The recurring questions that continue to confound me as I watch the current political circus unfold are: Why does this country want an elderly socialist or a bombastic egomaniac with no experience in politics to occupy one of the most important political positions in the world? Why have we rejected the current establishment in favor of caricatures who represent opposite ends of the ideological spectrum? And finally, at a fundamental level, why are we so attracted to revolution? There seems to be this pervasive belief that the system has failed—that its failed us. Whether this failure is real or imagined is not really the point, the mere notion has led to boiling frustration towards the powers that be. And when this frustration reaches its tipping point -for a variety of underlying social and emotional reasons- our go-to reaction is always revolution.
A revolution is a communal rejection of the establishment. The “establishment” is a pseudo historical, nonlinear dynamic system that is composed of a conflux of values, attitudes, rules, and structures that shape the status quo. I say pseudo because history is a subjective art form that reveals only a sliver of truth, and its functional purpose is to obfuscate rather than to inform. Power is the control of information.
What primary factor has encouraged this challenge to the ruling class? The answer is, as it will be for so many things, the internet. Technology is pivotal for this revolutionary movement, because it has provided a forum where people can congregate in a virtual space and express ideas that they originally thought to be unique to them. Once common ground is established, those ideas gain traction and inertia. The rapid diffusion of information has energized the assault on the few gatekeepers of history and truth by the many. We are starting to see the effects of the democratizing influence of networks and social media platforms that have replaced the traditional chokepoints where incoming information was vetted. What information is neglected or discarded is possibly as important, if not more, than what is included. So many stories are never told, and the selective uptake of information is used as a tool of oppression. Now, it seems, this powerful force has been diluted to the point where everyday people have found their voice.
So, why am I talking about information and the galvanizing effect its rapid spread has had on motivating anti-establishment sentiment? Well, because revolution is in the air, and we must be aware of the forces that drive it in order to shepherd each other safely through this tumultuous period. In the United States, FDR and the New Deal sprung from the Great Depression and the political upheaval that followed, but conversely, Hitler, Mussolini, and Fascism capitalized on economic depression in Europe. The point being, this could go either way. The frustrated political expression of marginalized groups is plain to see, but what are the underlying motivations for our attraction to revolution?
At a very basic level, we desire simplicity. And revolution is sensorially appealing because of its simplicity. Apocalyptic TV shows and video games are all the rage (e.g. The Walking Dead and Fallout 4), and if we take this as an expression of aggregate personal sentiment, we can assume that there is something enthralling about starting over from scratch. Why is this collapse-of-society narrative so appealing? Our attraction to our base instincts and the intrinsic clarity of distilling down the complex clearly plays a role here. In its abstract form, it’s a rebirth. And not only does it excuse us from our current set of banal responsibilities, it also erases the past and gives us a second chance to live the way we always intended to live. In essence, it provides us the chance to be a hero, possessed by a simplistic yet fundamental ambition: to keep our loved ones alive and more prosperous then the family next door, while bolstering one’s self-perpetuating love of self. It is not an entirely selfish vision, rather, we care for each other immensely, and it is easier to explain away daily frustrations or assumptions of failure to self and others by interpreting the world in binary terms, such as life or death, haves and have not’s, and crony capitalists or revolutionaries. My point is that our desire for simplicity in an increasingly complex world has seemingly provoked us to embrace anger over discipline, reductionism over intellect, and isolationism over outreach.
I could also point to the inherently American desire for constant change and upheaval, or, on a more pessimistic note, the aforementioned desire to just watch the world burn and to be somehow reborn in the flame. I think the former is more accurate than the latter in explaining the current political context, at least for the majority of voters. We are fundamentally and eternally optimistic, and I think we have a steady and abiding faith that the arc of progress bends in a positive direction, and the next big idea is always right around the corner. Maybe we, as Americans, are so restless and afraid of stagnation because that is the fundamental secret to our greatness. We are constantly striving to crown the next wave of champions because we know from experiencing our own violent birth what happens when individuals are draped in the mantle of power for too long: they refuse to give it up and they dig in for the inevitable assault. So the stage is set for conflict, and the motivations of the opposing actors are laid bare.
Is it an underlying and steadily encroaching nihilism that grips us? Our faith in politics and government has been shaken by scandal and perceived inefficiency. Our cherished belief that a college degree would be a ticket up the social ladder proved to be false as well. The widely trumpeted duplicity of the financial sector enraged us and the private sector began to resemble a brotherhood of state sanctioned thieves. Religious affiliation is declining and its institutions were undermined by the most terrible of crimes, made more devastating by the cover-up. We have been lied to by our spiritual leaders, are overwhelmed by debt, and have been belittled by an endless barrage of smart phone and media facilitated social comparisons that seem to hammer home that our value is tied to how much money we make. In this ideological and spiritual vacuum, materialism has become our dogma of choice.
The point is we don’t know what to believe in anymore. We are crew members aboard a schooner with a cracked rudder, directionless and flailing—and half of us think were about to sink. We are helplessly tied to this perception that the system is rigged in favor of the most privileged sect of society. I’m not here to argue whether this is true or not, but rather to discuss its effects. Because real or imagined, if you believe it, the psychological effects of feeling cheated are real. This idea causes such angst because it contradicts the sacred cultural narrative of a meritocracy where the proverbial cream always rises to the top, regardless of available family resources at birth – the American Dream.
This deluge of contributing factors has finally motivated enough of the populace to indulge their fury and impatience, and so, like all sputtering ideological movements, we resort to fundamentalism and recriminations. The liberals move left, and the conservatives move right, and we all are shocked by the increasing acrimony wrought by polarization. So why is an anti-establishment fervor gripping the country? Because we don’t know what to do next but we know -or we think we know- that the system has failed us.
There is an alternative to retreating to distant and uncommunicative bunkers: We could embrace and laud the democratic machine. Be proud and thankful that movements, driven by everyday people, who you may or may not agree with, can topple the most entrenched and well-funded interests. Our country was born of revolution, and new ideas succeed, in part, because they are unburdened by the past. We can see our current circumstances as liberating. We can build on what we have learned and forge a new path that values inclusion, rationality, and a political system that decries the incursion of money into politics and crony capitalism, and a steadfast adherence to the separation of church and state. Those are the principles that this country was founded on, and revolution played a decisive role in their inception.
We must be patient and hope that the strength of our ideas will overcome the insidious threat of stagnation and the domination of entrenched political insiders. That being said, we must also resist the existential peril of bigotry and xenophobia that has captivated so many frustrated individuals looking to assign blame. We can embrace anger to a certain degree, but we cannot let it brazenly trample our ability to be measured and rational.
by Ben Maskell
Ben Maskell grew up on a small gray island 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. He’s a long way from home but is surrounded by interesting people and enjoying every minute of it. He is fascinated by psychology, history, economics, and art. Find him in Facebook or LinkedIn.