The article written by Michael Lind titled “The Five Crises of the American Regime” attempts to diagnose the underlying causes of the United States’ current situation – that of increasingly polarized politics and the anger and grievances of the polity. It is a great article, and I recommend reading the whole thing. Here, though, I want to discuss five other crises that are contributing to the decline and fall of the American Empire.
Lind’s five crises are certainly true, and obvious to anyone who can look at things soberly, but I think the crises go deeper. The real crises stem from of human nature itself. The sorts of things we are seeing are certainly not unique to the American Regime. However, it is not the case that such crises are conjured by demagogues, nor are they some effect of Marxist materialist causes, inexorably brought into existence by trends and forces. These are problems that can be traced back to the nature of humanity.
The Comfort Crisis
The declaration of independence says that humans have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness has, in recent times, been tacitly interpreted by Americans (and western cultures bore broadly) as the right to happiness. And happiness, in recent times, has been equated to material wealth and sensual pleasure. Thus, anything that disrupts those things – such as the inability to possess what one desires or to gain access to sensual pleasures – is taken as an infringement of ‘unalienable rights.’
This crisis has two somewhat contradictory consequences. The first is that people are quick to righteous indignation at perceived slights against ones right to happiness. The second is that people are more likely to turn that anger on themselves or their immediate surroundings than to organize political violence.
This second thing, given the protests/riots/looting by antifa and BLM activists over the summer of 2020 and the recent storming of the capitol building on January 6 of 2021, may seem to be contradicted by such current events. My point, though, is that, given the population of the United States and the vitriol seen online, these events are quite small. One would expect, perhaps, protests like those seen during the Arab Spring early last decade, or the protests in Hong Kong over many months against the infringement of mainland China into their government. Comparatively, and contradictory to the amount of radicalism and vitriol seen on social media, the Antifa/BLM and MAGA demonstrations have all been somewhat small and short lasting.
This is because we in the U.S., despite grievances both real and perceived, have a relatively comfortable life and therefore a lot to lose. This is similar to what Lind says in his article about the Social Crisis:
People who are rooted in real communities—extended families, neighborhoods, occupational associations, religious congregations—do not make good foot soldiers in partisan armies deployed by remote elites who are battling for control of government offices. They have jobs they can’t miss and children they have to pick up from school and errands to run.
Isolated individuals are the natural sources for political armies. Though their ideologies vary, and different political warlords recruit them, the young people who vandalize stores and offices in the name of Black Lives Matter often share a common lack of social rootedness with their militant MAGA counterparts, a common Durkheimian anomie. Twenty-somethings who are married with children and have stable jobs and mortgage payments are unlikely to storm either Seattle’s or Washington’s Capitol Hill.
However, I think we have (so far) avoided the “Weimarization of the American Republic” at least in part due to the face that, on the whole, most people favor the comfortable status quo to the unknown of revolutionary change. We instead outsource our frustration and antipathy to elected officials, hoping in vain that our heroic politician of choice will come charging in on their white horse and fix all the problems. We saw this on the right with Donald Trump in 2016, and despite Trump accomplishing nothing that he promised or making anything any better for his followers, they cling tightly to the man. We now see this on the left with Biden, where there is almost the belief that on January 20 (or sooner, if you think Trump will be impeached or resign before then) everything will suddenly get better – all of Trump’s messes will be swiftly cleaned up, his enablers either arrested or condemned to obscurity, and the pandemic wrapped up. Instead, best case scenario, what we’ll get is more of what we were getting before Trump, which was status quo politics and corruption, terrible foreign policy, encroachment on civil liberties, and a steadily inflating national debt.
But, once again, it will feel comfortable.
And speaking of Coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic has strained the aforementioned comfort, possibly close to the breaking point, which is likely why we’re seeing people forgo their current comfort even in the relatively small numbers we’re seeing. We’re on the precipice, but I think as things currently are, people are comfortable enough to desire maintaining the status quo.
We’ll have to see what happens if things like COVID relief ever dry up or if moratoriums on evictions ever end, thereby reducing the comforts of a lot of people all at once.
The Centralization Crisis
Lind correctly points out that centralization of power is one of the crises facing the U.S. Republic:
The political crisis is the centralization of power in a small number of ambitious elite factions and coteries. Between the 1830s and the 1970s, the two major parties were coalitions of smaller, de facto parties, each of which, in turn, was a federation of state and local party organizations. The nature of the parties as pluralistic grassroots federations limited the autonomy of national politicians. It also limited the power of presidents and congressional leaders, who were picked by party bosses and had to govern by consensus.
Thanks to the misguided adoption of party primaries in the 1970s, a democratizing reform that backfired, American politicians today tend to be picked by the small number of zealots of various kinds who show up to vote in party primaries. The national parties themselves are no longer functioning organizations, but mere brands, which Donald Trump successfully seized and which Bernie Sanders, another outsider, came close to grabbing. The organizations that count are shifting, kaleidoscopic alliances of donors, politicians, consultants, media operatives and ideologues.
Another striking example of this was pointed out by outgoing Representative from Michigan Justin Amash:
What this shows is that, essentially, the Congress has become centralized under a small coterie of “elites” within what is supposed to be a legislative body. Fewer voices in the Congress means that it is turning into essentially another executive body.
This is all very predictable if we look at human nature. Humans are a hierarchical species. The very fact that we desire, and perhaps even require, that we have a government – a small body of people with the ‘legitimate’ monopoly on the use of force against ourselves – is illustrative of this. This is also seen in business, religion, clubs, and other civil societies. Indeed, one of the criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street movement was that it was leaderless.
This desire for leaders is hijacked in two ways. The first is that power will always eventually centralize, as can be seen in the United States. States rights have been massively encroached upon, the Congress has ceded much of its power to the executive, and people have turned a blind eye to state and local politics, instead preferring the spectacle of national politics. And, further, everyone puts most of their stock in the presidency. It’s easier to look to a single person to solve our problems than to a large, sluggish bureaucratic machine, or an indecisive legislative body. Humans want a single leader who can “get things done.”
This brings us to the second way that human nature can be hijacked by our hierarchical thinking. Humans, in general, are easily susceptible to demagoguery and charismatic cults of personality. Religions and cults are one of the more easily visible instances of this, but politics is just as obvious. The quintessential instance of this is Adolf Hitler. It’s easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight and lacking any resonance with the rhetoric, to wonder how a modern, industrialized, and cultured nation could fall sway to such obvious demagoguery. But, if we look at it not through the lens of any particular political positions taken by the Nazis, but through the lens of human nature, it almost becomes a wonder that such cults of personality don’t happen more often.
Or, at least, all of this is obvious to those who are not under the spell of such leaders. Which brings us to our next crisis.
The Bias Blind Spot Crisis
Bias blind spot is the cognitive bias that prevents ourselves from perceiving our own biases, while often still being able to easily see the biases at play in other people’s cognition. There are many cognitive biases that could be mentioned here, and one that often gets special attention is confirmation bias. However, I might go out on a limb and say that confirmation bias is just a particular manifestation of bias blind spot. Or, at least, that if it weren’t for bias blind spot that confirmation bias would occur far less frequently.
Lacking the self awareness to see, for instance, that we are part of a cult of personality, or under the influence of a harmful philosophy, is what allows for these things to occur. This clearly applies to the fanaticism of the true believer, but it also applies to the banal worldviews of those who distort reality to fit their preferred narrative. From flat-earthers to climate change deniers to QAnon supporters to Antifa and Black Lives Matter to MAGA demonstrators and on and on, there is a fanatical fringe, but there are also those who just tacitly accept such ideas without any self awareness.
A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.
Bias blind spot prevents us from being able to distinguish between what is true, what is plausible, what we want to be true, and what we are told is true.
The Echo Chamber Crisis
This one could almost be seen as derivative of the previous three, but it is worth making a distinction for the echo chamber crisis. The ways in which it is derivative is because 1) echo chambers are comfortable (the comfort crisis); 2) echo chambers often have charismatic leaders as their nucleation event; and 3) we are often unaware of our own echo chambers due to bias blind spot.
However, the reason echo chambers are worth distinction is not because they are necessarily a part of human nature, but because of how the human mind did not evolve for such a phenomenon. Humans did not evolve to handle all of the competing claims, ideas, evidence, and information that globalization and the internet have brought. We seek refuge from the bombardment of competing narratives by settling into echo chambers that satisfy our own preferences.
It seems that humans cannot live as Camus’ absurd hero, facing the absurdity of existence while remaining happy. An existence without a narrative is anathema to the human mind. When there are too many competing narratives, echo chambers offer succor, giving us both a narrative about how the world works (or, at least, ought to work if it weren’t for those damned outsiders) and an identity in order for us to understand how ourselves work.
The In-Group-Out-Group Crisis
Humans evolved in small groups where social cohesion was a matter of survival. We no longer live in such a world. Instead, we live in larger communities nested inside larger local governments nested inside larger state or provincial governments nested inside larger national governments nested inside a globalized marketplace (of both goods/services and ideas). Humans, then, use certain heuristics to understand their own social situation. Some such heuristics are things like: do these people believe the same things I do? And do these people look/behave like me?
These sorts of things can be (at least somewhat) contained in a monocultural, mono-ethnic society. Unfortunately, it makes multiculturalism extremely difficult, and perhaps even impossible. That’s not to say that multiculturalism isn’t a laudable, and perhaps even preferable, goal. It is merely to observe that human nature will not allow for multiculturalism to succeed.
This goes back to the problem of multiple narratives. We seek out our preferred echo chamber, blinded to our biases about said echo chamber, and then feel threatened by those immersed in other (possibly opposing) echo chambers. Our human need to maintain group cohesion makes the threat of dissent and opposition to our preferred narrative – and our compatriots in said narrative – feel like a matter of life and death. Differences of opinion are twisted into the battle between good and evil – between my side and your side.
My pointing out that humans are tribal is not an original (or, perhaps, even insightful) observation. My controversial proposal, though, is that in light of this tribalism (as well as the previous four crises) it may be that we must admit defeat. That we must understand that laudable philosophies and good intentions are unable to overcome the fallible nature of humanity. If anything, we may need to admit this to ourselves in order to think outside the box for other solutions, because the current solutions are clearly not working.
Western civilization, contrary to what many who subscribe to critical theories may believe, is the pinnacle of human achievement. There is prosperity like never before seen and, a I pointed out in the first crisis, humanity has a level of comfort our ancestors couldn’t dream of. But, there are problems: climate change, wealth inequality, corruption, depression and addiction, and both cultural and political polarization.
These problems underscore how much, despite being at the pinnacle of human civilization, humanity has not evolved for the world we’ve created for ourselves. There will never be a perfect society because humans ourselves are imperfect. This imperfection is magnified by many orders of magnitude when we are grouped into large societies and given access to so much information.
Evolution is not a loving God, and it is blind. It did not foresee our society and prepare us for it. Biologically speaking, all that mattered to our ancestors was living long enough to reproduce. We carry the evolutionary baggage of what was conducive to survival in the harshness of nature, within small bands of our close kin, into our modern world. Contrary to what both the communists and fascists believed, we cannot engineer the perfect human. We’re stuck with the flawed models we were handed by evolution.
The beginning of coming up with solutions for these problems will have to at the very least start with admitting these crises to ourselves.