When facts express identity, what happens to democracy?

You can advance two broad arguments in favor of democracy. The first is that it is morally right, either because people naturally deserve a say in what their governments do or because God likes it. The founders made such arguments in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere. The other argument is that democracy is the best way to solve problems. Sooner or later, this argument goes, aristocracy or a dictatorship will run into competence problems. With no mechanism to hold them accountable, aristocrats and despots will do a bad job.

I find both these arguments convincing, but the second one is probably more useful. The first one requires us to agree on values—either a supreme being that has ordained democracy as the best system of government, or a compassionate humanism that makes the rights of individuals inalienable. Those values can break down. The idea that we all face collective problems, and that the collective wisdom of the American people can solve them, seems more robust.

But in order for this construction of democracy to work, we have to agree on facts. We can argue about the best way to structure the tax code, but we have to agree that the government needs money and can collect it from people. Some people might argue that the government has no right to tax people at all, but they still agree that taxation is real. Its possibility is a kind of fact. Such agreements often seem so obvious that they are tacit, but it’s also possible for them to break down. Take climate change, for example.

The New York Times published a fascinating story Sunday about the difficulties of teaching biology at a high school in Ohio, where many students regard not believing in climate change as an element of their identiy. Although they don’t know much about many subjects, they know that people like them say global warming isn’t real. As a result, rejecting classroom teaching about how carbon works or what scientists agree on has become an expression of their identities. This poses a problem, not just in high school but in American society.

In order to participate in the democratic approach to solving problems, we have to agree on certain facts, e.g. our behavior is changing the climate. But agreeing with that premise makes some people feel like their democratic agency is being denied. Denying it has become their way of asserting themselves as free citizens.

That’s Republicans’ fault. The GOP has made itself the brand of cultural refusers. Even though it advocates for traditional social values and the economic agenda of the rich, it has come to represent defiance of the mainstream. It’s a reversal of the countercultural politics of the late sixties, and it probably came about because of them. Liberals won the culture war so completely that they made conservatism cool, at least among the people who buy into it. For that bloc, right-wing politics is defiance, and any act of defiance can be right-wing politics.

Call it the politicization of identity. Gun ownership is a political statement. Driving a big truck is a political statement. Working outside or having a goatee is a political statement. In the same way that capitalism steadily commodified the 19th century, turning previously homemade products like clothes and food into consumer goods, democracy has politicized the 21st century. This process is bad, because it’s a force for reification. It makes our problems more difficult to solve, because it makes people resistant to changing their minds.

It’s one thing to change your position on an issue. It’s another to change who you are. While many of us like to imagine ourselves as independents who are at least hypothetically open to changing our minds, nobody wants their identity to be flexible. We can see this phenomenon at work in the classroom from the Times story, where rejecting scientific consensus is not about policy or reasoning but rather a way for those kids to keep it real.

There are two promises of American democracy: that we’ll decide what to do together, and that outside those decisions each of us can do what we want. What happens when believing what we want short-circuits our ability to decide together? Does democracy retain its authority when substantial portions of us simply don’t believe in science? The system has always depended on an informed citizenry. What place can it make for people who define themselves by refusing to learn?

Zinke on wife’s birthday: Wouldn’t you agree our anniversary is coming?

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) and a gun in the living room

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) and a gun in the living room

Montana’s man in Congress, Representative Ryan Zinke, unleashed a novel argument last week: the President shouldn’t have attended the Paris summit on climate change, because ISIS is the bigger threat. Commander Zinke pestered Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on that subject in a House Armed Services Committee meeting shortly after Thanksgiving.

“We have ISIS, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, North Korea, an emerging China and Russia. Mr. Secretary, where would you rack and stack global warming with that list?” he asked. Although Carter initially declined to order that list of terrorists, nations, and weather patterns, Commander Zinke pressed on. “Would you agree the imminent threat, the 5-yard, 5-meter threat—the most damaging threat facing us today—would be ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and the non-nation state terrorist activities?”

Carter agreed ISIS was the imminent threat, probably because hearing “rack and stack” and “5-meter threat” made him dive into a combat roll and shout “affirmative!” But man, I’m pretty sure another two feet of sea level will dampen us whether they’re beheading apostates in Raqqa or not. And I’m pretty sure the number of people who will starve, steam, or thirst to death in 2080—probably in the billions, if our grandchildren ever meet somebody nice—is more than ISIS could kill with a whole battalion of radicalized health inspectors. But the immediacy of ISIS makes global warming a bullshit problem, as Commander Zinke explained on Facebook:

I agree with President Obama that his climate summit will “send a message” to ISIS. The message is crystal clear: Obama is out of touch, he doesn’t understand the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, he is more concerned about his legacy than anything else, and he is willing to do anything to avoid confronting ISIS head-on.

It was kind of a stretch. I submit that Commander Zinke would rather talk about ISIS than global warming or virtually any other subject because it’s the kind of problem you can shoot at. They are bad and we are good, which makes them easier to discuss than how to get billions of people and dozens of industrialized nations to sacrifice money and comfort on behalf of animals and people who haven’t been born yet. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Friday links! Good-enough Morgan edition

Children climb on the Vietnam War women's memorial in Washington, DC.

Children climb on the Vietnam War women’s memorial in Washington, DC.

I learned a sweet expression yesterday: good-enough Morgan, an issue or talking point used to influence voters temporarily, particularly in the period before an election. For example, gay marriage became a good-enough Morgan in 2004, driving evangelicals to the polls so they would vote for George W. Bush and then vanishing from the national Republican agenda. But the best part of “good-enough Morgan” is the etymology. William Morgan was a former Freemason who planned to write a tell-all book before his mysterious disappearance in 1826. When Thurlow Weed, organizer of the nascent Anti-Masonic Party, found a body floating in the Niagara river in 1828, he said it would be a “good-enough Morgan” until after the election. Today is Friday, and the people must be tricked into wisdom somehow. Won’t you misidentify the bodies with me?

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Morano on climate change: “Let the public decide what’s the truth”


I assume that suit salesmen everywhere can spot a liar, and they know what to do when one walks in. “Let me show you the olive brown,” they say. “It looks trustworthy.” Marc Morano is intrigued—not for himself, of course, but as a gift for his mother, who wears men’s suits as a sexual thing. “She’s exactly my size,” he says. Thus do sales associates perform a national service—but do we heed them? We do not. Some of us let Marc Morano of Climatedepot.com talk on our televised current-events shows, and we wind up broadcasting into space messages like this:

Let the public decide what’s the truth.


If the aliens hear that, they’re just gonna lose all hope. Video after the jump.

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Friday links! Spectrum of despair edition

Frida Kahlo's "Without Hope"

Frida Kahlo’s “Without Hope”

In Spanish, the word for “desperate” is “desesperado”—literally de-hoped. It’s an interesting piece of etymology, since the English “desperate” often connotes frenzied activity: a desperate search, a desperate plea, the wandering trouble that is the desperado. Our actions—our desperate attempts, if you will—tend to reach their peak when hope is gone. That is the moment when action itself feels like it should be enough, when what we’re trying to accomplish fades into the experience of doing something. Today is Friday, and despair is a spectrum with pure action at one end and pure efficacy at the other. Won’t you slide along with me?

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