DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

The Real Culture War, Part Two: Fighting for the Enlightenment

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Practical Suggestions for 21st Century Politics

In Part One we examined reasons for the special ruthlessness, division and reciprocal loathing that has tormented America through the last two election cycles. I see little or nothing about these events that can be related to the hoary, discredited and misleading left-vs-right political axis.

There have been earlier Apocalyptic-style eruptions of moral outrage, populist religiosity, triumphalist nationalism and submission to demagogues. (See "Apocalyptic-Style Eruptions," below.) Cyclical outbreaks, from the Great Awakenings to the Great Depression, flared whenever the future seemed especially daunting or strange. The sudden arrival of railroads and the telegraph. The boom in cities. Eras of economic frailty.

This time? We start with simmering worry about new technologies. Disruptive media barge into homes, where moral teaching used to be the province of parents. Add a tendency for entertainers and reporters to lean ever more toward the decadent and lurid. Now throw in talk of human enhancement and other scientific proposals to alter Creation's design. These and other factors make the future seem alienating enough, even without waves of deliberate, incendiary insult from ideological whackos, a dose of terrorism and a drumbeat of war.

Multiply it all together and you can see how change might appear to be rushing awfully fast for some of our neighbors. Spanning every spectrum, from the uneducated to intellectuals, from liberal to conservative, millions are turning their backs on the future itself.

Nor should this be surprising. Remember, most civilizations were conservative traditional-nostalgist. Few had anything like the future-loving values of the empirical Enlightenment. Taking human nature into account, it seems a wonder those values flourished at all.

For those who want to fight for the Enlightenment, in order to keep those values alive, here come those suggestions I promised.

APOCALYPTIC-STYLE ERUPTIONS: Has anyone gone down the centuries to catalogue all the times that people claimed to see the events scripted in the Book of Revelations playing out in their time? I hear that a popular book in Europe, around 1799, linked every line of Revelations to characters in Napoleonic Europe. Hal Lindsey's book -- The Late, Great, Planet Earth -- while still revered in apocalyptic circles, seems dated by its references to the Soviet Union. Which in part explains the shift toward demonizing Islam, as seen in the more recent Left Behind series of novels.

Consider this an open query about scholarly catalogues of past apocalypse failures. Might it help to show how many times this particular prediction has "cried wolf"?

[image from Pandagon]

How to Survive "Culture War": Some Proposals

A few of these recommendations will be aimed at Democrats seeking to reverse their recent debacles.

Others are targeted much more broadly, not only toward moderate liberals, but also Libertarians and old-fashioned fiscal/international/social conservatives like George Will, who may be looking for new kinds of alignment. Alignments suitable for the 21st Century.

  1. Proposal #1: Wage Smarter Politics

    Already looking ahead, Democratic leaders are pointing to bright spots in the 2004 results. For example, take the governor's race in Montana, where President Bush won by 20 points, There, Democrat Brian Schweitzer easily won the governor's race and his coattails were so long Democrats also took control of the state Senate and four out of five statewide offices.

    Or look at the Salazar brothers in Colorado. Democrat Ken Salazar criticized President Bush, Iraq and the war on terrorism. But the soft-spoken moderate spent just as much time talking about family, faith and the spirituality of his home in Colorado's San Luis Valley. The cowboy hat-wearing Colorado attorney general went on to beat GOP beer executive Pete Coors to win Colorado's open Senate. And his older brother, John Salazar, picked up another open seat, this one in Congress.

    Topping the list of Democrats being touted for a 2008 presidential bid is Mark Warner, governor of Virginia. His version of fiscal responsibility zealously cut costs first, then went after corporate elites to help pay for a civil society that has benefitted them above all others. The mix -- neither "left" nor "right" -- worked for voters in his southern state. In the Democrats' search for fresh faces, his may well be the most appealing.

    In all of these cases, the common threads are moderation on social issues, fearless willingness to confront the administration's most outrageous behavior... plus a populist common-touch that showed nervous "family values voters" that their deep concerns are heard.

    And yes, it will help if the Democrats pick appealing candidates like these, augmented by a new party line that takes into account the agitation that I spoke of in Part One.

    And no, it won't be enough. After being outmaneuvered time and again, only fools would keep at the same play book without looking for an outside run, some way to get around a rigged game.

  2. Proposal #2: Fight Where the Game Isn't Rigged

    Look again at the red-state vs. blue-state maps. Now recall that a "landslide" in American politics seldom exceeds a 60:40 split of the vote. Even in 2004, only a few dozen urban areas went more than 65% "blue." Even in "red" counties of rural Texas and Alabama, there were still a great many who felt disgusted enough with neoconservative kleptomania to vote for a Democrat. Generally, even a landslide means that more than one voter in three still feels like a loser.

    Far too little has been said about the minority effect, in which the lesser group in a district feels disenfranchised election after election. But I want to focus on it here. Tens of millions of Americans fall into this frustrated category.

    Of course there is talk about gerrymandering -- the cynical manipulation of political boundaries within a state by the party that controls the legislature. This immoral practice has become so rampant, perpetrated by both parties, that it will take a later, wiser generation to finally deal with it.

    Alas, even those who complain about gerrymandering focus mostly upon how it affects the raw numbers of seats won by each party in each state. Seldom does anybody talk about other aspects that are -- in the long run -- far more debilitating of American political life.

    One major effect has been to empower radical elements in both parties. Within safe districts, even the very worst indignation junky (see Part One) can start with a militant power base, leverage it with cash, seize a Congressional seat and then do whatever he likes until Judgement Day. No amount of graft or scandal or outright maniacal looniness will ever suffice to budge him.

    Of course, things are just as bad at the national level, right now. Elsewhere I talk about how a new president might reach out to the losing minority -- in this case half the nation -- healing wounds and proving that he will not live and work in isolation. But such gestures won't happen under those now in power.

    So, putting utopian dreams aside, what can we do right now, pragmatically, to change the balance of power, even in districts where the same party has contrived to dominate utterly, and apparently forever?

    Go back sixty years, seventy, eighty -- to the old "Solid South," where a large majority of white voters would vote for a "yellow dog" if it were the Democratic nominee. In those days, November elections were shams. The few black voters would join some urban intellectuals in casting a smatter of dissenting ballots. Most did not even bother.

    Real fights were reserved for the primaries, when there were sometimes knock down, drag-out battles among candidates for the democratic nomination -- from governor all the way down to mayor or dog catcher. Often local blacks or liberals would seek (when allowed) to re-register as Democrats, so they could vote each spring when and where it really counted.

    Clearly, this is the minority's best tactic, when gerrymandered "solid" districts and national division have rendered competitive politics a thing of the past. Almost unnoticed, we have been manipulated into becoming a nation of ten thousand little Solid Souths. Thwarted at having anything meaningful to do with their votes, might people find a way to evade this trick of the political pros?

    Think about it. Say only a quarter of a gerrymandered congressional district's voters are Democrats. That's more than a hundred thousand voters who won't ever make a difference in choosing their representative, in November. But suppose they switch to become registered Republicans. That number suddenly becomes overwhelmingly influential. Perhaps enough to help an insurgent moderate -- someone who is conservative in the old-decent sense of the word -- to depose one of the recent wave of outrageous neoconservative loonies. At minimum, it could tighten primary races. Maybe force an incumbent to spend more time and money visiting the home district. Perhaps even win a few moderating concessions.

    And yes, there are millions of Republicans who live in gerrymandered Democratic districts where their vote doesn't seem to matter, either. Might they try the same tactic, in reverse? Is that a problem?

    To moderates and modernists, whatever their official party, there is one enemy here -- gerrymandered political radicalization. If districts have been scornfully reworked to make the November general elections worthless, then by all means, everyone in that district should join the party of that district. Make the primary election the locus of real argument, real campaigning over issues, real voter participation. Real politics.

    Call it a Voters' Revolt against calculated manipulation of the electoral process by professional politicians.

    Call it transforming a disenfranchised minority into a swing bloc.

    Call it a way to help pick nicer conservatives instead of haters, in each Republican primary. (And for Republicans in urban America, to hold accountable some lefty flakes.) It seems so logical, like an immune reaction by an inflamed body politic, responding against a cancer spread by self-interested politicos.

    Only now the rub. How to get the word out about this. I don't have a national column. Certainly the parties themselves won't touch it! Might some billionaire fund an effort, urging rural Democrats (and urban Republicans) to vote where it counts? Would a groundswell internet campaign suffice?

    If it starts really happening, what will the cancer do to protect itself? Will the fanatics in each party try to stop it by requiring that party members pay dues and carry membership cards?

    I do know this: In a reversal of the "yellow dog" philosophy, I don't really care if it's a Democrat or a Republican, so long as it's reasonable, moderate, broadminded, forward-looking, honest, accountable... and human.

  3. Proposal #3: Forge New Alliances

    In Part One I spoke of finally abandoning the old Left-Right Political Axis as a lame brained, knuckleheaded, worm-eaten, emperor-has-no-clothes metaphor that only serves as a mental crutch for the lazy. Alliances that were formed via that silly piece of 18th Century French nonsense have proved disastrous to thoughtful people. Because of it, every liberal and conservative movement is dominated by anti-modern ideologues.

    Can we ever escape the grip of romantic-fanatics who despise moderates for their wussy empirical pragmatism? I will propose a few new alliances here. Any one of these could be discussed at length elsewhere. All of them would be better than what we face now.

    • LIBERTARIANS ARISE. For years I've suggested that the Libertarian Party is a better match for those Americans who want limited government, fiscal temperance and international restraint, yet also perceive human problems need human-generated solutions. Millions are so inclined, yet they vote for the GOP as a "lesser of two evils," believing against all evidence that government is somewhat better checked during a Republican administration.

      In a vicious cycle, the LP never does well enough to gain momentum as an attractive alternative, even when the GOP is clearly run by monstrous statists.

      Millions might switch if they felt the vote would not be wasted.

      This situation is made worse by the kind of fringe elements who all-too easily take control of any small party. Ideologues keep pushing the Libertarian Party into statements and positions that are far too doctrinaire for most citizens. They can't stop themselves from expressing contempt for moderate things like state-funded universities that are simply part of the American consensus. Indeed, consensus and incrementalism (the truly American approach) is anathema to romantic purists. This helps keep the LP forever on the periphery, never a threat to the GOP.

      Events of November 2004 may have changed this a bit. A new group -- Libertarians for America -- has formed to suggest temporary alliance between the Libertarian and Democratic parties. Two authors who are involved in the movement -- Greg Costikyan and Ed Ricciotti -- put it this way:

      "As a group we (Democrats and Libertarians) agree on just about every social issue as it pertains to civil liberties, government accountability, etc. We are caught in an ideological Catch 22 when it comes to taxes and state sponsored social programs. But those issues can wait. The real enemy is the current neo-cons' War on Terror, being used as a vehicle to compromise civil rights. When it comes to what should be the DFC priority and strategy, Civil rights, a balanced federal budget, and a more defensive foreign policy should take center stage."

      Could this do any good? Any alliance between liberals and libertarians might be short lived. It should nevertheless be founded on strong statements of compromise, expressions of faith in pragmatic empiricism, and agreement on a need for electoral reform. In the short term, it might be nice to see the LP put some fear into the GOP, worrying about its flank for a change.

      Over the long term, one could wish to see two future-oriented parties step forward -- one with a tradition of empowering citizens to solve problems together, as a nation, and the other interested in helping citizens to solve problems on their own.

    • JUDO: WIN BY GIVING A LITTLE. One of the travesties of the L-R Axis is the implied requirement that, in order to be a liberal, you must buy everything in the "liberal package," a package defined by some of the most radical liberals of all. The same is true of the so-called "right," as shown by the recent insistence on the part of Senate majority leader Frist that moderate republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania toe the ideological line in order to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

      Even moderate groups like the DLC buy into this notion. Often their "moderation" consists of wanting everything on the same list, only a bit more tepidly than the radicals. No wonder moderate progressives can be tarred with the wimpy brush. (In fact, DLC moderates are no "closer" to the GOP than Ralph Nader is. The real ideological fault line runs between the future and the past.)

      Consider the trap that the left has fallen into regarding Jesus.

      Back in the sixties, much of the clergy leaned leftward and away from supporting the Vietnam War. The image of Jesus was that of a bearded quasi-hippie in sandals, who preached that the rich should give their very shirts to the poor. What has changed? Certainly none of the scripture passages that were quoted then. Passages that would make Jesus seem... well... rather socialistic in any era.

      So what happened? The abortion issue has been used by the extreme right to claim Jesus, Christianity, and the moral high ground -- with the often willing complicity of the radical left.

      One Judo Move might be for some liberals and goups to openly and explicitly drop abortion from their set of ideological litmus tests. "Let each state work it out" is hardly satisfying to feminists, and I sympathize. Still, it is simply stupid to spit on the outstretched hands of sincere people who would join in common cause to stop war and help the poor, simply because they disagree with you about when human life begins.

    • ASSERTIVELY STAND UP FOR MODERNITY. Another way to break free might be for a new group or alliance to list -- boldly and openly -- a dozen major consensus agenda items, all of which deal with responsible-accountable government, and refuse to be drawn into other fights.

      Might it be possible to negotiate a list of desiderata that all modernist defenders of the Enlightenment might stand behind. Something that John McCain and William F. Buckley and George Will might sign, alongside John Kerry, Gary Wills and Al Gore?

      I've scribbled my own draft-in-progress for one such imaginary group -- an Alliance for the Modern World. Look it over if you like, but its purpose is not to serve as a model, only an example.

      These are agenda items meant to increase accountability and confidence, ensure open debate, express some fidelity to science, enhance the electoral process, and generally show faith that the American people can rise up in both awareness and sovereign authority, helping their nation to deserve and remain trusted with leadership during an era of change.

  4. Proposal #4: Wage Cultural Peace

    Let's step back for a minute and look at those red/blue maps again, on a county-by county basis.

    Yes, it certainly has the look of rural-vs-urban. There's a lot of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding between cityfolk and countryfolk. It may take a long time to overcome. (Indeed, Karl Rove has already declared his intention to go after urban ethnics who have traditionally supported Democrats, by appealing to their often conservative social values.)

    But you have to start somewhere.

    • THE MEDIA: There are already signs. Satellite radio may burgeon, along with media carried over the internet, to break the lock that a few corporations have achieved on radio and broadcast TV, across much of America, especially rural regions. There is also talk of money coming in from some of the "satiable" class of billionaires who want to see the American populace given a wide choice of eclectic information, not only right-wing rant radio.

      But after all, most of America already has cable TV. You can't force people to watch what they don't like. In my novel Earth (1988) I forecast a future era in which individuals would use computers to filter out anything they disliked, any news that jarred their expectations or opinion that might shake established belief. To an extent, that day has already come. And despite a lot of hype, the Internet is proving far less effective at helping separate wheat from chaff than optimists had hoped. (For a rather intense look at how the Internet helps -- and hinders -- the discovery of "truth", see my lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution [v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000], "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit.")

      This battle is worth fighting, but it will be hard and very expensive. Certainly out of my league.

    • SISTER COMMUNITIES: Look at those red/blue maps yet again. Now consider this. Ohio's tilt in favor of Bush -- notwithstanding the likely cheating -- might have gone otherwise if just a few of the paler "red" counties had swung a tad more blue. Might there be a way to get that to happen by using people-to-people contact?

      Consider picking a few politically important communities in important counties, in vital swing states. Now suppose you go in and find a hundred or so families in those counties who appear eventempered, moderate, friendly and outgoing. Core Republican voters, but not damn-all-Democrats haters, either.

      Now suppose we divide Manhattan Island and pair each square city block with a rural Ohio town in a sister communities program. The deal is simple. People in each place may apply to do a house-apartment swap for a week.

      The farm family gets a New York vacation. The city family -- a week on the farm. Friendly neighbors take part, ensuring that every minute goes smoothly and that a great time is had by all.

      Net expense for the families involved, pretty low for an equivalent vacation any other way! Opportunities for a little cultural exposure and cross-tolerance?


      Opportunities for mistakes, offense, and interpersonal disasters? Plenty also. The program would have to live and learn as it went along. And every returning farm family gets a bumper sticker saying --


[image from Internet Monk blog]

Prepare for the Worst

It may be irrelevant whether modernists "win or lose" the coming set of electoral battles. Suppose, for example, that the Roveists succeed in establishing a lock over the Supreme Court than lasts for a generation. Listen to the Left. They are already predicting Hell On Earth.

Well, maybe. While my eyes prefer looking ahead, I read a lot of history and I know that many great civilizations eventually fell prey to their own combinations of craven fear and overweening pride. America has had a two-century run of incredible luck. But history tells that such strings often fail, abruptly. (See a stunning book from Jared Diamond that I reviewed for the San Diego Union: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.)

Worst case, we might follow the course that Robert A. Heinlein predicted in his famous series of science fiction novels -- a slide into cultism and then rigorous theocracy. I'm betting against it, but I'm a renowned, cloud-cuckoo optimist.

Western civilization has several other major centers that can take up the forward-looking cause. Europe, Australia and others take an approach that we yanks find altogether too bureaucratic and meddlesome, but one can imagine hundreds of scenarios worse than an EU-Earth, once Pax Americana gave up leadership in favor of imperial prancing.

Meanwhile, China and India are firing up new versions of Eastern hierarchical culture, moderated by western management techniques and a fierce willingness to grab any technology, from any source. Their rise will be further propelled by a populace more used to accepting limits to personal sovereignty under genteel elite authority.

We've had a good run, really, and left our imprint on the human psyche. Maybe some of our underlying spirit, optimism, individualism, eccentricity, passion, compassion, and relentless suspicion of authority will manifest in Whatever Comes Next, once America slides into second rate....

No! That's not gonna happen. It won't. We'll do something to prevent the noble experiment in pragmatic enlightenment from being ruined by an alliance of kleptocrats, apocalypts and bright neocon-platonist morons.

I know we can find ideas that will work, if not the ones in this layered essay. We'll find them because Ideas R Us, and because we have got to get on with Civilization. Above all, we must innovate and find ways forward because we are the ones who believe that our great-great-grandchildren will be vastly smarter than us.

Alas, those smart and decent and wondrous descendants of ours are helpless and disadvantaged right now, handicapped by the fact that they do not yet exist. Only we are here to speak for them and for a modern, problem-solving world. It is for their sake that we -- their hobbled and foolish ancestors -- simply have to fight on.



In the first of these layered political essays, "War in the 21st Century: Maturity vs. Neocon Panic and the True Role of Pax Americana", one of my chief aims was to show a line-by-line comparison between Bill Clinton's Balkans Intervention and the current debacle in Iraq.

Line by line, one sees how Pax Americana power can be used carefully, competently, professionally ... and with relentless attention to diplomacy ... with overwhelmingly positive results. Alliances strengthened, America's leadership stature raised, our moral position bolstered, our forces applied with both precision and overwhelming force, with not one American killed in combat. Oh, and the result worth fighting for: A European continent at peace for the first time in 4,000 years.

I don't have to re-compare to Iraq here. Its repetition of Vietnam stupidities can be seen in daily news.

What I'd like to cite, though, is supporting evidence for my view of Bill Clinton as an aggressive and skillful user of Pax Americana power, from a source highly critical of that use: A writer for an internationalist journal, the Globalist.

In Bill Clinton - A Bigger Imperialist Than George W. Bush?, Chalmers "argues that the Clinton Administration proved nimbler and more deceptive because it employed an indirect approach in imposing its will on other nations": "Under the Clinton model, the United States ruled the world -- but it did so in a carefully masked way that produced high degrees of acquiescence among the dominated nations."

Of course, this is where I show my contrarian colors. As I say in "War in the 21st Century," there is at present no ready replacement for one kind or another of imperial power. At least the US has always wanted to be the LAST empire, pushing the world toward adopting more repsonsible institutions that might eventually lead to...

... well, to Whatever Comes Next (WCN). It's vague (Americans like it that way) but coming within our lifetimes. And if it turns out to be limited, accountable, checked, diverse, and intrinsically incapable of rising up to eat us.... then America will get much of the credit for that.

If, that is, we are still trusted after what's about to go down. return to where you left off