Covid Regime: Liberalism, Democracy, Populism
Matthew Crawford has an interesting article available, one which delves into the breakdown of what I typically refer to as our 'constitutional order'. By that I mean the rule of law based on a rational vision of man's place within reality and a balance of a natural aristocracy (the Senate) with populist input and control over oligarchical elite tendencies (the House). Yes, we've come a long way in, from an historical perspective, not that long a time.
Crawford explores these issues from the perspective of the Covid Regime:
Draconian rules are suppressing our humanity
He doesn't frame the issues in quite the same way as I just did--I would regard his presentation as, in some respects, a simplification of America's attempt at a balanced order, or perhaps just a difference of emphasis. The important thing is that he hits on key aspects of human nature and the predicament we find ourselves in.
He starts with a simple but also a very fundamental observation:
"Rules are meant to codify some bit of rational truth and make it effective."
Which is to say, in our constitutional order laws and regulations are assumed to reflect the truth of human nature and human needs within organized society. Our constitutional order assumes that that nature and those needs are knowable to such a degree that a rational response can be formulated for accommodating them to the organized structure of society: rules.
And yet, these days that understanding appears to have broken down. We speak of "science" and rules and regulations intended to implement science, we speak of protecting our fellow citizens--or, at any rate, others who are present within what used to be our borders. But none of it really seems to add up. We go along with the rules out something like habit and a residual belief in the rationality of our constitutional order, but the rational element is lacking--we know that rationality is lacking but haven't quite internalized what that means for our future. We comply, but we're apprehensive.
These days, we find ourselves in situations where to do the genuinely rational thing might require breaking the rules ... But to do so is to invite confrontation. ...
If you defy the mask order, and are challenged by somebody doing their job as instructed, chances are you’re going to back down and comply, which is worse than if you had complied to begin with. Even if you strongly suspect fear of the virus has been stoked out of proportion to serve bureaucratic and political interests, or as an artifact of the scaremongering business model of media, you may subtly adjust your view of the reality of Covid to bring it more into line with your actual behaviour. You can reduce the dissonance that way. The alternative is to be confronted every day with fresh examples of your own slavishness.
In the Hobbesian formula, the Leviathan relies upon fear to suppress pride. It is pride that makes men difficult to govern. ...
Specifically, to play one’s part in Covid theatre, as in security theatre at the airport, is to suffer the unique humiliation of a rational being who submits to moments of social control that he knows to be founded upon untruths. That these are expressed in the language of science is especially grating.
That's not how America is supposed to be--not in the traditional understanding reflected in our constitutional order. It's true that the "propaganda state" (Crawford's term) that we've descended into claims to still embrace that understanding, if only in an abusive, ad hominem way. But the truth of the New Regime becomes transparent in the face of opposition. Dissenters from the untruths of the Regime are abused as "anti-science"--meaning, they're reacting irrationally, denying obvious truths of reality--but all this is, as Crawford notes, in propaganda mode: the effort being made is to manipulate, not to persuade. Persuasion—the traditional mode of discourse in our constitutional order—would require engagement with data and facts, and it is precisely this that is suppressed by those champions of "science."
Thanks to the internet, all that can be seen by anyone who cares to look. We live in a world where the rulers openly lie and seek to manipulate in the face of opposition to their lies. First they change the language, is the operative phrase. How did we get to this strange and unsettling place?
Crawford appeals to a distinction between technocracy and democracy, between the rule of supposed experts and the subject populace. A transfer of power is in process, and has been since Progressive Era of the 19th Century. Crawford explicitly cites the views of Philip Hamburger, scholar of the Administrative State, which we discussed yesterday with regard to education: The Trouble With Government Schools. Crawford also notes the perversion of language in the propaganda state. Language is no more than a tool; words are no longer used to communicate a rational vision of reality. They serve the manipulative purposes of the rulers--we see the subtle, and often enough the not so subtle, changes in the meanings of words in our everyday life. Crawford sees this development as a direct threat to representative government as expressed by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address:
Here, “science” may be plainly anti-scientific, according to the circumstances. The word does not name a mode of inquiry, rather it is invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such transfers from the realm of political contest. Can this be squared with the idea of representative government?
[Citing Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger] unelected bureaucrats [think: Tony Fauci] increasingly set the contours of modern life with little accountability. They stake their legitimacy on claims of expertise rather than alignment with popular preferences. This trajectory began a century ago in the Progressive era, and took large strides forward during the New Deal and Great Society.
This development reflects a new vision of human nature that has arisen among the elites. Man is no longer viewed as rational, if subject to non-rational influences, but as essentially an animal. The general populace as a herd to be directed by 'guardians'. This is diametrically opposed to any notion of representative government:
It is as beings capable of reason that the legislature is supposed to “represent” us. The judicial branch regards us in the same light. When a court issues a decision, the judge writes an opinion in which he explains his reasoning. ...
That is not how the ruling elite views things, and that explains the recurrent theme of court packing. The Administrative State has largely conquered the Legislative Branch, but the courts remain. Thus the elites increasingly and openly demand that the SCOTUS must conform to the new vision of language as legitimation of elite power, rather than as expression of the rationality of laws based in a knowable world of knowable natures--above all of human nature.
Crawford sees this as arising from certain schools of psychology. The art of government over non-rational animal humans now lies not in persuasion but in guiding people to make choices that they will be led to believe are rational, but in fact reflect the will of the rulers:
In their book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point out that individual choices don’t usually happen in a vacuum. They are often sculpted by a “choice architecture” that may be more or less deliberate in its design, but generally operates beneath the threshold of awareness, ...
Why not exploit the power of choice architecture for the public good, ... It is a non-coercive way to improve people’s behaviour without having to persuade them of anything. This offered obvious encouragement to the paternalistic tendencies of the administrative state. ...
One example that Thaler and Sunstein call attention to, in their advice to administrators, is the “emerging norm” bias. ... if you tell people that some new norm is emerging, they are more likely to identify with it. It seems most people don’t want to be on the Wrong Side of History. ... This holds obvious attraction for the vanguardist. It seems to promise that one can mark out the direction of history, and thereby make it so.
Crawford applies this social science vision directly to the new Covid Regime:
"The hygiene state propagandises a “new normal” of social distancing and face covering. Here is an outlandish medical morality of social atomisation, presented as something inevitable."
He also sees this development as the triumph of Liberalism over Democracy. Liberalism--including Libertarianism--consists of:
“experiments in living.” The freedom of educated elites to explore new cultural terrain and projects of self-cultivation.
In this we see that the new trans-gender, trans-human, agendas are more than mere choices for the elite. Enabling these anti-human agendas is a matter of principle for them—their goal is precisely to subject reality to their will, to escape what they see as the tyranny of human nature.
To accomplish this agenda requires the suppression of religion and culturally specific loyalties--"commitments by which the masses took their bearings." The transformation of our constitutional order, now underway, reflects a new stage in the development of the West. The elites believe that their alliance of convenience with the movement for greater popular voice in governance has outlived its usefulness and now only holds them back.
Liberalism and democracy are two distinct things, not entirely at ease with one another. ... The basic problem was that such a liberatory project [got] its political legitimacy by allying itself with democracy — first against monarchy, and then against communism.
As Adrian Vermeule puts it, liberalism fears that its dependence on and fundamental difference from democracy will be exposed if a sustained course of non-liberal popular opinion comes to light. ...
And thus the terror of Trumpian populism, with its threat of a re-legitimation of the traditional understanding of man's place in society, and its appeal to Common Good conservatism:
Obviously, the prospect of populism was already causing some anxiety. ...
"Some anxiety" is a mild way of describing TDS.
The consequence of the elites suffering "some anxiety" at the prospect of a Trumpian empowerment of normal non-elite people was the outright move to "curate information"--i.e., censorship:
One of the central tenets of progressives’ self-understanding is that they are pro-fact and pro-science, while their opponents (often the majority) are said to have an unaccountable aversion to these good things: they cling to fond illusions and irrational anxieties. It follows that good governance means giving people informed choices. ... Informed choices are the ones that make sense within a well-curated informational context.
Note well—this self understanding is based on “tenets” expressed in words. But those words need to express actual reality. They express desire and will to power.
And here we see the perversion of language and manipulative governance in full: The call from the elite is to protect the masses from "disinformation," which quite openly now includes suppression of information and denial of actual fact. The Joe Rogan v. CNN conflict over Ivermectin is one of any number of examples. Big Tech and Big Media are now de facto branches of the Establishment, tasked with censorship as a claimed duty of the governing class. The courts are so far cowed, having done little to nothing to confront this basic threat to representative and, indeed, rational government.
At the end, Crawford holds out hope, while recognizing that the appeal to irrationality has now become "the main point" of the Covid Regime:
But this effort has more or less failed, due to the proliferation of unauthorised voices on the Internet. The pandemic prompted clumsy efforts to regain control, and these have often backfired.
... More recently, the relative risks of the virus versus the vaccine for different demographics has been dismissed as irrelevant, for the sake of combatting vaccine hesitancy. But such deceptions, however well-intended, can succeed only if you have control over the flow of information. So once you go down this road of departing from the truth, you’re committed to censorship and rigorous narrative enforcement, which is very difficult to do in the Internet era.
The absurdities of COVID theatre could be taken as a tacit recognition of this state of affairs, much as security theater pointed to a new political accommodation after 9/11. ... the irrationality of the Covid rules we comply with has perhaps become their main point. In complying, we enact the new terms of citizenship.
Read that again: “In complying, we enact the new terms of citizenship.”
Nevertheless, despite signs of hope, the struggle is uphill. The ruling Liberal elite will not willingly surrender the levers of, in their view of the world, power. Power, not rational, representative government.