Two Stories to Prop Up the Status Quo

09:57 Tue 22 May 2007. Updated: 13:50 08 Apr 2009

It should be clear to any rational observer that the American political system is a complete mess. The fact that the country was suckered into a war under false pretences and hasn’t brought charges against those responsible (instead giving Bush the majority vote in 2004) is merely one sign of this. The lack of health care is another, and there are many others. Yet significant change seems rather unlikely.

The political control of the country rests in the hands of a small elite, an elite which has a powerful grip on both political parties, the media, and through these the political culture of the country. This political culture has two major stories designed to support the status quo and fend off attempts at change, stories I’ll call We’re Number One and There’s No Hope.

We’re Number One: This is the “mainstream” one, the one that’s on television the most, the one that you’ll encounter on the morning shows, on the political news shows. It’s a simple idea: America is great, the best country in the world, the most moral power in the world and possibly in history, a country whose motives (regardless of outcomes) are always pure, a country in which the best and the brightest inevitably rise to the top, a country whose political system is near-ideal due to the wisdom of the founding fathers and which works extremely well except for a few “bad apple” exceptions. A country whose internal and external policies are, above all, fair, just, and meritocratic.

It should be clear that this conception of the country would always support the status quo. There’s no reason to do anything except some minor tweaking, and any attempt at systemic critique is almost impossible if the story’s assumptions are accepted.

There’s No Hope: This is the “alternative” one, which still gets a lot of airtime, and which is more common than you might think. It’s quite simple too: people, and politicians in particular, are venal, selfish, and corrupt, and there is no political system that could offset this. Anyone can be bought, idealism is always a facade, and every political figure will sell you out in a heartbeat. For that matter, most people would sell you out in a heartbeat if they could. Both parties grub for cash in disgusting fashion, but there’s no alternative that isn’t worse, and if there were it would get bought off. This doesn’t mean other countries are any better, as they too are dominated by glib, hypocritical, and dirty politicians. America is a country whose internal and external policies are, above all, purchased, motivated by powerful special interests, and inevitable.

This one is a little more subtle, especially since it’s a lot closer to the truth than the first story. Its support for the status quo rests on the fact that it promotes hopelessness and despair. Once its assumptions are accepted, it’s irrational to try to change things for the better—instead one should be apathetic (since nothing can be done), self-enriching (since everyone else is, and there’s no better alternative), or escapist (since nothing can be done and this reality is too harsh). Any attempt at a systemic critique of the system is met with the argument that since people are inherently selfish and self-aggrandizing, no system could be better, so there’s no point.

While very different in nature and tone, both of these stories end up with the same conclusion: don’t attempt significant change. Used together, they’re extremely powerful, and made more powerful by each other: the very extremism of the first will lead to disillusionment for those who discover that the country isn’t really like that, and the profound shock of a disillusioned former true believer is easily transformed into cynicism and despair by the second story. Conversely, most people are eager to avoid hopelessness and despair, and so reflexively avoid the second story by clinging more tightly to the first one. Further, attempts to expose the truth in opposition to the first story will be treated as attempts to induce despair and rejected as such.

These are the primary narratives available in the mainstream political culture. Both of them are inimical to collective action, to positive attempts at change, and (most importantly) to genuine engagement with the country’s (and world’s) problems.

An alternative (and true) story? That much of the second story’s facts are correct, but not its opinion of human nature, and that while the first story doesn’t match the current facts, it nevertheless makes sense to struggle for a country that would truthfully be much closer to that myth. The big problem here is that the first two stories provide an easy template for action: do nothing. The alternative, that it’s worthwhile and good to work for change, doesn’t, because it’s an extremely difficult problem (and not one I’m going to solve in this blog post, sadly).

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