Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Great American Experiment

Around ten years ago I took a class on democracy which afforded me a chance to read Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 work "Democracy in America". I'd certainly heard the phrase before reading the work, but it was a passage from the Frenchman, the closing words of the first chapter, which brought the notion into the general lexicon:

"In that land the great experiment was to be made, by civilized man, of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past."

That experiment is our democracy. Notice - although De Tocqueville mentions the idea of America's democracy as an experiment multiple times throughout his tome, he never once uses the precise phrase "the great American experiment". And of course it is telling that this is the metaphor he applies, in the 1830s, as the Western world was moving from the heady Enlightenment days into the scientific era of the nineteenth century. 

Is America an experiment? Or is it an idea? Or, as the President would have it, a simple geography: "A nation without borders is not a nation"? (The latter seems almost certainly to be not the case. Many definitions of nationhood are not geographically bound.) For my money, I think America is an experiment - ideas are too nebulous. Jefferson and Franklin were tinkerers, experimenters, they were looking at how to improve the world. And the experiment metaphor backs that nicely. An idea, by contrast, can be all sorts of unpleasant things. To quote from an old Disney cartoon, the state of one's mind can be quite a mess of lousy ideas: "Antiquated ideas, bungling, false concepts, superstitions, confusion..." Not to mention even more disconcerting fare, such as prejudices. Experiments propel us forward, but ideas can be clung to, statically, unchanging. People can hold all sorts of crummy ideas. Experiments are more rigorous - certain aspects of America must be tested for the experiment to continue.

So rather than have America as an idea, or ideal, let's resuscitate America as experiment. With it we will need to agree to a few hypotheses to test out. Isolate some variables. Measure results. Draw conclusions.

Originating in the heady days of the late 1700s, I think it's fair to suggest the reason we started this experiment is to create the best possible form of government, to serve the demos - the people. Democracy has a way of coupling with Utilitarianism. What is best for the majority is best for the country. Or if you prefer, use the unique leverage of democratic statecraft to minimize suffering and improve the general welfare - without a tyranny of the majority stripping rights from minorities.

That's our hypothesis - the state serves the people, not the king or ruler. The greatest benefit for the people needs to be sought. That which does not work towards this end is to be discarded, or destroyed.

Imagine a simple science experiment: You are trying to find which type of food is most nutritious for hamsters. You may hypothesize....*quickly looks up hamster facts*...seeds, grass, and small insects are best. But you'll try other things. Perhaps Twinkies are the ideal food for hamsters, only they've not had sufficient access to the sweet treats in the wild. Now, I suspect feeding hamsters Twinkies would be a disaster. But you could try. And, sure enough, when Wiggles gets very ill, you could return her to a diet of grass and seed.

What you don't do - is keep trying Twinkies.

When something doesn't work you can try again, I guess. But if Snuffles, Fancy-Pants, Mr. Big Bottom, and Whiskers all also get sick you should stop. You have proven the point - it doesn't work. Continuing to stuff hydrogenated soybean cake into their gullet at this point is just cruelty.

Liberals often make this sort of argument for America's experiments in the past forty years. Trickle-down economics doesn't work. You don't have to keep trying - and not only that, but doing so is cruel, given the consistently harmful results we've experienced over the past four decades. The experimental ethos for America is beneficial, therefore, because it should allow us to discard the crappy ideas that don't work.

Charles Lindbergh was a big hero when he flew across the Atlantic. But then he though fascism was just nifty, and his reputation has been crippled ever since. And he was not the only one - lots of Americans thought Hitler was neat-o, and we look back at them with disdain usually reserved for cockroaches and Congress. The communist menace was certainly a real concern that seemed justified - no one in the States wanted the Soviets to have nuclear capabilities or to be spying on us. Fair enough. But McCarthy started his witch-hunts, and now we view the whole era with distaste. Jim Crow and segregation - these were an experiment. A failed one. To rerun any of these past experiments would be disastrous, as we've already learned. Fascist ideology is bad for the American state. Check. Done. Witch-hunts are bad for American democracy. Check. Done. Segregation and racism are repulsive to American values. Check...

But not done yet. Racist ideas still flourish. Proof again of why ideas are more pernicious than experiments.

What I contend is this: The Republican Party, of the Nixon-Reagan mold, is an experiment that we've run enough to say it has failed. The Republican answers to our hypotheses of limiting needless suffering and increasing benefits for America's people, the Great American Experiment of Democracy, have lead to the opposite of what they claim to provide. We need to stop running this experiment. It's killing us, like the hamsters. Trumpism is the consequence - a death of democratic strongholds. The Republican Party - the party of the Southern Strategy, union busting, trickle-down economics and tax cuts for the wealthiest, of No Child Left Behind, of letting billionaires buy elections, of supporting coal over renewables, and taking away people's healthcare - this party keeps hurting the American people. Don't mistake me - I don't suggest we should be a one-party system. That's a bad idea. Very bad. But we must retire this particular experiment. The last real Republican, of the old mold, was Eisenhower. I don't mind that they tried a different system - new ideas should be tried - when they ran Nixon, and then Reagan. Like the Twinkies I think a bit of basic insight should have suggested the outcomes before the experiment was tried - you should have a good guess at what your results will be, after all. But the disasters that resulted were enough to show from those two administrations that the new ideas did not work. They did not hold up under scrutiny and experimentation.

Ideas are dangerous things. It was in 1969, one year after Nixon was elected, when the musical '1776' made the following prescient, and sobering observation: "Don't forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor." This, in a sentence, is the idea behind the GOP's persistent idea. It is a bad idea. It is a selfish idea. And as we have repeatedly seen in experiments, it is an idea harmful to our nation. De Tocqueville understood this nearly two centuries ago - that what was best for the commonwealth is essentially antagonistic to the Republican ideology: namely that of enriching yourself at whatever cost, no matter the effect on other citizens. He warned people of the consequences of such a system:

"The wealthy individual, on the contrary, always escapes imprisonment in civil causes; nay, more, he may readily elude the punishment which awaits him for a delinquency by breaking his bail. So that all the penalties of the law are, for him, reducible to fines."

Nor was this all he had to say on the subject of Trumpism - the epitome of the Republican mania for self-advancement and wealth at any cost. He ends his tenth chapter with this ominous warning, which echoes through the centuries as a clear indictment of a Trumpist Republican Party:

"But beneath this artificial enthusiasm, and these obsequious attentions to the preponderating power, it is easy to perceive that the wealthy members of the community entertain a hearty distaste to the democratic institutions of their country. The populace is at once the object of their scorn and of their fears. If the maladministration of the democracy ever brings about a revolutionary crisis, and if monarchical institutions ever become practicable in the United States, the truth of what I advance will become obvious.

The two chief weapons which parties use in order to ensure success are the public press and the formation of associations."

No surprise, then, that these are the areas the Republicans are now attacking.

For American democracy to survive we must remember that it is an experiment. We can change the variables - and must do so if we wish to see whether that Great American Experiment of democracy, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

ThfusAntiquated ideas, bungling, false concepts, With
superstitions, confusion

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