Amor Mundi: The Corruption of the Republic
The Corruption of the Republic
To watch President Trump’s “State of the Union” address and to read his tweets about the Russia investigation is to again be reminded that his words are not meant to be taken literally or seriously. We are collectively still struggling to respond to this situation where words spoken by the President are intended as weapons but are not meant to be believed. The very idea of a public discourse comprised of argument is fading into a romanticized past.
“Dialogue and discussion, including civil disagreement, depend on words. All become impossible when words cease to matter,” as Marianne Constable wrote just after the election. Day by day, we feel ourselves shrugging off absurdities. To respond is to take the position of the school scold and subject oneself to ridicule. And to ignore the disgraces that flow ceaselessly from the Presidential palette is to be complicit in the demeaning and corruption of our collective public world. We are witnessing, as Roger Cohen argues, the continued corruption and hollowing out of the ethical core of the country.
“President Trump’s most significant, and ominous, achievement in his first year in office is the corruption of the Republic. I don’t mean that he has succeeded in destroying the checks and balances on which American freedom rests. I mean that he has so soiled the discourse that a kind of numbness has set in, an exhaustion of outrage that allows him to proceed with the unthinkable.
The greatest danger from a man so unerring in his detection of human weakness, so attuned to the thrill of cruelty, so aware of the manipulative powers of entertainment, so unrelenting in his disregard for truth, so contemptuous of ethics and culture, so attracted to blood and soil, was always that he would use the immense powers of his office to drag Americans down with him into the vortex.
Trump is succeeding in this. He is having his way, for all the investigative vigor of the free press he derides, for all the honor of the judiciary that has pushed back against his attempts to stain with bigotry the law of the land. Slowly but surely, the president is getting people to shrug.
The appalling becomes excusable, the heinous becomes debatable, the outrageous becomes comical, lies become fibs, spite becomes banal, and hymns to American might become cause for giddy chants of national greatness.”
Jonathan Rauch wrote over a year ago, citing Benjamin Wittes, that ““The first thing you’re going to blow through is not the laws, it’s the norms.” By “norms,” [Wittes] means such political and social customs as respecting the law, accepting the legitimacy of your political opponents, tolerating speech you disagree with, performing civic duties like voting and staying informed, treating public office with dignity, and not lying. Fervently and frequently, the Founders warned that the Constitution would stand or fall on the public’s commitment to high standards of behavior—what they called republican virtue. James Madison said “parchment barriers” could not withstand the corruption of democratic norms. George Washington, in his farewell address, said, “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” John Adams warned that “avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net.” When Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the Constitution established, he replied: “A republic—if you can keep it.””
Values, norms, and virtue are the inspirational core of all republics. That is why Hannah Arendt argued that the great threat to representative democracy would not come from a conspiracy of the representative leaders against the people whom they represent. The end of democracy will, she argued, come from the corruption of the people: “Corruption in [representative government] is much more likely to spring from the midst of society, that is from the people themselves.” It is when the people place private interest over the public interest that the virtue necessary to inspire a republic vanishes.
President Trump is hardly the cause of corruption in the United States. On one level, he is a symptom of a long-festering rise to political and social power of a corrupt business and governing class that sees success and winning as a validation for any and all misdeeds. On another level, President Trump is also a product of intellectuals who find corruption funny rather than outrageous. The irony of elites who laugh at the inefficiency and incapacity of government is celebrated nightly on late-night talk shows. Satire has become a favorite sport, so that we laugh at the very corruption that should steel us to act.
Rumors, Scandals, and Character Assassination
Julian Zelizer offers a reality check to those who think the Trump administration is imploding. In the last two months since the tax cut, Trump’s popularity has shot up ten points to 42%; he has successfully put the Democrats on defensive on immigration, offering to legalize the “Dreamers” in return for draconian limits on legal immigrants; and he has consolidated Republican support. What is more, Zelizer argues that Trump has succeeded in implanting a narrative into the mainstream conversation that questions the fairness of Robert Mueller’s Independent Counsel investigation.
“In the Trump edition [of the Saturday Night Massacre], nobody actually had to be fired. With all of the experts wondering whether President Trump would get rid of Robert Mueller or a high-level FBI official, the President, with the support of congressional Republicans, undertook a different strategy that is accomplishing the same goal. They moved to discredit the entire investigation through rumors, partisan memos, scandalous innuendo and character assassination.
The President’s Twitter feed has been an ongoing public relations machine to convince the country that the investigators are up to no good. The hoopla over whether or not President Trump would allow the infamous Republican memo to be seen was always beside the point. Once the news provided 24-hour coverage of the fact that some allegedly shocking memo was lurking in the committee room, the President had accomplished his goal.
It didn’t really matter what was in the memo or that it was a partisan missive, just that something potentially scandalous existed. He had provided more fuel to the conspiratorial attacks the GOP has undertaken against the Russia investigation.
Although the public still supports Mueller’s investigation and is dubious about the President’s claims, the narrative of a “Deep State” and special investigator who attempted to throw an election and undertake a coup have taken strong hold in the national conversation. The release of the memo Friday will add fuel to the fire with its implication that the investigation was based on flawed information. In a memo that does not provide supporting intelligence and provides an incomplete portrait of how the investigation started, and why it continued, Republicans will claim to see evidence that the entire scandal was manufactured.”
Depression and the Smartphone
Anyone who teaches in our nation’s colleges and universities is aware of the rising problem of depression amongst young people. The same goes for parents of teenagers. I fit both these demographics and the mental health of young people is clearly in decline. Jean Twenge argues that her research has found a culprit: the ascendance of the smartphone amongst teens.
“Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.
In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.
In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.
What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone….
I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).”
George Soros, speaking at Davos, touched upon the threat of climate change, the danger of nuclear war, and the crisis of rising authoritarianism. He reiterated his lifelong commitment to “safeguard the values of open society so that they will better withstand future onslaughts. Open society will always have its enemies, and each generation has to reaffirm its commitment to open society for it to survive.” And then Soros raised an essential theme: The potential collusion between large IT companies and autocratic regimes.
“I want to spend the bulk of my remaining time on another global problem: the rise and monopolistic behavior of the giant IT platform companies. These companies have often played an innovative and liberating role. But as Facebook and Google have grown into ever more powerful monopolies, they have become obstacles to innovation, and they have caused a variety of problems of which we are only now beginning to become aware.
Companies earn their profits by exploiting their environment. Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment. This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.
The distinguishing feature of internet platform companies is that they are networks and they enjoy rising marginal returns; that accounts for their phenomenal growth. The network effect is truly unprecedented and transformative, but it is also unsustainable. It took Facebook eight and a half years to reach a billion users and half that time to reach the second billion. At this rate, Facebook will run out of people to convert in less than 3 years.
Facebook and Google effectively control over half of all internet advertising revenue. To maintain their dominance, they need to expand their networks and increase their share of users’ attention. Currently they do this by providing users with a convenient platform. The more time users spend on the platform, the more valuable they become to the companies.
Content providers also contribute to the profitability of social media companies because they cannot avoid using the platforms and they have to accept whatever terms they are offered.
The exceptional profitability of these companies is largely a function of their avoiding responsibility for– and avoiding paying for– the content on their platforms.
They claim they are merely distributing information. But the fact that they are near- monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulations, aimed at preserving competition, innovation, and fair and open universal access.
The business model of social media companies is based on advertising. Their true customers are the advertisers. But gradually a new business model is emerging, based not only on advertising but on selling products and services directly to users. They exploit the data they control, bundle the services they offer and use discriminatory pricing to keep for themselves more of the benefits that otherwise they would have to share with consumers. This enhances their profitability even further – but the bundling of services and discriminatory pricing undermine the efficiency of the market economy.
Social media companies deceive their users by manipulating their attention and directing it towards their own commercial purposes. They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide. This can be very harmful, particularly for adolescents. There is a similarity between internet platforms and gambling companies. Casinos have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.
Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated. This danger does not loom only in the future; it already played an important role in the 2016 US presidential elections.
But there is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon. There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data-rich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance. This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.
The countries in which such unholy marriages are likely to occur first are Russia and China. The Chinese IT companies in particular are fully equal to the American ones. They also enjoy the full support and protection of the Xi Jingping regime. The government of China is strong enough to protect its national champions, at least within its borders.
US-based IT monopolies are already tempted to compromise themselves in order to gain entrance to these vast and fast growing markets. The dictatorial leaders in these countries may be only too happy to collaborate with them since they want to improve their methods of control over their own populations and expand their power and influence in the United States and the rest of the world.”
Liberalism Off The Rails
In an interview by Sean Collins, Fred Siegel offers a revisionist account of liberalism gone off the rails.
“People assume that modern American liberalism begins with the New Deal. Or sometimes they say it begins with Woodrow Wilson’s wartime governance. Neither is true. Liberalism begins as a reaction, from a sense among liberals that they have been betrayed by Wilson. People who called themselves progressives would end up calling themselves liberals because they see Wilson’s wartime behaviour, in which he allowed anti-war opinion to be mercilessly suppressed, as contrary to their beliefs. The initial creation of liberalism comes with the creation of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in 1920. This, to me, places liberals on the side of the angels.
But then a second element emerges in the formation of liberalism, and that’s the role of HL Mencken. People are stunned to learn that Mencken was the most important liberal of the 1920s. It’s not that Mencken defined himself as a liberal, but he became the hero of college students and others who called themselves liberal. Liberal thinkers had nothing but praise for Mencken in the 1920s (however, by the 1930s, when Mencken opposed Roosevelt, he was attacked by liberals). The key point taken from Mencken is his view of the masses as stupid, as the ‘Booboisie’. Liberalism becomes more than anything else defined by hostility to the middle class, and that includes small-business people as well as the working class. When the 1930s come, the masses are redeemed temporarily in the eyes of liberals, because they are now in good hands, they are in the hands of approved left-wingers like FDR, and therefore not as problematic. But by the late 1940s and early 1950s, the middle class is back in ill-repute among liberals.
This is not terribly consequential until we get to the Kennedy period, when liberalism goes off the rails intellectually. It has been politically successful, or has appeared successful as in the case of Obama, but intellectually it never righted itself….I always ask people: where did the Obama administration succeed in foreign affairs? People sometimes say ‘the Iran deal’. But half a million people died in Syria! When I say that, people go quiet.”
The Trump Whisperer
“For Washington’s political class, Mead provided an answer to explain the otherwise perplexing populist appeal of the brash billionaire. Jacksonianism, as Mead viewed it, was exactly the historical precedent to explain Trump, marrying grass-roots disdain for elites, deep suspicion of overseas entanglements—and obsession with America power and sovereignty. “He is not the second coming of Andrew Jackson,” Mead said when we talked on the eve of Trump’s first anniversary in office this weekend. “But there was such a hunger in America for a Jacksonian figure that people were willing to project a lot of qualities onto this sort of very unlikely Queens real estate developer who becomes the folk hero of Americans who hate New York and are suspicious of Big Business.”
In explaining the historical antecedents for Trump’s hostility toward free trade, establishment-bashing and embrace of a certain kind of chauvinist nationalism, Mead offered an intellectual framework to understand Trump at a time when others remained simply mystified by the president. Indeed, Mead found Trump’s antagonism toward the fundamentals of the post-Cold War international order; rejection of alliances and allies; and visceral disregard for international institutions and the robust free trade made possible by it all perfectly consistent with the attributes of Jacksonianism he had first described more than a decade earlier.
For “a scholar of foreign policy,” says Mead, who is today a distinguished fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute, watching Trump’s rise was sort of an out-of-body experience, a once-in-a-career moment “where these abstract typologies that you write about suddenly seems to be happening in front of you.”
Jackson is one of four American historical figures Mead sees as archetypes of American foreign policy—but, like Trump today, he has historically been far from the mainstream. Ever since World War II, Mead argues, politicians coming from the more idealistic, democracy-promoting, free-trade-worshiping ranks of Wilsonians and Hamiltonians have reigned over Washington. Jacksonians and more libertarian-minded Jeffersonian realists have largely been relegated to the sidelines, or reluctantly enlisted in foreign adventures when they seemed justified by the bigger ideological struggle against communism in the Cold War.
But with the Cold War over, that liberal internationalist approach finally flopped with the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Mead argues, giving Trump the political opening he seized. Bush and his neocons “had little to no real success,” Mead says, with their Wilsonian project of using American power to build a more democratic Middle East. Obama, while more cautious about democracy-building, got sucked in too, leaving “wreckage” abroad and dismayed voters at home. “The gap between the establishment predictions about where the world would go and then the reality of where the world is opened a gap that enabled Trump basically to run as the little boy saying the emperor has no clothes,” Mead says.”
Posted on 4 February 2018 | 8:00 am
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