I try not to discuss politics. In the United States, people attach their identities to a certain political party, and when identities get involved, interesting or productive discussion becomes extremely difficult.
More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities.Paul Graham, Keep Your Identity Small
However, the current state of affairs is escalating in a way that makes me feel the need to speak out. I’m afraid that this political system is nearing a positive feedback loop that could spiral out of control.
The political system in the United States is designed in such a way as to amplify tribalism to extreme, unproductive levels. If you look at the game theory of our voting system, the inevitable outcome is that two parties will dominate and reach an equilibrium.
These two parties will do anything they can to maintain power, including hijacking psychological weaknesses of humans. People are naturally tribal, and when people are stressed, their tribal nature is amplified. “If you’re not with me, then you’re against me” is a common line of thinking of someone who is feeling attacked in some way.
People en masse don’t generally think bimodally. Most issues have nuance, and most people are capable of seeing a middle-ground on most issues. The current system doesn’t provide positive feedback for politicians who think in a nuanced manner, however. In our voting system, only politicians who exploit psychology, make people feel stressed, and get them to attach their identity to one of the political parties end up at the top.
A representative democracy like ours requires representatives to meet a consensus and make laws that apply to everyone. How is consensus possible when the system doesn’t incentivize consensus-making?
Our country is under immense structural pressure. So many political issues haven’t been adequately addressed for decades. Income inequality, racism, sexism, healthcare, education, wealth iequality, housing prices, immigration, the War on Drugs are all issues that haven’t been actually addressed in several decades. These are all real, extreme issues that have not been addressed at all, and the voices of the majority of people have been ignored.
Our nation has been stressed before. We’ve faced the anti-government actions of the 1970’s, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, two World Wars, the Spanish Flu, and this is all just in the 1900’s. One might ask, we’ve been stressed before; why would this be any different? Won’t it be patched, ignored, or eventually fizzle out?
Three factors make this different from any other similar situation: the universality of our grievances, instantaneous country-wide communication, and the pandemic.
Our Grievances are Almost Universal
Almost everyone right now is heavily affected by several of the several major structural issues of our nation. I’ll list them again.
Income inequality, racism, sexism, healthcare, education, housing prices, immigration, the War on Drugs, and these are only the big issues I could think of quickly.
These issues don’t just involve black people angry at racism. These issues don’t involve just a single identity group that you can minimalize, marginalize, or make a PR campaign against.
These involve almost everyone in the country.
A Global Network
Today’s media is not centralized. If an issue is big enough, it is impossible nowadays to suppress the truth.
People have never before had the capacity to organize, document, and fight against issues across the nation so quickly. Last night, I watched dozens of livestreams of protesters with their hands up getting shot by a faceless crowd of militarized riot police. They fired rubber bullets and shot tear gas canisters everywhere. This can radicalize people across the nation from their own homes. I saw that last just night. Police were shooting people with their hands up, and the mass media made it seem like it was only looters that the police were attacking.
Today’s communication networks make it possible for outrage and tribalism to spread almost instantly. It allows the truth to spread instantly. It also allows for people to coordinate nearly instantly, and could allow the messages of a politically charismatic individual to spread to everyone and escalate a situation.
Fuel, Oxidizer, Heat
A fire requires three things to get started: fuel(like gasoline), an oxidizer(like air), and heat(like a spark). If the fuel and oxidizer are mixed in the right proportions when heat is applied, you have an explosion.
This is a perfect analogy for what is happening in the United States.
The fuel is the multitude of political issues that have been unaddressed because of our broken, bimodal political system.
The oxidizer is the current pandemic causing millions of people to be unemployed through no fault of their own. It’s the economy that never fully recovered from the last major recession, leaving many people bitter. It leaves millions of people with free time to protest and/or fight.
The heat is the murder of George Floyd. It’s the president who tweets of shooting protesters and of deploying the military in his own nation. It’s the president who is so stupid that he doesn’t seem to realize how the words he says may cause a cascading failure of the current political system.
The government’s inability to govern and adapt to the changing political landscape combined with a pandemic, record-high unemployment, and instant communication facilitating unparalleled country-wide coordination is a recipe for civil war. The only thing lacking is a charismatic leader, which will inevitably emerge if this goes on for long enough.
We need to remove the heat from the situation. We need to arrest the other officers involved in George Floyd’s murder and let the courts determine guilt. We need Donald Trump to stop escalating the situation in whatever way he/we can.
Something else that may help is another stimulus check focused on the lower class combined with a very swiftly created and deployed jobs program. Millions are unemployed right now; we need to keep them busy and not starving.
Long-term, we need to fix the structural issues that make such a cascading failure possible. If we don’t, a political spark will eventually trigger a civil war. And that’s assuming we’re not too late.