“We exist in societies of increasingly organised totalitarian extremism, divided and bewildered and allowed only grossly limited access to those institutions empowered to rule our daily lives.”
The most significant disconnect between voters and those elected into positions of power and influence is not disinterest but disassociation. Democracy has an obvious weakness when an electorate is gullible, easily diverted away from its best interests to vote only on its worst instincts. But universal suffrage also contains its own solution and it needs only one fundamental change: an awakened public.
How, though, can awakening come about when the powers-that-be are wholly invested in perpetuating an anaesthetic reality that exploits millions, obfuscates crime and corruption endemic in corporate governance and props up politician-mouthpieces to navigate the inconvenience of elections? At first glance it seems a picture too complex, too many fires to fight to hope a busy fact-starved public has a chance.
Distraction and confusion techniques are propagated by a bought or complicit media, a kind of divide and rule through echo-chamber confirmation bias, old tactics like fear and falsehood in the mix for good measure; all conspiring to dupe the many, to coral the voters when, now and then, they’re called on to mark their ballots.
It can seem like an impossibly complex structure of misinformation – conditioning at every turn – against which no feasible counter-force could prevail. But in the very simplicity of the credulous electorate, in its habit of prosaic reductionism, there may be a way through.
Most people are not the psychopaths and sociopaths we find in government or heading up big corporate interests. At the heart of the controlled ignorance of an electorate is the fundamental decency, in everyday life and personal relationships, of the vast majority of citizens.
This is as true in the United States as anywhere else in the world, a nation of 325 million where even the dispossessed are spoonfed on a diet of individual goodness as synonymous with heroism and rightness. Exceptionalism is in the country’s genes, be that exceptional self-belief or exceptional stupidity.
Identity, particularly in the United States (as a large country of mostly immigrants and opportunists), is underpinned by sound, consistent moral foundations. The founding fathers were Enlightenment rationalists, distilling the best of contemporary Christianity with practical humanism. This paradigm remains as strong and legitimate as ever, despite America’s inevitable corruption by religion and jingoism and racism and xenophobia.
The growing dichotomy between public and private life is evidenced everywhere, but the persistence of sound moral idealism is reason for optimism. Islam may be evil but not the Muslims we work alongside, black gangs may be dangerous and criminal but not the families in my street, the Chinese may be a threat to American jobs but not the polite, upwardly mobile students in my kid’s school.
Maybe because it’s hard-wired into most human beings to trust the community while holding those outside under suspicion. There’s no empathy to waste on the faraway, especially if the scant information encountered plays to that disassociation and one’s busy battling the challenges of everyday life. Nobody would accept child-labour in their own community but it rates irrelevant if kept enough out of sight in foreign countries.
There’s enormous political mileage in emphasising any polarisation in otherwise shared identity e.g. Americans mostly claim to be patriotic, co-opting their own spin on what it means to be American into evidence, proving their own Americanness while dismissing millions of similarly self-professed patriots as deluded un-American; the parallels with religious mania and a zealots supposed monopoly on divine truth is depressingly clear.
Organs of control like the mass media trumpet whatever is needed to corrode consensus and highlight otherness; to polarise. This becomes a fuel for easy xenophobia, i.e. antipathy directed outward but is just as effective to bolster personality cults, i.e. the exceptionalism of celebrity or demagoguery of politicians.
What’s most needed is not a specific political ideology to triumph over its opposition e.g. the imposition of left-wing rationalism over right-wing populism. The solution need to be something universal, apposite in all societies because it speaks to a necessary evolution in culture that’s morally consistent with private conviction and, at the same time, addresses the relationship between individuals and government, as well as individuals and the stranger billions.
The homespun wisdom of how to carry out one’s interpersonal relations is sound and deep-rooted. Treat others as you yourself would be treated. Respect your friends and neighbours. Hold yourself and those you know to a moral standard, accountable for transgressions. Choose your friends wisely. The list goes on. It’s not inconsistent with most religious dogma either.
The problem today lies in the numb tolerance for exceptions with power and the convenient acceptance of the existence of “untermensch” i.e. those faceless others to whom respect and interpersonal morality need not apply. The Nazis coined the “untermensch” designation and like so much of their theories of mass control, the concept transcends fascist Germany and remains just as relevant and just as odious today.
There must be an attack on the concept of the untermensch, a cutting down of the sociopath exceptions (demagogues in particular). It doesn’t matter one’s political ideology or schooling or, heaven forbid, expertise. What matters is simply and without exception, to hold everyone to the same high standard of personal conduct, oneself included.
Politicians who lie and cheat should be as accountable as any workmate, mistrusted and excluded accordingly. Corruption in high places is as abhorrent as a neighbour caught stealing from your home. Corporate actions (howsoever culpability may be thin-spread across innumerable managers and faceless executives) should be judged for their own sake against humane standards, as they would be if local. None of us should fall prey to out of sight, out of mind.
The effect of such a clear-cut shift in the way people relate to their own untermensch groups and “exception” individuals would be seismic. Most current politicians would not survive the next election. Replacements would be immediately have to be of a superior calibre else they’d not win any voters. Policy would, by necessity, shift from conditioned exploitation to more ethical transparency. Corporations acting like oppressive mini-states would be revealed, censured, brought into line with the basic dictates of human decency.
All we need to do, en masse, is deny the notion of the untermensch and hold all individuals to the standards we’d demand of our friends and neighbours in everyday life: truth, fidelity, openness, accessibility, moral consistency. No corruption. No croney-capitalism. No hypocrisy. No us and them.
It’s the most straightforward, apolitical solution to the current battlefield of division, terror, confusion and prejudice. It can apply to all systems, creeds, cultures and classes. It’s a message consistent with secular and the religious alike.
Such a solution won’t appear in any of the mass media outlets, in part because its application would take power from the tin-pot autocrats and paymasters; but in an authentic, peaceful way that’d defy narrative opposition. It may be the natural and only realistic next step for equitable modern democracy, in a world of billions populating a shared environment of inevitable inter-dependency. It will be fought against by the psychopath vested interest with every path of least resistance in their arsenal.