The United States is facing an ideological identity crisis
Within the political realm, Democrats are imploding over the fight to determine whom the party should select as the official nominee in the June 2020 primaries. On the other side, the majority of career Republicans are increasingly embracing Trumpism and dismissing blatant disregard for rule of law while eschewing traditional Republican values.
For a country with only two meaningful parties, partisan fights are the norm. John Stuart Mill said that democracies are government by discussion; we need those checks and balances to keep our government accountable to its constituents. Reasoned opposition can lend itself to compromise. Vocal dissent can lend itself to more nuanced decision-making. It’s good for democracy when the members of our government have views that span a political spectrum, even if it slows down the process.
But right now, it’s not just that the two parties are opposed. Within the parties, we are split on what role the government should play in handling domestic affairs, and the extent to which our government has power in determining how everyday life pans out for US citizens. For the Democrats, this schism was largely catalyzed by the Bernie-Hillary debacle of 2016. For the Republicans, of course, it was Trump.
What politicians tried to do to close the widening divide in our nation hasn’t worked
Maybe internecine conflict isn’t new. But the bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of Washington has never been more prominently on display for me as it is now, when there is so much injustice on display around the world. A quick glance at the news will reveal that we are falling into disarray on all fronts. Things are supposed to be good right now. The market boasts of tech unicorns, billionaire executives, and the bull market. Rich people are getting richer, and we were told that wealth trickles down to the poor, so we should all be better off. We were told that the free market can be guided by an invisible hand to reach equilibrium, so we should all be exactly where we ought to be. We were told that working hard will yield results, so we should all be living the American Dream.
But maybe not so.
The future demands a new way of conceptualizing our production and consumption systems
There is a clear disconnect between the economic boom that followed the Great Recession–this record-breaking economic expansion in the States–and the lives of everyday people. Society needs to go through a structural overhaul. Those who recognize or those who have been marginalized as a result of these failed attempts are acutely aware of how much needs to be changed. Income inequality, poverty, and mass incarceration have persisted, while the climate emergency, homelessness, and health outcomes have worsened. It’s as if there’s an inverse relationship between profit and social stability, and we’re borrowing time against the future.
Many people have come to terms with the concept that the American Dream is false advertising. Fewer can admit that the free market doesn’t work for everyone. These fallacies are linked through political decisions that our government made decades ago, but have persisted as myths to the detriment of the poor, working class, and / or low- and middle-income countries.
You don’t necessarily need me to tell you about what things are like though. The age of information gives us the power to access all information about all things at the touch of our fingertips. We all have equal access to unlimited information.
It’s very cool.
But it’s also very overwhelming. It’s difficult for us to sift through infinite polemics about the degradation of our collective moral consciousness. As smart as we are, humans have bounded rationality. This means that “our ability to comprehend… matters that concern us directly is limited” because the world is so complex and we have limited capacity and ability to deal with everything else that’s going on.1 That’s why we like structure and routine and sometimes dislike menus that present us with too many options.
Similarly, when it comes to thinking about politics, society, and the world at large, we should have better frameworks. It’s not enough to just know. Knowing what’s going on in the world merely makes me a passive bystander, at best, and complicit in said degradation of our collective moral consciousness, at worst.
We the people need to act
The 2020s will likely be one of the most transformative and pivotal decades of human history. We are making extraordinary leaps in understanding how things work. Quantum computing will get us closer to the singularity than we’ve ever been. Vaccine R&D will lower incidence levels for both infectious and non-infectious diseases worldwide. We are also somehow running backwards at the same time. Fascism is on the rise, and we’re at ~1.1C of global heating, both of which will quickly and absolutely neutralize those things that we are doing to improve human conditions.
The theories behind why we got to where we are are not new. Yes, our government is fucked up right now. But no government will ever be perfect. The true dangers presented by our government come from not those who are in power but those who choose inaction. Those who are “more devoted to “order” than to justice… who constantly [say] ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’.”2
I believe that everyone is, at times, thinking about the big picture: what it means for us to be on this planet and what implications it has for how you live and what your contributions are. I suspect that the majority of my readers know that things work for them. You also see the injustice, but your life has not been tangibly affected and so maybe you make some charitable donations on an annual basis and bring tote bags to the grocery store along with your metal straw. What we need right now, however, is not ideology. Right now we need direct action.
As much as you are able to.
And as soon as possible.
The following chapters are intended to get you on board with understanding why radical reform is needed and in what shape. At the time of writing (February 2020), my secondary objective was laying out my rationale for why I believe Bernie Sanders should be the 46th President of the United States of America. Since then, Bernie has dropped out of the race and we have been consumed by a pandemic, the likes of which have crippled our public health infrastructure and economy (edits made April 2020). Under these circumstances, it is now more critical for us not only to be aware of what progressive policies are needed to ensure a more just society for all, but also who’s fighting for and against us.
I begin Chapter 1 by breaking down some commonly used and misconstrued terms to illustrate why socialism and individual liberty are not at odds. I also discuss the insidious misconception of the free market to draw attention to how neoliberal economic policy has changed our society for the worse. In Chapter 2, I discuss how we can build our society back up from our understanding of first principles, recognizing that the role of government is to equalize society. In Chapter 3, I conclude with some practical suggestions on what you can do to make a difference. Reading references are included in the Reference post, which I update frequently.
It is deliberately simple, but it is not simplistic. I chose not to conduct primary research partly in the interest of time and also partly because there is no shortage of data and secondary writing out there that can make points far better than I was able to in this short window of writing. For example, when I began reading Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism, I was pleasantly surprised to find examples to back up some of my hypotheses. Chang breaks down common misconceptions about economics that mainstream economists generally hold to be true and provides great examples of where the US has not walked the talk. Likewise, when I began reading Tim Urban’s latest Wait but Why project, I found that Tim tackles, in-depth, some of the fundamental questions I ask about humans and human nature. In his series, he examines why people think the way they do and can be a bit of a pre-read to the Dem / Repub schism that is the problem statement of this manifesto. Prior to beginning this piece, Fareed Zakaria’s Future of Freedom: Illiberal democracy at home and abroad gave me a nuanced understanding of democracy and liberty in the States and helped me better articulate constitutional liberalism. All pieces that Current Affairs publishes, especially ones about Bernie written by its editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson, have given me ammunition for defending Bernie and other liberal ideals for the past four years.
Rather than deter me from publishing this piece, these resources demonstrated all the more reason for me to synthesize what I’ve been learning over the past four years and present my ideas in a digestible format, simply because it illustrates that these questions are important. I’ve listed some fantastic, additional reading material in Final Notes that you can peruse if you find this interesting.
I acknowledge my bias upfront and will be the first to tell you that this is not complete truth. As much I am able to, I ground my perspective in facts. My lived experience shapes my perspective, as does my vision for what the world can be. In sharing this with you, I hope to inform how you think, not what you think.
(Artwork by Davide Bonazzi)
1. Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 168.
2. Martin Luther King, Jr, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.],” African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania, accessed on 12 February 2020, https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.