Reconsidering the roils of the democracies


I have always meant to take back a leisurely step, look at current events from something of a distance, and see whether they prompt a re-evaluation of the past and a better understanding of what drives events today.  This blog has tried to look at the essential characteristics of our society over a long term, to note changes, steadfastness, and myths and conventions which had been mistaken for facts and laws. I have hoped to find calm in deep understanding.

I have been advocating that each individual understand matters deeply enough to provide a conscious informed consent or dissent.  I have always been critical of going with the flow, being too influenced by a group standard, social media, biases, and social or political pressure.  I have advocated talking often and respectfully with people you disagree with, telling them your story and listening to theirs, as a way of engaging the dangers of the world without too much fear or stupidity or naiveté.

I have assumed (correctly) that this blog would appeal to only a few people but that they would be thoughtful (validated by the responses I receive) and might find value in what I write. I have been rewarded by some responses which have deepened and broadened my perspectives.  I have not suffered, so far, any of the mania so commonly spread on social media.  So this has been satisfying work.

I am much encouraged by the books I have read recently which have explained long-puzzling matters in nature, history, and politics in new ways; have brought to the fore the results of new research  (especially in the sciences) which often supplants old theories.  I have been profoundly ignorant about many basic things in life, partly because of lack of curiosity about those matters, partly because keeping up with current events in my several careers has taken up all the time I had. Now retired, I know that people who are still working and raising families have the same time and resource limits as I had had, and it is easy to understand that they take advantage of easily accessed sources of information and persuasion even though those may be misinformation, disinformation, and persuasive deceit.  I hope that my way of reconsidering the past and considering how it shapes the present, will be of use to them, if they have the time to read this, and that they will check out the useful sources I cite.  I sometimes critique these sources and note their limitations and weaknesses, but suggest that readers evaluate them themselves.

These times are full of change, new discoveries, and new discoveries about old matters.  Everything confronts us  quickly and suddenly. It is difficult to keep the perspective of distance and reconsidering that is the essence of this blog.

This post deals with situations which are now coming into focus as if they are new, but which actually have been building for quite some time.  So while I court the danger of writing too much in the moment, I am rescued by these accounts of the long-term buildup to this point.  I am trying very hard to not be just another moment-by-moment commentator on current events.

Today’s post

This post is about the increasing dangers to democracies around the world, and it centres on some very disturbing books.  Some of this post is in direct response to a request.

How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, by Barbara F. Walter, professor of international relations at University of California San Diego, and a director of Political Violence @ a Glance online magazine, describes in great detail the results of long research on political and social events which make civil wars predictable in many parts of the world including the United States.  Citing analyses of several organizations including the CIA, she finds that the U.S. is in stage 5 of a 6-stage process leading toward civil war.  She does not mean by that term the war of the nineteenth century; she means violence led, coordinated, and conducted by a variety of groups (“violence entrepreneurs”) who work in coordination and cooperation with other groups throughout the world.  They desire mostly to take things down, rather than build a new country, society, or government.  The entrepreneurs have built “superfactions” based on race/or ethnic origins but composed of people who feel they have lost status in the world, e.g., whites – particularly white males without college educations living in rural areas, typically having some military or police training.  It is these superfactions, rather than partisan politics, that build the dangerous ground.  They have not only lost status, but hope of better lives because the government or other entities are against them. It isn’t, for instance, that they necessarily do not believe that blacks and whites are or can be equals; it is that they feel people of other races have been given unfair advantages now which have contributed to the loss of status among whites.  This fear has been exacerbated by social media, particularly foreign-based (see Spyfail:  Foreign Spys, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of American Intelligence by James Bamford; and Hidden Hand:  Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, by Mareike Ohlberg) and by their behavioural algorithms.

Further consideration of the place of racism in these efforts is found in Cristina Beltrán’s (associate professor in NYU’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, who focuses on how border migrants are treated in the U.S.) Cruelty as Citizenship:  How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy. She says that as more of the Hispanic population along the border find that government jobs in the border patrol and prisons are the best-paying and require less education, they are signing on to promote mistreatment of people like themselves.  They thereby perpetuate white mistreatment of immigrants, because being a good citizen means preserving the white (and nominally Christian) status.  Oppressing non-whites is part of being a good citizen, she maintains.  Her book depends much on earlier scholarship by others, and while it sort of makes sense, I think it is not a well-established thesis.

These books are unlike Sarah Kendzior’s They Knew:  How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent. Kendzior writes of a world-wide “octopus” controlled by the wealthy, by criminal organizations, and by politicians working together. Kendzior tries to evade being classified as a conspiracy theorist by intellectually delineating that from noting actual conspiracies, which is what she claims to do. She does not build a closely reasoned case of specific facts. I do not recommend Kendzior’s book.  Although I have followed her work for years especially as a columnist in the Globe and Mail, this book crosses a line for me and I cannot any longer consider her a solid source of information and thought.

Back, then, to Dr. Walter.  She paints a very haunting scenario about how the civil war might look but, more importantly, she describes in detail the steps which lead up to it, steps which began decades ago. I would urge you to read her book and discern whether you agree with her analyses.  She writes that the Polity Score (a product of the Polity Project at the Center for Systemic Peace* )measures whether a country is at the democratic end of a spectrum, or the opposite, or “anocratic” (in between) according to four factors: 

  • elections are free from government control (although the most democratic countries, including Canada, have independent national administration of elections in contrast with the U.S.);
  • constraints on the executive;
  • open and institutional political participation; and
  • a competitive process for candidates for the presidency. 

The U.S. is an anocracy.

Dr. Walter’s solutions are what might expected:  a) improve on what democracy delivers, e.g., better education (which, I suggest, must include paths to well-paying and respected employment for people without requiring traditional college education); health provision; income supports when needed; less extreme financial inequality; cleaner politics; and centrally, independently administered elections; b) regulate the social media  (see also The Chaos Machine:   the Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World, by Max Fisher) especially that from outside the country (interestingly, today begins a visit by President Biden to Canada, at which event he will try to dissuade Canada’s efforts to regulate social media as produced by U.S. companies).  Her suggestions are not as specific as her list of problems.  I commend this book to my readers if only to stimulate your thinking about solutions.

I note that Canada is currently in the throes of developing legislation regarding social media, and is having great difficulty walking the line between government control and freedom of expression. 

I also note that the U.S. has been at war for 20 years, which is the longest in its history.  Many, many people have been trained on how to use violence and weapons and strategy to hurt and kill, and much rage and trauma remain from all those wars (see my post of October 23, 2020 for reading about this Despair – Upon reconsidering…).  Many discharged and retired veterans live in rural and remote areas either as preference or because of low income, and many have been angry for a long time.  Add this fact to the significant cultural differences between urban areas and the rural and remote ones, and you have the recipe for conflict.

My response:

It is easy to be discouraged by these publications.  My response is this:  there is no benefit to despair, extreme discouragement, or cynicism.  Each of the first two can form a wall which stops moving into the future under your own power, and each makes you feel bad.  Cynicism, if adopted as the default attitude, can obscure nuanced improvements in familiar situations, and so may preclude benefiting from them. They are not useful tools. 

Dr. Walter emphasizes that superfactions can be driven to violence (fostered by “violence entrepreneurs”) when they lose hope that things might change through other means.  What she means by “losing hope” is that they have clear proof that government has no intention of improving things for their group at all, ever, and that if nothing is done their group may find itself oppressed even more; they feel pressed into a situation of self-defense.  Democratic governments which do not want to face violent reactions need to find ways to keep people from in fact losing (status, territory, traditions, community, history).  They must seriously recognize and engage with different groups  (The Usefulness of Talking – Upon reconsidering…) except those which trade exclusively in deceit.  Don’t “other” them; don’t contemn them (I know it’s an odd word – means to hold in contempt, but it doesn’t sound like just a legal term); listen to their stories so that you can empathize with them even if you don’t sympathize, and tell them yours (readers of past posts know how strongly I believe in the value of sharing stories); and work together toward their having a place in the same society as you. It is very important to have a place that is duly regarded and respected (not necessarily in the sense of “I think so highly of your values that I wish some for myself,” but “I know you and who you are, I acknowledge your right to exist as long as you are not a threat to me, and I accept you even with those aspects which I don’t like”).  They must be able to feel safe, be included with the rest of society (to the extent they desire that – one thinks of the Doukhobors**in Canada).  These are conditions which are very important to everyone.  The superfactions and violence entrepreneurs do not want the majority or powerful minority to be able to live these values.  I don’tknow that it is necessary to give place to those who sell hatred and lies, such as Alexander Jones and Tucker Carlson.  But it is necessary to do these things with everyone else.  Hopefully, when people do not feel that their situations are hopeless, they will not need to listen to the entrepreneurs.  Hopefully the violence entrepreneurs will then disappear as a force due to lack of interest.  But they may need help to recover what they feel they have lost.

The place for ideals:

I’m sure that there will be more to know and think about as efforts continue to destroy democracy in the world, and it will always be important to pay attention to the new stuff.  But it is also important to reconsider how we have been doing things so far, and see how we must change our ways, as I’ve written in earlier posts.***

We can avoid being stopped by cynicism, deep pessimism, despair, or hopelessness, by being clear about our ideals, keeping them in front of us, knowing always what we strive toward rather than just what we try to avoid or quit.  We know that we may have to turn in a different direction and look around us for the next thing to try. We are motivated by our ideals rather than by our fears.   For me those ideals are two:  be as concerned for others (not just people) as for myself; and build toward a society with freedom from want, and freedom from fear (including the fear of facing want again – Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear: In the Beginning – Upon reconsidering…)

Democracy is having a hard time around the world; I am as concerned as anyone by the potential democratic failure in the U.S. because it is so commonly considered the bastion of democracy.  But I live in Canada, considered by Walter’s group the third oldest continuing democracy (after Switzerland and New Zealand).  Our politics are not nearly as virtuous as I would like, and it is clear that we can be tempted by those on-line forces around the world to destroy what we have built.  We certainly have much to do to repair our damages to the aboriginal population; our arctic sovereignty is threatened by many nations, including the U.S.; and we don’t have a significant military capability, having benefited for many years from our proximity to the U.S.  But we are unified by our national laws, and by our central independently administered processes to delineate voting districts and to enable voting; our banking system has not had a run in over a century; we do not foster violence through lax gun laws; and we are a fundamentally peaceful society. We are accustomed to traveling throughout the world and finding out how others live, and to accepting huge numbers of immigrants from all over the world (but subject to some education, health, and employability/financial considerations) as permanent residents and citizens.  We are not yet riven as are so many countries that Walter surveys.

We are in a good place to get everything right, and to show others how to do it.

* This is a non-profit organization.  The staff have excellent qualifications according to their biographies, but I can’t find anything about their board structure nor membership, and I can’t find who their major donors are, so I don’t know whether there is a particular political orientation.

**Doukhobors | The Canadian Encyclopedia

*** The majority doesn’t rule anymore – Upon reconsidering…; Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear: In the Beginning – Upon reconsidering…; The Gathering Storms and Grief – Upon reconsidering…; The Gathering Storms and Grief – Upon reconsidering…; POLITICAL AND MORAL CONSEQUENCES OF COVID – Upon reconsidering…; Political and Moral Consequences of COVID Part 2 – Upon reconsidering…; Understanding the past differently – Upon reconsidering…; Perhaps morality sometimes leads us astray… – Upon reconsidering…; We have built our society on the wrong principles and values. – Upon reconsidering…; I’d like not to give up some experiences when COVID isolation is over, and to act on some lessons. Part 1. – Upon reconsidering…; I’d like not to give up some experiences when COVID isolation is over, and to act on some lessons, part 2s – Upon reconsidering…;