US Democracy Crisis — View From a Polish Immigrant
The recent events in Washington, D.C. were a shocking spectacle — equally scary and fascinating. This is my clumsy attempt to make sense of it, putting an avalanche of scattered thoughts into words. I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s going on int the US ever since I got the chance to live there. I spent five years in Ohio in the early 2000s as a student-athlete and have visited multiple US cities for work since. I was born and raised in Poland during Communist rule and the transition to democracy with a free-market economy. Coming from an entirely different system, I went through a deep culture shock on arrival to the US, and left the country disillusioned. The reality I saw on the ground hardly resembled the image I’d been fed through the mass media and popular culture.
If the Capitol's storming reflected the views of only a small minority of domestic extremists, perhaps it could be viewed as a blip, a one-off occurrence. But, if the polls can be trusted, how do you take forward the nearly three-quarters of Republican voters and 35% of Americans overall who don’t accept the outcome of the presidential election? Or the 45% of Republican voters who support the rioting mob, which we now know included ex-military and law enforcement members? The millions-strong force behind Trump should not be understated, and I wonder what happens when Trump is no longer president.
Who or what is responsible for things getting to this stage?
Politics, Social Media and Media in General
Is it the Republican Party, filled with self-interested people who enabled Trump to get this far because they were protecting their political position and fundraising targets? Almost two-thirds of House Republicans and several senators (full list here) voted to overturn the election results after the insurrection on January 6th (and after multiple courts threw out all of Trump’s legal challenges), and only 10 House Republicans voted to impeach him for incitement of insurrection. In a vicious cycle, Republican lawmakers pander to their voter base giving legitimacy to the lies it perpetuates. And, as we find out more detail about the insurrection, questions are also raised about Republican government officials actually coordinating operationally with the rioters (see here and here).
Is it Trump? He is a charismatic leader who was able to correctly read and inflame the feelings of millions of people by spreading baseless claims and outright lies. His popularity, in turn, emboldened him to go further. He incited violence that cost at least five lives. He pushed many Republican politicians and lawmakers from gaming the system to breaking it in the name of holding onto power. Trump unleashed the white supremacist monster — a legacy of slavery and structural racism. It had been hidden under the veneer of a stable liberal democracy and revived by growing fears of diminished white influence.
His other major ‘accomplishment’ is that Trump destroyed trust in the media, or what he calls “fake news.” He obliterated the idea of objective truth with contradictory and delusional rhetoric. His attack on media and facts, aided by social media echo chambers and online chaos, has enormously damaged our shared understanding of facts and reality. This created a fertile ground for the virus of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, spread by millions of people, members of Congress and Trump himself! […However, in defence of conspiracists, let’s not ignore the fact that multiple conspiracy theories turned out to be true, and that the erosion of trust in government, media, etc. is partly due to something called ‘perception management’ — a deliberate strategy that originated within the U.S. Military…]
Is it social media? Is it their misinformation and hate-spreading algorithms that maximise online engagement to line the tech barons' pockets at the expense of truth, social cohesion, real-life relationships, and a sense of what's real? Facebook, and other data-stealing platforms, operate on an extractive business model that sacrifices everything in the name of profit and constant growth. They have contributed — through powerful microtargeting and auto-recommendations — to organising and radicalising of the Trump mob. They’ve dragged people down the rabbit holes of QAnon and other conspiracies. Well done to the algorithms! It’s a pity they have no morals and can’t — or don’t want to — tell fact from fiction.
Social media platforms are so powerful that a single company, or rather a single man — Jack Dorsey — was in a position to silence the sitting president of the United States. The suspension of Trump’s Twitter account, resulting from an arbitrary decision without transparency, only added fuel to the fire at a highly precarious moment. It played directly into Trump and his supporters’ hands — of course, there’s no free speech; of course, they’ve been silenced because of their views, they will say…
It should have never come to a point where a private company finds itself in a position to make such decisions, forced to choose between bad outcomes. In a capitalist system, the primary responsibility of a company is to make money for investors, and therefore, Twitter’s decisions will always be commercial. It is the role of lawmakers and regulatory bodies to provide a clear framework for making these decisions. They’re at least a decade late and still unable to regulate properly. Leading thinkers warn us that this is an existential threat to liberal democracies, which will be destroyed by surveillance capitalism and epistemic chaos.
But doesn’t it go further back? Before social media? How about television and the mass media? What is their role? Let’s look at Trump again. His powerful brand was created by the media. He is a showman and a businessman with extensive interests that made his public office position compromised from the beginning. Where are the rules preventing this conflict? Why are political debates evaluated in terms of who wins and who loses, like enemies in a battle? It seems that politics and the manner in which most media covers it are more about spectacle than real issues, policies, or solutions. It’s spectacle over truth, especially in the US with its array of endless talking heads and entertainment talk shows.
Why? Is it because this approach generates more revenue? Or because it distracts our attention from what really matters? Actually, the two go hand in hand. Media educators point to the elimination of the fairness doctrine in 1987 as the start of the ‘news as entertainment’ approach. Indeed, watching FOX News and CNN or MSNBC feels like a mindfuck inflicted by endless, exaggerated arguments of opposing sides. But, even the British BBC World Service radio has been captivated by Trump over the past four years, often starting its news bulletin with “President Trump…”. Why make it the lead news over and over again? Why give him so much airtime when that’s precisely what his narcissistic personality seeks with every outrageous decision, statement, and tweet? What follows from this is that aspiring politicians should be less concerned about policy than about their popularity as stars of the ‘reality politics’ show. It’s a ridiculous state of affairs. Maybe what the Internet and social media exposed at scale is just how bad we are at thinking critically, how easily addicted and manipulated?
Truth, Religion, Spirituality and Wild Conspiracies
As a child, I wanted to have a ‘truth machine’ that would always give me true answers. I even had an image for it — a navy colour slot machine-shaped box, with yellow writing on a dark computer screen. Truth, being correct meant a lot back then, in my culture at least. But today, truth seems to have no value at all. It’s as if it has been replaced with whatever looks, sounds, and sells best, or whatever someone chooses to believe. If they believe it, it is true (to them). So, we can all have our separate versions of truth and reality, constantly enforced by online echo chambers. Why do so many Trump supporters still believe the election was rigged even after all of the legal challenges were thrown out by the courts, including the Supreme Court, where three out of nine justices were Trump’s own appointees? Hello? Is it because they already decided what they believe and it won’t change no matter the evidence?
I can’t help but notice a troubling parallel with religion: ‘I believe, and nothing will change that because my faith is strong.’ This analogy is the only way I can explain to myself the lack of rationality and blind allegiance from a large portion of Trump’s supporters. They will zealously defend him no matter what he does or says because believing in Trump is, like religion, part of their identity. It seems no coincidence that Trump has a steadfast following amongst America’s White Christians, who seem to view him as some God-sent saviour, a God-like figure himself. He is the only hope to make America great again and nothing can stand in his way. Certainly in the view of White Christian Nationalists who think that Capitol is where God’s will for the nation should be enacted and that faith requires them to retake their country. This is where religious faith is weaponised to justify intolerance and discrimination to the point of violence. Retaking the country means taking power away from black people and all people of colour, immigrants and other minorities. Is it wrong to see white Christian Nationalists as an extension of the Christian masters who gave themselves legal power over Negro slaves through the 1661 Barbados slave code?
From a very young age, I was indoctrinated into Catholicism through Sunday masses in church, religion in school and the influence of some close family members. And, although I always knew there was more ‘God’ in my nearby woods and meadows than in any church building or sermon about modesty given by well-(over)fed priests driving fat cars, it took years of questioning to fully liberate my mind from the religious spell and the guilt trip of abandoning it. I know many religious people for whom faith seems a source of positive strength. But the way I experienced religion growing up is that it promotes— and perhaps even depends on —a certain level of intellectual suppression and lack of rigour in critical thinking. Religion imposes arbitrary moral codes, coerces believers into following them with a threat of eternally burning in Hell, and promises Heaven to those who avoid sin. This breeds intolerance for other religions, their Gods and moral codes. It discourages or downright abolishes one’s own judgement and independent thought. The thinking void is filled with emotions of fear and hope as one’s always at the mercy of some religious authority and their subjective judgement.
What stops such thinking — or nonthinking — from spilling beyond the realm of religious faith? Is it possible that this has something to do with the rapid take-up of conspiracy theories? If one type of delusion, i.e. religious — yes, it has been argued for quite some time that religion is a mass delusion — is accepted because enough people believe it, might a bunch of fantastical fabrications including that Trump is the rightful election winner fighting Satan-worshipping pedophiles also be accepted, simply because enough people — including those in the position of authority — believe it? Indeed, QAnon messages, dressed in Christian-sounding language, spread like wildfire amongst Christian communities across the US, including pastors and church leaders.
Lastly, before the reader writes me off as a spiritually dead nihilist… Religion and religious faith is often equated with spirituality. For me, these are not only separate but conflicting. Spirituality is gentle and free of dogma. It is the essence of things that manifests in the beauty and complexity of nature, the yet-to-be understood ways her systems balance and communicate, the mystery of the universe and our place in it, the various forms of energy and consciousness. It is found in the contradictions of human nature, our collective history, evolution, and trajectory as a civilisation, beginning thousands of years ago. There’s so much that we don’t understand about the world and ourselves… Perhaps this is where the two intersect — religion offers a God to explain everything away while spirituality — for me anyway — is a kind of trust in the unknown, some higher power that lies in the incredibly complex and miraculous web of life, including all living creatures, immersed and interacting with their environment.
Having all the answers provided by God and religion stifles our natural curiosity, and it is antithetic to the quest for understanding of this complexity. Religion’s assumption that humans can’t be trusted to know good from bad, or to behave morally without coercion, undermines our natural capacity for cooperation and empathy for others. The expectation of a heavenly afterlife dims the magic and love of life on Earth. We know intrinsically how to be kind, at least from my experience as a mother. We don’t need religion or God or the Bible — or indeed any other book written by another human — to give us a moral code. We should draw it from within and from the living world around us. Maybe then we would respect and care for it properly? Because being conscious within the web of life is the greatest gift one can receive.
Neoliberal Capitalism — From US to UK and beyond
But there’s another issue. We are trapped in a system that limits our freedom to explore and understand these complexities. Here, I’m speaking predominantly from my experience of living in the US and UK for the last nearly 20 years, which I could compare and contrast with an upbringing during Poland’s Communist rule and transition to a democratic system and a free-market economy. The issues I’m describing are much more acute in the US than they are in the UK, which in any case, seems to be following in a similar direction. (And today, many of these issues are present, to varying degrees, in Poland too).
We live our lives mostly confined within limited and increasingly virtual bubbles of daily existence built around productivity and consumption. We’re part of a system that turns everything into a for-profit, ever-growing business — the US healthcare being perhaps the most shameful example — sacrificing our health and even lives in the name of profit and limitless growth. It is a system that shackles people with lifelong debt, drives income and wealth inequality to grotesque levels, and buys favourable regulations to lobbyists and corporate campaign contributors.
Life in this system leaves little space and time to wonder and wander in the real world — the natural world — looking for answers. We are conditioned from birth to want and consume, aspire to wealth, celebrity status, social media followings, and power. Wealth and fame are the ideas of success, even if they don’t actually correlate with a fulfilling and happy life. This no longer matters in America because inner happiness is not really in high demand — certainly not as high as the image of happiness that's easily broadcast through a plethora of social media and then reflected in other people’s desiring eyes. At the same time, in the US — not yet the UK — not having a certain level of wealth and a job with good health insurance puts one at risk of financial ruin in case of a serious illness, forcing millions to crowdfund for medical bills.
When one of my dear US friends lost her health insurance after she divorced her husband and was cut off of his university-linked health plan, she couldn’t get insured for less than several thousand dollars a month in premiums (that was 15 years ago!), because of her pre-existing condition — type 1 diabetes she was diagnosed with as a child. My fellow students at the University of Akron, OH considered the quality of employment-based health insurance as one of the main factors in considering their future jobs. For me, it was a completely alien way of thinking, as was the idea of paying significant amounts of money for higher education (at the time, I didn’t realise how lucky I was to have it paid for by scholarship).
The vast majority of Americans who have the option and choose to go to college, graduate owing tens of thousands of dollars, and then add to it by taking on ever-larger mortgages, car loans, credit card debt, etc. This pattern is partly driven by marketing, widely accepted credit culture, and the idea that owning material goods reflects success and happiness. There’s always a bigger house, a better car, a newer phone or computer to get — why not on credit if everyone else does it? Growth is good — isn’t it ? In my early days in Akron, I really struggled to understand and reconcile this with the world I grew up in — with little advertising, simpler aspirations, and a saving culture meaning that if you could not afford something, you didn’t buy it. For example, my parents saved up 13 years to buy our first car when I was 11. So, I’ll never forget how baffled I felt seeing a perfectly functioning modern TV my Akron neighbours threw out in front of their house. It found a new home in my room ;).
Today, nearly three-quarters of Americans die in debt, sometimes passing it onto those they leave behind, and the problem is soaring in the UK. The debt trap starts early on, condemning most people to lives spent trying to pay it back while keeping up with current expenses, often stuck in ‘bullshit jobs’ in stress and fear of losing them. Then comes COVID. In addition to its staggering death toll, the pandemic eliminated some 10 million American jobs — along with the health insurance plans they offered — exacerbated existing inequalities and worsened the housing and eviction crisis — some 30 to 40 million people are at risk of losing their homes. But these problems are not new —I saw them in sharp relief and against all of my immigrant expectations a whole 20 years ago. They’d been there for decades, caused by a steady erosion of regulatory protections and standards, privatisation of public services, shipping of jobs abroad, bailing out of the financial system and corporations instead of the people, etc. As well as the culture of living on credit beyond means — stretching oneself to the limits, with little savings, no slack and no give anywhere. Just like businesses operating just-in-time supply chains to lower overheads for maximum efficiency and profit. That means no resilience to withstand a crisis, even a small one.
The weakest members of society — the poor and homeless — are seen as failures and losers. The people I saw riding a bus and walking on kerbs in Akron: the homeless and people living in derelict houses (but with satellite dishes and the TV always on), mentally ill people talking to themselves, drug addicts, sick people —all trying to hold onto their dignity, desperate for help that never comes. They are almost right next to areas of great wealth, dotted with huge, fenced mansions, strictly driven to and from, their residents never having to make contact with the poor. And if that’s not possible, the poor are made invisible. Like the homeless woman I once saw at a CVS in Manhattan —one of the highest-income places in the US. I tried to make eye contact as I walked towards her, but her gaze was numb and empty —she did not expect her presence would be acknowledged by anyone. She was there but invisible. I've not experienced such feeling of completely resigned hopelessness anywhere else, not even walking through some of the most unequal parts of São Paulo, from the affluent Morumbi district to the Paraisópolis favela. And as hard as this reality is for the poorest, it is damaging to everyone else, because, in order to function in it, one needs to accept this inhumanity as normal. Seeing the poor as losers who have only themselves to blame for their ‘failure’ makes it easier and even justified. Welcome to American individualism.
On the other hand, is it a surprise that people are not that concerned with the plight of others if they receive little help in their own struggle in a cruel reality, which nonetheless teases with the illusionary possibility of living the dream — a distorted and empty illusion itself? Empathy, kindness, openness, collaboration, and generosity lose to selfishness, indifference, greed, anger, aversion towards others and aggression. This is I think what we saw amongst the Capitol-storming, predominantly white male mob, who also resent and mourn their painful loss of social standing, racial privilege, and power over others. They see their “rightful” position of a white Christian male under threat of losing the center stage. Those without a college education have even more reasons for outrage due to declining well-paying blue-collar jobs and mating prospects (note the rise of the incels and links with violence), and they very much see it as a zero-sum game — their loss is because of someone else’s gain. They feel threatened by Black people, Hispanics, Indians, Asians, women, non-binary people, etc. and many are ready to use violence to ‘defend’ their way of life —made possible thanks to decades and centuries of a white man’s privilege. . .
These feelings are exploited by crafty, power-hungry politicians such as Trump who find catchy slogans and convenient scapegoats in ‘the others’, who are shunned, feared, discriminated against, and attacked. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon, and not limited to the US. I have also experienced it as an immigrant in Brexit UK and have seen it in “Law and Justice” Poland against LQBTQ+ and women — although the issues are not the same or not of the same intensity.
My view is that decades of a ruthless and pernicious system of unbridled capitalism — perpetuated by both sides of the political spectrum — helped bring about the crisis we’re witnessing in America. It’s a crisis of values and reality that arises through a kind of continuous Faustian bargain, under a manufactured illusion of general prosperity. What follows is a spiritual hollowness that brings out the dark side of human nature in a desperate attempt to fill it. It has driven things to a point where it is unclear how to prevent increasing division, political polarisation, tribalism, information chaos, and further violence. Removing Trump is only the beginning; the complex and layered issues remain. But I am hopeful that the Biden-Harris Administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress will come up with thoughtful solutions. A clear pathway seems to exist.
As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.
— Noam Chomsky
Of course, what happens in the US has vast implications for the world. Europe should watch America’s trajectory, for it is not immune to its political madness. We should all pause and make time to make sense of what is happening and why. We should resist the compulsion to quickly revert to habits of daily existence and following the noise of the news as if the Capitol insurrection was just another headline. We should read, discuss and consult with history — of fascist regimes, racism, imperialism, colonialism, economics, the media, etc. — to glimpse the future and possible avenues out of this mess. Schools and universities, in particular, should be engaged on all of these topics. Most critically, we need to understand what screens and technology are doing to us and reverse it by spending more time in the real world, with real people, reconnecting with them, with nature, and with ourselves. We can’t allow ourselves and the next generations to be reduced to passive bystanders kept too busy, hypnotised, or distracted to understand the bigger picture. We must retrieve our humanity and agency before the next Trump comes along, in the US or elsewhere.