Some hot afternoons when the battlefield of the news is filled with butt ends of breaking follies, you can hear flies buzzing all over American political culture. Swarms of gnats teeming with Trumpian hubris drive many of us to silly states of raging impotence or whimpering escapism. It truly is the chaos of bedlam.
Some so-called “liberal” politicians in New Mexico, for instance, join sides with their ideological arch enemy to express their impotence and fraternal spite over losing a primary. Do they really want Democrats to lose? Fundraisers run guilt trips and hyperbolic pitches moment by moment on moth-eaten donors bedraggled and threadbare from what seems like years of email bombardments, which are every bit as gnat-like as presidential tweeting and Fox “news” folderol.
It didn’t used to be this way. I’ve reminded myself of why I became interested in politics in the first place many years ago. I’d read excerpts from the Autobiography of Ben Franklin as a freshman in college. It must have been a birthday gift from an aunt. In it, I could see the thought processes of what I’d been taught was the quintessential American — the steadfast, self-reliant, inventive, even-handed diplomat and sympathetic author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, the hard working, intelligent common man’s best reading companion.
When I came across Franklin’s 13 precepts derived from the “moral virtues” he wished to cultivate in himself, I thought that I’d stumbled across the polar opposite of the Ugly American I’d just been reading about in English class, realizing that I’d actually met people like that in my own life, teachers, shop keepers, coaches, fellow students. As chance would have it, I was reading Franklin’s autobiography at the same time as I was laughing and gasping at William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s 1958 book about an ugly monster American battling the “communist menace” in Southeast Asia. I didn’t want to grow up to be that ugly. Little did I know that Ben Franklin, one of the signers of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, would, 60 years later, stand out against so clearly the current embodiment of the Ugly American — almost the entire membership of the Republican party and its “loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric” President, to quote the Wikipedia’s definition of an ugly American.
Franklin’s 13 moral virtues include these path-finding precepts, so foreign to the current avatar of American political culture:
“Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.
Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e. waste nothing.
Justice: Wrong no one by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
As a freshman, I thought these and the other precepts laid out just the plan I needed to follow if I hoped to live a useful life. As I read on, though, I came to be enormously grateful for Franklin’s honest assessment of his own failures to live up to what he thought was right. It was the effort that counted, I heard him say between the lines, and as a failing struggler myself, I felt relieved.
It was while reading Franklin’s autobiography again this week that it came to me that Franklin’s struggle not to be an 18th-century version of an ugly American really was the essence of the best variation of our national aspiration, internationally and domestically. And not terribly long ago. The rules were: don’t lie, don’t harm, do good; it’s your duty. Franklin knew that failure was inevitable just as periodic rebirths of focus seemed to be too.
If the ugly American is the nadir of American political culture, we surely are in the deepest pit of failure. We have allowed our excellence to reverse and become our fatal flaw. This American tragedy is, as they say, “very Greek,” as all tragedy is.
Our weaknesses and tendencies to err in politics have taken over and banished our strengths to the sidelines. The strengths of liberals and conservatives have flipped to what the ancient Greeks called a state of hamartia, errors of judgment and behavior that come from hubris, turning excellence into self-defeating extremes.
The conservative flaw is what social scientists call the “anti-social preference,” just as the liberal virtue is the pro-social preference, wrongly interpreted as some kind of communalism. When the conservative virtues of individual responsibility and self-reliance become extreme, they allow the propagandizing of people to go against their better interests and turns greed into a massive virtue. As neuroscientist Steven R. Quartz wrote in 2017, “The common feature of antisocial preferences is a willingness to make others worse off even at a cost to oneself. … The expression and intensity of antisocial preferences appears linked to resource scarcity and competition pressures. … Antisocial preferences thus follow an evolutionary logic. … Harming behaviors reduce competition. … people exhibit ‘last place aversion’ … that is, individuals near the bottom of the income distribution oppose redistribution because they fear it might result in people below them either catching up to them or overtaking them.”
The liberal virtue of pro-social care and empathy when taken to an extreme seem to devolve into a particularly vicious form of self-righteousness, which causes liberals to constantly attack each other over the purity of their actions, convictions and philosophical nuances. Is it this “more liberal, more progressive than thou art” syndrome that caused former Democratic Governor Jerry Apodaca, who I voted for in November 1974, to endorse his ideological arch-enemy Steve Pearce for governor this year? Or is he furious that fellow Democrats did not vote for his son Jeff in the primary for governor? Whatever it is, it’s a prime example of the liberal’s tragic flaw, savage your friends while courting the “good side” of your opponents. That’s the formula for the dead-end centrism that’s ruining the party.
The tragic flaw of American conservatives and liberals these days might be variations on the same theme of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Conservative voters are gulled into believing by their plutocratic leaders that helping other poor people, lets say, will harm their own interests, when in fact it could only help them. Liberals attack each other mercilessly over ideological subtleties, thus confusing their base and watering down the enthusiasm of the liberal electorate and undermining their own self-interest of winning and doing some good.
That’s why politics in America right now is so frustrating, so infuriating, and so eminently dismissible. Take “grassroots” email-internet fundraising for Democratic candidates. It’s hard to find words to describe how ugly, how self-defeating, how guilt-tripping, and thankless it has become. Literally hundreds of solicitations a day from candidates all over the country enter my email inbox with nary a thanks and a barrage of the likes of “Nancy Pelosi emailed, Barack Obama emailed, Chuck Schumer emailed” and you, you little miserable turd, have not responded with yet another pathetic check or push of the even more pathetic minimum button. Talk about undermining our own self-interest by nickel-and-diming your grassroots into penury? But that is what the tragic flaw is all about — your arete, or excellence, becomes your fatal flaw. In the case of the Democrats, they’re guilt-tripping their deep grassroots support for not coughing up every dime they have in order to match the hysterical pleas of their absurd fundraising propaganda. That’s not the way to win an election.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it