The reasons we got here are:
- Because the education system is terrible
- Because there’s widespread abuse of history
- Because the media feeds frenzy
- Because real suffering is both ignored and exploited
1. The education system is terrible
Americans’ education is quantifiably terrible. Their academic rankings in the world are well-below that of other developed countries. Their clear lack of civic education leaves Americans ignorant about how their form of government works. Abstinence-only curriculum can be directly linked to social issues like sexual illnesses and teen pregnancy, and the equivocation of creationism with science muddies the average capacities of young Americans (see below) to critically think. Compounding this, the corrupt and often feckless charter school system siphons public money and leaves students worse off. The smartest people want to tear down the North American education system and start over.
The largest contributor to what happened in Charlottesville, and part of the larger trend of disappointing American politics is the lack of an education that equips young people and citizens with the tools to organize a more effective society.
Civic education and civics at its core is about group problem solving. We no longer live in hunter-gatherer societies as we did for hundreds of thousands of years, dedicating our days to surviving and co-existing with a few dozen others. This limits us in ways we don’t appreciate and have barely begun to reconcile.
Our flaws are both culturally self-imposed as well as biological. These flaws are a result of not reconciling our human neurobiology with the man-made systems we create to deal with things like food, shelter, and co-existence. Humans are amazingly adaptive creatures, but adaptation is value-neutral. We can adapt to a scorched, dead planet too as a species, but do we doubt that wouldn’t be worse for us? And even then we have limits.
Biologically, we have far exceeded limits like Dunbar’s Number, which governs how many people in our lives we can have meaningful relationships with before “people” become an abstract. Stalin’s line about tragedy and statistics summarized this concept clearly. It is easier to dehumanize and out-group when “they” are some nebulous concept.
Our capacity to think long-term is not a natural gift but a skill that needs practice and training in the same way as driving and literacy.
Humans are not naturally democratic, and while we bemoan the lack of evidence-based policymaking, we ignore the fact we do not have an evidence-based democracy. Voters do not vote based on being told ugly truths.
Evidence-based decision-making is as much about speaking truth to power as it is power listening to truth when it’s spoken and giving credit where it’s due. In a democracy speaking truth to power means speaking truth to the voters. But truth is not measured in appeal, yet our elections.
In the same way we educate people to read and write and drive, we need people to be educated about how to navigate through group politics, what to expect, what to look for, how to ask questions, and how to negotiate and problem-solve with others who think differently than you do.
Civic education is about understanding the role and context of political ideologies, the impulse for tribalism, in-grouping/out-grouping and how this affects our ability to communicate effectively when in conflict.
Civic education teaches us about our biases. Our biases shape our experience of the world, and can harm us immensely. For example, one’s religious upbringing brings him the feeling of shame and resentment watching people erotically dance. Another’s experience with a cheating ex biases her opinion of open relationships. Both find themselves deeply unhappy because they live with their value and behaviour system unreconciled with our collective biology as primates.
Bias keeps us from seeing deeper truths and making more optimal decisions. In civics, bias doesn’t just harm us as individuals but as groups. In civic education, understanding biases is about knowing to give credit where credit is due.
If we are biased about our tribe’s superiority, or biased to be cynical about electoral politics, the outcomes reflect that. Racism and ethnic cleansing in the former and low voter turnout favouring deeply flawed actors in the latter.
Civic education must teach that debate, one of the most important human institutions, is not simply about winning and losing an argument, but about learning and synthesizing information, parsing through biases and arriving at a better, more robust and evidentiary basis for decision-making. This is group problem-solving. This is people stuck on an island and putting a structure in place to guide co-existence.
Civic education is about understanding how people come together and organize. We live in societies where bureaucracy is unavoidable. The best we can do is give ourselves the tools to analyze and improve bureaucracy.
Civic education must with clear eyes teach how governments can be instruments of great good and great evil. Citizens must know how great good can be achieved while vigilant of the creep and bounds governments can make toward great evil.
One of the better analogies for government is comparing it to fire. Well-contained, it can provide light and warmth and safety. Lose control of it, and it can grow and devour everything around.
Governments create the framework within which everyone else draws their designs. Regulations for business, real estate, art, public expression, family, love, driving, sewage, pets, all roads to lead to some form of law. This places immense responsibility on those within government as public servants and those outside who choose government’s leaders to arrive at and justify their decisions in the pursuit of, as it was put in the Constitution’s Preamble, a “more perfect union”. Organizations pursue perfection like an individual would, but there is never a perfect organization.
Governments have amazing pivotal power to make life as easy or as hard as its stakeholders will it. Civic education is about creating these connections in the minds of citizens and empowering citizens with the tools to improve the system.
Democracy is meant to allow those beneath those on the inside at the top of the pyramid to choose by election those who govern from the top of the pyramid the society or democratic organization.
Every organization is a system of stated aims, guiding principles and sets of processes. Any of these are malleable and can deviate from its higher vision and purpose. Civic education needs to teach this.
We must teach why governments fail.
We live in an unprecedented age of mass democracy. We have an experiment with universal suffrage where we are not controlling for by ignoring the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD): the public’s education in civics. We expect voters to elect good leaders who won’t lead us into blunders, but never trained people to know how to elect a good leader.
By proxy we have trained consumers out of voters, and that’s what politicians appeal to. Politicians lie to voters because they know their a market for lying to.
If you want better politicians, you need better voters. It is because of this neglect we have deepened cynicism of government and allowed players to reap power and profit from deepening inter-group competition within our societies.
Humans are not naturally democratic. Like driving and literacy, it takes training and practice. Without this practice, people become frustrated, and without context, people lash out at each other, unable to negotiate or critically think themselves out of the problems they face.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable.”
We are making violent change inevitable by constantly restricting the capacity of citizens to thoughtfully engage in debate to resolve issues, and by corrupting the traditional avenues of electoral politics with special interests.
Many independents, many supporters of Bernie Sanders, many supporters of Donald Trump, all believed the existing Establishment system needing overturning. Bernie was ousted by Hillary Clinton’s camp despite his 60-point increase in polls (and remains the most popular politician in America), and Clinton was considered decidedly Establishment in an anti-Establishment year.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were similar in that they each diagnosed the same problem of flawed government and economic systems, but framed their “us-vs-them” arguments very differently. Bernie along class lines, Trump along racial lines.
Given America’s history of racism and nativism, the “us-vs-them” threads were powerful arguments, and coupled with the Establishment’s uninspired, corrupt choice of Hillary, went with the anti-Establishment racist pick of Donald Trump.
White nationalism was bolstered by Trump’s election. Many white nationalists believe only violence will win the power required to reshape society. This stems from the failure of American systems to give each generation the tools to effect non-violent change and negotiate inter-group competition. This education would also have likely taught many away from white nationalism as a refuge for the hurt.
But how did white nationalists come to these racial beliefs?
2. There is widespread abuse of history
The oft-quoted line is that without knowing history it is doomed to repeat itself, but more accurately, it’s that people will make the same mistakes. The abuse of history is the abuse of the scientific methods to study history, and we have certainly done enough to devalue history as a pursuit, let alone a useful tool in a democracy.
Without the tools a civic education, or liberal education, or historical education would bring, Americans are vulnerable to the clever rhetoric of racists and anti-Semites. In the absence of education, we are easier to be led astray. If history is a guide to our present troubles, its gatekeepers and diviners wield significant impact on how we interpret and react to the present and thusly wield power over our future.
The abuse of history allows figures like David Irving mould a convincing sculpture of a more benign Nazi Germany that gives “historical cover” to White Nationalists persuading others during their initiation processes. A little something like
“Germany was trying to assert itself, special interests within and outside the country prevented that. Germany proudly reacted and war is a terrible thing but never was it deliberate to rape and kill all those Slavs, Russians and Jews. And by the way, those special interests still exist today and are part of why you are so downtrodden.”
The capacity for racism is in our DNA. And it is terrifyingly easy to become racist because you all need is to feel inadequate and want to be part of a group, circumstance will present opportunities to think in racial “us-vs-them” outlook.
Poor whites, for their part, are already betrayed by an unfair economic system. Now led astray of the historical forces affecting them, the White Nationalists in Charlottesville chanted “Jews won’t replace us” and employed slogans like “Diversity is a code word for white genocide.” Victimhood is key in in-grouping/out-grouping and racism, seeking to create an inner circle of people who ‘really know what’s going on’ about how other races victimize them and draw identity by force of opposition to something and tribe from the camaraderie.
The United States, for its part in this development, fought a cultural Cold War where the Left was seen as the natural enemy of the normal, rather than a natural antithesis to the Right.
The Left took over Russia and became enemies of the US, and so the Left in the US was an enemy too.
Rhetoric about the destruction of the country at the hands of foreign invaders, subversive leftist intellectuals fuelled division between Americans. It was even believed that if gays can hide their sexuality, they can hide Communist sympathies, and most were fired from their jobs after being found out.
While the Cold War supposedly ended, it never went away. Today, Americans increasingly prefer to couple with others of the same partisan affiliation, even compared to coupling during the Cold War. In 1960 parents were asked if they’d be “displeased” if their child marries someone from a different party, to which 5% said they would, while in 2010, 40% of parents said they’d be “upset”.
The terms “Left” and “Right” were adopted from the French courts, where to the right of the French King sat the nobility, whose status and interests were vested in the preservation/enhancement of the status quo. To the King’s left, sat the rabble. The chosen few eloquent and important enough to represent the masses sat opposed to the nobility, and whose interests often lay in opposition to the Right.
This was an essentially agricultural and feudal set-up, but it has caused untold misery to the pursuit of basic human and civic rights for women, gays, people of colour, and many others.
(Pictured: Little Rock integration protest, 1959. “Race Mixing is Communism”)
Racism is a powerful tool for coaxing support. For the Right in America this was done by convincing poor whites that any move toward a socialist society meant racial doom, loss of tradition, loss of status and livelihoods.
It probably didn’t help that Karl Marx spoke eloquently of this dynamic
The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.…This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.
There is great utility in racism as a means of dividing the working class against itself, to distract from an economic disparity that benefits primarily the top class. A feature of our broken politics is convincing the dispossessed their interests lay in defending a fundamentally unfair, broken status quo.
It’s very easy to be racist. All you need is to feel inadequate and yearn to belong to a tribe. The unfair economy provides the former and skin colour an easy avenue for the latter.
Given America’s history of racism toward African-Americans, including slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation, and the centuries of cultural indoctrination to “otherize” non-whites, these make white Americans easy targets for racist us-vs-them rhetoric that excludes other factors. These other factors are arrived at by an education system that teaches America’s history and its range of human behaviours in an unflinching light.
Americans overlook this much of history because they are not trained to look. High school students in Iowa were disciplined for social media pictures showing them posing in KKK hoods, holding rifles and burning a cross. Was this calculated racism or gross ignorance of history and misguided tribalism?
In either case, these kids are growing up in segregated communities. In many cities the populations are still highly separated, created by decades of both legal and illegal “red-lining” where banks refuse to lend based on race and spoken and unspoken racial covenants prevented blacks from buying better property.
The United States fought a World War to end Nazism, and spent billions rebuilding Germany into what would become the economic powerhouse of Europe for which more average Germans enjoy.
Compounding this, convincing cases can be made of the Holocaust’s fabrication, just as convincing cases can be made of Bigfoot’s existence, mermaids, and countless other topics. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. In the same way humans can debate and sift and parse through difference pieces of evidence, we can also be overpowered by carefully crafted messages that press upon psychic nodes like inadequacy, economic despair, and humiliation.
It is now well-understood that Hitler’s rise to power was very centrally predicated on the Treaty of Versailles’s over-punishment of Germans, one that created the humiliation that could be exploited through passionate us-versus-them rhetoric.
The parallels between Nazi Germany and the American South are important. The American South, believing itself overly punished for what they felt was a righteous war of defence against Northern Aggression, feels wronged. There is real shame in losing a war, and this leaves a resource pool of public opinion that can be exploited, and habitually is.
There is opportunity for great personal and financial profit exploiting divisions. Politicians and news networks derive ratings and support by formulating speeches, policies, and news stories the historical psychic nodes of race, shame, humiliation and economic despair.
3. The media feeds frenzy for ratings
It should not be overlooked how much power vested interests have in shaping public opinion. Since Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays championed public relations (itself a euphemism for “propaganda”) in the early 20th century, right-wing news adopted and employed often the same public relations specialists to interpret and cater news to Americans. News is a business, and these specialists knew how to maximize value.
Moving into the new millennium the Internet has risen as a medium and people are calling journalism a dying profession, or speculating that it was “overrated” and simply being outmoded by technology. But this ignores the fact that journalists have to be recognized as outmoded to be fired, and media businesses have to be incentivized to remove their investigative journalism departments.
But remove them they did. Investigative reporting is a type of journalism that not meant to be entertaining and didn’t start out that way. Stories of corruption and institutional incompetence and cover-up were not meant to entertain but inform. It was “serious” news. Its importance was immediate to people paying attention.
Investigative reporting informed people, but it didn’t entertain them, it didn’t distract them when they got home from a long day of work and had a thousand stressors in their lives and all they wanted was to just escape by flipping on the boob-tube and forget their problems. I’m also picturing food trays and frozen dinners.
Television’s entertainment value far outstripped its ability to deliver serious news. The average American watches five hours of TV a day and is subjected to overwhelming psychic forces that yes, entertain as hell, but also teach television’s “its image-oriented and episodic understanding of the world.”
The American Neil Postman warned of television’s effects, most famously in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, arguing that what we love will oppress us far more than what we hate. As Postman put it comparing Aldous Huxley and George Orwell,
Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
Our limitless capacity for distraction bears the question of distraction from what?
There is a reason why the press is specifically mentioned in every constitution of the free world. Those who search for the truth, who root out gross mismanagement of those negatively altering the course and health of the group, are vital to the survival of the group. Investigative journalism is an absolute requirement to spreading the news of what is happening in the central governing structures of a society.
But journalists have to eat too. Journalism can be as high-minded a pursuit or as deceptive and slimy as those who finance or commission it to be. “Yellow journalism” took America into wars through both failure to hold leaders to account and stirring up support for war.
Journalism might be a calling, but distributing it, financing its production, those business aspects are often, and increasingly governed by factors like ratings and entertainment value, because that’s what drives the inflow of money to finance journalism at all.
The replacement of journalism as a passionate search for truth can be deliberate and perverted, such as Fox News’ insistence on facts being a subjective matter, and news being only a question of who’s presenting what facts and how. Or the replacement of journalism with less serious forms of media can be an indirect route such as CNN and other American outlets whose business model eventually rationalized investigative and serious journalism as too expensive, too undervalued by the market to sustain.
News used to be a loss-leader for companies and that was accepted because the pursuit of facts, truth, and holding government and powerful entities accountable was considered worthy of investment. Now, the news has to be popular for the right to exist. Stay tuned for the feel-good stories about animals.
There is a strange hope in the hybrid news-entertainment of comedian journalists. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver actually hired the investigative journalists that were cut from major papers and news networks around the country. The show’s expert comedy writing, like so many other comedy/politics shows, makes it accessible and entertaining, as well as informative.
But what do you do when Fox News has tipped the scales toward its twisted version of reality it called “Fair and Balanced”? And other major news networks, its managers and executives whose kids attend the same private schools as the executives of Fox, follow suit in their own way?
The most influential players in delivering news decide what is allowed in debate, and what is not. If the two sides on TV don’t bring it up, is it really an issue? What if neither side brings it up, or what if they both dismiss it?
What if a multi-billion dollar industry with bottomless production value ignored the issues that affects you most, like having support caring for a sick relative or a disabled child, and instead told you to work harder because a brown-skinned person could undercut you and take away your livelihood and leave you worse off caring for that relative?
You’re taking part in the system, you’re being informed by news, but as leftists love to say, you’re still being “oppressed”. You’re just taking part in it by remaining ignorant.
There is even a term for this: Inverted Totalitarianism. It is a type of managed democracy where an Establishment’s core policies remain unchanged despite contentious elections and because of continual propaganda being used against the voters to keep them disempowered and compliant within the boundaries of selected democratic motions.
Think how neither Democrat nor Republican Parties really differ on Wall Street corruption, a never-ending War on Terror, or depriving the military-industrial machine. Some of the most hurtful policies for poor people came in under President Clinton, but he is loved as Democrats are for being on the side of the little guy.
We have an unprecedented experiment in suffrage where everyone can vote despite not being trained to know how to look at the news and critically think through problems with people who have different ideas and values. This is an essential requirement of a healthy democracy, and has been left stagnant for generations. When people are distracted from hard questions about the structure and nature of their society, they are targets for those with easy answers.
Fox News perfected a formula for outrage. Given the endless streams of mismanagement and injustice, there was plenty feelings to exploit. Leveraging the feeling of resentment and harnessing it in the service of the status quo benefactors, Fox has been able to mislead conservatives for over a generation and further the division between Americans.
Ailes also encouraged Nixon to practice the politics of resentment that came naturally to him, creating the basic formula used by Reagan, both Bushes and countless lesser conservative politicians: playing on the public’s sense that powerful liberal [interests] were getting ahead at the expense of Middle America.
The formula was great for ratings. People tune in and watch, far more for Fox News than any other news channel, and those higher ratings meant greater leverage to obtain more advertisers and more money.
But how the news is presented is not morally neutral, and neither is it power-neutral. Someone is being represented when newscasters talk about the economy going up, but leave out record corporate profits while wages have stagnated for decades and 63% of Americans would have to go into debt to pay for an unexpected $500 cost.
In a survey conducted during the 2016 Presidential Election, 19% of Clinton supporters said their lives were “worse off than it was 50 years ago” while 81% of Trump supporters said yes to the same question.
What is chosen to be shown as “the world” by news organizations shape people’s sense of what’s happening, their agency and responsibility to act, and how much power they feel they should have.
4. Real economic pain is both exploited and ignored
The pain that Americans feel is real. 62% of Americans make less than $40,000 a year while trying to navigate medical care on a poor diet, go to college on the flimsy promise of something better, and have kids in a society where giving birth without insurance could mean an indentured existence.
All the while any time Americans turn on TV they’re being fed entertainment out of one side of the mouth and having their opinions shaped to fit the interests of the Establishment out of the other.
The traditional means of obtaining information has been corrupted by opaque interests, steering conversation along predictable pathways, separating debate into two manageable sides.
Politicians sniff this too. American politicians are hyperaware at a cunning level the contours of political culture: that there’s two main sides and you got to play off the familiar tropes like “tax-and-spend liberals” and goodly ‘small-town morals’ (if you’re conservative) and well-meaning, citizen-intellectuals and socially backwards, uneducated right-wingers (if you’re liberal). Politicians grow and exploit this market for personal and partisan gain.
This is where the politicians’ reputation for hypocrisy comes from. They preach one thing, blasting an incumbent for something, then when they get into power they practice the same thing they preached against while out of power. This shouldn’t be a mystery. Humans are hypocrites when it’s in their interests to be one. And power is a great motivator of interests.
Politicians that talk about the economic uncertainty Americans face are aligning themselves with the downtrodden, which is now the majority of America, while raking in billions in campaign donations from the very not-downtrodden.
Between 2007–2012, the top 200 corporations in America invested $5.8 billion lobbying Washington. Those same companies enjoyed $4.4 trillion in government subsidies and funding. For every dollar spent on American politicians, companies reap $760 in return.
Income and wealth inequality are major producers of the misery, resentment and humiliation experienced by millions of Americans.
People get that when the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune hold more wealth than 140 million Americans that something is deeply wrong, but that sense is being directed to red herrings and scapegoats in order to keep the mob from the palace gates.
People get it when both dollar stores and high-end luxury retail stores are soaring in numbers while middle-income retailers decline that there’s growth only for the super rich.
Put it together, without education, civic and historical, voters are vulnerable to being misled and incapable of overcoming the challenges of group problem-solving. They are doggedly appealed to by their base impulses for tribalism by an industry that is rewarded to feed divisive mechanisms in the brain, and now we have a fragile fringe that is creeping inward, its unmoored members violently snapping.
Societies rise and fall on their ability to effectively organize their leadership and decision-making. We’ve reduced people’s ability to appreciate nuance and complexity and then asked them to exercise great power and responsibility by organizing leadership.
The problem with democracy is that truth is not measured in appeal, but politics and elections are. Speaking truth to power means speaking truth to the people, but people don’t vote based on being told what they needed to hear, and don’t reward politicians for telling them things they can’t like.
This essential problem, one addressed by historical and civic education, is damning America to a spiral of distraction, corruption, and as seen in Charlottesville, increasing tribal violence. The violence is the signifier of something wrong in the body politic and given its factors, is there doubt we will see more?