20 June 2017

The violence of rising expectations

Jonah Goldberg isn't quite joining the Republican rush to judge left-wing media in the wake of the Alexandria shootings. While the columnist is as happy as any of his fellow partisans to highlight liberal hypocrisy, whether actual or alleged, he hints gently in his latest column that "if your position is that political speech should never be indicted when a right-winger commits a crime, you probably shouldn’t let your understandable desire for payback seduce you into insisting that left-wing rhetoric is to blame when the shooter is a left-winger." Anyway, Goldberg has an theory of his own to explain the increasingly violent tone of political argument in the U.S.

For decades we’ve invested in the federal government ever-greater powers while at the same time raising the expectations for what government can do even higher. The rhetoric of the last three presidents has been wildly outlandish about what can be accomplished if we just elect the right political savior. George W. Bush insisted that “when somebody hurts, government has to move.” Barack Obama promised the total transformation of America in palpably messianic terms. Donald Trump vowed that electing him would solve all of our problems and usher in an era of never-ending greatness and winning. 
When you believe — as [the Alexandria shooter] clearly did — that all of our problems can be solved by flicking a few switches in the Oval Office, it’s a short trip to believing that those who stand in the way are willfully evil enemies bent on barring the way to salvation. That belief won’t turn everyone into a murderer, but it shouldn’t be that shocking that it would turn someone into one.

I don't exactly disagree with this. Clearly, the personal stakes involved in elections and policy seem much higher to many Americans than they did in the past. Conservatives are right to suspect that a greater sense of dependence on government has a lot to do with that feeling, though as Goldberg himself notes by invoking Trump, messianic expectations are also held by people who presumably don't think (or prefer not to) of themselves as dependent on government. Uncritical defensiveness toward Trump -- as opposed to rational skepticism toward Democratic hysteria -- probably reflects an older sense of dependence upon leadership that has less to do with theories of the "size and scope of government." In either case, however, this sort of dependent faith only becomes weaponized under certain circumstances. Rising expectations -- whether regarding the government's ability and obligation to meet our perceived needs or a leader's ability to achieve what he promises -- become dangerous when the economy or the leadership or the political order itself can't keep up with them. For an ideologue like Goldberg the real problem is that such expectations are inappropriate in the first place, rather than that a declining economy increasingly disappoints expectations, both by inherently limiting the ability of not only government but society to meet our expectations and by exacerbating political polarization and gridlock as every segment of society scrambles to get or keep its share of the national bounty. With that understood, Goldberg's analysis looks even more pessimistic to the extent that it predicts Trump supporters lashing out more often and violently at whomever they blame instead of the economy for their hero's failure to meet their expectations. Unlike what I infer to be Goldberg's own belief, I don't think the solution is for everyone to be more self-reliant. In a sociopolitical environment like ours, adopting self-reliance most likely will mean people taking anything they can by any means necessary. I also doubt whether people can be taught to reduce their expectations of a civilized world or a democratic polity by any other teacher than experience, and specifically an experience few of us would look forward to.


Anonymous said...

"... rather than that a declining economy increasingly disappoints expectations,"

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the economy. Those who control the status quo are making more money, faster, than ever before. If there can be said to be a problem with the economy it is the unfair redistribution of wealth by those at the top. Recently I read an article wherein the author showed that the 6 wealthiest individuals on this planet control more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion people. In a truly civilized society, that should be intolerable.

Samuel Wilson said...

Very well, let's call it a problem with the political economy.

Anonymous said...

There is no problem with political economy. The status quo has, once again, been maintained. The entire reasoning behind claiming the economy is in trouble is, in part, to keep the people stirred up, but unsure as to who they should be pissed off at. And to maintain the "trickle down" policies that will continue to keep the working class oppressed in the sense that we can never hope to match the amount of bribes (let's call them "campaign contributions") as those on top, ensuring the status quo and keeping the working class "in their place". The real problem is that the people are willing to continue to accept the lies of politicians, even though the people understand that these are lies. Which means the real problem is the people. They lack the will to shake off the bonds of unethical, inefficient government because it would require them to think and intellectual laziness is one of the hallmarks of the working class.