Rejecting the View from High Above


I’m reading a book commended by two friends – James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State – that I suspect has bearing on Tuesday’s elections. The Facebook posts I’m seeing from disappointed Democrats assume that many people voted for Republicans against their own interests perhaps either because they believe Fox News type propaganda or because they simply despise the black man in the White House.  I’m not so sure, and as I continue reading Scott, I am growing less sure.

Planners from high above the ground level where the people live and go about their days do not seem to understand why people resist and subvert their grand designs, but the reality seems to be that those designs look grand only from far above the people. Democracy needs to be a conversation, not just a vote for the best design; it needs to engage us together, not just pit us against each other. 

The people have ways of subverting the grand designs of top-down (authoritarian) planners who think they know what is best for everyone.

It seems to me the Democratic Party and the current administration have failed to have such conversation with us on, for example, the Affordable Care Act (which I personally support as better than doing nothing although not really good enough) and corporate education reform (which I oppose as worse than doing nothing). The people have ways of subverting the grand designs of top-down (authoritarian) planners who think they know what is best for everyone. I highly recommend Scott’s book, but be warned it is classified as a textbook that, while quite understandable, is not light reading by most standards.

When people feel threatened, they react defensively. The less they understand changes coming their way, the more defensive they become. The less control they feel they have, the more frightened and therefore angry they grow. The less they feel regarded and respected as people, the more likely their anger will increase to rage, perhaps beyond the reach of rationality. Hearing themselves demeaned as racist ignoramuses or privileged exploiters neither calms their anger nor appeals to their reason.

How does insistence upon slowing climate change sound to a coal miner or a shopkeeper whose business depends upon the coal mining industry? Does he hear, “We must save our planet,” or, “We’re going to destroy your livelihood”?

Decades ago, an older friend and member of the congregation I was serving gave me a book which developed the contention that ecological concerns and economic concerns must be balanced if the ecological are to stand a chance. If the two are simply played against each other, guess which will win. How can nations just developing industry and beginning to experience some prosperity not resent our telling them they need to stop polluting the air and water? How convenient for us. We have gotten ours, but you can’t get yours because you’re killing species, destroying ecosystems, and polluting the atmosphere. No one is much persuaded by perceived hypocrisy.

So, what happened in Tuesday’s election? I doubt any single answer could be sufficient, and I more than doubt my own ability to forge an even nearly complete answer. I do not doubt that racism continued to play its role. Surely, also, the corporate takeover of our news media and the popularity of Fox News in particular contribute greatly to the squirrel cage frenzy of fear and misinformation. But I suspect the people’s resistance to design and management from high above their lives also explains much about Tuesday’s election results. If so, then the argument that the Republicans don’t have an agenda for positive governing matters little because the desire was for relief from the grand plans and agendas people feel are being forced upon them threatening their security and livelihood.

Regarding the Affordable Care Act, I disagree that the grand plan is threatening us. With so-called education reform, I very much agree that it threatens to destroy American public education, perhaps permanently. I think that before American education can be made equitable, the grand plan of corporate reform must be stopped and destroyed. I am forced, therefore, to understand the fears of many of my fellow citizens about the Affordable Care Act, even though I don’t share those fears but only wish we could have found a way to go to single-payer care. Even that wish, however, I find tempered by the possible threat to jobs built around the current defective and frighteningly expensive medical care system we have. Destroying people’s livelihoods for the greater good seems much like bulldozing people’s homes for urban renewal. The greater good doesn’t look so good if you are the one losing your home and what little security you had.

Can we learn to listen to each other, here on the ground where we all live and go about our daily lives? Can we come to treat each other with respect instead of name-calling like bratty children? Can we stop trying to destroy each other’s political will? Can we ever learn cooperation? I don’t know. I can only hope.

I’m not talking about being nice or, as people say, playing nice. Mitch McConnell played nice, if patronizingly so, in his victory speech after being projected as the winner Tuesday evening; his opponent disgusted Chris Matthews of MSNBC by not playing properly nice in her concession speech. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about making our democracy a conversation rather than a constant debate that employs sound bytes, labels, distortions, and outright lies to score points and win elections. And I’m talking about getting away from the grand designs of elitists that impose upon the masses (us) their self-proclaimed rightness and superiority without knowledge of or respect for people and the actual circumstances of their lives. We resent being told that people with power know what’s best for us and are ready to make us do as they say. We are, every one of us, local people after all, and we resist grand attempts to restructure our lives around us while bulldozing our stability, security, and comfort such as they are. It really is understandable that people chose their present lot and levels of security, even if meager and fragile, over authoritarian designs for their betterment. It really is, whether I like the results or not.