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Some thoughts on the current situation

As we enter a New Year, I’ve been reflecting about the past year or so in politics, and wondering where things might head in 2013. I thought I would share some points that came to mind about our situation today.


  • Politics seem more event-driven. By this, I mean that a particular incident or news item can drive the political agenda well beyond what would normally be expected or required by the event itself.  I read that the 2013 priorities for New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo are related to Hurricane Sandy and gun control following the Newtown shootings. Stepping back, it seems odd that two (thankfully) rare occurrences should be top of his list.  And, of course, at the federal level, an otherwise do-little congress will fairly rapidly (by its standards) discuss gun legislation later this month. Watching the UK, I’m struck by how a phone-hacking scandal can have such a far-reaching effect on longstanding issues of press freedom via the Leveson Inquiry. I know that politics does not happen gradually and evenly, and that it is always punctuated by events. (As Harold Macmillan said, “Events, my dear boy, events” – but he was talking about crises, and our “events” today rarely can be considered crises in an objective sense.)  I also know that it is not unheard-of for politicians to put off addressing longer-term needs (the inability for congress to deal with US debt is not new). But it seems to me that the political agenda can more easily become hijacked by a felt need to respond to relatively minor incidents.
  • A related point is that the events that seem to trigger over-reactions are emotional ones, sometimes involving children (Newtown kids, Milly Dowler). This emotion is used by political  opportunists. They harness it to their campaign for broader change, in a form of blackmail: “If you don’t want to get rid of guns, you have the blood of the Newtown children on your hands”. This heightened emotionalism is a problem to the extent that it overrides a rational, considered response.
  • It seems like it is the event itself that requires change. But the reason these events are the having such an effect has to do with the incoherence of the political class. We don’t see political leaders standing up and saying “Let’s not over-react”.

A  Sense of Instability

  • We see some signs of a breakdown of social order: mass shooting events, the rioting in the UK. More generally, there are fewer shared conventions regarding morality; for instance, as described in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, with respect to: divorce and children born out of wedlock; lack of stigma for idleness; crime; and religiosity. But, despite all of these concerning signals, we are far from a true breakdown in order. Other periods in American history have been much more unstable (Wild West, turn of the century cities, even the 1970s).
  • What we do have, however, is a heightened sense of social instability, especially among the higher-level classes. This perception is not warranted by circumstances, but the examples noted above do appear to provide some grounds. Moreover, the upper classes’ distance from the lower classes, and lacked of shared norms, accentuates a feeling of being out of control. Not knowing what goes on in the less-well-off neighborhoods or towns, the elite fear the worst.

Restoring Order

  • As a result of this heightened sense of instability, many elites, especially among the upper class liberals, see the restoration of order as an important task. Security and safety has become the number one goal, trumping all other objectives, such as freedom or economic progress (see my post on the discussion after Newtown).
  • To the extent that there are real signs of social disorder, our new elite, having rejected traditional social morality themselves, have no desire to re-assert the prior norms. They also are mostly blind to newer social problems, and thus do not even try to address them. Take mass shootings: a component of the rise in lone gunmen is an increase in narcissistic behavior. Many liberals do not recognize this as a problem, because their therapeutic programs, such as an emphasis on self-esteem in schools, have precisely encouraged such an outlook.
  • The elite would rather denounce the masses, and wash their hands of them, rather than lead them. This lack of leadership notwithstanding, the elite are trying to restore their own sense of order. Their instinct is to scold, usually in the areas of personal behavior and consumption – such as diet and health, but also for their supposed materialism and crass tastes, as well as parenting skills.  They would no doubt hope that the working classes will internalize their lectures. And to some extent they have – mainly because the elite view is so dominant in our culture, and the masses are mostly voiceless.
  • Increasingly, the elite find their social messages are insufficient, and they turn to the state. There is an awkwardness in this regard, because there remains a sense of freedom and autonomy that cannot be seen to be breached too conclusively. And so there is talk of “balancing” freedom with other needs, such as security. Public health in this regard is becoming a model that being extended to other areas of social life – claim something is a health issue (like guns or children’s welfare), and you have apparent grounds for overcoming old-fashioned concerns about personal liberty and autonomy.
  • Many of the state restrictions on social behavior - such as Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas and the recently-aired idea of banning sugary cereals in the UK - are token gestures. They provide politicians with examples that they can point to when they say they are doing something. But to the extent that the underlying problems are not resolved, there will be a greater likelihood that the state will be relied on as the only mechanism to restore order. The new elite is just too anxious about social decay, and just too cut off from the mass of society to try to address it more directly, that consequently they feel the need to get the state to back up their pursuits. For this reason, we can expect the trajectory to be in the direction of more state intervention, including calls to amend the constitution, and circumvent or overthrow other well-established rights and customs.

I must stress that these are just some immediate thoughts, banged out very quickly, and I’m hoping to explore these issues in more detail in 2013.

2 Responses to “Some thoughts on the current situation” Leave a reply ›

  • Interesting notes with which I entirely agree. However, I would add that the elite sees many that we would probably regard as within its ranks as out of control. eg "greedy bankers", irresponsible plutocrats, etc. These are also viewed as a potential source of instability and disorder (admittedly partly because of the example they are seen as setting for the rest of society). In my view the contemporary elite sees itself as representing an embattled middle trying to hold society together against both the "irresponsible rich" and the "lower orders".

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