Politics & Policy

The Bright Side of 2016

(Jim Young/Reuters)
A catastrophe, sure, but also an opportunity

If you’ve studied the history of caste in India or nobility in Europe, or of hereditary royals anywhere, then you’ve probably asked yourself the same question I have: How in hell did they get away with it?

This is the year when the rest of the world gets to ask that about the United States.

One of the first things you’ll learn about caste if you look into it seriously is that it’s a lot less like a rigid top-ten list and a lot more like West Side Story: In terms of absolute social ranking, Tony and Bernardo might be just about equal, but that doesn’t really matter. Of course, you learn the same thing when looking into European nobility and aristocracy, and into the practical situations of “absolute” monarchs who were anything but. Reality is complicated. But the fact that these ruling elites were not absolute — that they had real economic, political, military, and social challenges — makes the length and breadth of their rule more surprising rather than less.

Ruling elites across time and cultures begin to look a little bit alike, at least in broad strokes. They generally are effectively hereditary, even when they are not formally so; imperial China maintained a rigorous civil-service examination system for more than 1,000 years (kéju) but standardized testing did no more to prevent the emergence of a partially hereditary class of bureaucrat-scholars in Luoyang than it has in the Harvard-to-Washington-to-Wall Street cursus honorum. Like our Clinton dynasty, they manage to acquire substantial wealth while rarely if ever engaging in anything that looks to ordinary people like work. (The ancient guidance for Brahmins is to avoid occupations that require “fatiguing the body,” but they were also expected to maintain themselves in respectable poverty.) They effectively operate under a different body of both civil and criminal law than do the peons who serve them.

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And what’s really kind of impressive is that they do all that while convincing us (or most of us, except when the guillotines are busy) that they are doing us a favor, that they are engaged in what we Americans insist on calling “public service.” They do this by convincing us that we need them.

That was easier to do when people were more superstitious and less literate. “I get to tell you what to do because God commands it!” may sound silly to us, unless we start thinking too closely about what it means to be “on the right side of History,” which is of course just a secularized and partly digested regurgitation of divine right. “The people have spoken” is not really so different from “the oracles have spoken,” a fact that is more and more obvious to you the more you know about how voters actually make electoral decisions.

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We should not be glib about the likely choice American voters will face in the 2016 presidential election: The Democrats are offering a corrupt, lifelong machine politician who just narrowly avoided indictment with the help of a remarkably solicitous FBI; short of a rebellion in Cleveland, the Republicans are set to offer one of that Democratic crook’s friends and financial patrons, a semiliterate aspiring strongman whose greatest contribution to public life has been a stint as a game-show host. We are being given a choice between gonorrhea and syphilis.

#share#If there is a silver lining in that ugly cumulonimbus mess, it is this: The country probably will muddle through, just as it usually does. Things will go on very much as they have in the past, and the things that are dramatically different will be things that we are not thinking about very much right now. And that will provide us with an opportunity to learn something important: Yes, it matters who the president is, but not as much as we think. It matters what the character of our government is and who we entrust to run it, but not as much as we think. Jackass A or Jackass B will do his or her worst, to be sure, and the damage will be both real and painful, but America will go on, because America doesn’t actually need these jackasses as much as Americans think.

It matters what the character of our government is and who we entrust to run it, but not as much as we think.

Of course it would be better to have good, responsible, honest, nimble, transparent, effective government, to protect property, defend the borders, enforce contracts, frustrate our enemies, and keep the peace. But we’ve gotten by for at least 40 years without having that on any kind of a consistent basis. Perversely, some of the most important work in our economy is being done, and has been for years, in some of our worst-governed states: California and New York, notably. There are great things going on in Texas, too, which is better-governed than California but which nonetheless suffers from corrupt and ineffective public institutions. Thanks in no small part to our most hated industry — the money-shuffling industry — investors still shunt great shimmering streams of fresh capital into innovative and imaginative firms and enterprises, from fracking to social media. Capitalism happens, and capitalism can carry a great deal of dead weight, including the Clinton and Trump families.

Those enterprises produce elites of their own, too, but elites of a different kind. Does anybody really expect the next boss at Tesla or SpaceX to be one of Elon Musk’s children? That Silicon Valley venture capitalists will hunt down obscure Zuckerbergs the way Democrats cherish the Kennedy sang réal? Not likely.

#related#The America outside of politics is doing pretty well. Americans continue to make the best and most interesting stuff in the world, and it isn’t only start-up founders and financiers who make a good living out of that. There are some real social and economic pressures that need to be dealt with: Things are going much better at the 18th percentile than they are at the 50th percentile, and that produces stresses that have unhealthy, antisocial effects, one of which is a two-party political system that coughed up two hairballs like Clinton and Trump.

Our politics consists of a more and more vicious fight over the leadership of institutions that have less and less real importance to our security and our prosperity with each passing day. If there’s an upside to 2016, it’s that it should shine a bright light on how little use our aristocrats and mandarins really are, and how little need we have of them.

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