaves like Boston or Silicon Valley. Supposedly having a long tail, these elites now rally support for gay marriage, ethnic diversity, multiculturalism and a heady meritocracy that fans out to cover up the old Democratic Party with the mantle of the New Democratic Party, a rainbow coalition at the end of which is no pot of Gold. Everybody, but everybody, people like Washington Post columnist Bill Knapp, Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Federal Chairman Ben Bernanke (speaking to Harvard’s graduating business class in 2008—what irony!) and Nobel Laureate Thomas Friedman (one of Obama’s favorite columnists), is talking about how education is the key to sustainable power.
Despite its heretical fervor and messianic sense of certainty, Frank’s new book lands a solid punch against the New Democratic Party. It all began, according to Frank, in the election of 1968 that ushered Richard M. Nixon into power. Despite the backing of millions of labor union members and their votes, phone banking, and door knocking, the Democrats barely lost this election (once thought hopeless) to a moody hack and his nationalist message, then losing in a landslide during the 1972 general election. The Party, instead of rewarding labor with continued fidelity, established the “McGovern Commission” with a mandate to reform the “process”, which it soon did, in effect (in Frank’s telling) kicking Labor off the squad. In the wake of the McGovern Commission reforms, labor leaders rebelled against the party. In the words of Al Barkan, director of AFL/CIO’s political arm, COPE, “We aren’t going to let these Harvard-Berkeley Camelots take over our party.” But take it over they did. Let it be said that Hillary Clinton represents only the soap ring on a bathtub full of betrayal.
What followed were disasters like Mondale and Dukakis and disasters like Reagan and Bush. But the real train wreck lay just ahead, and it had a name: William Jefferson Clinton. Franks’ chapters on Clinton make unhappy reading for any Democrat who isn’t part of the restructured constituency. It begins with Bill searching for a “new identity”, a strategy that eventually came to be called “counter-scheduling”, shorthand for insulting all the old Democratic stakeholders and driving a stake through the heart of the New Deal and its tradition of egalitarianism and labor activism. Hillary, one of Bill’s chief strategists, often said that her husband was taking the country on a “journey” and that her husband had a “vision”. Tony Blair in the UK was guiding his country along the same pathways, a “centrist” with a vision. When the passage of NAFTA became Bill’s “finest hour”, the handwriting was on the wall for working Americans. He’d insulted Jesse Jackson as part of his counter-scheduling strategy and then connived to pass one of the most destructive trade deals in American history, virtually ensuring the deindustrialization of the country. And just when the worst had happened, it got worse. In 1994 Clinton signed what Frank calls “the most sweeping police-state bill that modern-day America had seen”, a bill that called for the construction of “countless” new prisons and established over a hundred new minimum sentences. It allowed prosecutors to charge thirteen-year olds as adults and minimized parole. It increased federal death penalty crimes from three to sixty. It’s drug provisions ended up jailing a generation (and more) of African American men, most for more than ten years as part of the infamous 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and the powder form. By 1996, Bill had moved on to “welfare reform”, turning AFDC into TANF and imposing strict work requirements, strictures that eventually ended “welfare as we know it.” So much for poor moms and their kids and a generation of African American men and boys.
In his second term, Bill went to work for Wall Street. A list of his achievements includes the deregulation of the telecom and electricity industries, capital-gains tax cuts, the rescue of the Mexican government, and the sweeping bank-deregulation hauled into town when Bill allowed the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which “experts” called “an anachronism in a global economy.” Repealing Glass-Steagall was widely praised as a “bridge to the future”, while Bill’s cronies like Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin (the aptly named “Committee to Save the World”) portrayed themselves as a team of “professional class superheroes”. Even Clinton’s deregulation of the commodity markets was part of the “bridge”. With Main Street in ruins, Clinton was getting symbolic ticker tape parades in Manhattan and Silicon Valley.
Frank, no slouch when it comes to manning the trenches, takes a look at Decatur, Illinois, where he finds workers who understand that they “got shit jobs with shit wages and no benefits and no health insurance.” The old social contract between management and labor is long gone. Companies say, “We want your life, and when your work life is over, then good-bye.” In definitive chapters on Obama and Hillary, Frank sees more of the same. Obama, his Treasury and Labor Departments staffed by Wall Street bankers and “innovation cultists”, bails out the big banks. Hillary makes millions giving speeches to Goldman Sachs and promotes “micro loans” for Third World Women. Bill jets here and there courting donors to the Foundation. CEOs and Venture Capitalists continue to clip their coupons and treat “carried interest” as a capital gain. Stock options go through the roof as compensation. Is it any wonder that Barack Obama raised more political money from Wall Street than Mitt Romney? In Decatur, meth becomes the drug of choice, unless the dealers have heroin in stock.
Frank’s conclusion is stark, but honest: “It is time to face the obvious: that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure for both the nation and for their own partisan health. Failure is admittedly a harsh word, but what else are we to call it when the left party in a system chooses to confront an epic economic breakdown by talking hopefully about entrepreneurship and innovation?” In short, the Party of the People has failed the people, has avoided its responsibility to the Social Question, and has lived too long on its own moral probity.
And so it isn’t really so hard to figure out how a guy like Donald J. Trump could be elected. Against a background of abandoned factories, ruptured neighborhoods, deserted downtowns, trashed family farms and decaying inner cities, the figure of the demagogue looms large. It isn’t true that America is ruined. It’s a fine time to be rich, a grand time to be generously employed in one of the monopolies that controls telecom, energy, medicine, academics, government, philanthropy, or finance. The rest, as they say in Decatur, is shit.
Throughout much of UK journalist Robert Colvile’s new book, “The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster,” our author adopts the fawning attitude of the now-familiar innovation-revolutionary. No technology emerges that Colvile doesn’t admire, and apparently no problem exists that can’t, through the adoption of the right methodologies, right strategies, and right applications, be solved. Surely, we’re told, overpopulated countries won’t starve because genetically engineered food will rescue their teeming millions. Why not rocket soot into the atmosphere to slow global warming? If our oceans become too acidic, surely there’s a nano-organism that can turn the tide. Colvile’s optimism that a faster world will be a better world stems from his analysis of a biological trait called “entrainment”, a phenomenon that anyone can observe on a city block anywhere in the world. “Take a look at people’s feet,” Colvile counsels. “Pretty quickly you will notice that wherever you are, however large the crowd, they are marching in perfect lockstep.” Our natural rhythm sense is so genetically strong, Colvile writes, that living creatures naturally fall into unison, a pace determined by the nature of the environment. The larger the city, the faster people move, and so forth. People living in big cities, when asked to describe the length of a “pause”, will claim it lasted twice as long as those from farms or small towns. Colvile’s conclusion also exhibits his prejudices in favor of speed: “What single quality best defines how our society is changing? Is it that life is becoming fairer, or more equal, or more prosperous? No: as the experiment above suggests, it is that life is getting faster.” Strangely, Colvile never questions the unexamined hypothesis that faster is better, that entrainment is OK, or that inequality is less defining than speed. In fact, Colvile doesn’t even recognize inequality as a possible “defining” quality of our society. “In area after area, technology was making life quicker, more convenient, more friction-free—not least as more of it moved online.”
This is not just retail bull, but a Wal-Mart full of bull. In a book choked with optimism for faster pace, Colvile stumbles over two inconvenient topics: Journalism and Politics.
Despite the death of print journalism, the lowering of reporting standards, the emergence of “fake news”, the rise of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and the pressures of the 24-hour “news cycle”, Colvile argues that the acceleration of the news industry, while chaotic and often cataclysmic for news providers, has “resulted in an explosion in quality journalism.” As with popular culture, he argues, “there are engrossing long reads and important investigations being produced alongside the quizzes and click-bait—arguably in greater profusion than ever.” But, really, the rubber begins to hit the road when Colvile notes that speed in journalism sometimes isn’t so good. Print readership and revenue have collapsed. Online journalism from traditional sources is slim-hipped, compared to its fulsome progenitor. Colvile admits that the death of print media has sharpened the sense of turmoil and dislocation in the media, concluding that “after all, very few of us can be certain that our jobs, or even our companies, will exist in a decade’s time.” Falling revenue has put new demands on remaining newspaper staff. Increasingly, those who want their “news,” want it all the time, in any format, on any device, at any time of day. It isn’t enough to gather serious news for the next day’s paper. Stories “develop” in real time, followed by Twitter, followed by comment, criticism and blog reaction, an online news stream that generates an endless cycle of reports, thus creating a sense that “something is always happening.” Or, Colvile could have said, that nothing matters. The pressure to “publish” means that fact checking and truth are always the first casualties, and “page views” are the currency of the day. Stories become click-bait, sensational stuff up front designed to “go viral”, that is, shared countless times on social media. This, Colvile admits, “is an environment vulnerable to manipulation.” No kidding. Farther down the line come “semi-stories”, “developing stories”, and the rise of the “talking heads”, commentators and pundits, most often partisan, who gather on TV for shout-fests, news as loud opinion. The trouble, even Colvile knows, is that “on live TV, it is far harder to challenge guests or muster contrasting evidence, not least when the presenter is flitting between topics with little time to prepare.” Lastly, but surely not finally, an ingenious way around the limits of actuality is “future news”, a phenomenon that occurs when newsmakers release speeches in advance, items which then become fodder ahead-of-time.
“There is certainly a strong argument,” Colvile concludes, “that the great acceleration has created a coarse, chaotic culture, in which a slicker, shallower, and ever more speed-obsessed media generates much heat but little light. And matching the pattern seen elsewhere, there has also been a shift towards gigantism—the longing for “big stories” and “epic events” that can attract a distracted and divided audience. It can be argued, and Colvile does argue, that journalism these days always gets to the bottom of every story, eventually. Leaks are part of the phenomenon. People no longer buy newspapers (as people no longer buy record albums); they buy stories (as people now buy songs). But, just so, people often buy the stories they want most to hear, from sources they know won’t disappoint their expectations, sources that will cater to their prejudices and emotional needs. Demagogic stories. Stories from the Echo Chamber.
When it comes to politics, Colvile is hip to the “permanent campaign”. Bill Clinton’s guru James Colvile insisted that politicians must always be ahead of the news cycle, a dictum now raised to the “status of holy writ.” Politicians must anticipate and pre-empt their opponents, keeping them on the defensive, a strategy best pursued through ad hominem attacks, innuendo, strident cliché, and outright lies. As Democrat strategist Joe Trippi points out, “the most effective ads are the ones that make the community a worse place to live.” Lie and move on quickly. Create a hyper-condensed soap opera as the campaign, exhaust an opponent in turmoil and contradiction, Twitter the guy to death, plan and execute in a hurry, no matter the cost; govern as fast as the flow of information itself. The net result is no time to think things through and policies that are half-baked and oversold.
Politics at warp-speed generates worn-down politicians whose physiological systems can hardly cope with the demands of the job. A modern leader, Colvile observes, “needs to have the right temperament to cope with such pressures.” Colvile thinks that these demands require leaders who make quick decisions and stick by them. Actually, the truth is rather different. Perhaps leaders now must make speedy serial decisions, sticking by none of them. Perhaps they must “say what’s on their minds”, even if what’s on their minds today contradicts what was on their minds yesterday. Perhaps the modern politician must be addicted to “action for action’s sake.” In short, while today’s environment requires the steady hand of a deliberate politician, it favors pretty faces. Instant snap judgments of voters (Malcolm Gladwell’s “blink test”) are powerful determinative tools in the hands of a demagogue like Donald. Even Colvile admits that superficial politicians like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage “seem to speak as tribunes for the everyday man.”
In journalese, saying what’s on his mind is a politician’s way of “going clear”, speaking always on the record in a completely unfiltered way, lies, hyperbole, hate-speech, sex-attacks and all. It’s all just data smog anyway, or, perhaps, Locker Room Banter.
Colvile’s book is a primer on breakdown, a GPS for the notion that the here and now isn’t good enough any longer, and can’t be found anyway. After all, he says, some critics argue that Western history consists of more or less successful efforts to rid ourselves of “commitment devices”, social structures such as family, friendships or religious beliefs that prevent us indulging our most immediate desires.” The effect is the destruction of hierarchy and the erosion of legitimate authority. Technology gives these forces a huge push. If the here and now is gone, what sense is there in a fireside chat about fear from the President? Aren’t we all longing for a midnight tweet calling somebody we dislike a dirty name? Isn’t that what politics is all about? Put another way, isn’t it true that every man, armed with a Wireless Electronic Device, is now his own permanent Ministry of Culture and Propaganda?
Colvile reaches a dead-end where technological optimism meets current reality. To his credit, Colvile abandons his sanguine views when he finally confronts the blank wall of economic and social reality. It is worth quoting his conclusion about political reality at length:
“One near-certainty is that the disconnect between rulers and ruled, and the gap between efficient firms and sluggish state, will continue to grow…Yet a less obvious but ultimately more powerful trend will be an increasing divorce between those parts of society that embrace and profit from speed—the highly educated and technologically literate inhabitants of the big cities—and those left behind, forced into low-wage jobs and threatened by automation…The result (of a geographical and social disjunction between elites and others) will be a dwindling of the ties that bind rich and poor, north and south, given the prevailing sense among those in the fast lane that their rewards are the direct product of their efforts, a cultural shift from ‘No Child Left Behind’ to ‘Devil Take the Hindmost’.”
Sadly, Colvile fails to understand the very real structural impediments to reforming the American government in ways that might help underprivileged workers and artisans, to rationalizing the tax code, and to enhancing democratic institutions like elections. His list of “solutions” to the problem of inequality includes mostly technological fixes, ignoring law-making, regulatory and international obstacles to change.
Donald Trump didn’t figure out his “thing” from reading McLuhan or Foucault. He’s a pure product of the system, a sociopath in a suit and tie at the right place in the right time. If, as McLuhan says, we first shape our tools and then our tools shape us, then Donald Trump is our conclusion and not our premise. It isn’t that he “understands” anything or has thought anything through; it is only that he gets it and it works. He moved from building buildings to renovating buildings to putting only his name on buildings somebody else renovates or builds. He intuited himself as pure symbol and simply positioned the brand. He’s ahead of the news. He spends other people’s money and showers himself with publicity, hogging TV network time that comes free to him and is gladly given by image mad companies puffed up on profit. He thrives on aggression, speed, attitude, and Pretty Face. He knows nothing and says what’s on his mind. A lie to him is just another kind of truth, as conditional as one’s promise, one’s contractual obligations, one’s honor. According to some reports by those who know him, he may be wise to his own game and he may not, they can’t tell.
Donald didn’t spend hours honing his spiel in front of a mirror the way Hitler spent hours on his hand gestures and tone. He lives and breathes the thing. The way Jeb Bush gasped and sputtered when the Donald swam by. The way Little Marco sweated bullets and began to gargle his words. The way crowds chanted, “Lock her up!” The way swastikas came into fashion.
We’ll be lucky if the worst that happens is the trains run on time. What’s worse than that is anybody’s guess.