This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.
Why did I read it?
In 2015, I read Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty. At the time, it seemed like our country was at
the height of on-campus hysteria and reading that book gave me an enormous
peace of mind. For starters, it looked like the bulk of these problems were originating
from the left — the portion of the spectrum I had identified with my entire
life. If I disagreed with what was happening on the left, did that mean I belonged
somewhere else? This thought led me to researching conservative ideologies
which I quickly deduced were not representative of my views at all. I felt out
of place. There was nowhere in this new dynamic where I was represented, but
then I read Lukianoff’s book.
Lukianoff is a self-described lifelong Democrat who cherishes free-speech and other liberal ideals. These were views I aligned with. I consider myself a free speech absolutist, but at the time it was difficult to find anyone who agreed with view that wasn’t a right-wing lunatic. Lukianoff’s take was refreshing and gave me the insight I needed to make sense of the crazy world we were descending into. From Lukianoff, I was introduced to many other public intellectuals. Jonathan Haidt, co-author of Coddling and a researcher who did studies on political tribalism; Sam Harris, who I had cursory knowledge of but didn’t look into many of his views; Steven Pinker — and eventually more uniquely political-defined characters such as Mark Lilla, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Jordan Peterson and Brett / Eric Weinstein. Reading Lukianoff’s book set me on a path to finding the voices I now consider the most valuable in our current moment.
Of course, 2015 was not the peak year of campus hysteria or whatever we want to call this strange time we’re living in. It’s not clear we’ve reached the peak. You could argue 2018 was the worst year yet, but 2019 has already started with a viral scandal about the media’s portrayal of MAGA hat-wearing teenagers and if they didn’t anything wrong or not. We’re clearly still in a time we don’t quite understand. The Coddling of the American Mind is a book that attempts to resolve some of the mysteries of how we got here.
How was it?
It’s interesting to read a book by two authors because you
can pretty much tell when one section is written by one or the other. Lukianoff
is an effective writer and makes every sentence meaningful. I tend to highlight
key sentences or phrases that impact me and I had to stop myself from
highlighting entire pages of this book. Of course, other sections are far more
sparse of quality one-liners and take a bit to get to the point (my analysis is
these sections were written by Haidt). In terms of pure readability, this is an
engaging book on a topic that could’ve come across as dull. Although I have to
say the introduction chapter has one of the dumbest framing gimmicks I’ve read
In terms of information, I was a bit surprised the book’s
thesis relied so heavily on other authors. Specifically, Nassim Taleb’s theory
on anti-fragility is front and center for most of the book. Other authors and
written works are pulled from Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids and Jean Twenge’s iGen. I suppose it’s worth saving the time by not rehashing what
other experts have already concluded, but at times it felt in the dark on the
full-scope of an explanation because I wasn’t well-read on the other sources of
information the authors repeatedly pulled from.
Of course the book has a fair amount of its own analysis,
especially in the “How Did We Get Here?” portion of the book. It makes a compelling
case for how the issues born on campus actually came from a variety of sources
that intermingled for this very specific catastrophe of free society. This
isn’t a book that gives a simple answer for a complicated problem, there are
many layers to the issue and each one is extracted and examined. The book doesn’t
suggest the finger can be pointed at any one event or individual, this is an
issue that came to life due to many influences and all of them must be addressed.
The end of the book concludes with ways to potentially
address the problems and I thought this was one of the stronger sections of the
book. For one, it helps to end a grim book on a point of optimism. It also helps
that the solutions range from small-scope to large-scale and are all backed by
data. Something as small as restricting kids’ time on smartphones is an easy
life change to make, but others like incentivizing students to take a gap year
after high school by altering college admissions to favor that behavior, show
how institutional change could affect these outcomes as well. You finish the
book feeling like there is a way out of this hole we’ve dug into.
I’ve followed the issue of campus hysteria pretty closely
for five years, so a lot of this book was a rehash. It felt slow at times;
mainly when I was in a section about an experience I still have fresh in my
memory. Even with the repetitiveness, this book has macro-level analysis that
isn’t always possible in the news cycle of individual events. The third and
fourth parts of this book offer the reader an opportunity to step back and see
the extent of the situation we find ourselves in as a country. These parts of
the book are what made the reading experience worth it.
I can only imagine how much more rewarding this book would
be in the hands of someone who had no knowledge of this issue, or maybe only
heard about it on their periphery. This book acts as a great introduction for
the unfamiliar and adds important insight to a problem others may be well aware
We’re over a year away from the first primaries and almost two years away from election day, but with five high-profile politicians announcing their candidacy as America’s next president in the past week alone — it’s clear we’re full-swing into the 2020 election cycle. This isn’t going to be a fun election. It’ll be as grueling of an exorcism on our country’s values as the last one. It will feel like torture, but it will be necessary torture. There are big questions we have to resolve about our country’s future. Along the way it will become very easy to get lost in the day-to-day horror show, so I wanted to outline my personal beliefs and what I’ll be looking for in our next president.
I want to stress that this election is the second part of a once-in-a-lifetime event. As The Atlantic’s David Frum said: America’s politics were frozen from 1990 to 2015, evident by the fact that the main issues on opposite sides of the era were exactly the same: health care, wars in the middle east, Russia, taxes on the rich and ultra-partisanship. If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that the public was desperate to shatter the ice. We’re still picking up the pieces from that decision. It’s clear the majority of people are not happy with our current state of affairs but it is just as true that many people do not want to go back to the past. We all want to go somewhere different. Where that destination may be lies in the candidates for this election. This isn’t simply the rejection of our current president, it’s deciding the future of our political parties for the next generation.
Below are some musings about what I think are the two most important things facing our country.
The Economy and a post-work society
Let’s talk about robots. Everyone knows that automation is coming. We see it at McDonalds’ self-serve kiosks or read about it when Amazon announces they’re investing in drone technology to handle deliveries. Automation will be a great thing for many reasons. The jobs that are getting automated are careers no one wants. No one’s life purpose is discovered making change as a cashier or troubleshooting tech support over the phone. We’re happy to give these jobs over to robots, but the problem with automation comes from how our system is designed. America was founded on the prospect of receiving the fruits of one’s labor — but what does the world look like when you don’t have to work?
Right now, we only know what happens if you can’t work and
it doesn’t look good.
In traditional capitalist market economy, they say when one market goes defunct, another one will take its place. Where there is a void in the market, a smart entrepreneur can cater to the market’s needs and make a living out of it. This is true for individuals as well. If your job is no longer viable, you’re motivated to get a new one. Many skills can be retrained and reapplied to different industries and we all have an intrinsic desire to survive. This is what many economists say will happen with the automation revolution. Unfortunately for anyone paying attention, we know this is not the case, because we already have a test case for what happens when an industry disappears.
Between 2000 and 2009, America lost five million manufacturing jobs. There is a dispute on whether these jobs were sent overseas or automated by robots, but the fact remains that these jobs are never coming back. In the wake of their disappearance, our country now had five million unemployed workers with relatively dexterous skills and decades of experience. Market economists would tell you these workers had a good chance of retraining for another job, but that is not what happened. The majority of displaced manufacturing workers were unemployed for over a year and then eventually stopped looking, leaving the workforce. Some applied to work retraining programs which proved to have an effectiveness of zero to 33 percent.
What are all those workers doing if they’re not paying for their cost of living? The government is paying for it. Starting in 2000, more Americans started filing for disability insurance. The increase in disability benefits focused in states hit hardest by manufacturing losses, such as Michigan. Of course, disability wasn’t meant to act as a replacement for work and it wasn’t meant to balloon in size over a short amount of time (the number of Americans on disability doubled between 1980 and 2005). This isn’t to say that these workers “gave up” on finding a job and now belong in an underclass of Americans who rely on entitlements. They spent years looking for a job, but couldn’t find one. When desperation finally hit, they turned to government assistance. Who can blame them?
Truck driving illuminates how dire this situation will become. The average truck driver is a 49-year-old male, with a high school diploma and no significant family. There are roughly 3 million truck drivers in the United States. It’s the most popular profession in 29 states. What’s going to happen to these truck drivers when they can’t get a job? What do you think millions of 49-year-old single men would do if pushed to desperation? The alternatives to disability insurance are not fun to consider.
While all this is going on, we have companies like Amazon and Apple announcing trillion-dollar valuations and market experts claiming the United States’ economy is better now than ever before. There is clearly a disconnect between these two Americas that cannot be ignored. We’re in the middle of redefining our country’s relationship with work and there are few suggestions to how we’ll navigate this reality. One thing is certain: our current system will collapse. It will begin to collapse during the next recession (which is forecasted any day now). Our country needs a leader who understands the breadth of this issue and has an ambitious solution for it.
When it comes to viable presidential candidates, this issue
eliminates anyone who appears tone deaf to the extent of our economic crisis.
This is a bigger problem than a $15 minimum wage or tax cuts for the rich can
solve. We need big ideas because we can’t afford anything less. I’m more
willing to consider a zany idea that appears to have the reach we need, over a
more mainstream idea that clearly will not work.
Education and the American purpose
It’s often debated whether school is meant to prepare
students for a career or for life but it’s clear that the American education
system does neither. A High School diploma has become so ubiquitous and
devalued by programs like No Child Left Behind that it’s led to the necessity
for post-secondary private education for students to stay competitive in the
job market. Of course, private higher education has become just as meaningless
as a High School diploma, all the while burdening students with oppressive debt
that prevents them from entering the workforce sooner and suppresses
entrepreneurial endeavors that are necessary to maintain a free marketplace.
We have a lot of economic reasons to fix our education system (and I’m intrigued by ideas such as bailing out student debt, or at least making loan payments interest free) but I believe our schools can resolve a different issue. Americans, and the western world, are facing an existential crisis of purpose. In the same way that our economy is being massively overhauled into a post-work society, our cultural identity has also massively shifted. The question of “what should I be doing with my life?” once had a few answers. Religious texts gave followers a path to leading a good life; American families stressed the importance of leaving a legacy and making the world better for the next generation; and some found their career to be worth dedicating to during the era of prosperous free-market capitalism. These options are not available to younger generations. American religiosity has plummeted (which has many good side effects, but this particular one could be marked as a negative), our country has a declining birth rate that’s barely equalized by mass immigration, and few have the option to pursue a career that’s guaranteed to employ them for their entire life.
Unsurprisingly, our country has become massively depressed and turned to destructive tendencies to fill the void. We’re in the midst of the biggest opioid epidemic in history. In 2015, drug overdoses took over car accidents as the most common form of death and has continued to reign number one ever since. Drug use is a way of ignoring our problems, but our solutions are just as damaging. I believe our political polarization is fueled by individuals desire to define their purpose with ideology. In many ways, politics has overtaken religion as our generation’s existential identity. This is why phrases like “everything is political” have become mainstream. Politics is the only lens people can view the world in a way that makes them care about it, so they inject it into everything, even where it does not belong.
Last year’s The Coddling of the American Mind outlined how modern trends of polarization and increased anxiety could be addressed by restricting kids’ access to smartphones (two hours a day) and teaching them the basic tenants of cognitive behavioral therapy (a method of addressing cognitive distortions that lead to depression and anxiety — it doesn’t require medication or professional help and is hugely successful). I believe we can redesign our education to address the most important fact of reality: existence can be incredibly draining and you have to teach yourself to find enjoyment in life. There are small modifications that can be made to prevent catastrophe (such as CBT) but we also have to give students the means to discover their own purpose in life. Whether that’s creating a structure that contributes to society (business management, entrepreneurial pursuits, law), pursuing art (music, writing, visuals) or becoming a pillar of a community (parenthood, journalism, religious or volunteer work).
Giving students the resources to navigate the world is more important than frontloading them with entry-level information they might need. I’m sure any person can figure out the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell if they need that information to achieve their goal. That’s not the main concern for young people today. Most are totally lost. They either have no direction, or they’re so dejected by early failures they’re uncertain they can apply themselves to anything meaningful. This type of educational overhaul may not have many-short term gains, but it’ll address a generational issue that if we continue to ignore will lead to monumental problems in a decade or two.
I believe one of the biggest issues facing our generation is finding an answer to nihilism. It may be a stretch to call this section “education,” since the issue I’m describing exists far outside of standardized testing and the achievement gap, but this is the only institution in our society I believe can help with this goal. Nihilism is no longer the harmless, cringey, pop-philosophy name dropped in movies and metal albums. It has overtaken many Americans as their defining ideology. Anyone paying attention can see this. When one of the president’s biggest factions is a group of trolls who refer to a mythical “kekistan” where everything is a big joke; when you have a huge increase in mass shooters, all one-upping each other on who can cause the most devastation to reality; and when you have record breaking drug addiction and depression diagnoses, you’re dealing with a populace that doesn’t believe life matters. That belief has a consequential effect on the rest of us. Our country needs a leader who’s attuned to this existential problem and believes they can do something about it.
These two issues may seem to exist on such a macro-level
that it’d be impossible for any politician to fulfill them. That may be true. I
can’t imagine a dream candidate will descend from the heavens and resolve two
of the biggest problems in our country within one term. However, this criterion
serves the purpose of identifying who will not be helpful for our country’s
With these issues in mind, any politician campaigning on
restoring our country to pre-2015 is dead on arrival. This is why I am totally
unenthusiastic about the prospect of Joe Biden running for president. This is
equally true for any establishment Republicans like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker or
Mitt Romney. I’m unconvinced any of them truly understand the crisis our
generation sees and they’ll want to talk about the same old ideas we’ve heard
for decades. The ideas from the past will not lead us into the future.
My focus on redefining our American purpose toward something productive outlines my total zero tolerance toward any politician willing to play the identity politics game. Our generation has a massive over-reliance on deriving purpose from politics. That reliance has devastated our public discourse, ruined friendships, polarized our nation and hampered all mechanisms to resolve these issues. Maybe this would be ok if it resulted in a better world or healthier people — but there is no indication of that. We have increasing numbers of depression and anxiety, and various polls say Americans believe the world is getting worse — not better — despite overwhelming statistical evidence proving we’re in the best point in history. Politics works best when people angrily demand change. This incentive to stay in a perpetual state of anger is what is making us miserable. I see any politician exploiting this existential insecurity as an opportunist who’s leading their followers down a destructive path of self-immolation.
Unfortunately, these two criterions knock out over half of the suspected democratic field. While I’m sure people like Kirsten Gillibrand or Cory Booker have the best of intentions with the tactics they utilize to bring about change, I believe some of those tactics directly contribute to the bigger issues looming over everything else. At the same time, although I may loathe their candidacy throughout the democratic primaries, if my only other option is the guy who’s systematically destroyed our country’s institutions, the choice makes itself.
I’ve been talking about these two issues for the past few months with some friends and the overwhelming response is a common criticism. “Every generation thinks they’re at the brink of global catastrophe!” Before our current moment there was nuclear war in Russia, before that we had a corrupt President who was shooting anti-war protestors on campus, before that we had an assassinated president and racists preventing civil rights, before than we had a world war, which came just after a great depression which was preceded by the first world war. With all these moments in our past and the story of our perseverance over each of them, how could we remain so cynical about the future? Each generation thought this was the end, but it wasn’t. That’s true, but I believe it is because they believed it was the end that they got through it.
Our current political moment may not be the tipping point
before devastation, but it sure feels that way, and if we want to prove that
feeling is wrong, we should take it seriously and elect a leader who can add
the problems of today to the history of adversities we’ve overcome.
Reports of children being separated from their parents, placed in cages and drugged have convinced the majority of Americans that the Trump administration’s approach to immigration isn’t exactly something they support. FiveThirtyEight reported that an average of 64 percent of Americans oppose “separating families crossing the border” and “holding children and parents in different facilities while they await trial.” Separated by party, the numbers show a familiar story where Democrats overwhelming oppose the Trump administration’s policies (87 percent) and Republicans are split on support and opposition (45 percent favor the policies, 35 percent oppose). Glancing at right-leaning commentators reveals that many Republicans generally support the concept of enforcing a border but are dismayed by the Trump administrations inhumane approach to the issue. Even with those concerns, the message from Republicans is clear: enforcing the border is important but how this administration is doing it is morally wrong.
As the party of #TheResistance, Democrats are eager to criticize the Trump administration’s immigration policies, but the issue begs the question: what is the Democratic platform on immigration? Democrat leaders have criticized immigration policies both inside and outside the party, which suggests the reason Democrats don’t have a clear policy position is because their base isn’t necessarily convinced borders should exist, let alone be enforced.
With their unending quest to frame themselves as the all-encompassing “resistance” to Trump, Democrats hope they’ll attract support from anyone who disagrees with any of the administration’s unpopular policies. The latest Trump-fueled outrage of families being separated by ICE agents is one of the many failures by this administration Democrats hope to point to during elections. One of the problems with defining a political party as the opposition to an administration is it becomes difficult to forge what the party actually believes in. At their best, Democrats’ tie their strategy to an actual policy, such as Democrats defense for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which was rolled back by the Trump administration despite maintaining overwhelming support from the public, but other objections that are not tied to policy have created adversarial rhetoric that leads to unsustainable policies for the party of the resistance.
For example, Trump’s executive order limiting travel from seven countries with Muslim-majorities was rightly criticized as poor policy from both sides of the aisle. Many pointed out the obvious inconsistencies of mysteriously leaving out Saudi Arabia or Pakistan from the list of countries (both of which have direct links to Islamic extremism and also a tendency to make generous donations to the US) or the impracticality of indiscriminately banning an entire country of people. Even with these criticisms available to them, Democrats focused on portraying the order as “un-American” and “Islamophobic.” Democrats are skillfully focusing on these criticisms that attack the moral character of the administration to effectively portray the entire administration as racist or un-American. This criticism is again being leveled against the administration following the latest inhumane scandal, but now Democrats have cornered themselves by routinely calling any enforcement of the border as “un-American.” When an entire category of policy is labeled antithetical to America, it’s difficult to suggest alternatives within that category.
This rhetoric is part of an ongoing trend of Democrats unable to agree if immigration is something that should be limited. Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rollback asylum status for people who cited domestic abuse as reason to flee their country, NPR wrote an article criticizing the decision, as if domestic abuse was an issue that the United States alone was burdened with solving. The language surrounding immigration issues has been morphed to suggest “illegal immigration” isn’t a crime such as when California Senator and speculated 2020 Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris tweeted “An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” Even the most popular politician in America, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, can’t escape criticism on the issue. Sanders caught flak from Vox during his presidential candidacy when he suggested open borders would only serve right-wing billionaires interested in depressing wages.
As Dan Pfeiffer of Pod Save America observed, “Democrats are afraid of this issue.” The reason being that the policy with the most support may not be politically viable. Collating all the criticism directed both outside and inside the party, it would seem the most popular position would be no immigration policy at all. The thinking behind this view would be logically consistent with progressives’ interest in inclusiveness and appealing to lofty ideals that expand human rights. Unfortunately for the idealists of the party, enforcing borders is a popular policy position. Democrats love to appeal to lofty ideas, even when there are practical arguments against them, but whereas some tentpole policies such as universal health care or minimum wage increases survive criticism by citing public support, a radically progressive approach to immigration may renew a long-time criticism of Democrats’ impetus to embrace unpopular and unsustainable positions that makes the party lose elections.
There is a deep allure to knowing things that others don’t. Being informed is a virtue of modern society but being more informed than most people is even more desirable. Americans are filled with skepticism of the status quo and any fact that reveals everything is not as it seems is immensely satisfying to possess. American politics has become less about whose policies are best and more about whose conceptions of society are true. This shift has allowed left and right extremism to dominate the national discussion since they both refute society itself. The average American may have some thoughts on how poverty could be prevented in their neighborhood based on their own personal experience, but if a political opponent establishes that someone is ignorant of where poverty originates from, then their ideas for how to solve it are insignificant. This style of debate services extremism in two ways. First, it effectively invalidates anyone who isn’t initiated into a particular ideology. Second, it acts as a recruitment tool by directing the invalidated to learn the answers to questions that only extremists can answer. Well-intentioned people have a desire to know the truth, but when the bread crumbs to enlightenment are laid by political bad actors, the traveler will find themselves stumbling into indoctrination.
It’s true that knowing things is satisfying, but not knowing things is disproportionately unsatisfying. No politician has ever stood on a stage and said “I don’t know,” because it doesn’t inspire confidence in their ability. It seems citizens prefer a candidate who wrongly believes they’re correct more than one who tepidly admits their ignorance. Part of the attraction of extremist ideologies is they diagnose a cause for all of society’s ailments, often the same one. What is the cause of inequality and suffering in America? Depending on which side of the spectrum you ask, it is either the result of an oppressive patriarchal structure or the machinations of a deep state globalist conspiracy. Framing society’s problems as the result of one overarching concept satisfies devout followers of ideologies but leaves many questions for any on-lookers who are not familiar with these views.
Questioning either of these framings is an effort in futility. To the extremists who dominate national political conversations, announcing that you don’t believe in the patriarchy or a globalist conspiracy is to announce your ignorance of how society works at all. Doing so inevitably puts the attacker on the defensive. Whenever a person inquires or argues against an extremist societal framing, they’re doomed to sit through a lecture detailing the specifics of the ideology or forced to dispute a variety of declarations made by it. This is a common tactic in debate teams known as “spreading” (or the “Gish Gallop”) where one side presents many weak points, forcing the opposing side to dedicate their energy to correcting each one. The corrections dominate the discussion and there’s no time left to suggest an alternative view. Failure to provide a satisfactory and concise explanation of society’s problems is used as proof that the ideology’s catchall diagnosis is more true than any nuanced approach.
That feeling of dissatisfaction is pushed onto the observer of a debate. Even if an observer doesn’t agree with an extremist at first, their mystifying ideology demands further research. What is the patriarchy? What is the deep state? These are questions that lead to more questions that politically-motivated websites like Salon or Breitbart are happy to answer. If these questions capitalize on an ailment the individual has personally suffered, then the mainstream’s failure to answer them confirms this ideology they’ve discovered as the only true perspective of the world. They’ve convinced themselves they have found how society truly works. Even if they stumbled onto the ideology for one specific reason, its truth has a way of re-contextualizing all other problems. If an individual accepts that privilege or corruption is the underlying cause for one problem, it is not unreasonable for them to conclude that it is the cause of many other problems too. Their logic is supported by scores of other followers who have all made the same conclusion.
Perhaps most insidiously, these ideologies provide an explanation for why anyone would disagree with them. Even in the face of numerous experts disproving theories reliant on patriarchy or globalism, the ideology claims these experts are only publishing these arguments in service of the societal evil the ideology is against. If a woman disputes patriarchy, they’re suffering from “internalized misogyny.” If a conservative condemns the alt-right, they’re a “cuckservative” who hasn’t been “red-pilled” yet. Both of these explanations carry a thinly veiled condescension that says “I used to be misguided like you, but then I found the truth.”
These brain-washed extremists live a life of satisfaction believing they have found out the truth of how society really works and use it to counter opponents of their beliefs. All American political debates fail at this impasse. Supporters cheer on figureheads of their own views, regardless of whatever is said. This dualism seeps into all politically-themed events and the winners and losers are decided by the size of the biggest mob.
How did it get this way?
Americans would not feel compelled to question how society is structured if the structure was working in their favor. Yale Professor of History Timothy Snyder wrote in his book On Tyranny, that “Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability.” Our moment in history is dense with inequalities. Americans of all demographics feel a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and desperately seek an explanation for their strife. Unsurprisingly, extremists tend to be characterized by an obvious lack in their own life. Whether that be unemployment (or underemployment), the inability to surpass their parents financially (the first generation not to do so), or a lack of personal satisfaction, these political ideologues are drawn to their views by a dissatisfaction with how society has treated them. These spheres of extremism grow by explaining how these problems in their life are the result of an antagonistic action against them.
Despite these troubling trends there’s still hope for promoting sanity and reasonable discourse. The majority of Americans are silent in the political debate. Most are not convinced by these ideologies and are not satisfied with the answers extremists provide. They see the bread crumbs for the poisonous falsehoods that they are, knowing where those paths lead. Although these unimpressed citizens do not dominate the conversation, they do dominate the representation. Across all demographics, most Americans have stayed on the sidelines during this wave of extremism. Despite the difficulties all Americans have faced, it would seem that the most alluring truth is not that society is flawed for one specific reason but that these groups who pretend to know the truth are most certainly wrong.
Politics in America is now dominated by extremism. Every issue is made out to be the difference between protecting the disadvantaged and normalizing fascism. Your actions get conflated to ten times what they actually were so that people can easily categorize you into one side or the other. I don’t believe many people have such extreme views, but some will accept their prescribed side while others will choose to avoid the conversation entirely. This dynamic results in America’s important values being pushed aside for political expediency or personal well-being. There’s no question we live in extraordinary times that demand action. We have a President who seems to dismiss the core values of America in favor of his own interests, but his most vocal opponents have been willing to do the same for their own ends. In light of this, the true political battle in the United States is revealed and it is not good versus evil but decency against savagery.
During the campaign trail, I was more disturbed by Trump’s flagrant approach to protesters at his rallies than anything else. Specifically the incident where he asked his crowd to “knock the crap” out of protesters and that he’d “pay for the legal fees.” That moment disturbed me because it was the bridge from ordinary disagreement to violence against your opponents. It wasn’t enough to insult your detractors, now they had to physically pay for it. That moment was a glimpse into Trump’s values (or lack thereof) and how far his supporters would go with him.
It was a clarifying moment for me, because regardless of whatever your specific views are on issues, silencing opponents is not only un-American, but normalizing that action pulls at the fragile toothpicks that support our free society. America’s commitment to free speech has allowed the war of ideas to be fought with appropriate tools: arguments, logic and shared experiences. If you can’t talk to your enemy and explain your differences, you’ll surely fight them instead. Our system can survive a few incompetent politicians, or a few years of incompetent leadership, but it cannot survive removing the mechanism meant to reveal that incompetence.
Most of the people willing to endorse violence come from the younger generation. You can find endless tweets from people supporting the recent riots. They are self-appointed experts on how to beat toxic ideologies despite never reading a history book in their life. It’s natural that younger people have more energy while the older generation shares their experience and wisdom for how best to channel that energy through productive means. But the current younger generation has delegitimized everyone but themselves. Boogiemen come in the form of the patriarchy or identity politics, cutting off all influencers who are not fellow travelers. The few remaining figures who could dispel these toxic views are fearful that upsetting their base will diminish their chance to stay in office. This is predicated on the concept that America’s political battle is between the left and right, but as any political science expert will tell you – the two directions eventually curl back toward each other if you go far enough. This weariness for replacing one extremist with another is why the country remains so staunchly divided.
Trump’s first weeks in office have been a disaster. He’s created a domestic crisis with his sloppy immigration actions, he failed his promise to “make Mexico pay for the wall,” he’s forced most of the state department’s higher-ups to resign and his administration has been the cause of more riots in the past dozen days than most of the past dozen administrations. In the face of spectacular failure, there’s no reason democrats shouldn’t be careening toward high approval ratings, but that’s not what has happened. Instead they’ve placated this dangerous anti-American extremism in hopes it will serve their own ends.
During the North African campaign of World War II, Supreme Commander of the Allies Dwight Eisenhower oversaw a deal with Vichy France’s Francois Darlan. The armistice was — in effect — an alliance between the free world and the fascist regime of Vichy France. Tactically, the deal served the allies. They had better standing in North Africa, key strategic resources and spent less vital manpower fighting the French. After all, Germany was the true enemy. But the deal was harshly criticized by Free France’s Charles de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and several critics in America, including one renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow, who said:
“Are we fighting Nazis or sleeping with them? Why this play with traitors? Don’t we see that we could lose this war by winning it?”
What good is fighting a war against an ideology that has sunk the world into conflict if you’re willing to use those same ideas for your own victory? Unlike that historic example, there is no literal war being fought on a battlefield. America is constantly in a war of ideas. Our country has stood the test of time because of its commitment to personal freedoms and choosing to fight the war of ideas instead of the war of violence. America needs to revitalize a movement that adheres to the rights that made this country great if it hopes to survive the current wave of extremism.
EDIT (05/08/2018): I was reminded that I wrote this article today and I’d like to publicly acknowledge how well it has aged.
Long before we knew what this election was going to become someone on my twitter feed remarked that if Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton won it’d be the day that “politics became boring again.” Recent polls have Clinton’s chances of winning so high that she’ll not only win every single swing state, but also claim several red states like Arizona and Georgia. Ironically, Donald Trump may go down as one of the biggest losers in recent history. It’s fun to talk about Trump because he’s the edge case. He’s the guy that might drive all of civilization off a cliff. Even if he didn’t cause the apocalypse, it’s a mystery what his presidency might change if he did win. However, it seems pretty clear that that isn’t going to happen. What also isn’t clear is what a Clinton presidency would look like. Of course we know the general jist of liberal policies and continuing the work Obama started, but how much of Clinton’s campaigning was appealing to voters and how much of it was saying what she intends to do?
In the January debate, MSNBC asked the candidates what they would do in their first 100 days of office. Hillary Clinton answered with this plan:
“I would work quickly to present to the congress my plans for creating more good jobs in manufacturing, infrastructure, clean and renewable energy, raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing finally equal pay for women’s work. I would also be presenting my plans to build on the Affordable Care Act and to improve it by decreasing the out of pocket costs by putting a cap on prescription drug costs by looking for ways that we can put the prescription drug business and the health insurance company business on a more stable platform that doesn’t take too much money out of the pockets of hard working Americans. And third I would be working every way that I knew to bring our country together. We do have too much division. Too much mean spiritedness. There’s a lot we have to do on immigration reform, on voting rights, on campaign finance reform, but we need to do it together. That’s how we’ll have the kind of country for the 21st century that we know will guarantee our children and grandchildren they deserve.” -Hillary Clinton. January 17, 2016.
Sounds pretty detailed. But if you pull that clip back by one minute you’ll see that Bernie Sanders answered first and a different image starts to form. Listening to Sanders’ answer compared to Clinton’s, it shows her answer was meant to mute every single one of his points and portray herself as the more reasonable version of his goals. Sanders says he wants to establish unified health care as a human right, raise minimum wage to 15 dollars, create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure and “bring America together” by making the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes. Keep all that in mind and re-read Clinton’s statement. She matches every single point. It’s a clear debate tactic and not indicative of what she’ll actually do, even if she actually believes in implementing all those ideas on a hypothetical level.
Another major portion of the Hillary Clinton campaign has been “electing the first female president.” It would be a historical moment in tandem with electing the first black president. Obama’s historic election also saw higher turnout of new voters. The 2008 election saw many black voters showing up on election day for the first time. The thinking for Clinton may be that women would turn out in similar numbers to vote for her and be a part of another historic election. Yet, I’m skeptical that Clinton is as passionate about the in vogue feminist topics as she puts on. Despite pushing for “equal pay for equal work” Clinton’s own staff reportedly had a pay-gap among the female and male staffers. As for her support in the “listen and believe” mantra for sexual assault victims, her complicated history with Bill Clinton’s alleged victims may blur where she truly stands on that issue. I don’t doubt that Clinton has had her own run-ins with gender discrimination and I’m sure she supports the concept of equality, but her political career doesn’t trend toward these types of issues. She’s a big-ideas type of politician who doesn’t get involved with interpersonal policymaking.
Clinton’s preference for looking at the big picture is on display with how she handled the “superpredators” mini-scandal during the campaign trail. When the Bernie Sanders crowd realized he was doing awful with Black Americans, they found an old clip of Hillary Clinton referring to gang members with “zero empathy” as “superpredators” and that they had to be “brought to a heel.” For context, the clip originated from 1996 when Hillary Clinton was First Lady. Bill Clinton had previously passed a Crime Bill that was tougher on criminals as was the national conversation on crime, partly because the House of Representatives and the Senate were both controlled by Republicans who were strongly in favor of “three strikes you’re out.” The clip was taken from this defunct era, literally twenty years ago, brought into the modern day where the word “institutionalized racism” is common and Hillary Clinton was asked if she thought her use of the word was racist. Personally, I thought the question was unfair and it seems most of her supporters agreed because her polling barely saw a downtick.
However, her response shows Clinton’s disinterest with tackling a personal issue like racism. She immediately jumps to underfunded schools and lacking economic opportunities for minorities. Her critiques were primarily from the Black Lives Matter movement, but her response was as if it was a bullet point in a dense economic policy reform. This moment may have been the most illuminating moment of the campaign.
If her answer to the superpredator question didn’t give a sense of her priorities, then her running mate certainly did. Clinton picked Tim Kaine as her running mate reportedly to reinforce her image as the “sensible choice.” After the announcement she gave insight on how she came to this choice over other progressive prospectives like Warren, Castro or Booker:
“I have this old-fashioned idea. If you’re running for president, you should say what you want to do and how you will get it done.” -Hillary Clinton. July 23, 2016.
Tim Kanie is a terrifically boring candidate. There’s nothing on his career resume that jumps out. He runs government efficiently and that’s about all you can say. Which might be exactly what Hillary Clinton wants to do.
I think it’s a fool’s errand to guess what any President’s exact plans will be. The possibilities are nearly endless. It’s probably a good guess to assume that Clinton would tackle education. Obama somewhat famously ignored education in his first term to tackle health care instead. The system hasn’t seen a major reform since No Child Left Behind, which has been called a disaster by both parties, but education isn’t the only aspect of our system that’s in dire straits.
Low-level research on topics like the IRS or America’s infrastructure will reveal that there’s a lot of issues in the country that have needed moderate maintenance for some time. These issues may not be as exciting as ending racism or getting everyone on electric cars, but they are necessary. Since many of these goals are considered “boring,” they get ignored. Even loftier goals like “equal pay for equal work,” a concept that’s disputed in the economics community, sidetracks conversations about maternity leave, or vacation leave. These issues have been on the national stage for twenty years and haven’t seen progress.
Clinton’s positioning of being the “sensible choice,” and her positional preference for big issues, it’s possible she’ll turn out to be the Janitor President. We gave her all our crap. We spat on her the entire time, but maybe she’ll end up doing the job that nobody else wants to do. That might be what we need.
That’s my hopeful wish for her Presidency. If her first week in office she introduces a bill for Campus Speech Zones, I’m going to be pissed.