Bubbles, Part… 1.5? The Role of the Individual, More Broadly

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I’m going to interrupt my Bubbles series to discuss an excellent column in the Washington Post that I somehow missed last week:

Americans have lost faith in institutions. That’s not because of Trump or ‘fake news.’

This column ties back to where my series is going, relating to how certain institutions can respond to the polarization in the country. It’s worth writing, first, about the relationship between institutions and the actions of individuals, since I focused so much on the latter in Part 1 but Parts 2 and (maybe) 3 will focus on the former. I don’t want to convey a sense of equivalence, and this is a great opportunity to address the difference.

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The biodome from the movie The Truman Show

Bubbles, Part 1: 5 Steps To Burst Yours

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Sorry about the hiatus. I have been busier lately, suffering from writer’s block and getting over a fever. I’m going to take things in a slightly different direction from what I alluded to last time, maybe we’ll come back around later. It’s hard to keep focus on who the enemy is!

A related concern of mine for a while has been our polarizing social environment, of which I suspect the polarized political climate is just a reflection. If approval ratings of one’s own members of Congress are high despite general approval ratings of Congress being low [1], that suggests that at least legislators are still representing the wishes of their constituents. The problem is our country as a whole needs to come to terms with what its wishes are, and that starts with us. This post covers how to break out of our isolated bubbles by learning to engage in discourse with your fellow Americans, hopefully avoiding shouting matches that just drain willpower and don’t inform or advance debate.

Our platforms for discourse are also at fault here for enabling our ideologically reclusive behavior, but I will focus on that part of it in Part 2. First, let’s discuss our role in the solution as individuals and what we can do without just blaming the media or social networks. Even if we fixed these tools tomorrow, we would still have to be willing to use them effectively to achieve this end.

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Wide Awake torchlight rally, 1860
Wide Awake torchlight rally, 1860

I Like These Resistance Tactics

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How does the right criticize us and our resistance efforts? Although insults lobbed at protesters are not meant to be constructive feedback, they are based on an idea held by the accusers that something we are doing is inherently disagreeable. We keep hearing the same ones because they resonate among other conservatives. I believe that adjusting tactics to counter these attacks can broaden the movement’s appeal. At the very least, if they run out of insults they will only be able to criticize us by attacking our message.

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Apollo 13 Service Module showing damage from the explosion
A majority of the Apollo 13 Service Module's systems were working just fine...

How Do You Oppose 30 Percent of America?

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I need to be careful here, per advice to never forget who the enemy is. [1]

Let’s go back to that recent Pew poll. Trump had a 39 percent approval rating, and 29 percent strongly approve. [2] I am going to round and from now on call these strong supporters the 30 percent. They are not the enemy, but they are a group that I assume we cannot hope to appeal to or persuade right now. Think of them like the damaged systems from the explosion that crippled Apollo 13, no longer performing their function of keeping the spacecraft that is our democracy functioning correctly. I’m not writing them off; rather I think of it this way:

“Now listen, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number eight. You’re talking about number six hundred and ninety-two.”
–Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 (1995) [3]

Thing number eight will necessarily involve the 70 percent that are not in this group.

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"I Am A Man" protesters from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike
Protesters from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. Memphis Press-Scimitar, Publisher. Licensed CC BY-NC-ND

Who We Are Is Not Negotiable

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I think we are in the midst of an ideological realignment of the nation’s politics. Issues and priorities will move around, yet in a time when there is so much at stake, it will be difficult to triage the planks of our platform. Political capital to defend what we care about is limited. I suggest looking at this like a triage situation, where it is easier to decide what to do based on what is most worth saving rather than focusing on what you’ll have to give up. So let’s analyze what I argue is the top priority value of the left, and how we can give it broader appeal.

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Authoritarianism is a Cancer on Democracy

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Yeah, so I had a draft of this post that I was working on, then Chris Vance wrote a post with the same theme, probably said better than I would. Go read that one if you think knocking out Trump is all that needs to happen.

Even if Trump fails sooner rather than later, a significant chunk of the population has become enthralled in the authoritarian mindset. There is serious work to do to restore our democracy at home, and then root out this trend in the places around the world where it’s also taken hold.

I have received advice to celebrate all victories in this movement, even the small ones, to provide the will to keep going through this multi-year marathon of resistance. I don’t disagree; I grinned with guilty pleasure this week watching Trump flail at a press conference declaring like a child “I’m not ranting and raving!” and seeing one of his cabinet nominees eliminated. I just know that this doesn’t mean the marathon is ending early.

Feb 2017 Popular Approval: 39%. Republican Approval: 84%. Which Matters?

How the Left Can Win

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This is a long one. I first need to lay out what won’t work, but not wanting my first two posts to both be depressing I continue on to what I think will work.

Currently Trump’s approval rating is abysmal, but he has extremely high numbers among Republicans. He didn’t need a majority to like him to get elected, and he doesn’t need a majority now in order to govern. While researching for this post, I was surprised to learn that not only are Trump’s Republican numbers high, they are typical for a president’s own party at this point in his term; it’s just the opposition party numbers that are (extremely) low [1]. Since the electorate is so polarized, this is all he needs to keep elected Republicans on his side. I again reference the American Revolution; the Patriots were originally in the minority, maybe 20% of the colonist population, yet they eventually triumphed [2]. Luckily, Trump is demonstrating extreme incompetence at consolidating power [3]. Other authoritarians like Hugo Chávez [4] and Juan Perón [5] had more initial support and were more experienced politicians who knew how to play a long game.

Going back to the polls, Trump’s “mandate” will tank if his approval ratings drop among Republicans, especially in less safe Congressional districts and the nine states with Republican Senate incumbents in 2018. That’s just numbers, though; how can the left possibly erode Trump’s loyalty among a constituency that hates them so much? This is the classic challenge of bringing down an authoritarian; it’s not easy, but there are some approaches to learn from in history. Continue reading

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851

The Left Might Not Win

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These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
–Thomas Paine

On that fateful 1776 Christmas night, General George Washington was in a dire position on the run from Charles Cornwallis. The war for America’s independence had not been going well that year, and the Continental Army’s only hope rested in a surprise attack of Hessian soldiers on the other side of the Delaware River. Victory, in the end, was by no means guaranteed.

It’s worth pointing out who the victors in the American Revolution truly were. If you were a well-educated, reasonably well-to-do colonist, you were probably a Loyalist. Your side lost, and you along with about 80,000 others fled to Canada. The Revolutionary War thus completely and forever altered the political and social order of the continent [1]. Could something analogous happen today? Could us well-educated, well-off Americans lose this fight being waged now that much of the working class has been pitted against us once again? Continue reading