A quick rant about “American collapse”

Consider this nothing more than a rant. I’ll try to make it short and unspecific. Pardon the interspersed use of the second person; I, of course, am not angry with you, dear reader.

The past four years have seen many once-noble institutions, organizations, and individuals1 descend into histrionics and set their credibility ablaze for minimal political return. Perhaps sadder, our “unprecedented times” have given rise to a disaster-porn mentality about the state of America that grifters have cynically refined and recast as implements of their base ambitions.

This is annoying for many reasons, not least because the energy being harvested is obviously an outgrowth of poorly sublimated upper-middle class ennui. If you believe America is a failed state, that you’re bearing witness to civilizational collapse, I invite you to take an extended trip to almost anywhere else on the planet. I have seen families in Brazilian slums living on islands of trash and driftwood tied together, makeshift docks to form walkways above the putrid water that served as their home’s foundation, sewer, and dumpster.

When you see failure, you’ll know.2

But you can’t really blame the managerial class for being bearish on America when they’re subject to a relentless memetic campaign to that effect. Our real ire ought to be directed at the cynics who divide their time evenly between fetishizing abstract hallmarks of America and its governance and propagandizing their illegitimacy.

Listen, if you tell me America is actually an oligarchy one day and then tell me we have to Save Democracy the next, you’re either an idiot or an opportunist with no regard for collateral damage. If you spend your days badgering people to vote and your afternoons diligently watering seeds of doubt about the integrity of the next election (hedging in case your guy loses), you’re an asshole. If you’re going to lament the damage being done, at least stop swinging the sledgehammer.

Perhaps worst of all is the myopia. Do these actors never ask themselves, “What comes next?” Credibility is subject to entropy as much as anything else: it’s difficult to build and easy to let slide into disrepair. They think they’re torching Russia to starve Napoleon, but in reality they’re Pyrrhus, paying for today’s victory with tomorrow’s defeat.

There will be no back to normal for us, brave explorers. They’ve burned the ships.


  1. With the exception of “thought leaders” with significant influence, this post is not meant to apply individuals. I don’t blame your uncle for his conspiratorial MAGA-posting, nor your aunt for her wine-mom-inflected renditions of CNN chyrons.
  2. For the record, I don’t consider Brazil a failed state. Nor will I pretend America doesn’t have some serious problems (many of which look likely to get worse). I’m just saying the bar is a lot higher than people seem to imagine.

Armchair Psych: Why Elizabeth Warren’s Loss Inspires “Fury and Grief”

You may have noticed that Senator Elizabeth Warren has suspended her campaign for president after a disappointing showing in the Democratic primary. You may have also noticed that some people are very upset. A small sample:

I do believe Warren’s loss is particularly painful for her supporters — and not just those in the media. I’m going to bend my rule about not discussing electoral politics on this blog so I can offer an armchair psychologist take on why Elizabeth Warren’s defeat has inspired such “fury and grief.” The usual disclaimers apply, probably more than usual.

#Goals

The first piece of the puzzle is that Warren’s supporters strongly identify with and admire her. Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, who are both personally wealthy and powerful but enjoy substantial support from the middle and lower classes, Elizabeth Warren actually has a lot in common with her supporters: white, highly educated professionals.

She is like them, only more so: a veteran of prestigious institutions from Boston to D.C., impeccably credentialed and accomplished, with grandchildren and a $12 million net worth to boot. She is “having it all” made flesh, an avatar of success. This encourages supporters to project themselves onto Warren. Their parasocial relationship makes her loss harder to deal with because it feels like a personal rejection, and in some ways, it is.

Technocracy and its True believers

Understanding Warren and her supporters as ideological technocrats is essential to making sense of their dismay at her poor performance. A technocrat’s authority is legitimized by displaying expertise, of which Warren did plenty. Her frequent allusions to her competence and preparedness — she has “a plan for that!” — are a straightforward appeal to technocratic ethos.

But raw displays of expertise are not the only route toward technocratic legitimacy, and indeed, few will have the occasion to put forth arcane “plans” to remake society and be taken seriously (though that is the dream). Expertise and the authority it grants can also be obtained through association with prestigious institutions.

Within these places, advancement, evaluation, and remuneration of personnel are typically formulaic matters. (For an example, check out the salary schedule for foreign service officers. Another is how public school teachers’ salaries are calculated.) This is a superficial gesture to the ideals of fairness and objectivity. The impersonality and aversion to qualitative data it necessitates are regarded as features, not bugs, of bureaucracy.

The reason this is important isn’t because Elizabeth Warren spent her career in such places. It’s because her supporters have too. These ideas are not only intuitive to them, they are fundamental, ethical truths. Elizabeth Warren deserves the job. She spent a lifetime earning it.

Whether or not the world should work this way is an open question. But to convince yourself this is the only morally valid way it could work, as Warren supporters seem to have, is an error in judgement. In practical terms, it’s a really poor model for understanding how actual voters make decisions about political leadership in a democracy. Presidential hopefuls wouldn’t be subjecting themselves to the Iowa State Fair if the election could be decided by a resume-scanning software.

The technocratic path and its costs

The technocratic path to power is not merely a career plan; it’s a full-blown ideology with ideas about what’s valuable, what constitutes a good life, and who deserves what. But underneath it lies the universal, deeply held human desire for esteem.

Recall that Elizabeth Warren is an aspirational figure for the upper-middle class, which defines itself by its intellect and is preoccupied with the markings thereof. Her path is their path, the Gramscian march that culminates in power and respect. Her decisive failure to obtain their platonic form, then, calls into question the legitimacy of the rules they’ve been playing by and the immense sacrifices doing so requires.

If giving years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the machine doesn’t buy you unquestioned esteem, what’s the point? You could have relaxed more, could have taken a job that actually paid and bought a house. You could have just pulled a Scott Alexander and exorcised your passions in a blog! But time only goes forward, so the present and future have to justify the past.

Status quo bias and sexism

Last item of note. The portrayal of Warren’s sound defeat as sexism is as predictable as it is unfalsifiable. But for the purposes of this blog post, we’re not really interested in if it’s true so much as the idea that her supporters want it to be true.

As I see it, sexism provides the least challenging explanation for her failure, not intellectually — it requires some serious mental gymnastics to fit her third-place finish in Massachusetts (among Democratic women!) into that narrative — but personally and philosophically.

If someone is rejected for their immutable qualities, those doing the rejecting can be safely dismissed as bigots, and their opinions need not be taken too seriously. It’s not me; it’s you. The rejection of an ethos is different, because it’s not a repudiation of what you happen to be but rather what you choose to be. It’s harder for Warren supporters to swallow because they share her convictions, part of which is that they possess The Truth (which is why they should be in charge of policy and journalism and academia and human resources and…). This is like the ultimate public repudiation of that.

But most of all, the cure for sexism — no doubt some combination of activism; advocacy; TED Talks; and a ubiquitous, memetic media campaign — requires no change on their part. They’re already doing these things; in fact, there are entire industries and departments, staffed by the Warren demographic, devoted to these endeavors. Insofar as their daily lives are concerned, doubling down on sexism being the problem is activism against change.