On the Absurdity of the Current Political Culture
It does not. make. sense.
The court rulings of the last two weeks have provokes some interesting thoughts and memories for me.
You see, I grew up a Virginia Democrat. And as crazy as it would seem to tell it to some 20 year old today, 20 years ago this was what the county by county election map would look like for a close election in Virginia:
“Warner” in the above is Mark Warner, the same who is senator today and I’m sure would cast his vote for the National Childhood Castration Act of 2022 in a heartbeat today if presented with the opportunity. But things were very different 20 years ago.
At that time, since a bout a third of the Democratic coalition here was rural whites, social issues like abortion and guns were something the Democrats played a “Price-is-Right” type strategy with—basically bidding $1 to the Left of whatever the state Republicans proposed. In 2001, you could see many “Hunters for Warner” bumper stickers on pickups around the Western half of the commonwealth, and the was not LARP as it would almost certainly be today. In 2001, Mark Warner would brag about his NRA rating.
Even after 2005, Tim Kaine (yes, that Time Kaine, Hillary’s VP choice) would approve “Choose Life” license plate templates with revenue sharing for “Pro Life” charities:
So why do the recent gun rights and abortion rulings make me think about this?
If you are even a few years into your 30’s today, you were certainly at the age of at least potential political consciousness when this was the way of things.
But look at the response, at least from those with high political engagement among today’s Democratic partisans. Utter derangement. Followed by, in some instances, confusion when they learn that almost all of the European countries scolding us for “going backwards” still have stricter abortion laws than Mississippi, and that you still have to go get a license to carry a gun in New York, it’s just that you can do so if you meet reasonable qualifications which must be open to anyone (instead of being denied by default without cause as before). And this was already the case in nearly every state anyway!
But such qualms are quickly brushed aside. If you insist on pursuing them—which you should because the reasoning discrepancies and incoherence on display are quite remarkable— you’re going to get brushed off, as though you “just don’t get it”. You’ll be treated with the bewildered contempt that the pauper at the lord’s dinner party who uses the “wrong” fork faces.
So why are we in this absurd political condition?
My hunch is that this has something to do with the social effects of affluence.
In a society which faces more scarcity, people will, of necessity, keep better account of theirs and others’ contributions to the social product. And thus, they will have a great deal more confidence in their own claims and entitlements with regard to that product.
A farmer can point to the hogs and wheat he’s raised and which feeds his community, and feel confidence that others recognize the same and that he will receive something like his fair share. A feudal lord or aristocrat could have some confidence that the people around him were embedded in the same political history and so would recognize the legitimacy of his claims, and the local villagers had a similar basis of confidence, same in form if smaller in magnitude.
But in today’s world of highly abstracted value and fungible personality, where can one derive that kind of confidence? You can’t.
The material goods and services of life are now so plentiful they can’t serve as a legitimating basis for claims. We laugh at the Starbuck’s employees’ threats to unionize, and rightly so— in our world of abundance and plenty, the claims placed on us by writing our name on a paper cup of $5 coffee is negligible.
But for hundreds of thousands of Starbuck’s employees that is their contribution! Something which is rightly laughed at when though of in terms of pure economy.
Beyond economy, the social, local, and personal factors which could help establish the kind of social confidence I’m talking about are largely gone too. We can neither demonstrate the direct economic contribution of the capitalist farmer, nor point to a social and historical continuity like feudal lord or villager.
So what do we have instead? A constant game of social feints and signaling.
In a world where luxury is cheap conspicuous politics replaces conspicuous consumption.
I see this as likely an inevitable consequence of our own economic plenty. And since it is unlikely we can or would be able to rationally de-wealth ourselves, this corresponding growth in political disfunction may end up doing the job for us.