wishful thinking

I was wrong about why Warren would win the Presidency, bringing a merciful end to my brief non-career as a political prognosticator. (Though really, if a poor record ended dumb predictions, there would be no pundits at all.) I have a lot of the same thoughts that many other Warren supporters have; I don’t have much to add to these types of reflections on:

Clearly my Warren pick was fueled by wishful thinking, so maybe the best use I can make of this space is to try to understand exactly what I was wishing for – this will help me determine whether it’s reasonable to continue wishing or whether I should adhere to a version of reality that doesn’t include those wishes.

Wish #1. I was wishing for an end to the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Obama line of power. This isn’t the place to push an excoriating critique of neoliberal economics, nor is this about wanting Boomers to just get out of the way. (Warren, after all, is a Boomer.) I simply believe that a small group of like-minded individuals has dominated our politics for far too long. Most people do not see the through-line from Reagan to Obama, but their donors do. There is a solid core of moneyed interests that naturally funds campaigns that protect their wealth. I think that it is their right to do so, but there is no countervailing collective force that could find a better balance of interests. As a result, elites are engaging in a real tragedy of the commons that appears unstoppable.

Wish #2. I was wishing that the media would break its usual pattern of reporting during this cycle. When I was in college (OMG that was 30 fucking years ago), my intro American Politics professor said that “horse race” election coverage was a critical weakness in our democracy that could lead to our demise as a nation. His thesis was that representative democracy depends on citizens making choices based on information about the candidates’ positions. Horse race coverage makes politics into a game show rather than a process, totally obscuring substantive positions. I took that as received wisdom and thought that surely we’d eventually break that cycle. I thought that the media distortions of 2016 were so pernicious and so obvious that we couldn’t possibly continue down this path. I was not just wrong, but incredibly naive as well.

In retrospect, this wishful thinking was completely nonsensical. I was wishing for a reversal of clear trends that have been flourishing for my entire adult life. It’s ok to believe that change is possible, but it’s stupid to believe that it’s probable when looking at powerful long-term trends. The most likely case is for powerful trends to continue until they collapse from their own weight. In fact, the more perverse a trend seems, the more likely it is to continue because in going against all reasonable desires, the trend must be fueled by something more powerful than any of those desires.

So what does “collapse from their own weight” look like? My wishes were overcome by truths – let’s look at what those truths would turn into as they continue on current trend:

Truth #1: Powerful interests retain their hold on power until they are destroyed by their own overreach.

Truth #2: Media coverage will always push for engagement (views, clicks, outrage) over any other goals, until there is no distinction whatsoever between news and entertainment.

In my previous wishful thinking, what were the hopes underlying the wishes? I was hoping that the election of Trump was kind of an aberration, or rather the last dying gasp of several bad ideas. I was hoping that there were enough people in power that wanted to share the wealth with people out of power. I was hoping that this country wouldn’t become the worst version of itself.

All of those wishes seem childish now. What they really all amount to is a wish for peace. Peace between different ways of life. Peace between different kinds of people. Peace between different levels of advantage and disadvantage.

If you believe, as I do, that this country has never been at peace – that there has always been the violence of oppression, bigotry, and inequality – then it is wishful thinking to believe that there ever will be peace. The trends that have led to our current situation have always been there, and they seem much likelier to intensify than dissipate naturally.

Peace by definition disappears with violence. We are not at peace now, because the violence has occurred and is ongoing. The suppression of differing people, ideologies, and backgrounds has been accomplished by long histories of varied violence, whether physical, political, or economic. Once peace has been disturbed by violence, it rarely returns without violence. I wish this weren’t true, but wishful thinking doesn’t do anything but hide the ugly truths.

In short: Things are bad, and they aren’t getting better. They only way they will get better is by getting a lot worse, which isn’t something I’d wish on anyone. But my wishes are irrelevant.

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