A central theme in The Politics of Crazy was the impact of declining social engagement on our democracy. The book was relatively sunny about the prospect of new forms of engagement (like this website, for example) beginning to pick up where other dying institutions left off. I’m becoming less confident.
During the election Vox pointed out an interesting social divide contributing to support for Donald Trump. People who still lived in or near their hometowns were far more likely to be Trump supporters, regardless of other common factors.
After the election they dove in deeper and found an even more disturbing divide. People who still lived in their hometowns were less likely to attend a high school reunion. Their reason was mostly shame and embarrassment.
People who remain rooted to and invested in a place, seem generally less successful in the culture and economy that has emerged since the rise of global capitalism. And they appear to be bitter about it.
Unemployment is relatively low almost everywhere, just as it was in 2016, but that statistic may miss something more important. High wage jobs are increasingly concentrated in a just a few places, full of transient residents. If you get a chance to visit San Francisco, look carefully at who lives there. These big, wealthy commercial centers are not organized for lifetime living. People who use these venues successfully leverage them for a period of time before moving on. Even the suburbs around them are purpose-oriented, not life-oriented. You live in San Francisco until about the time your children are ready for school. You live in Walnut Creek until they have completed high school. Then you might move back to the city if you’re still fully engaged in a career, otherwise it’s time to go to Carmel or perhaps the Sonoma Valley. Or you might head for a cheaper life in Arizona or Montana.
All through this successful career, a community is merely a backdrop. Communities are as important to this lifestyle as home decor or a particular brand of car. Those who gain the most from this new emerging culture are the ones smart enough to avoid the costs of entanglement in a community.
People who choose to “give back to their community,” especially if that community is more than an hour’s drive from one of the country’s ten major cities, may be able to stay above water, but they might also be committing themselves to life in a new kind of American underclass. If you want to play in this economy, you have to be transient.
Winning in this economy means shedding attachment to place, community, and older notions of rootedness and becoming instead a global consumer. Citizenship is expensive, time-consuming, and frankly boring. People with any prospect of success in this economy can seldom afford to waste time and energy on local politics or local institutions. Organizations like the Kiwanis Club, once the bedrock of both social legitimacy and economic ties, are expensive dead-weight. Local politics is dominated by real estate developers and attorneys, people with a direct, practical, economic interest in those institutions. The random citizen showing up to city council meetings is usually some crackpot complaining about fluoridated water. Affluent professionals shop for a neighborhood the way they shop for clothes. If a neighborhood no longer effectively meets their needs for schools and other services, they buy a spot in another one.
Democracy in the American model cannot survive this kind of transient, consumer-driven engagement. An electorate that knows every move of presidential politics while unable to identify a single city councilman is living in the upside down. A citizenry disengaged from and disinterested in local politics cannot possibly create competent political outcomes at the most distant level. A rotten, hollowed out local political structure cannot carry the weight of an effective national government in a democratic system.
An alternative system is developing elsewhere in the world that is perfectly adapted to deliver the kind of consumer government a transient, global population demands. Places like Singapore, China and the United Arab Emirates are governed by technocratic experts. They hold elections with largely symbolic importance. Real decisions are made by well-paid, elite professionals in consultation with the large corporate entities which function effectively as their clients. For all the dismal implications this model augers, right now they are outperforming traditional democracies not only in economic terms, but also in terms of livability and the degree of personal liberty they offer. That may not persist, but for the moment it is cause for concern.
A version of this system seems to be evolving here at home. America’s own Hitler has been neutered by unaccountable public institutions largely untouched by our democratic dysfunction. Those institutions are close to removing this menace, possibly without violence. With a presidency and congress rendered dysfunctional, military, law enforcement, and professional executive branch institutions are the last repositories of American civic values. As elected officials descend into screeching incompetence, these institutions are accountable only to major economic buyers, mostly corporations. We are not far from unintentionally replicating the Chinese model – the evolutionary process at work. In fact, it might be our brightest hope for escaping the fate of the Germans in the first half of the 20th century.
No practical remedy is apparent. You cannot merely goad people into caring about things that lack any relevance to their lives. A transient population cannot be inspired to care about the boring minutia of local government. If people don’t feel a stake, they aren’t going to be competent decision-makers. But, what if your ability to vote in a presidential election was conditional on showing that you voted in the last city or county election?
Two graphics seem to illustrate our dilemma.
There will probably be a Forbes post on this soon, but it took a week of thought just to get this together. It may take some time.