Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Magical beliefs and the politics of Trump

Steve Bannon 2010
Don Irvine, via Wikimedia Commons
In a recent article in Time Magazine, David Kaiser discusses a historical theory of eighty year cycles in American politics:
...Neil Howe and the late William Strauss...identified an 80-year cycle in American history, punctuated by great crises that destroyed an old order and created a new one.
He goes on to discuss the reaction of Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump's new political strategist, to this theory. In this telling, Stephen Bannon and a few like-minded conservatives hope the theory of the eighty year cycle means the United States has entered a period of crisis, and they hope to use it to remake the American political landscape.

I have written before on this kind of magical thinking in political theory: it underlies fictions such as the so-called "Overton Window". Magical thinking in political theory has much the same effects as it has in gambling: it creates an illusion of control as a substitute for the exercise of it, and thus encourages an irresponsible passivity. Consider the following, from the article:
Bannon focused on the key aspect of their theory, the idea that every 80 years American history has been marked by a crisis... Strauss and Howe’s major prediction has now obviously come true: Few would deny that the U.S. has been in a serious political crisis for some time, marked by intense partisan division, a very severe recession, war abroad and, above all, a breakdown in the ties between the country and its political establishment.
Nothing about the passage of eighty years has caused the partisan division, the war, or the recession, or the alienation of many citizens from their politicians. All these things happened because particular people chose to make them happen. The intense partisan divide came about because politicians chose to divide on bitterly partisan lines, and members of the media chose to make a specialty of fostering divisions rather than unity. The war happened because both politicians and members of the public chose war over peace. The divide between the political establishment and the public happened because too many members of the establishment chose personal enrichment over public service, and too many members of the public chose to shirk their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.

It pays to treat claims of a schedule or period for political developments suspiciously, because "crisis" involves subjective perceptions, and perceiving, or wanting to perceive, a pattern can affect our definition of "crisis". For example, many people considered and consider the 1960s a crisis, in the sense of a major turning point in American values and politics; obviously the 1960s do not fit the eighty year schedule. Crises do occur at intervals, because institutions have their own logic that does not always match the societies around them; as institutions grow apart from the societies they serve, change becomes both more necessary and more difficult. That does not make it possible to predict when the crisis will happen, because the elements of a crisis always depend on decisions made by people.

Attempts to fit the tides of political change into a schedule amount, in the end, to futile magical thinking, even more the illusion that human will can seize a moment of crisis and bend it in a direction independent of human nature or he world we live in. When David Kaiser writes:
To use the most striking example, both the United States and Germany were in the midst of a terrible economic and political crisis in 1933. The United States turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal; Germany turned to Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.
he leaves out two critical facts: the Nazi party arose from the particular conditions following Germany's defeat in the  First World War, and Germans now live in a federal democracy remarkably similar to that of the United States. In essence, Americans chose to accept humanity and the realities of their world, while the Germans followed promises to radically remake both their people and their world, and suffered several million war deaths, the devastation of their country, and the extinction of their state. The history of fascist and authoritarian socialist ideologies through the twentieth centuries should serve as a sobering cautionary tale: attempts to remake the world or to renew the human story by force of will or belief alone have a record of failure accompanied by large numbers of deaths. That a member of the incoming administration has not absorbed this lesson does not bode well.

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