Summary: This summary of American politics explains why we are the way we are. It points the way to reform and a better future, if we are willing to pay the price.
Marx’s economics have been tested and proven useless. But his sociology has proven itself. As income inequality in the US has returned to the peak levels of the Gilded Age (and still rising), our class structure has returned – we can turn to Marx for insights.
But Marx’s schema of the classes described 19th century society, and others have built on it during the past 170 years. George Orwell’s Mark II vision of a class structure better fits modern America. There is the bourgeois, the top few percent who own most of America (the 1% own over a third; the top 3% own over half). There is the inner party, the highly paid senior leaders who run our political, charitable, and business institutions. There is the outer party of managers, small business-owners, and professionals. There are the proles, America’s workers, and the underclass.
Understanding these classes explains much of our politics.
Our ruling elites
The bourgeoisie (owners) and inner party (senior executives) are America’s insiders. Their primary goal is preserving the political and social systems that have given them so much, so most of them are conservative in the literal meaning of the term. Some enjoy tinkering, pushing America to the Left or Right – but dislike radical change. They have leisure time, autonomy, security, and agency (the ability to influence events). These give them a unique perspective on the America. They consider the lower classes unfit to rule America.
Like their Gilded Age forebearers, they live on a scale almost unimaginable to the lower orders. Bill Gates’ palace is 6,000 sq ft larger than Hearst Castle. They prefer to marry within their class, just they did in the 19th century (associative mating: endogamy). That is why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy (nor could your daughter (as in Pride and Prejudice).
The middle class, our outer party
Our political system makes the outer party potentially powerful, even decisive. Jefferson (and later Andrew Jackson) saw the farmers, merchants, and craftsman of America as the foundation of the Republic. But they were wrecked during the Gilded Age. The outer party is their politically impotent remnants. They lack the economic independence that Jefferson believed made them indomitable and wise, unlike the equally liberty-loving but feckless mobs of Paris.
The routines of their lives keep them busy. The 1% work to keep them fragmented into tribes of Left and Right.
The lower classes
The proles and underclass are uninterested in politics, unless aroused and channeled by the elite’s institutions. Political machines and unions made them powerful in our past; only shards of these remain today.
Class is everything
Class affects everything in America. Education is provided by class. We have High, Middle, and Low justice. The bourgeois scoop up the majority of America’s productivity growth, leaving the dregs for the rest.
Why we love fake news
The outer party is largest body of people interested in current events and with the money to either pay for it or to attract advertisers. It is the happy hunting ground for media firms. To survive they must understand what the outer party wants: simple stories that explain events in terms of good guys and bad guys. Cheer our team! Thrill at tales of the bad guys’ dastardly deeds! They want stories that provide entertainment and catharsis plus a sense of belonging to a community (a virtual tribe). Politically ineffectual, they want to believe themselves engaged. So they consume information to become well-informed and online comments (21st C letters to the editor).
This explains American’s disinterest in experts’ record of failed predictions and bad advice (e.g., scientist Paul Ehrlich on the Left, economist Larry Kudlow on the Right). So what if what we read about the world is inaccurate, since we have no intention of using this information? Collectors of maps do not care if the maps are correct. They want pretty maps with colorful dragons on edges. Only people with goals demand accurate charts.
“Not my fault” should replace “E pluribus unum” on coins, since it fits better than “One out of many.” Calls to risk “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” hit us like daylight on vampires. Saying “responsibility” can clear a room, since that would require us to act. We know that our problems come from the evil people of other tribes. We see ourselves as the passengers of the cruise ship America; we whine that the service is not worthy of our awesomeness.
Brilliant minds in the media business understand us, and so their products provide infotainment packaged as serious news and analysis. Fox was one of the first to realize this and the most determined to provide what we want — and so became the largest beneficiary from the evolution of Americans from citizens to subjects. To survive most of the news media must follow in their footsteps, or find patrons in the 1% to fund them (e.g., Jeff Bezos for the Washington Post, Pierre Omidyar at The Intercept).
Life moves fast on the internet, and the big nodes that get the traffic are those that give the outer party what it wants (posts about political reform on the FM website get 1/4 of the usual pageviews). This is the underlying story about fake news. For more about it, see The secret source of fake news. Its discovery can change America!
Another path for America
We are in trouble. Most Americans sense this on some level. For details see A new dark picture of America’s future.
The Mandarin characters for “crisis” do not mean “danger” and “opportunity”. But that is a powerful and optimistic way to see a crisis. The Republic has had such moments before and come out stronger than before. If we try, it can do so again.
I have faith in all you – in us – so that more citizen involvement will make a better and stronger America. I suspect we cannot imagine the eventually result. Perhaps a better Second Republic (founded on the Constitution). Perhaps a Third Republic.
I do not ask you to share that faith. I ask you only to have faith in yourself, and see us as the crew of America – not its passengers. Pitch in and help. For ideas what to do, see Reforming America: Steps to New Politics.