“You'd be surprised by what emotion makes people do." -- Brit Bennett, "The Vanishing Half"

Saturday, August 18, 2018

On My Mind

     I'm reading a book How Democracies Die by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt. They use historical examples from Europe and South America to show how many dictators start out as populists who are democratically elected, before they veer off into authoritarianism. To protect against extremists democracies need gatekeepers -- such as local, regional or opposing political powers -- to rein them in or steer them out of politics entirely.

     How do we predict which politicians will become power hungry after they're elected? The authors develop certain indicators, such as denying the legitimacy of opponents by calling them subversive or claiming they’re criminals, showing a willingness to curtail liberties by trying to restrict protest or threatening to take legal action against critics, or encouraging violence in any way. 

     They then argue that Donald Trump is guilty of many of the indicators, if not in action at least in word. (Remember his veiled threat against Hillary Clinton: "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks ... although the second Amendment people -- maybe there is."). They also conclude that the Republican establishment has made some effort to contain Trump's authoritarian impulses -- but not all Republicans, and those who have tried have not done enough.

     But before you write off these authors as hopeless liberals, consider that they also criticize FDR for trying to pack the supreme court (which was stopped by responsible politicians in both parties), and his breaking the two-term custom by running and winning for not only a third term but a fourth term as well, when his health was obviously declining and he was literally at death's door.

     So even if the two professors have a liberal bias, they are not anti-conservative so much as they are anti-extremist, concluding:

     "Polarization can destroy democratic norms. When socio-economic, racial or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose views are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain. Some polarization is healthy -- even necessary -- for democracy. But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs, rejecting democracy's rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble."

     I guess I like what these guys have to say because I think of myself as a responsible, reasonable, sensible, moderate person. But regardless, do you think perhaps one problem is that social media exacerbates the political divide? Honestly, I don't understand why the media hangs on every twitter word uttered by Donald Trump -- or Elon Musk or celebrities in general for that matter. Are we supposed to think that we're getting any kind of thoughtful, informative idea in 140 characters or less?

     Maybe it's a good sign that a lot of my friends seem to have found themselves tuning out of twitter, and facebook too. Just possibly it means that people are starting to get bored focusing almost exclusively on economic, political, racial and religious differences.

     Honestly, I pretty much ignore my twitter feed, since it seems to comprise a long list of irrelevancies from people I hardly know. I read recently that something like 40% of the tweets that get forwarded are forwarded without the person even reading them!

     As for facebook, I like keeping up with my daughter who occasionally posts a photo of something she's doing. But how many times do I have to see a photo of an old friend who's taking yet another hike in yet another park? Or yet another photo of my nephew's 18-month-old baby? And honestly, I've "hidden" a few friends and relatives who post three or four items a day espousing either their extreme left-wing views, or their extreme right-wing views. What they say is so predictable. It's no longer provocative. It's just boring.

     Am I starting to sound like an old curmudgeon? I don't mean to. In fact, my outlook took a positive turn this weekend because B and I went to have lunch and spend the afternoon with friends from our old hometown. We sat down and talked face to face. We didn't talk politics. We talked about our homes, our kids, our lives.

     And it dawned on me. A real social life brings people together, and is so much more informative, and so much more humane, than the divisive life we lead on social media.


Red said...

Great post. You look at the realities we have today and where they might lead. You also point to possible solutions. I'm with you we have to work together and live with some differences.

Retirement Confidential said...

Do I think perhaps one problem is that social media exacerbates the political divide? Yes. I highly recommend Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. It gets a little wonky, but he explains how social media evolved to do exactly what you describe. That's how they make money.

Cheers to you and other responsible, reasonable, sensible and moderate people.

Wisewebwoman said...

I pulled away from FB a few months ago. I was a member of a few groups so engaged in active debate but frankly don't miss it tho I did climb back on board briefly for my recent birthday as FB seems the vehicle for old friends and even relatives to wish me happies.

I hadn't missed much. I use Twitter but sparingly and mostly for non-MSM links.

As to politics I try to stick to local which is enough of a challenge as it is also corrupt and self serving. 45 us merely the noisy icon of a world spinning out of control.

Great post Tom.


Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! What a fascinating book. I think it is helpful to see how others are approaching the current political situation--and also how some things haven't changed through the many years. I also believe that the best way to be social is to get together with friends and family and talk face-to-face. Social media has a place IMHO, but only if we can learn to keep it all in perspective. Thanks for the GOOD reminder. ~Kathy

DJan said...

Yes, a provocative post, Tom. I just got back from seeing Spike Lee's latest movie, and while I got a few laughs out of it, there was much in it to give me concern. The theater where I saw it was sold out, can you believe it? Someone not long ago reminded me that when things go to extremes, they usually come back toward the center sooner or later. :-)

retirementreflections said...

I agree, Tom. IRL conversation can bring us together. Great post!

Janette said...

Facebook is for family. Twitter is for those who think a great deal of themselves.Snapchat is for silly conversations with the grands. Blogs tend to be the extremes- which I have given up- or no politics. Politics is local and people will choose which bs they will believe when told.

Thank you for helping me think that through.

Marcial said...

When younger, I had contacts from a wide variety of cultures and income levels. For a number of reasons, the demographics of my circle of friends and contacts has narrowed considerably- a trend reflected in the above discussion. It's up to us to make a conscious effort to not self-segregate to the comfort of our little worlds. As for social media, I confine that to forums where there is a common interest- be it books, woodworking, photography. A recent NYT article noted the more benign interactions in those types of social media, I don't have a Twitter account and FB never did much for me.

Still the Lucky Few said...

Extremism, rather than opinions of any stripe, is to blame, I think, for what is happening in politics, and consequently the world. I agree that social media is a perfect breeding ground for the expression of extreme views. It's so immediate—no thought or reflection required!

Anonymous said...

I dropped FB when they changed their privacy policies (5-7 years ago) and Twitter when it came out about the Russians using it. Never signed up for Snapchat, etc.
Cop Car

Chris said...

I have to say I spend quite a bit of time on social media, for a couple of reasons, but there's nothing like talking to real people in person!

Rebecca Olkowski said...

I'm afraid if people get too "bored" they'll do nothing expecting others to do it for them. I consider myself to be fairly moderate but I'm not liking what's happening now and I want to make sure things go back to being sane because it sure isn't now.

Jennifer (UnfoldAndBegin) said...

Interesting book. I agree that social media has a lot to do with the issue, but it really started with talk shows on radio and TV. Lot's of opinions being spouted, lots of lies being told and no accountability to facts. I do find that it's best to talk about anything but politics when I'm with family--my husband and I are the only liberals in both of our immediate families.

Barbara said...

Sounds like a book I really need to read. Many of the ideas you stated or very similar to my own though not so artfully stated.

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