From Trump to Biden II: Worlds Apart

In this second essay in the Trump to Biden series, I address the deep challenges facing the US, the illnesses of which the transition was a symptom.
Photographer: Alexandra | Source: Unsplash

In this second essay in the Trump to Biden series (first one here), I address some of the deep challenges facing the US, the illnesses of which the transition was a symptom. For future reference:

  1. Joseph Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies
  2. Peter Turchin: Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall

This is not about the Trump to Biden transition or even the United States. According to Tainter:

“The world today is full,” Tainter writes. Complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet. There is no escaping. This also means, he writes, that collapse, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global.” Our fates are interlinked. “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”

What can we do to save the world? Or perhaps the better question:

Is it even worth saving?

When we talk about saving the world, we typically mean saving the trappings of elite power – pyramids and Empire State Buildings. The Maya survived the collapse of their pyramids and perhaps we will too.

Unhappy Families

It’s fun to watch Republicans and Democrats turn upon each other. But they are turning upon each other for different reasons. As the great man said:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Some democrats are worried they aren’t progressive enough. Other democrats are worried they are too progressive. And as I said in update #3, when local elections get nationalized, becoming more progressive in NY can become a liability in Lancaster. Not clear if that’s an asset or a liability for an AOC. The more progressive she gets, the more moderates lose elsewhere, the more the Democratic party gets reshaped in her image, the more young people come into the party and create a permanent base for her position. It’s not clear the usual threat of withholding committee positions and other accoutrements of power work against someone who has an independent national voice on social media as well as regular media.

Independent of the merits of their respective positions, the squad can, should and has learnt from Trump, whose power is explicitly predicated on dissing the establishment. Like Zen: a special transmission outside the scriptures.

That’s the Democratic cliques in action. The Republicans are turning upon each other to please Trump (AOC, take careful notes). Lindsay Graham, who once said:

A Trump nomination “would be an utter, complete and total disaster. If you’re a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot, you’re going to have a hard time being president of the United States, and you’re going to do irreparable damage to the party.”

is now being accused by the Georgia Secretary of State (another Republican):

Sen. Lindsey Graham implicitly proposed he toss out legally mailed ballots in the state, as Republicans seek ways to sway election results in President Donald Trump’s favor.

It’s not about the recount, which is now being done by hand and Brad Raffensperger (see: Republican Secretary of State of Georgia) has already said that the recount is not going to overturn the result (Biden won Georgia). It’s about getting the party faithful all riled up so that they will come out to vote for Perdue and Loeffler in January.

Tolstoy would have never guessed it, but keeping one’s family unhappy in its own way is good for business.

Trust Scarcity

What with fake news and some people thinking the elections have obviously been stolen and others thinking the election was the most secure election in the history of the United States, we have never had a bigger problem of trust. Not just in the US. What’s trustworthy and what’s gaslighting? There are two ways of approaching this question:

  1. Decide on what to trust. That could be science or statistics, the Bible or Bitcoin, but the general idea is that some methods of producing knowledge are more trustworthy than others.
  2. Decide on whom to trust. There’s an entire field called virtue epistemology which looks at the intellectual virtues that a trustworthy person is likely to possess. Truthfulness, sincerety, humility, open-mindedness etc.

Either way, the problem of trust is recursive: who or what certifies the honesty or sincerety of the person conveying the news? Who certifies the certifier?

This article has some interesting ideas on 2 above, i.e., whom to trust and for what reasons.

Trust and Knowledge

One of the advantages of living in a knowledge society is that my way of life, i.e., knowledge production, is everywhere. The downside is that when knowledge becomes a commodity, it attracts the dregs of capitalist society – hucksters, talking heads etc. Think about this way: every society dominated by religious belief produces cults, millenarians and other fantastical movements. Why wouldn’t we expect the same for a society dominated by science? Exhibit A:

Judy Shelton, Trump’s nominee to the Federal Reserve

I will be honest with you: I have a dim view of economics as a discipline and I don’t have a robust understanding of why the gold standard was abolished. But, when a person who is being appointed to the grand temple, i.e., the Fed, wants to bring back the gold standard and attracts responses such as:

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., blasted what he called McConnell's "out-of-the-blue" push for a vote on Shelton."Her ideas are so wacky and outdated, giving her authority over the dollar would be like putting a medieval barber in charge of the CDC,"

You know there’s a deep epistemological battle accompanying the obvious political one. We live in the age of cognitive capitalism, where, among other things, corporations, political parties and ‘thought leaders’ compete ferociously for attention and mind share, which, predictably, leads to two related outcomes:

  1. The creation of knowledge identities, i.e., where what we know shapes who we are and who we are filters what we choose to know.
  2. Virtue signalling of knowledge – once knowing is a central part of identity, it’s only a matter of time before we start showing off what we know. That could be the latest facts about climate change or inside news about children being assaulted in pizza parlors.

For example, in the US, party affiliation is a major predictor of whether someone will wear a mask or not in public. Democrats (both politicians and laypeople) perform copious amounts of virtue signalling about masks.

Note how belief in science is clubbed with other identities.

That virtue signalling leads to hilarious politics. Gavin Newsom – the Hollywoodish governor of California – has been pushing mask wearing in all his public appearances but then goes maskless to a fundraiser in one of the poshest restaurants in the world – French Laundry – where a meal can set you back $500 before you crack open the champagne. Sends a signal that the Democratic party elite is posher than the Republican elite.

Any wonder that working class people are suspicious of Democratic sloganeering?

While I am not the kind who thinks you have your facts and I have alternative facts, there’s a meta-game that liberals have played to perfection: they get to choose which facts are given prominence and which facts are swept under the carpet.

I get it; not all facts are equally important and we wouldn’t be able to get anything done if we had to take all facts seriously. Retrograde motion of the planets: earth shaking; only five planets visible to the naked eye: not so important.

But how do we decide which fact is worth highlighting? Neoliberals have optimized their system to play that meta-game and their answer is that only meritorious individuals (Harvard JDs if you’re a wannabe politician) are allowed to put facts in front of the public.

Michael Sandel (Harvard, but not JD) disagrees.

Can’t say I am a fan of the best and the brightest myself.

The Production of Misery

Slogans are central to cognitive capitalism where the production of thoughts and emotions for profit is central to the capitalist enterprise. What else is Facebook besides a gigantic harvester of greed, desire and anger?

Cognitive capitalism produces more than anger or desire, it produces wellbeing and its opposite – illbeing. A new paper shows the shocking divergence in happiness between college educated people and those without college degrees over the years (in the US). It’s no surprise that the key variable is college education – after all the production of degrees is one of the central acts of the knowledge economy. Now I want to remind you once again of the difference between white voters with a college degree and those without (from the UVA Democracy Initiative):

The 19 point difference in support for Biden between college educated vs degreeless white voters neatly mirrors the diverging happiness statistics.

Interesting question: why isn’t the same pattern observed among voters of color without a college degree?

Probably because they don’t have a Trump – a politician of color who says he’s going to drain the swamp for them. Not that it’s ever been done. Though I can see a future Hispanic Republican politician making gains on exactly those grounds. Less likely with African Americans in my view, but you never know.

Anyway, the bad news for our collective wellbeing is that Trump and co’s self interest lies in keeping the unhappiness as it is or making it worse – if it goes away, the voting patterns change; similarly it’s in Marc Zuckerberg’s interest to keep unhappy people unhappy. Cognitive capitalism has a positive feedback loop (positive only in a technical sense of positive feedback loops; it’s a negative outcome from a moral perspective) in expanding the bucket of misery.

Not gonna change anytime soon.

2012: In Data we Trust. 2020: Not so Much.

The other big nerd news about the election is that the polls got it wrong once again. We were expecting a blow-out but instead Biden eked out a victory (not nationally, but compare the 9 point difference in polls in Wisconsin vs the actual 26000 vote, .7% win).

Here’s a post-mortem from Nate Cohn, the NYT’s data guy. According to Cohn:But make no mistake: It’s not too early to say that the polls’ systematic understatement of President Trump’s support was very similar to the polling misfire of four years ago, and might have exceeded it.

While we are making data great again, here’s a more recent update from Cohn:

Most of this swing occurs from 2012-2016, with relative stability between 2016 and 2020. Unlike the polls, these aren’t predictions – they are tallies of how people actually voted and when aggregated, a representation of the county moving Republican or Democrat relative to the previous election (2012 or 2016 respectively). Lot’s of the US turned redder in 2012, especially in the midwest and the northeast but only a few places became redder in 2020 – but they are in South Texas/Eastern Arizona and South Florida – all counties with large Hispanic populations who are now breaking Republican.

That’s bad news for Democrats. More detailed analysis here.

This 👆🏾map from the Upshot’s analysis of US voting patterns tells you how the US is segregating itself into two camps. As the article says:

As new research has found, it’s not just that many voters live in neighborhoods with few members of the opposite party; it’s that nearly all American voters live in communities where they are less likely to encounter people with opposing politics than we’d expect. That means, for example, that in a neighborhood where Democrats make up 60 percent of the voters, only 50 percent of a Republican’s nearest neighbors might be Democrats.

Read that carefully: we aren’t talking about states, cities or even districts. We are talking at the neighborhood level, but even neighborhoods aren’t randomly sorted anymore: Republicans are more likely to Republicans as immediate neighbors even in a predominantly Democratic neighborhood. We cannot understand these shifts as purely electoral plays. We have to incorporate a structural perspective that takes into account the huge shifts caused by:

  1. Cognitive capitalism and the widening gap between college educated voters and degree-less voters.
  2. Climate change and what its doing to immigration among other things.

Existing theories seem totally inadequate – the ones with conceptual richness don’t know how to incorporate reams of data. The big data studies are too empiricist and ignorant about macro-causes.

How to combine the two? How to genuinely theorize our current condition?

I am struggling with these questions. If you are reading this piece and have ideas about how to answer them, do let me know. I would love to have a real conversation about this.

Trump: Phenomenon or Messenger?

How much of the Trump phenomenon is sui generis, i.e., tied to the unique properties of Trump as an individual, and how much is structural, reflecting large scale changes in American society?

The answer to that question is quite important, for a sui generis Trump can last only so long. It makes sense to humor him and complain about election fraud if you’re banking on the man sinking without a trace after he leaves office or at worst a couple of years down the road. Republicans can go back to being the party of everyday racism and corporate handouts after he disappears. That’s how I read Lindsey Graham & Mitch McConnell’s actions.

In contrast, we are talking about a permanent shift in the political landscape if he’s a messenger of a new doctrine. The Tom Cottons of the world are banking on a successful market for authoritarianism in the coming decades. Of course, it’s possible for one to become the latter. It’s possible for a chance event to change the world for ever – just talk to the dinosaurs after the asteroid made an appointment with the Earth.

The longer Trump stays influential, the more likely his charisma legitimizes authoritarianism, especially if he creates a media empire that’s foxier than Fox. Some wounds heal, some stay painful for a long time and some kill.

The big news of the transition was Fox’s slow but steady shift away from Trump. Fox was the first station to call Arizona for Biden and stuck to their judgment despite enormous pressure. This clip from Tucker Carlon is even bigger news:

If you don’t know how to ‘read’ Fox News, it might come across as a strong defense of Trump, of whom TC has been one of the strongest supporters in the media, but actually, it’s TC (whom I otherwise dislike, to put it mildly) saying he didn’t believe a word of Powell et. al.’s voter fraud allegations. He has been called a traitor and much worse for doing so.

How much Daylight between Trump and Obama?

The first volume of Obama’s memoirs are out. It’s making the rounds of India because of this quote about Rahul Gandhi:

Everybody loves ganging up on Rahul and the bhakts are happy the book doesn’t say a word about Modi. Not too fast! Volume one ends in 2012, before Modi came to power. Volume two might have some bad news for the man standing on the Red Fort. However, the more important snippet from the book is this one about the ex-president of Brazil, Lula:

Lula reminds me of Lalu. That’s Lalu Prasad Yadav for those who don’t know Indian politics. Like Lula, Lalu incites an enormous amount of class hatred. He’s considered corrupt, uneducated, boorish by the middle class. Neither Lula nor Lalu are innocents – they are tough politicians who rose to power in an incredibly unjust system that was stacked against people like them. Nevertheless both of them stood (and stand) for a politics of dignity. Saints: absolutely not. Better than the alternatives: yes.

Both Lalu and Lula were unseated and jailed by opponents who campaigned against their corruption and, predictably, a far more right wing authoritarian leader took their place.

Back to Obama: what did he accomplish?

He campaigned on a platform that was pro-people but handed over the keys to the treasury to the very people who stole from it. He got a Nobel peace prize while launching more drone attacks than Dubya. He showed that a person with good looks, excellent manners and eloquent speech can gain power posing as a progressive while working for the 1%.

Perception is more important than reality

Trump kept the core of that message – the importance of perception over reality while working for corporations – and flipped the other parts: replacing grace with boorishness, eloquence with aggression. Why not? When decency is merely virtue signalling to your crowd, it’s opposite – crudity – becomes virtue signalling to the other crowd. In the politics of identity and attention, they are mirror images of each other, aren’t they?

Polish can’t replace programs that actually better people’s lives.

The politician who campaigns for the common man but rules for the corporations is correctly read as a class enemy, despite the personal qualities. Both Obama & Newsom are in that category. I don’t deny they have had to play with the hand they were dealt, and as politicians seeking election and re-election, they need money from the donor class even if it means $500 dinners during a lockdown. Fine, but also recognize the mismatch between appearance and reality makes a working class white person – with a large dollop of racism, let’s admit it – invest in the guy who campaigns on a primal pitch.

Democrats need blue collar white Americans – a natural constituency who left for Trump en masse. But they won’t get them back by being the party of Silicon Valley. I am not talking about the ‘can’t we all get along’ message preached by the neoliberal crowd, for that would simply be replicating the Obama strategy of style without substance.

No emotion has been weaponized more than empathy – the neoliberal searches inside himself, feels the poor man’s pain and immediately orders a chai tea latte to recenter his being. We can do without that fake solidarity.

I am talking about the hard-nosed variety of dignity politics of which Lula and Lalu are successful exemplars.

Who’s going to do it?

Surveillance vs Fossil Fuels

Trump got more votes in 2020 than anyone else before him besides Biden and Obama. There are more voters, but the degree of support for Trump has many people worried for the future. Typical headline:

If Joe Biden Fails Then His Successor will be a Christian Fascist Who is Much More Dangerous Than Donald Trump

For a more reasoned version of the same sentiment:

This New Yorker piece by Evan Osnos

Civilizational collapse is trending. I agree about the danger signs, but I think the complaints are looking at the wrong culprit – they are focusing on the divisions within the general populace when I believe the far more important development is the divide amongst the elite. In the New Yorker article I linked above, Osnos quotes the comparative politics expert Larry Diamond saying:

There’s no other way to say this: the Republican Party, with notably few exceptions, has become a party of semi-loyalty to democracy. If you want to stop this, the answer is very simple. The Republican politicians who know better, in the House, the Senate, and the governorships, have to speak up. If they don’t put the preservation of democracy and civility over their own political careers, we’re going to keep sliding down this path.

That’s a sign of elite power struggle, not popular resistance. The US has been many things: beacon of freedom, genocider of Native Americans and enslaver of African Americans, imperial power etc but what it hasn’t had is an authoritarian core within its elite. Let me be precise about what I mean by that: the US has bombed other countries out of existence, Washington (the man, not the city) spent years trying to ‘retrieve’ one his runaway slaves but only once has the US elite tried to kill or violate each other: during the civil war.

If events continue in their current progression, the civil war might not be the last instance. In response to the civil right movement, the Republicans ‘pivoted’ to being a party of white people – the infamous southern strategy – but since then demographics have changed dramatically with the US on the way to becoming a majority-minority country, i.e., a country in which non-white people are the majority, though no single group of non-white people would be in a majority on their own.

I have been in the camp that claims the Democrats and the Republicans are two wings of the Corporate Party. That truth hasn’t been falsified, but I also now see the emergence of genuine division in the US elite with sources of wealth and power that are in direct competition. There’s now genuine disagreement over energy sources, demographic base and means of extraction. Where is it all going?

It’s very hard to predict, especially the future, but here’s my prediction anyway: the clash between the rising bourgeoisie and the aristocracy prompted regime changes in Europe in the 18th and 19th century. However, that clash was between layers – the aristocracy on top being displaced by the bourgeoisie who were below but rising. Now I see a clash between columns: one column representing fossil fuel capitalism and one column representing surveillance capitalism. It’s a matter of chance that the two models of 21st century capitalism are antagonistic. In fact, the conflict is particular to the West; just look at China with its OBOR initiative (fossil fuel capitalism) and its social credit system (surveillance capitalism) to experience a society in which the two legs are attached at the hip. The big question:

Is the Chinese merger of surveillance and fossil fuel capitalism less or more unstable than the western clash between the two?

The next essay in this series is on the dynamics of the China-US relationship.

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