Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Desocialization Through Politics

If you were to release a dog -- a gentle, domesticated, well-mannered house pet -- into the wilderness to "make it on his own," within a month, either he would be dead, or he would have reverted to feral state. An animal's conditioning to the preferences of his human master isn't strong enough to override his survival necessities.

So also with people.

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Jonah Goldberg continues to impress with the quality of his insight:

The Democrats tend to be more traditionally coalitional: If everyone sticks together, everyone gets paid. In the age of austerity, however, zero-sum politics become more of the norm. When one constituency's victory is another's loss, the payoff for solidarity diminishes.

Already, across the country, there's a growing rift between unions in the public sector and the private sector, perhaps not in official statements but clearly in terms of rank-and-file voters and popular perceptions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got 37 percent of the vote from union households in his recall fight, in part because private sector union members understood how much the private sector needed a healthy state economy.

More broadly, the old system of rewarding liberal elites on cultural and environmental issues while paying off the working class with economic spoils will be increasingly hard to sustain. Obama's positions on gay marriage and the Keystone XL pipeline fuel donations from celebrity millionaires, but they don't help with middle- and lower-class voters. And if those voters get no payoff from voting Democratic, what's the point?

This is inherent in coalition politics:

For a coalition to persist, every member must remain convinced that remaining in it serves that member's particular interests.

Therefore, there is a threshold at which any coalition will experience internal pressures that lead to its dissolution. The threshold might be numerical, or it might be economic, or it might arise from the addition to the coalition of an interest group inherently hostile to the interests of one or more other members. In the cited essay, Goldberg fingers the economic strains on the Democrats' coalition, which are bad enough to chip significant chunks off that edifice. There are others as well.

But beyond that dynamic lies a deeper one, which presents a great and imminent danger to the United States and everyone in it: the dynamic of the domesticated dog released into "Nature red in tooth and claw," to survive as best he can.

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Not many Americans are familiar with the old political malady called particularism. The use of the word was once confined to Spain and its colonies in the New World. Robert A. Heinlein mentions it as a key symptom of a sick culture in his novel Friday:

"It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn't the whole population."

"A very bad sign. Particularism. It was once considered a Spanish vice but any country can fall sick with it. Dominance of males over females seems to be one of the symptoms."

I'm less interested in symptoms than in causes:

Tribalism is shorthand for the perpetuation of the preferences and practices of a tribe by those who are or were once its members. Among the politically most important aspects of tribalism is the behavior political scientists call particularism: the willingness to grant one's primary allegiance to the tribe in preference to the nation-state. When a tribe subsumed within a nation-state becomes restive, its members begin to be covertly particularist; when such allegiances become overt, open inter-tribal warfare becomes a real possibility.

There are far too many examples of such alignments in operation in the United States today to be complacent about them. In just the post-World War II decades, we have seen the emergence of tribes based on region (militias), on race (the Black Panthers, old and new), on religion (Muslims in America), on ethnicity (Aztlan, La Raza, et. al.), on gender (militant feminism), sexual orientation (don't get me started), disability (the "deaf culture"), and so forth. A fully cohesive polity would refuse such tribes the slightest degree of political recognition or legislative influence. Sadly, that has not been the case these past fifty years.

A tribe, as I have characterized it, can be rendered susceptible to particularist thinking by exploiting its members' credulousness and envy: their readiness to believe that whatever they want but lack is due to the unwarranted success of some other tribe, and their willingness to harm that other tribe even if there's no gain to be had that way. In other words, in a country with numerous regional pockets of economic, ethnic, religious, and racial imbalance, particularism can be fertilized and nurtured through the political process.

The Democrats have played that banjo virtually to the exclusion of all other demagogic tactics. Goldberg notes in his op-ed that:

More broadly, the old system of rewarding liberal elites on cultural and environmental issues while paying off the working class with economic spoils will be increasingly hard to sustain. Obama's positions on gay marriage and the Keystone XL pipeline fuel donations from celebrity millionaires, but they don't help with middle- and lower-class voters. And if those voters get no payoff from voting Democratic, what's the point?

Ramify that further with diverse economic, racial, ethnic, and gender pressures, and you have a sense for the fragmentation the Left has brought about with its politics of division and coalition.

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Socialization, briefly, is the process by which an individual acquires enough internalized morality, ethical sense, and operational "fellow-feeling" (Adam Smith) to refrain from mistreating others for personal gain. In a sense, everyone is born a sociopath; our parents are expected to beat it out of us before letting us out into the world. (No, they don't always succeed.) But the socialization process is not irreversible. Sufficient pressure can unravel anyone's sense of propriety, ethics, and justice.

A particularized nation, in which each interest bloc sees the other interest blocs as the principal obstacles to getting what it wants, is on the road to desocialization. That is: the individuals who see themselves in tribal terms will feel pressure to discard any remaining socialized-in constraints in favor of "whatever will win." There'll be money and privileges at stake, and those stakes will seem ever higher as Leftist policies degrade the national economy.

When the economy has degraded sufficiently, those pressures will mount to the survival level, at least in the minds of tribalists susceptible to propagandization by a charismatic leader figure. The great question for the United States at this time, given the extent of politically induced particularization we've already experienced, is how close we are to that point: the point at which mass bloodletting has come to our doorstep.

Food for thought -- and if you're thinking "Hitler" at the moment, I honestly can't blame you.

1 comment:

  1. "Dominance of males over females seems to be one of the symptoms"

    Clearly an error. Militant feminism and tribal feminism are not the dominance of males over females.

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    I think your site would scroll better if the background image were compressed more. Also consider if the site would look better if the background image were made lighter.

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