Tag: <span>Civil War</span>

The Cultural War and The Overton Window

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As I said in my last post, I’m not the first person to speak about the current political climate in terms of a civil war, and the events of the last few weeks mean I definitely won’t be the last either. As one of my commenters pointed out I didn’t mention the shooting last week at the congressional baseball field. But even more recently than that, on Monday morning, a man drove a van into a crowd of Muslims who were leaving a London mosque. That attack was probably a response to an attack earlier this month where some Muslim terrorists drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians on London Bridge before getting out and stabbing people. One would hope that we’ve seen the last such incidents for awhile, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

I think it’s becoming clear that we have a real problem on our hands, the only questions are, “Is it getting worse?” And, “How much worse?” As I indicated in the last episode (of which this is a continuation) the answer to both those questions is greatly assisted by understanding how long it’s been going on, and so I’m more focused on the long term view then I am on dissecting every individual incident. For one thing, if that’s really what you’re looking for there are no shortage of people willing to engage in that dissection. Also, by looking back decades rather than days we find things that are both comforting and sobering. All of this is to say that, as usual, I’m more interested in the 50,000 foot view than the view from the ground. Another person who shares this preference is Dan Carlin of the Common Sense and Hardcore History podcast, who released a Common Sense Episode on this very topic on Sunday, so just before the most recent incident in London. An incident which paradoxically makes his podcast even more timely.

Carlin mentions that a lot of people will want to write off the various perpetrators, from the baseball shooter, to the van drivers, as crazy. And in my experience, that’s definitely going to happen, though people will disagree about which are crazy and which are evil. In fact it’s striking how often people decide that the people who are on their side of things must have been crazy while people on the other side are invariably evil. I would offer that they’re all crazy to one degree or another, but Carlin makes the excellent point that they represent something of a canary in a coal mine. As things get angrier and polarization increases the most susceptible crack first. But he argues, and I agree, that if it continues more and more people will drink the kool-aid and the amount of craziness it requires to turn violent will continue to decrease.

We have seen this happen before. Preceding the Civil War there was Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Bleeding Kansas, and of course, the event which most resembles the kind of thing we’re worried about today, John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry. More recently when we look at the flare-up of the late 60s/early 70s there was the Weather Underground bombings, the Kent State Shootings and the Manson Family Murders. I don’t feel qualified to get into the psychology of people before the Civil War, but looking at the list of people involved in the more recent social unrest we have the whole continuum from very insane on one end to very sane on the other. It’s hard to argue that Charles Manson is not insane, but the participants in the Weather Underground were sane enough to go on to become respected professors, and I can’t find anyone who claims that the National Guardsman who fired on protesters at Kent State were anything other than sane.

Reviewing these incidents should provide some comfort. As bad as things are today we haven’t had anything yet that rivals the events I just listed. Even the campus protests of today, as angry as the protesters are, don’t (yet) come anywhere near the intensity or scope of the campus protests or the wider social unrest present in the late 60s/early 70s. As much as I worry about increasing violence and the widening ideological chasm, it has been worse. And I don’t think people realize how bad it was. This is another thing Carlin brings up in his podcast and to illustrate his point he uses the following selection from Nixon’s Memoirs:

From January 1969 through April 1970 there were, by conservative count, over 40,000 bombings, attempted bombings, and bomb threats–an average of over eighty a day. Over $21 million ($140 million in today’s dollars). Forty-three people were killed. Of these 40,000 incidents, 64 percent were by bombers whose identity and motive were unknown.

Now you may not want to believe Tricky Dicky, but I think we can all agree that things aren’t as bad now as they were then. Still, as I said in my previous post, whether they remain that way depends on which direction things are headed and how long they’ve been headed in that direction. I have already said that I think they’re headed left, and they’ve been headed left for awhile. But the important question, as always is, what evidence do I have of this? And here I would like to introduce another way of looking at this subject, the aptly named, Overton Window.

The “Overton” comes from Joseph P. Overton, a think tank executive who died young in a plane crash, and if you spend much time in certain corners of the internet you’ll already be familiar with this term. But if you’re not familiar with it, the idea behind the Overton Window is that out of all the things you could talk about some are acceptable and some are completely unacceptable. The things which are acceptable are inside the Overton Window and everything that’s unacceptable is outside the window. The idea was originally developed as a way of describing the political viability of an idea, and specifically what someone seeking a public office could and could not say if they wanted to have any hope of getting elected. Some examples will help to clarify things:

Currently, supporting same sex marriage is squarely in the Overton Window, not only can you talk about it, it’s policy everywhere in the US. On the other hand, opposition to same sex marriage is at the edge of the Overton Window. You can still talk about it, but depending on which party you’re affiliated with it may disqualify you from seeking public office. From this you may have already deduced one of the central features of the Overtown Window, it moves. For example less than 10 years ago Obama said: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” Can you imagine any democrat seeking a nationwide office saying that now? No, and that’s because in the last ten years the Overton Window moved significantly with respect to this issue.

To take a less partisan example let’s look at single payer healthcare. In 2008 when Obama was running for the presidency, he made sure to clarify that his proposed health care plan was not single payer, because he knew that the idea of single-payer healthcare is unpalatable to a lot of people and advocating for it would have made it difficult for him to get elected. In other words, it was on the edge of the Overton Window. And even after the election, and despite controlling the presidency and both houses of congress, the democrats didn’t try to pass single-payer despite the fact that it was clear, even then, that the frankenstein monster they did put together was almost certainly worse than single payer. Now that healthcare is back on the table not only is single-payer being seriously discussed but even republicans are talking about it. Another example of the movement of the window, though notice that it’s moving more slowly than in the first example.

From looking at stuff inside, or at the edge of the window let’s look at something that was once in the Overton Window and is now so far outside of it, that it’s a major news story if anyone attempts to even slightly minimize its horror. Of course I’m talking about slavery. There was a time when talking about whether slavery should be legal, or whether it should be expanded into new states, or whether free states had a duty to return escaped slaves, were all well within the Overton Window. Now, of course, such subjects aren’t anywhere near the window of acceptable discourse. And I’m probably going to get in trouble for even talking about it.

In all of the examples the window moved left. And as we shall see, that represents another interesting feature of the Overton Window, not only does it move, when it does move it always moves left. In the last post we talked about how conservatives, after decades of effort, finally got tired of trying to change academia and the media and defected to create their own institutions. In this post we uncover the explanation for why. Not only were conservatives unable to make media and academia more conservative, they were unable to even hold the line. Historian Robert Conquest summed up this process in his second law of politics:

Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.

And not only are all organizations moving left, there is significant evidence, as we saw with same sex marriage, that they’re picking up speed.

At this point, particularly for those inclined to disagree with me, you’re probably looking for a counter example, some place where the window did not move left. And I will concede that It’s certainly possible to cherry-pick some small issue where the right achieved a temporary victory, or a tiny roll-back. But, as I mentioned in the beginning, my point is to look at things from 50,000 feet, and from that view point, the long-term trends are all moving left. So the fact that Proposition 8 made same sex marriage illegal in California in 2008 or the fact that the effective corporate tax rate was once 50% and now it’s 17% are not facts which falsify the idea. Because, the key fact is not that same sex marriage was made illegal again for a few years, but that it became legal everywhere after a fight of less than a decade. And the key fact is not where the government gets it’s money and if it’s getting more or less from businesses, but how much the government spends and how much it continues to grow in size.

And these two examples represent the two branches of conservatism: fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. And as you can probably already guess I am claiming that within these two broad categories the leftward shift is unmistakable.

If we focus first on fiscal conservatism, no one who looks at government spending could do anything other than conclude that fiscal conservatives are getting their butts kicked. As usual SlateStarCodex beat me to the punch (seriously how does that guy write so much?) and in his most recent post he has several graphs showing the ridiculous growth in government spending, and particularly in welfare programs. Of the graphs he included, my favorite is the one showing per person welfare spending in constant dollars. On this graph there is a spot marked to show when President Clinton implemented welfare reform. And at that spot the graph flattens a tiny, almost imperceptible amount, it doesn’t go down, it’s just flat. Meaning that even when we set out to reduce welfare spending that all we were able to do was hold it flat for a couple of years. Now of course it dropped a lot during the financial crisis, so it’s not impossible for it go down it’s just not something, apparently, that we can exercise any conscious control over.

Looking at that graph reminds me of something Thomas Sowell once said. (Though, for the life of me I haven’t been able to track down the reference.) He pointed out that if government programs really had the impact their advocates claim then you should be able to easily pick out when they were implemented on a graph and yet if you take away the labels and the dates, that’s rarely the case.

The welfare spending per person graph is a great example of this. (Here’s another example.) I am positive that without the label and without the date axis that no one could pick out the spot where the Clinton welfare reforms were implemented. Of course this is all just an interesting, though somewhat tangential point. The important point is that no matter how fiscally conservative the Republicans are; No matter how large their legislative majority; Or how many tea party candidates get elected, Government just keeps growing. In 1913 you needed a constitutional amendment to implement the income tax. In 1935 the only way Social Security was passed was because it was expected to cover just a tiny number of people (the average American didn’t even live until 65 back then) and even so there were serious debates about its constitutionality. In 2001 you could propose (unsuccessfully I might add) to privatize social security, But in 2016 neither candidate was even able to propose raising the retirement age. (Clinton actively opposed it.) The Overton Window just kept moving left. If you can’t even talk about raising the retirement age and be a viable political candidate, you certainly can’t talk about privatization of Social Security, and heaven help you if it get’s out that you ever considered eliminating it.

Government just keeps growing. And one of the points made in the SlateStarCodex article is that this is despite the Republican base becoming increasingly fiscally conservative, and despite the associated rise of the Tea Party, and despite the Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress for 12 out of the last 22 years and the House (which is in charge of the money) for 18 of the last 22 years. One of the favorite phrases fiscally conservative pundits use when speaking about this issue is that, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t,” and Margaret Thatcher wisely observed that eventually you run out of other people’s money. And that is certainly the case, but it looks like our very best efforts to avoid that eventuality have barely move the needle.

Based on all of this I would reiterate my position that in the realm of government spending the Overton Window is moving left. Even if it took 80 years for Social Security to get to the nearly unassailable position it currently enjoys, it still got there. In part this relative slowness is due to that fact that when it comes to spending we do have a useful measuring stick in the form of money. If we run out of it, everyone (presumably even Paul Krugman) would agree that we have a problem. Krugman might point out the abstract nature of money in a world where we can print our own or spend $3.5 Trillion on quantitative easing. To which I would retort that, while it’s not perfect it is nevertheless better than nothing.

On other hand when it comes to social issues we enjoy neither the same leisurely pace we had with fiscal issues, nor a generally agreed upon measuring stick. With respect to accelerating cultural change, I have already mentioned same sex marriage, and while it’s definitely a great example of the kind of rapid change I’m talking about, a better example might be transgender rights which appear to progressing by an order of magnitude faster still. Though, making such a claim, is precisely the situation where a generally agreed upon measuring stick would come in handy.

Frequently, when someone is trying to measure something abstract like transgender rights they’ll turn to the Google Ngram viewer and look at word frequency. If we do that for the word transgender we see usage of the word as being all but non-existent until 1988 when the graph suddenly goes almost vertical. Unfortunately the Google NGram viewer only goes to 2008, but in the 20 year period from 1988 to 2008 occurrences of the word transgender increased 33,000%! And you can only imagine how much more common the word has gotten since 2008. In other words the concept of being transgender essentially didn’t exist before 1988 and now when I do a search of the word transgender in the news I get articles on Pakistan issuing a transgender passport, two different deputies (one in Colorado, one in Orlando) coming out as transgender, a debate about whether to delay allowing transgender people into the military and a discussion of whether someone can decide that they’re transgender when they’re only three.  All of this around a concept that didn’t even exist 30 years ago. If this isn’t evidence of the Overton Window moving left at an ever increasing speed, I don’t know what is. And transgender awareness and same sex marriage are not isolated issues, this is a society wide change that has happened blindingly fast, and which has incredibly broad implications well beyond either of the two individual issues.

Now there are a lot of you who think this is a good thing, or at least not a bad thing. And I certainly hope you’re right, but before we can definitely say that we need to know what the endgame looks like. And this is where both the speed of the Overton Window and the lack of a measuring stick come into play. If we continue at this pace for another 30 years where does that put us? Is it possible that in that time we will have gone too far? Or that we have already gone too far? What measuring stick are we using to know when we’ve “run out of money”? And this is where we finally return to Dan Carlin’s podcast. Speaking on the subject of a potential civil war, Carlin asks a very important question, “What does winning a civil war even look like?” Does everyone have to be comfortable with the most liberal current position that exists today, because in 10 years that will be mainstream? What about 20 years from now? By that time would we all have to be comfortable with positions that even the most liberal person finds abhorrent now? What if there are people who will never be comfortable with those ideas? Do we kill them? Re-educate them? Banish them? And this all assumes something approaching a best case scenario for the left where they win and there’s no violence. Neither of which, especially the latter, is guaranteed.

The Overton Window is an express train heading at great speed towards an unknown destination. I don’t know how to stop it, but it would be nice if it didn’t run over anyone as it hurtles into the darkness.


The world is changing fast, if you think that’s a good thing you should donate since I’ll need the money for my own re-education when the time comes, and if you think it’s a bad thing you should also donate because now you understand better why that is.

Also there will be no post next week. I’ll be taking my summer vacation.


Taking Democracy for Granted

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

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As the presidential election approaches, the amount of (mostly virtual) ink being spilled on the contest has reached epic proportions. Obviously you can find articles and blog posts about all sorts of things, but as of this writing (10/13/16) the major headlines all appear to be about the accusations of Trump’s sexual harassment. While I’m sure these accusations are interesting, I’m not sure that they are important. But let’s talk about the interesting bits first, and then we’ll examine its importance.

Of all the things going on with this story the element that interests me the most is the timing of the accusations. It seems to be a classic October Surprise. And by that I mean it appears likely that people have been waiting to announce their accusations until a point when the accusations could inflict the maximum damage. I see no evidence that any of the revelations are the result of things which only could have been uncovered recently. As far as I can tell, just based on a brief glance (there are a LOT of accusations) even the most recent dates from 2013. Also it’s not as if Trump has just suddenly become important, or that it has suddenly become important for him to be stopped. Four or five months have passed since he was a lock for the Republican nomination, over a year has passed since he announced he was running, and he’s been a public figure since before I graduated from high school. (Which trust me is a long time.) Why wait until now to go public?

Obviously a certain amount of speculation is involved. There can be many reasons for delaying an accusation against a public figure, not the least of which is the media circus certain to ensue as soon as you do. But on the other hand it distresses me when I find out that people have been afraid to come forward. Not only is that something we need to work on (though my ideas for how to do this may be different than most.) But it would have been hugely beneficial to know all this stuff during the primaries rather than four weeks before the election. Still, the point of all of this, is to say that if it was intentional, then, “Well played!” I always thought that Trump was going to have a difficult time of it, but as I said recently in an email to a friend of mine, I think he’s well and truly beaten, if not out-maneuvered at this point.

In that same email to my friend I said a couple of other things that are worth relating. First I offered the caveat that I had repeatedly been wrong about “Peak Trump” so it’s possible I was wrong this time, though this one feels different, possibly because he’s been faltering in places where he was previously strong, like the debates and Utah, normally the most reliable Republican state there is (more on that later.)

The second thing I said in the email was that I found the manner of Trump’s demise to be fascinating, particularly given Bill Clinton’s history in this area. Obviously there are differences, but those differences aren’t as great as people like to think. Which brings me to the issue of whether these accusations aren’t merely interesting, but important. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has recently taken some heat for his commentary on the election. One of his recent pieces was titled Scandal Poker, where he compares the various accusations against Trump and Clinton to determine whether either has the edge. On the issue of their treatment of women he declares things a tie. I’m not sure that I agree with that, at least not in terms of how things are being perceived. (Which is pretty critical when you’re going to decide things by popular vote.) And, frankly, the reason perception tilts in Clinton’s favor is in large part because the people who police these sorts of things are more forgiving of indiscretions on the left side of the aisle than they are on the right. But if you remove perception from the equation and just look at it’s effect on their ability to be president then I don’t think it’s important. Meaning, I don’t think chastity has much correlation with the ability to be a good president. Jimmy Carter was by all accounts a very chaste person and a mediocre (at best) President. And of course more recently everyone seems to agree that Clinton was an above average president, but as we’ve mentioned he wasn’t very chaste.

Does this mean we shouldn’t want moral people to be president? I think all else being equal we definitely should, in fact I think we should even give it some weight, but with all of the other potential issues on the table it’s honestly not going to be at the top of my list. Now of course as Mormons/Christians we do think chastity is important, and in a broader sense the Book of Mormon explicitly ties morality into good governance. (Mosiah 29:25-27) But if the salvation of the country lies in having chaste presidents we’ve been doomed since at least Kennedy if not before.

If Donald’s (and Bill’s) chastity isn’t important, what is? I mentioned the enormous amount of ink being spilled, and it’s forgivable if the interesting and titillating stuff makes the front page, but surely in all that’s being written the truly important stuff is in there, just perhaps not on the front page? I would argue that it’s not, that no one is talking about the truly important issues and questions, which go well beyond Clinton and Trump. The truly important questions are, what are the limits of democracy? And has democracy*, in fact, failed?

*I understand that we’re not really a democracy, but I use that word throughout because it makes more sense to modern ears and is a mostly accurate description of things in any event.

From a Mormon perspective we already know what the limits of democracy are, it lasts until the people choose inquity, and when that happens it pretty much doesn’t matter what your form of government is, bad things are on the horizon. And, as you might imagine from the general tenor of doom and gloom on this blog, I think that’s the position we’re in. Rather than offer up statistics or some high level view of things, let me instead relate the situation I encountered the other day. I found myself in a meeting with four old (all 70+) men, and we ended up talking, in a general way, about politics. From the discussion it was impossible to say if they were hard-core devotees of either party, but knowing what I do about them, I suspect that they all lean Republican in a vague way, but have voted for many Democrats over the years. As the conversation progressed it was apparent that none of them had any idea who to vote for. In miniature, this is the problem. This group of men hadn’t chosen inquity, but come November 8th they won’t be able not to. Maybe that’s not true, maybe one of the two candidates isn’t a bad choice, but that’s certainly not how they feel. And even setting aside this example we’re still looking at an election between the most unpopular presidential candidate ever, and the second most unpopular presidential candidate ever. And even if you don’t agree that it’s symptomatic of the failure of democracy, you’re surely not going to argue that the 2016 election is democracy’s finest hour either.

Of course there is the option of voting third party, which I’ve talked about already, and perhaps the gentlemen I was talking with will all end up voting for Evan McMullin. There’s even a scenario where he could actually become president. Evan just has to take Utah, Trump has to prevent Hillary from winning a majority of the remaining electoral votes, and then when it gets tossed to the House they give it to Evan. I could see McMullin taking Utah. The rest seems pretty improbable, bordering on the fantastic. In other words, while I appreciate the fact that people are getting a lesson on what happens if no one gets a majority of the electoral votes. It’s not going to get us out of this.

We return then to what I consider the important point. Has democracy failed? To answer that I’d like to go back in history a bit. To start with, it’s obvious if one looks at the history of the American experiment that it was by no means certain that it would work, or that democracy in general had any sort of legs. It’s important to recall that six years after the Revolutionary War ended, there was a revolution in France and it did not go well. And that besides the bloodiness of the whole affair that actually returned to the monarchy under Napoleon III. Which certainly makes it sound like it didn’t take. But we don’t even have to look at France, switching from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution after less than ten years is not the sort of thing that inspires confidence. All of this may seem obvious to you, but even if it does, you may still not realize how precarious things still seemed even as late as the Civil War. This point was brought home to me recently while reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

For most people the Civil War starts and ends with the issue of slavery. And certainly I don’t want to take anything away from that. There would have been no Civil War without slavery and it deserves to be mentioned first whenever the Civil War is discussed. But as is usually the case there is a benefit to going deeper, because while slavery was necessary for the start of the Civil War, it was not sufficient. As Abraham Lincoln said:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Flat out stating that for him, the preservation of the Union was the primary goal. I had heard that quote before, though Team of Rivals reminded me of it, and corrected other mistaken ideas I had been carrying around.

One of the big things I was mistaken about was support for ending slavery even after the war had started. I had always kind of assumed that once war started and especially once the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued that it was pretty much understood, “Well as long as we’re doing this we should definitely make sure to eliminate slavery.” But even late in the war, when the South, through back channels, suggested peace, as long as they got to keep slavery (what sort of peace that would be is anybody’s guess), Lincoln was worried about this news leaking out. While he was adamant that he wouldn’t roll back emancipation, he knew that if the general public found out that the only thing keeping the war going was the issue of slavery, that they would turn against it. Several times it’s made clear that if the war became about just ending slavery that the general population of the North would stop supporting it.

Honestly I’ve never understood why it was so important to preserve the Union, why they couldn’t just let the south go and call it a day. Maybe I’m alone in that, but I can’t imagine Texas seceding and urging my son who turns 18 in a few months to immediately go enlist in the Army so he could join in on the invasion. And I’m pretty certain most people feel the same way. I particularly don’t understand why it was so important to preserve the Union when I consider the 670,000 people who would end up dead (390,000 just on the side of the Union). Now obviously I have the benefit of hindsight which Lincoln did not, but even so he would have to be a great fool to assume that it would not be terrible and bloody. And of course in addition to the number of dead there was the cost of the war, over $8 billion between the two belligerents and over $6 billion just for the North. (To say nothing of veteran benefits which eventually ended up exceeding the original cost of the war.)

To put those two figures in modern terms. Our current population is roughly 10 times the population in 1860, so imagine 6.7 million people dying, or roughly 2200 9/11’s or 1000 Iraqs and Afghanistans. And turning to the financial impact the cost would be equal to $30 trillion in today’s money. All of which is to say that they spent a lot of blood and treasure just to preserve the Union. So why was that so important?

After reading Team of Rivals I think I finally have an answer. As I said earlier we forget how precarious and how experimental our form of government was back then. Recall that at the time of the Civil War, the revolution and the passage of the Constitution were still within living memory. The Thomas Jefferson presidency was to them as the JFK presidency is to us. The debates we have about the expansion of the government under the New Deal? Imagine the same debates and the same time horizon, except the debates are about whether democracy is possible at all. All of this is stated very eloquently by Lincoln in the Gettysburg address:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We forget that it did still seem like a big experiment. At the start of the Civil War there were only three Democracies in the whole world (The aforementioned Napoleon III was in power in France). And of course the US was by far the largest and most ambitious. It certainly must have seemed possible, even probable that if you just let 11 states secede that the entire project was doomed. Whether that was the case I don’t know, but even if I don’t agree it makes sense.

Returning from our long detour through the Civil War, the takeaway is that they were intensely aware of the fragility of democracy, and conscious that it just might not work under some conditions. In fact one of the chief concerns about slavery was that democracy itself couldn’t function appropriately while slavery existed. Ignoring entirely the question of how black slaves should be treated.

By contrast today we just figure that democracy should work, that the governmental system we have will last forever. Or until the benevolent AI overlords can take over. Whether I agree with them or not, during the Civil War people were willing to fight and die in defense of their vision of how the nation should work. I am not suggesting that that’s what we should be doing. I am suggesting that we have gone entirely in the opposite direction to the point where we take democracy for granted. When the founding fathers created our system of government it was unique in all the world. We were the first thing even resembling a democracy in a long time. The Founding Fathers had to go back to the Roman Republic and Ancient Greece in order to find working examples to draw from. Beyond that it was just a bunch of theories put forth by people like Locke and Rousseau. One of their key worries was whether it would even work. As Benjamin Franklin said, when asked what form of government they had, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” This same question confronted Lincoln when he decided to go to war. But in the decades since then we have stopped asking whether we can keep it and we just assume that it’s part of the landscape. It may be overly simplistic to phrase it this way, but it’s precisely when you stop worrying about something that it can be the most likely to happen.

If our lack of concern was the only symptom then you should feel free to dismiss everything I’ve said (though hopefully you enjoyed the Civil War discussion) but of course there are lots of symptoms beyond just a lack of concern.

The current election is obviously a big one. No one feels like this is a contest between two noble individuals put forth after solemn deliberation by their respective parties to honorably contest for the highest position in the land. Instead it feels like the squabbling of toddlers (and I am perfectly willing to blame Trump for a greater portion of that). Reading Team of Rivals I couldn’t help but come away with the impression that the politicians of that era were giants compared to what we have to choose from today.

The increasing rancor of political discourse and the political parties in general is another symptom. Returning to the Civil War things were obviously more heated than they are now, but that shouldn’t provide any comfort when we realize what the final cost was to eventually heal that divide.

Still another symptom is the near absolute power of the Supreme Court. When it comes down to it most people admit that that’s where the true battleground is. And they may hate Trump with the fire of a thousand suns, but confess they’re still going to vote for him because he’s their only chance to get right-wing nominees on the bench. The topic of the Supreme Court will get it’s own post in the near future, but having nine people (and in reality just one person, Kennedy) decide all of the most pressing issues of our day is not the definition of a healthy democracy.

Closely related to the previous symptom, the tendency for people to lose on an issue when put to a popular vote and then get the courts to overrule that vote is another alarming trend. Same Sex Marriage (SSM) is one of the best examples of this, but it’s not the first time it happened and it certainly won’t be the last. Vox.com, a publication which certainly supports SSM recently posted an article pointing out the democracies collapse without graceful losers, not realizing that this same thinking applies something like SSM. (Needless to say there was no reference to that in the article or even to courts overturning majority votes.)

The final symptom I want to discuss, and I will probably get in trouble for this, is the current ideology that quantity is all that matters when it comes to voting. Quality doesn’t matter at all. Allow me to explain. While everyone talks about the need for well-informed voters, voters who care about what’s happening and are voting to make a difference, in every case where a choice must be made between quality and quantity, quantity wins. Of course almost no one views it as a tradeoff, despite the fact that there’s always a tradeoff between the two, to the point where it might as well be a fundamental law of the universe.

Getting to far into the weeds on this particular issue is liable to upset even the people who’ve made it this far, so let me just speak about it in more general terms. Nate Silver recently made a splash when he put out two electoral maps, the one showing what the election would look like if just women voted and one showing what it would look like if just men voted. Obviously no one’s trying to suggest that the election should be restricted in either fashion, but it’s a great example of the idea that you get different results based on how you slice the electorate. Right now we’re not slicing it, we’re making every effort to get every single person possible to vote. Which as I said is a quantity in deference to everything else. Now it’s certainly possible that maximizing quantity also maximizes beneficial outcomes, but I doubt it, and as you may be aware the founding fathers did not think that was the case either.

You may argue those were different times, and indeed they were, but moving it to the present day let’s engage in the following thought experiment. Imagine if we discovered a way to get 10 million more people to vote. Further imagine that these are all people who had never voted before, people who are entirely apathetic about the process, people who if asked could barely identify the people running for president (forget about any other offices). If we could get these people to vote, would they actually improve the outcome of the election? Would we get better leaders from an election with these 10 million people than without them? I can’t see anyway to argue that they would. You might argue that it has some moral benefit, but even that argument would disappear if you changed it from 10 million generic people to 10 million low-information, racist, misogynist  Trump supporters.

It’s easy to forget how recent democracy is. Even our own history of 230+ years is not very long by historical standards, but if we turn again to the website I referenced when I claimed there were only 3 democracies at the start of the Civil War (US, Switzerland and New Zealand) we find that the number of democracies hovered at 40 or less until 1984! To quote from the same website political freedom is a recent achievement. It may not seem that way, and it may seem like it’s something which is as immutable as the rising of the Sun, at least in the US, but that’s not the case. We take it for granted at our peril. Whether you agree with any or all of my symptoms I hope we can all agree that putting forward two candidates who were were seemingly grown in a lab for the express purpose of aggravating the other side is not a good sign.