Politics & Policy

Survival of the Shrillest

Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer discuss the GOP tax-reform bill, December 20, 2017. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
With their over-dramatic response to Republican reforms, members of Congress have demonstrated the clamorousness of modern American politics.

“The intellectual cannot operate at room temperature.”

— Eric Hoffer, First Things, Last Things (1971)

Eric Hoffer (1902–1983) meant that intellectuals in his day tended not to be temperate. In our day, this defect — moral overheating — has been democratized: Anyone can have it. Now, everybody can be happily furious, delirious with hysteria, and intoxicated with intimations of apocalypse, all day every day.

Hoffer was a longshoreman and an autodidact who wrote slender books hefty with wisdom. His first, The True Believer (1951), put him on a path from San Francisco’s docks to a 1983 Presidential Medal of Freedom, conferred by a fellow Californian. In Hoffer’s time, intellectuals often were feverish because this was the best way to be noticed, and to say, about this and that: Listen to our intelligent selves or the end is nigh.

In 2017, many others emulated this act. Were Hoffer still with us, he would marvel at today’s vast, deep reservoirs of extravagant rhetoric. For example:

During two decades, the Internet was barely regulated as it delighted its users. In 2015, a regulatory policy (“net neutrality”), one without a constituency sufficient to move Congress, was imposed by bureaucratic fiat. Thirty-three months later, net neutrality was ended. And the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth commenced: “This is the end of the Internet as we know it” (Senator Bernie Sanders); “A brazen betrayal . . . disastrous . . . I am disgusted” (Senator Richard Blumenthal); “Outrageous” (Senator Cory Booker); “Horrible” (Senator Tim Kaine); “Shameful” (Senator Sherrod Brown).

Another example: Most of the nonstop noise emanating from the White House is white noise — audible wallpaper, there but unnoticed. Some is, however, interestingly symptomatic, as when a presidential assistant calls this year’s tax legislation “the most significant tax reform we’ve had since 1986.” Which is like bragging about the tallest building in Boise. The 1986 tax reform radically simplified the tax code. Since then, the code has acquired more than 15,000 new wrinkles. The 2017 tax legislation might — this is difficult to measure — have managed the minor miracle of making the 70,000-page code more complicated. On a scale of importance from one (negligible) to ten (stupendous), the legislation might be a three. Never mind. Cue the Cassandras. This tax cut of less than 1 percent of the next decade’s projected GDP is “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress.” (House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.) It “will result in 10,000 extra deaths per year” and “our country will be living on a shoestring for decades.” (Former Treasury secretary Larry Summers.)

The many Americans who are happiest when unhappy seem as addicted to indignation as the fewer Americans are to cocaine. Brain imaging might show the same pleasure points lighting up in both cohorts. Furthermore, because today’s technologies have eliminated barriers to entry into public conversations, ignorance and intemperateness are not barriers. Because modern technologies allow the instant, costless dissemination of fulminations, and because the more vituperative the fulminations the more apt they are to be noticed in the digital clutter, public conversations often quickly degenerate into something less.

Christopher DeMuth, president emeritus of the American Enterprise Institute, notes the interaction of high affluence and modern technologies. “Americans have attained levels of material comfort, leisure time, and education unknown until the recent past.” And as Americans have become “entangled by networks of communication,” they have entered “a world of empowered mass intimacy” that encourages the better but also “the darker angels of human nature.” New modes of communication enable us “to organize ourselves into highly defined networks of affinity and endeavor.” These enable splendid cooperative endeavors; but they also are “fracturing our politics.”

Institutions that hitherto organized and stabilized politics — parties, Congress, federalism, civic organizations — have been, DeMuth says, “deconstructed by a thousand networks of ideology, interest, and identity.” Such “private networks have commandeered central institutions of government.” Congress, especially, has buckled beneath the weight of “many more numerous political causes than a representative legislature can manage.” Congress has responded by offloading onto the administrative state’s executive agencies activities that are essentially legislative. So, its members are free to “strut and fret on the national stage” on behalf of causes that are made conspicuous, articulate, and potent by the new technology-created networks.

The result is an ever-more-clamorous politics, and the survival of the shrillest. Hence 2017, the year of living splenetically, has been replete with confirmations of Eric Hoffer’s aphorisms: “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” And: “We lie the loudest when we lie to ourselves.”

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