I was not surprised that the coronation of Biden went off peacefully. It was pretty clear that the gang of overpaid Trump PR people who orchestrated 98% of what happened in DC earlier this month concluded that, thanks to the 2% who stormed the Capitol and got all the headlines, it was a total PR disaster.
The Jan 6 event involved millions of dollars in promoting a protest, complete with massive stages with expensive Jumbotron TVs and even a US-Open-style Executive Tent for the Trump family and friends. And it backfired. They should have known: In progressive protests it’s never the large numbers who march peacefully that get the media attention; it’s the tiny Black Bloc type minority smashing windows and looting. Why should it be any different when conservatives protest?
After that PR disaster, the Trump PR corps just gave up, and the result was the small handfuls of protesters we’ve seen over the past few days, far more militant in their beliefs but completely disorganized, unfunded and unrepresentative of anyone but their own tiny membership.
Some recent articles, I think, drive home where America now sits, and here’s where I think that is:
- About 45% of the US population is centrist (often described in US media as ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’, but just middle-of-the-road or slightly right of that by the standards of most western democracies). They voted for Democrats, were pleased with the election results, and worried about the 45% in group 2 below, who they have almost no personal contact with, and so don’t realize that they are politically almost indistinguishable from themselves, other than their positions on a few social issues like abortion. Their fear was and is exaggerated and exploited by media hype and political opportunism (“polarization!”).
- About 45% of the population is right-of-centre, socially conservative, and small town/rural Republicans. They were unhappy with the election results and bewildered by media and politicians who incessantly insisted the election was stolen. They are not sure quite what to believe, and they are worried about the 52% in groups 1, 3, and 6, who they have almost no personal contact with, and so don’t realize that they are politically almost indistinguishable from group 1, other than their positions on a few social issues like abortion. Their fear was and is exaggerated and exploited by media hype and political opportunism (“communists!”).
- About 6% of the population are actual real progressives and socialists, not sure if they are pleased with the election results but relieved it wasn’t worse. They’re relatively informed and capable of critical thinking beyond the oversimplified fear-mongering coverage of the media on “both sides”. So they understand that beyond a lot of posturing and a more diverse-looking cabinet, the same corporate interests that actually determined economic, political and military policy under past administrations remain firmly in control and will dictate actual policy going forward. They’re not happy about that.
- About 2% of the population are actual real economic conservatives, not sure if they are pleased with the election results but relieved it wasn’t worse. They’re relatively informed and capable of critical thinking beyond the oversimplified fear-mongering coverage of the media on “both sides”. So they understand that beyond a lot of posturing and a more diverse-looking cabinet, the same corporate interests that actually determined economic, political and military policy under past administrations remain firmly in control and will dictate actual policy going forward. They’re quite happy with that. They actually can’t lose. A good proportion of the top caste of Americans (“the 1%”) probably fits in this group.
- About 1% of the population are truly right-wing idealistic libertarian militia-types (this link will give you a sense of how they’re feeling now.) They were outraged by the election results, have little to lose and would actually like to see a permanent authoritarian government of like-minded right-wingers who would restore rigid patriarchy and/or dismantle government ‘social’ services. They’re nostalgic for what never was.
- About 1% of the population are truly left-wing idealistic libertarian militia-types (this link will give you a sense of how they’re feeling now.) They were outraged by the election results, have little to lose and would actually like to see a complete dismantling of authority (especially police, governments and borders).
This delicate balance, which I’ve tried to depict in the chart above, has been in place for nearly four decades. Some thoughts on how the balance has shifted over the years:
- The line between groups 1 & 3, and between groups 2 & 4, is pretty fluid, with voters moving back and forth depending on the times and the rhetoric. That’s why Bernie Sanders (group 3) was actually electable.
- On much of the left coast of the US my sense is that groups 1 & 2 are a bit smaller and groups 3, 5 & 6 a bit larger. In the US south, I suspect groups 2 & 6 are a bit larger and groups 3 & 5 are a bit smaller. while in the Northeast the opposite is probably true.
- I think young people tend more towards groups 3, 5 & 6, but since they gravitate to groups 1, 2 & 4 as they get older the system tends to stay in equilibrium.
- Most of the Americans I know are probably in group 3, though with perhaps some sympathy with those in group 6 except when they act like Bloc-heads. Similarly, I think a lot of US conservatives from group 2 have been goaded to be somewhat sympathetic to the group 5 “militias”, except when they act like antler-heads.
- I don’t think the majority of Americans in any of these groups are as war-mongering or as enamoured with and beholden to corporatist interests, as either the Republican or Democratic administrations they’ve voted for. But both parties rely utterly on the ultra-rich corporatists and media for the campaign funds and coverage they need to win elections. So only that tiny group is getting the kind of government they really want. The rest of us are bullied, fear-mongered and propagandized to make the false choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Inequality disenfranchises almost everyone.
- Because groups 2, 4 and 6 combined are less than 50%, Republicans and conservatives have to rely on gerrymandering, the senate representation distortion, and the obsolete electoral college to win elections. They’ve become pretty good at it over the last four decades. It especially helps when group 3 shrugs and decides (with some justification) it really doesn’t matter, so they don’t vote.
My sense is that the situation in Canada isn’t much different, except the third group is probably somewhat larger and the fifth and sixth groups probably somewhat smaller, mostly for cultural reasons, as depicted above.
In Canada, because groups 2, 4 and 6 combined are less than 50%, they have to rely on the “first-past-the-post” system of elections that has allowed them to win close to 40% of multi-party elections over the past 4 decades with only 40% of the votes, because the centrist and progressive parties split their 60% of the votes among 3-5 different parties. My sense is that the political landscape in much of Europe and other anglophone countries is not dissimilar to Canada’s.
So I’m not terribly worried about the loss of democracy, though I agree with Adam Gopnik that we can never give up trying to make it work better, and should never assume it will last forever. (Groups 5 & 6, tiny as they are, are large enough to create havoc, especially with warfare — both military and political — becoming increasingly asymmetric).
The rally on Jan 6 supposedly attracted an estimated 25,000 people, of which about 98% were probably from group 2 (clueless, unarmed, protest “tourists” who reacted to Trump’s people’s herculean PR campaign to show up for the rally and party even though they never got invited into the tent). That’s a really poor return on the massive publicity investment — after all, Greta Thunberg attracted 20 times that number to Montréal for her climate march with much less spending. Though of course, ultimately neither event made any difference.
The media didn’t even show much of the action with the giant stages, speeches, Jumbotron displays or the Trump tent — it was more fun (and better for their ratings) to show the guy sprawled in Nancy Pelosi’s office or the antler-head playing to the cameras in the Senate chamber. Instead, some of them showed the tent video after the fact as if the attendees were celebrating the invasion of the Capitol, although the tent was only occupied during the rally where Trump had spoken two hours earlier, and then the family left for the private dining room in the Oval Office well before the ‘invasion’ of the Capitol began. But, gotta keep those ratings up.
I think the far greater problem is that, due to the above-noted distortions in the electoral systems, conservatives are justifiably worried that if the system isn’t somehow constantly rigged in their favour, they’ll never hold power. And they’re absolutely correct. So there’s a lot to be gained for conservatives in both the US and Canada to fire up “their” group 2 & 4 voters through fear-mongering.
And then, of course, there’s a lot to be gained by the centrist parties (US Democrats, Canada’s Liberals) to fear-monger that since the system is rigged, they may never hold power, so they have to turn out in extraordinary numbers (and not split the vote) to prevent the minority from always winning. And they’re absolutely correct.
It’s a completely fucked-up system. But to me, the real outrage remains the one that the media never talk about: the total control that the corporatists, who finance all the major parties in both countries, and who own the media, have over the levers of power and policy, no matter which party wins.
And so we have American munitions enabling the endless atrocities in Yemen, and the endless war-mongering against Iran, China and Russia, no matter who wins the US election, and we have Canadian governments buying pipelines and pimping for big oil, no matter who wins the Canadian election.
And we have both governments paying lip service to addressing climate change while doing nothing of substance to even slow it down. (And don’t say the Democrats just need time — they had time under Clinton and Obama and did nothing.)
Unlike authoritarian overthrow, which is a small but real risk, these outrages are happening, here and now, and the parties and the media are all complicit, conning us all. Nero would be proud.
Just in case you’re new to reading this blog — this situation cannot be fixed. This is what political, social, economic and ecological systems in collapse look like. Everyone in power knows that no one can prevent these collapses from happening, and all they’re doing is posturing, offering false reassurances (to keep people obedient, prevent widespread panic, and tamp down the numbers of the nothing-to-losers in groups 5 & 6), trying to prop it all up a little longer, and making sure they have their own personal escape and insurance plans in place. And perhaps trying to buy into their own rhetoric, to make it all seem less hopeless.
I learned a lot over the past 20 years talking candidly with climate scientists (and a few economists), with the cameras off and no media in earshot. They’ve known we’re fucked for a long time, but they dare not say so publicly, and in some ways, they don’t even dare admit it to themselves. It doesn’t matter which of the six groups you’re in — none of the forms of salvation their leaders promise has a hope of working. Might as well talk and play with the deck chairs, because on this voyage on Spaceship Earth, there are no lifeboats.