United we stand, divided, we muddle

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. -H. L. Mencken

Too much ink has already been spent on how divided we are. There’s no denying that we are divided – perhaps more divided than ever before – except in the 1960s, or perhaps 1860s or maybe even in the 1770s. Or maybe almost any time in our history. Or even all of human history.

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. -Gilbert Chesterton

Polarization and extremism on both ends of the spectrum say many things about us as a society, but the one thing extremism tells us the most insistently is that as the extremes get stronger (or at least louder) the middle gets weaker.

And this “middle” is who we are, who we have been and what we stand for. That “middle” holds a basic consensus of what it means to be a citizen and neighbor – and what it means to be a nation.

And whether we “agree” or not, a political entity, like a physical body, has a variety of systems that work together for the larger good. In a body, for example, the circulatory system, the respiratory system and the digestive system (and a few others) work together for the benefit of a system larger than itself. And, as many of us know all too well, when one part of the system suffers, the whole body suffers.

In other words, when the whole body is healthy, it is because each system and part of the body is also healthy. Every part of the body, no matter how visible or acknowledged, is essential and will let the whole body know if it is in distress.

In a similar way, polarity makes its presence known by being corrosive and relies on anger and distrust to be heard. Every business, neighborhood and political institution relies, above all, on that most fragile and easily lost and difficult to define unmeasurable essence; trust.

Rage and suspicion erode trust and confidence. Consensus becomes impossible; coalitions and progress, by any definition, become untenable, even suspect.

In short, strengthening the middle, like strengthening the human body’s “core” makes a far stronger, resilient, durable and responsive body.

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws. -Plato

One of the ironies of history, and if we are paying attention, much of daily life, is that some of us don’t need rules; we just, out of instinct perhaps, drive safely, treat others fairly and reasonably with the core assumption that we should treat other people the way we would like to be treated. Others seem determined to grab all they can, often if they don’t even want it, or, if they can’t have it, ensure that others can’t have it either.

In other words, some of us don’t “need” rules because our default setting is to live by higher, better and, most of the time, more flexible and human standards than the “law” requires, while others tend to believe that laws and standard rules and guidelines don’t apply to them.

Some of these advocates of “If I can’t have it, no one else will either” are prophets of the “burn it all down” ideology – and this belief, besides being expressed by (at least) the two extremes of the political spectrum, has also become common, if not popular. You could call these people, and movements, spoilers or toddlers with power. And they have power only because some of us give it to them.

Is populism popular?

A few years ago, a common question regarding local, if not national politics was “Why would people vote against their own best interests?”. Since that time, that question has taken on global implications. In region after region, those most vulnerable to economic swings seem to vote and support those issues and candidates that only confirm, consolidate and amplify their vulnerability. In our neighborhoods and across the globe, we see this principle in action.

From Great Britain (especially regarding Brexit) to Germany to a range of nations across the Middle-East, South America and Asia, and to a degree in the USA, anti-establishment parties, candidates, and promises offer their own alternatives to globalization, urbanization and, of course the multiple challenges (if not threats) of technologies that seem ready to undermine who we are, how we work and what we care about.

The most productive, stable, fair and enduring political system (or business or family or neighborhood) is one that encourages a high degree of inclusion and representation.

In other words, in a healthy society (or any human group) all voices are respected and valued, every member is welcome to participate in issues that concern them and the word “citizen” literally means an active awareness if not participation in issues of the community.

For a variety of reasons, we, citizens of our own communities and of the world, don’t seem to care much about those ideals as much as we once did.

You may have noticed, for example that among “patriots” the term “We the People” seems to apply to fewer of us every day.

And more and more nations (and groups of all sizes) seem to be calling for an ever-smaller view of who “the people” might be.

Political philosophy might seem like a luxury few of us can afford, but we “vote” with every slogan we repeat or, in many cases, the neighborhoods we live in.

Populism is not so much an ideology of choice – but of near desperation. Populist candidates consistently gain the most support in areas with the highest rates of unemployment – and, in many cases, with the lowest rates of education and least opportunity of upward mobility.

Poor states and regions (and individuals) and countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain have seen both high levels of unemployment and increasingly pervasive nationalist movements.

Populism is disruptive and seems to lurch from one real (or imagined) crisis to another – always, it seems, ramping up the urgency and anxiety of the moment. And, along the way, in the name of “the people”, they can threaten democratic norms and societal customs many people (of every political persuasion) value.

Populism, perhaps above all, promises simple solutions (usually in catchy one-liners or slogans) for complex situations that have taken decades, if not centuries to take shape.

Populism may be good at “winning” but has rarely been good for those who once supported it.

Governing, and leading in any context, is primarily about fostering the continuing well-being of the organization. Whether it is a family, a business or a nation-state, our legacy will be our presence and dedication.

A few years from now, our obsessions about the controversy du jour will not impress anyone.