The President’s bizarre behavior and statements during the first 2020 Presidential debate on Tuesday amplified political weirdness. Many people are concerned that he could seriously impair or destroy the integrity of the elections. Americans are living in separate realities right now, each with its own “alternative facts.” If we can’t agree on basic realities, it is inevitable that public debate is going to degenerate, and the President has certainly accelerated this process.
Don’t panic yet: the smart money is on democracy to win in November, and the debate seemed to help the challenger. But what are the issues over which we are potentially ripping the country apart? If you stop to think about it a moment, it’s hard to be specific about this. You could point to Roe v. Wade, but there doesn’t seem to be much money involved in this issue, so I am skeptical that it is the real problem. It’s deeper than a single deranged individual, because the President still has his base which is largely intact. We seem to be in a situation more closely analogous to the lead-up to the First World War than the lead-up to the American Civil War, in which a tangle of alliances, misunderstandings, and sheer stupidity led to a European conflagration. The relatively best answer is that we live in separate epistemological realities, each with its own set of alternative facts — something I call “weird politics.”
The basic source of political weirdness is limits to growth. Limits to growth means that the economy can’t get any bigger due to environmental issues. And there’s no politically viable way of dealing with it. That’s the problem and that is what is driving the weirdness of politics.
Since Mother Nature has ruled out economic growth, the only real way to solve the social inequality problem is through wealth redistribution, using the Robin Hood method: take from the rich and give to the poor. I don’t see the elites accepting that right now.
The only real way to solve the environmental crisis, including global warming, is by consuming less: reduce consumption, aim for a smaller population, and drastically reduce or eliminate livestock agriculture. I don’t see anyone talking in this vein, either.
Political discussion is not completely bankrupt. There is growing consciousness of specific limits, the most famous one being global warming. Some are talking about a “Green New Deal”; and some (Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and others) have suggested eliminating factory farming. All of these are worthy of further discussion, but our problem is deeper than just a single problem, even a planet-threatening problem like climate change.
We are facing limits to growth. Even if the Green New Deal works like a charm (which is highly debatable), it only deals with one limit. All the others, including peak oil, soil erosion, mineral extraction, and species extinction, remain firmly in place. People are hoping that we can save the environment and keep our ever-expanding economy. It won’t work; there are just too many limits. At best we can print some more money and shuffle the limits around, which is what has been happening for the last two decades and at best only postpones the day of reckoning.
If we want democracy, we need to face the truth. Since our politics has ruled out discussion of limits to growth or anything like it, we are left grasping at half-truths to justify any political conclusions. We do not have a common shared reality: a set of generally agreed-upon facts within which political debate can happen. Instead, we have “weird politics.”
Weird politics is here to stay. Democracy is worth (nonviolently) fighting for, and getting through the election crisis would give us a breather before the next round of weirdness sets in. But regardless of who’s in office and how they get there, we still have climate change, peak oil, species extinction, pandemics, and groundwater depletion. Until limits to growth is dealt with, politics will continue to be weird.