Cold War antipathies between the “free world” and the Communist Block used to be conceptualized (in short) as “us and them” (sometimes “us vs. them”), which meant the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the last two great superpowers. Additional facets to geopolitics were added by China, North Korea, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, and Brazil (mostly members of the nuclear club), but they didn’t figure as prominently in the rhetoric as what was clearly (even then) a false dualism. Binary thinking of this sort continues today in bogus phrases such as “either you’re with us or against us” or “if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.” In American politics, the two-party system (Republicans and Democrats) appears to be intransigent and permanent despite political parties having risen and fallen over time both here and abroad. This
herd team mentality keeps most political thinkers and observers from examining third-party alternatives with much seriousness the same way it forestalls bipartisanship. A little known fact is that the government-sounding agency called the Commission on Presidential Debates is, in reality, a private corporation financed by Anheuser-Busch and other major companies and created by the Republican and Democratic parties to seize control of the presidential debates in 1987 from The League of Women Voters.
Close identification with in-groups is learned early in life as cliques form in middle school (or before?) and is reinforced as each of us progresses through life’s phases. For instance, married/committed couples have a divergent set of understandings of personal relationships from unmarried individuals seeking/searching for a significant other. Childless couples have fundamentally differing social perspectives from those raising children (parents’ outlooks tracking with their children’s development). Working class folks have fewer opportunities and prerogatives than white-collar and professional workers. The rich enjoy considerable obeisance from everyone and benefit from undeserved favors and preferential treatment that the lower and middle classes can only look upon with envy and/or resentment. Examples go on and on.
We cling to these identities with surprising faithfulness, considering how they lump everyone rather imprecisely into categories, not altogether arbitrarily constructed but crude nonetheless. Blends of attitudes and truly creative, outlying thinking don’t figure in discussions dominated by rigid fidelity to narrow rhetoric, sound bites, and talking points. Interestingly, this same us-and-them effect is at work in discussions of collapse and NTE, the players divided unevenly between those who just don’t get it (for a variety of reasons) and those who believe all indications are beyond controversy, meaning, completely obvious: we’re on a hopelessly downward trajectory. Of course, this division omits the bulk of the population for whom the issue isn’t even broached, and even for those who acknowledge the issue, there are a surprising number of positions on the continuum, such as those who get it but haven’t extrapolated far enough, those who get it but lie or deny out of one motivation or another (e.g., self-enrichment or political gain, albeit short-term), and those who don’t get it yet are exceeding well-versed in the evidence (so that it can be argued and spun).
All these dividing lines, rather than being a celebration of diversity, make us a fractured society along multiple faults. Perhaps it’s just my perception, but there seems to be a widening gap between those who openly admit our future must lead ineluctably to doom and techno-utopians for whom future horizons loom bright. I’ve suggested elsewhere that newcomers to the issue of collapse have a lot of catching up to do, but that naïvely assumed a common, shared understanding of our reality upon which to base incontrovertible conclusions. Let me suggest something a bit more radical: the utter failure of the masses to grasp the immensity of the collapse story already unfolding around us while a few intrepid folks call bullshit on the substitute story offered by clever politicians, pundits, and marketeers — rhetoricians all — is equivalent to the divide between a poor, illiterate, itinerant farmer (or hunter or trapper) ca. 1780 and the Founders, a tiny group of landed gentry who were exceptionally well-educated men — Renaissance men, if you will, all having deep understanding of political and Enlightenment philosophy of the day. It must have been nearly impossible for the Founders to communicate effectively with the governed.
Today, the situation is reversed: mouth-breathing populists are now governing and have seized upon the means to manipulate the masses through disinformation and misdirection. Further, popular leaders and opinion-makers refuse to hear and simply cannot understand what a wizened few are telling them, namely, that unsustainable practices of industrial civilization have reached fever pitch and will soon become a hellscape of our own creation. Like a Revolutionary Era agriculturist or outdoorsman, today’s populists (and the large portion of the population they reflect — who elect them, in fact) may possess narrow expertise at their individual endeavors. Yet ironically, they remain over-specialized and cut off from broad intellectual traditions and are thus functionally illiterate. Similarly, the masses to whom they proselytize have at best limited command of reading and almost no critical thinking skills whatsoever. (We never even approached universal literacy, which is a gateway to erudition.) A liberal arts education is to them hollow and meaningless, they are fundamentally immune to what science instructs, and their heads are full of entertainments (e.g., superhero geekery and professional sports) and other distractions that block real knowledge and understanding gained through careful, sustained consideration of an array of sources and perspectives. Contrast them with folks who read voluminously, study trends and scientific reports, and draw conclusions from a wealth of evidence: the two groups might as well be speaking Mandarin and English for all the communication passing between them.
My sense of the term populist should not be mistaken for leaders who embody the will of the people. That’s obviously not happening. The most basic function of government is to formulate policy and allocate funds to execute those policies. The graphic below shows top policy priorities over the past five years:
Well down the list is dealing with global warming (and I’m guessing the related complex of problems). Protecting the environment fares about 10–20 points better, as though it were a separate issue. What is most important to the public, however, are those things at which our leaders are failing the worst: the economy and jobs; terrorism; and education. Every administration and Congress initially pays ample lip service to priorities with wide public support but then diverts to a different agenda. This paragraph by Joel Hirschhorn captures the sort of populism now practiced.
With the Bush-corrosion of our Constitution and collapse of the economic system after it had been exploited by the rich and corrupt, what better time for revolution? Instead, we got a president with a glib tongue, a terrific smile and a deep commitment to the two-party plutocracy and corporate state. Obama is no populist, not even close. Nor is he a genuine reformer. At best, he is a master exploiter of populism.
It’s noteworthy that Hirschhorn saw through the B.S. five years ago.
A similar disconnect between public mandate and leadership is described in this Truthout article from 2011:
According to the latest poll conducted by CBS “60 Minutes” and the magazine Vanity Fair, 61 percent of Americans want to raise taxes on the wealthy as the primary way to cut the budget. The same poll finds that the second most popular first choice for cutting the nation’s budget deficit, at 20 percent, is cutting the military budget. That is, 81 percent of us — four out of five — would cut the deficit by taxing the rich and/or slashing military spending. Only four percent of those polled favored cutting Medicare … and only three percent favored cutting Social Security … A second poll, this time by CNN, reports that 63 percent of Americans oppose the US War in Afghanistan and want it ended. Only 35 percent say they support the war (now in its ninth year).
With such a disconnect stalling meaningful discussion before it begins, no wonder that controlling rhetoric is defined instead by funding (profit), celebrity (guru glorification, including green-washing types), and
false solutionism. They are precisely the wrong kinds of issues, of course. The right kinds might involve the realization that …
- in an interconnected world, we all succeed and fail together in this life (there is no us and them anymore),
- the time has long passed for solutions and (an attempt at) mitigation is the next step, and
- moral choices about how we act in the time remaining us are of paramount importance once deteriorating conditions lead to widespread chaos.
Instead we get slick salesmanship to keep the economy humming (funneling capital to the top) and the masses calmed or blissed-out on gadgetry. We get not-so-behind-the-scenes preparations to cull and quarantine the population when the going gets rough. And we succumb to infighting among those who can’t achieve consensus about what’s to be done. Us and them to the bitter end.