Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Have you tried turning Washington on and off again?

Washington has weathered 18 government “shutdowns” since the passage of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. They normally last two or three days, but since the mid-1990s, they have lasted a month or longer. And yet, nothing changes. What gives?

While you ponder why China’s government can only ever shut down once, consider that if the newspapers still operated in a weekly format, these shutdowns wouldn’t happen. At least, not like this. In other words, if there were a government shutdown when news came out weekly, it would mean the US was getting a new flag.

When a person tunes in to a broadcast of some Senator staring at the camera, the viewer is looking at the machinery of government. But the machinery is not Capitol Hill, it’s the camera itself. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is on to something with his suspicion that the media is part of the state and out to get him. The trick is that he’s not the target, you are.

Many reasons exist for this particular shutdown, but the major issue is immigration. Mr Trump wants money to build a wall on the southern border while the Democrats want their DACA “Dreamers” package to survive (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an Obama-era policy for illegal minors to receive evergreen protection against deportation and to be eligible for work.)

Every single career Machiavellians in Washington knows what they want, and when there are specific things a person wants, compromise is usually possible. They will perform an ordinary backroom realigning of interests and powers. But in a democracy, it’s far less important what 500 Congressional partisans plan to do compared with what 300 million people might want to do. The latter’s actions sit on a spectrum from “nothing” to a terrifying “anything."

A shutdown is the inevitable consequence of a government not permitted to compromise, surrounded by the oppressive gaze of a media machine that will kill itself and the country just to get a headline. The machine demands conflict and opposites, and despite having 24 hours to fill it will never explain the interplay between complex issues – an explosion makes for much better television.

So, the job of the media is to keep the marker sitting close to “nothing.” Government secrecy creates an asymmetry of information between elites and the people and the public’s beliefs are improvised neatly in real-time as they “get information” from an army of talking heads and Twitter handles.

This is not a mistake; the machinery is working perfectly. Crises demand leadership, and you’re not a leader, are you? Complexity demands insight, and you don’t have all the information. Action demands power, and only representatives have power. Voters get angry, and no one does anything unexpected. Everyone acts in the required direction.

The whole gimmick of media is not to try to get people to believe in something, but to do something. And in reference to the government, it is always to do nothing. It doesn’t matter what people believe about immigration, gun rights or taxes, so long as the outrage is done from behind/inside their smartphone/house, not on the streets with semi-automatic rifles.

Left and right politics are inevitable in such a system, but the most important demographic is the middle. The framing is triangular, not polar. Democracies tend to have more “independents” than partisans, and the goal is to keep it that way. The much-desired solution is total alienation, not engagement. Syria is what happens when the public “engages” with politics.

The default assumption of the US was that politics should happen over there, not close by. And this is true regardless of one’s definition of “close by.” Washington DC as a location was chosen to be the capital because it was in a swamp, not despite it. The founders didn’t want politics to dominate American civic life. But power is as power does, and power always expands.

In 2018, everyone is encouraged to have a pet issue and take out their frustrations at the voting booth every few years. But the media never supplies a way to build a coherent, comprehensive ideology. After all, newsreaders say, ideologies are for “extremists.” And you’re not an extremist, are you?

The system is simply the sum of individual people pulling in different directions. In such a system, shutdowns happen, get fixed and the money keeps flowing. Nothing substantial changes because the propaganda always works to convince people to limit their legitimate political action to voting only. To keep them close to the “nothing” end of the spectrum.

The media will have failed at its one job when enough people get the idea that legitimate political acts other than voting are more effective at forcing government change. At that moment, a shutdown really would be news – and a new US flag would be the least of our worries.

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