Tag Archives: american politics

Nihilism Unbound

The authors call them “chaos voters.”

Watch enough You tube videos of Britons willingly severing ties with their European neighbors, or voters who seem comfortable channeling their free-floating anger into disrupting common political norms, and you begin to wonder.  When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out a society’s various problems?  In 2016 I labeled this preference for disruption our “iconoclastic moment,” a conclusion since borne out by a recent study by several political scientists.

The research paper “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies” is the work of Danes Michael Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen, along with  Kevin Arceneaux at Temple University. The paper’s thesis is that “chaos Incitement” has become its own political objective for some voters in western democracies.  This often means abandoning the value of consensus-building and at the same time demonizing enemies and violating long standing political norms.  While the conclusion of the paper isn’t surprising, it is sobering to see that many citizens, especially in the United States, are more interested in the destruction of institutional values than the refinement of them.  The authors found significant agreement among supporters of President Trump with the following kinds of agree/disagree items:

  • I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.

  • I think society should be burned to the ground.

  • When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”

  • We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.

  • Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.

Not everyone gave an affirmative response to all these assertions.  But nearly half did.  The authors call these folks “chaos voters,” who are ready to ignore the benchmarks and norms of a civil society.  Alas, in tight elections they can make a difference.

The question remains as to whether these democratic stalwarts will right themselves after having been steered onto dangerous shoals.

And it’s not just the United States. As we have noted, part of Britain’s civil life has been trashed by the never-ending serial drama of Brexit.  Boris Johnson’s purge of  20 MPs in his own party, including former Chancellors of the Exchequer Nicholas Soames and Ken Clark, was an unprecedented act in recent British history.  This act of putting a gun to his own feet, along with his inflexibility on a Brexit withdrawal date, has left the British leader with no governing majority: a fact made worse by the House of Commons reluctance to trust him to conduct a fair election.

Fault the “leave” campaign for hobbling the once powerful colonial power.  And forget the empire where “the sun never sets.”  A slim majority has begun to isolate the former powerhouse of Europe.  The nativism of mostly rural and older Britons now seems destined to make our closest ally the Dis-United Kingdom.

American nativism is playing out in much the same way, with increased tariffs, punitive immigration policies, and sabre-rattling that unsettles our friends.  Equally bad, there are signs that American businesses are becoming hard-pressed to find enough service workers: a former entry point for many emigres who aspired to live the American dream.

In different ways the yellow jackets of France are another manifestation of popular disruption disturbing the placid surface of French culture.  Immigration, jobs lost to mechanization, and a generally dystopian view of politics has humbled many western nations who could count on a degree of optimism to quell periodic rumbles of unrest.

France’s Emmanuel Macron clings to a vision of a thriving and diverse France. But Boris Johnson in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States seem to have become untethered from the usual obligation of a great leader to nurture their nation’s best values, among them: the pluralism that comes with being open societies.  Neither are even close to being institutionalists like former leaders George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, or John Major.

The question remains whether Britain and the United States will right themselves after falling victim to unsteady hands that have steered them onto dangerous shoals.

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Photo Ops

The capacity to take endless numbers of pictures has outstripped most useful reasons for sharing them. 

When I was still a student, I spent part of one fall working for a candidate running for the Senate from Pennsylvania.  If our team was not yet known as one of the gangs that couldn’t shoot straight, we’d soon make a claim for the title.  One event we planned was a simple ‘walkabout’ in downtown Pittsburgh. It’s a conventional campaign move to notify the press and promise them pictures of your guy mixing it up with voters.  But there was a problem with this particular event because we planned it for a Sunday.  That was mistake number one, since the Golden Triangle on weekends was then a ghost town.  Office workers were clearly restored to the suburbs by the end of the of the workweek on Friday.  Pittsburgh was not quite the active American city that it is now.

Nonetheless, we did find some people for the candidate to meet. And without a second thought we moved in to introduce him, even though the few persons around were surprisingly reticent to be photographed.  We had obviously missed the source of their reluctance, which was directly above our heads in the form of a theater marquee. Mistake number two: we were standing in front of a porn theater.  Clearly a photo of the candidate under neon ablaze with a lot of X’s was not a winning political move.  But give these folks staggering out of the theater some credit; they seemed to be as faithful in their Sunday morning attendance as the Presbyterians pouring out of their church down the street.

For this and many other reasons our guy lost, and I returned to the  easier world of teaching and writing about politics.


His vacation-by-proxy has triggered your downward slide toward semi-consciousness.

The phrase “photo op” may have been a common idea then.  But that usage is now too narrow.  Today many of us are in the business of looking for visual opportunities to capture on our phones. That’s bad enough for the rest of us that have to look them, but made even worse by the fact that there is no longer a financial penalty for being a kind of serial shooter.  There is almost no cost associated with producing images on digital media.

So now some of our encounters with friends are. . . how can I put this? . .  photographically impaired.  Instead of a routine conversation, there is too often a moment when the friend reaches into a pocket to pull out a phone. The heart sinks as he thumbs his way to a photo library that is revealed to be indecently large.  How bad can it be?  Perhaps we should be thankful he hasn’t downloaded all of Gone With the Wind.  More likely, the scrolling images remind him of other recent high points he is only too happy to find on his small screen.  Who wouldn’t  want to share the joy of a hummingbird at 40 yards? You feign interest. But he has a lot of pictures.  And if he’s been traveling, he will probably show signs of anticipation at the opportunity to relive his entire vacation. The extended narrative that can come with even the most homely shot can roll out like a kite string. And as all of this happens, his sidewalk reverie is becoming your nightmare. His vacation-by-proxy has triggered your downward slide toward semi-consciousness.

In the analog era it was the case that a long-lost friend might have had a few pictures in their wallet or purse.  If they had kids, they were expected to trot out one per child, even though you could predict that the youngest would always look like Winston Churchill.  You dutifully professed awe at their perfect beauty, and it was quickly over. The few pictures went back in the wallet and a conversation could then continue.

But now many of us think of ourselves as Ansel Adams. The capacity to take pictures has outstripped any functional reasons to share large quantities of them.  A “conversation” built around one’s own snapshots is actually a monologue. And it’s another reason to consider disarming visitors right at the front door. There has to be a nice way to say that there will be no photo ops during their visit. Allow them in, but be sure their miserable tiny screens have been stored out of reach.