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Destroying Voter Resilience: How the US Establishment Plays Both Ends Against the Middle

(Note: this is the first in a series of posts we hope to run over the next several months as a service to our very dear friends in the USA of all political persuasions, who find themselves trapped in a new version of “the theatre of the absurd” – the 2016 Presidential Campaign.)

Welcome to the age of political disillusionment…

Would it shock you to learn that the United States of America, the guardian of the free world, no longer qualifies as a democracy?

A 2014 study by Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern professor Benjamin Page concluded that the United States of America is no longer a democracy, inasmuch as the interests of economic elites trump the interests of ordinary citizens consistently in shaping government policy. Worse, it looks like the people are finding out…

According to a Gallup Poll last September, only 38% of Americans had confidence in the Federal Government’s handling of domestic problems. As of June, confidence in Congress and the criminal justice system was running at no more than 25%.

Preventing Sane Discussion

What are the real issues here? Well, that depends on who you ask, because the adherents of the left and the right (or as the rest of the world knows them, the right and the even righter) can scarcely understand what the other side is talking about, let alone have a civil conversation about it. The resilience of the American voter has been systematically degraded to the point where the voting public cannot come together to effectively confront the pressing problems of the nation.

This state of affairs is the by-product of a long and sustained manipulation of the voting public designed expressly to prevent a sane cross-partisan consensus from developing outside of the direction set by the one percent, who are the financial backers of all of the centrist candidates in both parties.

You may ask, ‘Doesn’t this presidential race already show how tenuous the control of these elites is? Trump has spent a fraction of what Jeb Bush has, and Bush is barely in the running at this point. Sanders is taking an unexpectedly solid run at Clinton, who has vast finances at her disposal.’

All of that’s true. On the right, the disenchanted white working and middle class constituency- which has historically been led by the nose by Republican elites- have realised that the economic agenda of these elites, as embodied by expanding free trade (meaning more job loss to developing countries) and other policies, has nothing to do with their best interests. On the left, the younger generation has just endured a Democrat administration that blatantly sold out the interests of the public to the one percent in its response to the financial crisis, and now that generation wants something different.

This Election Cycle’s Upsets Are Misdirected

But let’s take a look at the shape of this awakening for a moment. In both parties and among the general public, there is a substantial constituency that is deeply disenchanted with the status quo. Have these constituencies tried to come together, to form a coherent, non-partisan alternative? Of course not. In the context of American politics, the very idea is laughable. And that’s the point.

The Tactics of Divide and Conquer

The centrist candidates on both sides are backed by the party elites. Any attempt to shrug off the influence of the elites therefore means venturing to into “extremist” territory. And that’s why even if both Trump and Sanders are somehow nominated, it won’t matter in the long run, because each would, if elected, alienate so much of the population that the next president will inevitably be a centrist. As long as they occupy that middle ground, the elites will be able to carry on with their neoliberal, corporation-centred agenda, whether it’s painted blue or red.

The polarisation of American politics is the means by which this elite guarantees its dominance. This has reached such an extreme that only the centrists in either party can talk to each other civilly. It seems virtually impossible for the far right and the far left to hold a discussion in which an impartial observer could be persuaded they even understood each others’ arguments. Their values, basic assumptions and frames of reference are far too different. And of course, long before understanding were even on the horizon, volleys of insults would be flying, with the left calling the right ignorant and the right calling the left “liberal elites”. Each side is thoroughly immunised against listening to the other, even when they share common interests.

This division is the result of a long process of polarising the once-broad tents of the two parties through increasingly bitter ideological divisions. And the fruit it has borne is a political system of ideological prize-fighting, where the voter is reduced from citizen to jeering spectator. The walls that ideologies have built make it virtually impossible for citizens to come together across party lines in order to address pressing national problems.

The Fruits of Division

Here are just a few of the pressing issues the US electorate is unable to come together on because of partisan ideology:

– The massive wave of protest over police brutality has not, as one might logically expect, caused libertarians to make common cause with the protesters. Fear of the heavy hand of government apparently doesn’t extend to the police except when libertarians say it does. The related issue of surveillance which likewise resonates with both leftists and libertarians has likewise failed to stimulate a significant meeting of the minds.

– The economic crisis did not lead disillusioned Democrats and Republicans to come together in demanding an end to bailouts, a more accountable financial sector and compensation for the victims of Wall Street financial recklessness. In this case, the establishment used stimulus economics to trick a centre-left administration into getting the American taxpayer to foot the bill for their greed and dishonesty. Laissez-faire economics suggests that the companies that were bailed out should have been left to die off. Honest stimulus economics suggests the money should have gone to relieve the debt burden on the consumers, build up infrastructure and invest in new businesses. Both together would have made sense.

– When it comes to economic justice, anyone who is against free trade has had no representation, and no real momentum in either party has built against off-shoring, the trend toward part-time work and degraded working conditions, while on the right, all issues of US economic decline are deflected to the more proximate and visible issue of illegal immigrants.

– The American criminal justice system imprisons a greater percentage of its people than any other OECD country. It foregoes trying most criminal cases in favour of plea bargains, using legal bribery to avoid jury scrutiny on the one hand, and preventing the overloaded system grinding to a halt on the other. Whether you look at this problem from the left or the right, the fact is that something needs to change in a big way. The snag is that doing so would inevitably involve revisiting the law-and-order dogma of the right, not to mention a long, hard look at social problems the right would rather not take responsibility for.

– Many in both parties want out of the War on Terror in whatever form it takes. Many on both sides want to stay in it. Neither party has produced a convincing plan for winning it, or even convinced most thinking people that it is winnable. Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex chugs happily on. Even leaving aside the big issues of 9/11, Iraq, the rise of ISIS, the question of American interventionism in general and the West’s refusal to face the real problems of Islam, there are more than enough grounds for a bipartisan consensus that the US should either get out or have a plan to win.

– Speaking of the military-industrial complex, the massive and inexcusable waste of taxpayer money on failed, over-elaborate or subpar military equipment remains almost entirely ignored. Politicians use military contracts as a way of distributing money to their constituencies, and the military supports the programs because the officers involved inevitably find jobs with the companies they support. Much the same happens in the financial sector, with a virtual revolving door between government and industry leading to undue influence of the sort that is very difficult to prosecute. Whether you’re a hawk or a dove, whether you’re a laissez-faire Republican or a socialist, it seems reasonable to eliminate corruption and overspending in both these areas.

So, what has the great revolution of the current election cycle brought us so far? Bernie Sanders, who in Canada or most of Europe would be a thoroughly electable centrist, will inevitably increase the alienation of the right if elected, even if he keeps his promises regarding a cleanup of the financial sector and an end to reckless free trade deals. Why? Because of a word that is as toxic in the United States as it is banal everywhere else: socialism. And those same disenchanted Republicans have turned to Trump, because of his image as an outsider taking on a corrupt system with strong-man tactics.

Let’s look at Donald Trump’s history, shall we? This is a man whose failed Trump Mortgage was part of the mortgage bubble. This is a man whose Trump University took a lot of people for a lot of money by promising what proved to be a worthless business education.  This is a man who has repeatedly convinced governments to take land from private citizens for his projects through eminent domain.  This is also a man who was kept afloat by a 65 million dollar bailout loan.  These are just the tip of the iceberg. Now, does that sound to you like a guy who’s going to clean up government, or a guy who’s cynically manipulating popular anger for his own purposes?

Until the Blinders Come Off, the System Continues

It’s not enough to be disillusioned, to support change, to avoid the establishment candidates. If you believe the system is failing, and the numbers would suggest that many of you folks south of the border do, then you have to realise that until the nature of partisan ideology itself is relaxed, until you listen to the people who sit on the other sides of the many ideological and demographic fences that cross the political landscape, the system cannot be meaningfully changed.

In a resilient democracy, voters come together to address the problems of the day, putting aside ideological goals for practical compromises. Resilient voters abstract themselves from the ideological and social milieu that have shaped them in order to empathise with the views and problems of others.

Resilient voters are also wary of package deals. Presidential candidates will offer you an ideological package – it may or may not be one they sincerely believe in – but it will be one that is designed to appeal to enough of your beliefs that you’ll ignore the rest of what they do. Trust us- we just finished with a Prime Minister who did that for a living. Don’t turn a blind eye.

Change is possible, but only for the vigilant- and those willing to cooperate to get there.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
~ Anthony S. Rodger, M.A.

Intellectual Resilience: Why Today’s Graduates are Less Educated, Literate and Sophisticated than their Great Grandparents

We often hear that educational standards are slipping, but news media coverage often gives the impression that the problem lies with inadequate testing requirements or sloppy teaching.  The unfortunate truth is that it isn’t anything so simple; rather, it is the symptom of a vast cultural shift in teaching, intended to produce a more standardized and homogenous citizen.  In other words, the education system is designed to stop us from learning, and thinking, on our own.

John Taylor Gatto, three-time New York State Teacher of the Year, has researched the history and development of illiteracy in America, and his findings are astonishing.  In the 19th Century, the United States was probably the most literate country in the world.  Works of literature sold like hotcakes, newspapers sprung up by the hundreds, and even in the absence of a public school system, literacy was seen as the way up in society.  Even those who hadn’t been educated would still make the effort to learn to read.  Education, in short, was based on wide reading, and discussion and interpretation of that reading, and so the level of cultural discourse even in popular media was quite high.

With public education came school textbooks, and textbooks, Gatto maintains, are not designed to make children think, but to make them think in the ways that the publisher and educational authorities approve of.  The texts are doctored and carefully selected, the questions at the end of the chapter all have set answers.  The same applies to standardized tests, and teaching students how to take these tests (usually involving injunctions to avoid critical thinking or any deviation from the norm) has come to take up an ever-larger proportion of classroom time.

“Old-fashioned” classical education was structured as an exercise in thinking.  Colleges required their students to learn philosophy and history to fill out their knowledge, and taught rhetoric so that the students could articulate their insights.  Learning was based on the reading of great books.

The “scientific” approaches that replaced classical education eliminated philosophy and history and rhetoric from the average curriculum, and later, the classical method of teaching English.  Students were the subjects of scientific study for the production of tractable citizens.  This philosophy of education was laid out by University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward A. Ross as far back as 1901 in his book called, not coincidentally, Social Control.

The reason, according to Gatto, is simple:

“If you think about it, schooled people, like schoolbooks, are much alike. Some folks find that desirable for economic reasons. The discipline organizing our economy and our politics derives from mathematical and interpretive exercises, the accuracy of which depends upon customers being much alike… People who read too many books get quirky. We can’t have too much eccentricity or it would bankrupt us. Market research depends on people behaving as if they were alike. It doesn’t really matter whether they are or not.”

As H.H. Goddard, architect of standardized testing, put it in 1920, the purpose of schooling is “the perfect organization of the hive.”  He advocated standardized tests explicitly as a means for the lower classes to confirm their own inferiority.

The United States Army tests its inductees for literacy.  A soldier must be able to read maps and signs and instruction manuals, at about a fourth grade reading level.  These tests, because of their practical focus, change less than standardized tests.  In World War II, 17.28 million of the 18 million men conscripted passed the test, a 96 percent literacy rate.  By the time of the Korean War, literacy in the draft pool had dropped to 81 percent.  By the end of the Vietnam War, it had dropped to 73 percent.  This is perhaps the clearest evidence that something was going terribly wrong.  Back in the 19th Century, data from numerous states suggests that functional literacy was usually above 90 percent.

The decline of sophistication in popular cultural production parallels the decline of reading: 19th Century “popular” literature is something only the literate elite of today dare to tackle.  As Gatto wrote about Last of the Mohicans (1826), such books were “a dense thicket of philosophy, history, culture, manners, politics, geography, analysis of human motives and actions, all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays.”

The decline in the level of popular culture has inevitably led to the decline in sophistication of political discourse.  When former French president Mitterand passed away, the incumbent President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, appeared on national television to announce the death of his predecessor.  Chirac’s ten minute discourse and tribute to his former political opponent was of such intellectual sophistication and nuance that no public figure in contemporary North America would dare to replicate it.  Sadly, almost none of our own politicians have anything like the education or cultural sophistication to do so even if they wanted to.  Most remarkable, though, is that the French public and the broader European public still expects their leaders to be people of demonstrable intelligence, whereas on this side of the pond, even an obvious village idiot can find himself in the White House.

The public acceptance of an educational system that dumbs people down leads inevitably to the public acceptance of mediocre and agenda-driven leaders of low personal integrity who make disastrous decisions and yet are barely even reprimanded for it.  In other words, the lower the educational level sinks – and with it, the levels of popular culture and political discourse – the more easily manipulated the society as a whole becomes.

As you think about your children’s education, or even your own, be conscious that this is not a system that is trying to make you smarter.  It is trying to make you tractable, measurable, sortable, and most of all, uncritical and ignorant – in other words, easily manipulated.  The good news is that the solution is available at your local library, and you won’t have to write a test afterward.

If you want your children to become genuinely resilient people or you wish to become such a person yourself, then start with your own level of education.  Start reading more, especially non-fiction.  Read widely in fields such as personal development, health and wellness, history, political affairs and current events, finance and economics, theology and spirituality, etc.  The more you know and the more you carefully analyze and think through what you’ve learned, the less easily manipulated you will be.

And when you DO tune in to the popular culture in 2013, whether it be television, radio, newspapers or online, be aware of the various corporate, political, religious and ideological agendas that are being systematically pushed on you.  Education, literacy, cultural sophistication and awareness are a KEY ELEMENT of your personal resilience, so make the decision now that you’ll use 2013 to cultivate yours.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Resilience Tip: Reject, spit at and mock this mentality…

For you to be right, do others have to be wrong?  For you to be good, do others have to be evil?

Ask yourself this: “Is there a secret desire in me to be the one who is ‘right’ and to persecute those who don’t agree with me and are therefore ‘wrong’?” 

This is one of the greatest diseases of the human spirit.  It cost tens of millions of lives during the 20th century and it’s all around us today in various forms.  Several years ago I was visiting a church – I won’t say which or what kind here – and the sermon left me horrified.  I was told that people outside the church are selfish, egotistical, greedy, materialistic and unspiritual.  “Oh,” I thought, “I guess we don’t know the same people, because most of the people I know outside are kind, thoughtful, caring and trying to do the right thing.”

FASCISM is a perennial human temptation, a spiritual disease and not just a political ideology.  People try to transform the groups they belong to into fascist communities, into exclusive groups that are “right” and are therefore justified to hate those who are “wrong”.  Political parties and religious groups are especially at risk.  Today’s Jihad-crazed sociopaths are simply the latest version. 

What I’ve called “authentic ancient traditions” of spiritual life are immune to this, fortunately, and consider every single human person to be precious, no matter what their current beliefs or where their life is at.  St. Isaac the Syrian (7th century) provides a wonderful description of this:

“Do not provoke anyone or argue with them, either for the sake of the faith or on account of their evil deeds, but watch over yourself to make sure you don’t accuse anyone in any matter.  If you would correct them, then say a word or two to them with tears and love.  For love does not know how to be angry or provoked or to passionately reproach anyone.  The proof of love and knowledge is profound humility.” 

One of the great hallmarks of resilience and emotional maturity is the refusal to treat the great mystery of life as black and white, but rather to acknowledge its complexity, its many shades of gray, to embrace its rich texture and everyone who shares it with you.

This, paradoxically, means the one thing you must not tolerate is the mentality of narrow-mindedness and hate.  Ready to spit at it?

~Dr. Symeon Rodger