by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 26, 2019
If Democrats win the 2020 election will we become better people? We assume whoever we elect will change the country for the better but isn’t it “we the people” rather than a single leader that will make that happen? Liberals believe Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us. But conservatives feel the future is brighter than its been in years. Which is it? Trump gave the rich a gigantic tax cut but added a staggering amount to the national debt. Trump is fighting for economic fairness with our trading partners yet Wall Street is in a panic, our farmers are going broke, and our allies think we’ve gone nuts. Trump has rolled back on all kinds of regulations just when we need more regulations to save the environment. Trump has revealed the hidden racism and xenophobia we thought we’d had overcome.
However, if a Democrat is elected in 2020 will any of this change? Can a new president pass sweeping laws that will halt climate change, stop greed, or end hatred of other people?
I’ve been reading two books that are so positive about the future I almost think they were written by someone named Pollyanna: The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku and Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance by Naveen Jain. Kaku is a physicist that sees a glowing science-fictional future of mankind colonizing the Moon and Mars. Jain is an entrepreneur that pleads with us to think positive and overcome our self-fulfilling pessimism.
I have to wonder if Jain is right. Can we be better people if we think positive? His book is quite inspirational, but I wonder if he isn’t selling snake oil. There’s a huge industry out there selling success, with costly seminars, courses, and books that people buy to convince themselves to become rich by willpower. Both books show how we’ve accomplished so much in the past so why not believe we’ll do the same tomorrow.
Doesn’t chasing abundance ignore the price of abundance? Trump says I can make you richer by cutting taxes. That appears to be true. But how rich will we all be if he runs the economy into the ground? When the Republicans deny climate change are they saying, “Don’t spoil the magic of abundance by bringing in reality!”
And I’m not just questioning the conservatives. If we elect a Democrat will that person stop global warming, halt illegal immigration, eliminate gun violence, dissolve racism and reduce xenophobia? Isn’t that also magical thinking? What Trump revealed is society can make people speak and act politically correct but still think political incorrectness in their hearts.
The only way to stop climate change is for everyone to use 90% less of fossil fuels. That means driving less, flying less, eating less meat, heating and air conditioning less, and I mean a whole lot less. The only way to keep the oceans from filling up with plastics is to stop using 90% of the plastics we use now. The only way to end racism is to fully integrate, make everyone truly equal under the law, and bring about economic equality. The only way to end sexism is for everyone to live by the Golden Rule.
However, if we quit using fossil fuels the economy will collapse. How do we shop when practically everything comes in a plastic container? The government has been trying to bring about integration for decades and we haven’t allowed it. And who really lives by the Golden Rule? I don’t think Elizabeth, Kamala, or Bernie can pass laws to change these traits. We have to change ourselves. But if we could do that wouldn’t we have done so already?
I’m an atheist, but I do read the Bible. The most common thread in the Old Testament is the prophets constantly pleading with the people to follow God’s will. They never do. The Bible is one long story of people failing to live righteously, failing to change. Hasn’t laws replaced scripture as a method of social engineering? Can we vote in righteousness? Haven’t we already decided religion failed and our best hope is law and order?
If you look at history, people are better under laws. Isn’t the social unrest we’re seeing, the mad shooters, the road rages, the street gangs, the political corruption really a rebellion against laws? Republicans hate regulations but isn’t that because those laws hinder their greed? Conservatives want libertarian laws for themselves, but law and order for everyone else.
One interesting insight that Naveen Jain points out in his book is Americans are extremely pessimistic about the future, but the Chinese are practically glowing with optimism. Why would that be? Isn’t China an extremely regulated society with a rigid Big Brother government? Shouldn’t living under an Orwellian rule crush the Chinese people’s spirit? Why do they have hope when we don’t?
I don’t think people are going to change. But I do think society changes. And I think society suppresses human nature, controls greed, and codifies the Golden Rule. I wonder if the followers of Trump love him because he apparently frees them from the growing burden of rules. Trump is all for regulating people he doesn’t like but isn’t he loved for deregulating human nature in his true believers?
Essayists are those folks making running commentary on the side-lines of history. We don’t have the answers. We’re just trying to guess what’s happening from making consistent observations. I believe both conservatives and liberals wished the world was more orderly, just, and fair. The conservatives want to be free to pursue their dreams of abundance and hate regulations that hinder their success. They don’t want to see limitations. Liberals see life on Earth like being in a lifeboat. We must share our resources fairly. Conservatives hate that attitude because it assumes there isn’t unlimited abundance for all. How does picking a new leader change this dynamic?
Have we reached a stage in society where laws are no longer effective? Many people will say they were never effective, but if you study history and other societies around the globe it’s obvious that’s not true. What might be true is we’ve reached a new stage where they are becoming ineffective because too many people are ready to revolt. We are getting very close to “It’s every man for themselves” panic. (I wanted to rephrase that old saying to not show gender bias, but when society collapses, women will lose all their political gains and the bias will be true again.)
I got a clue from this New York Times article, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Your Vacation?” In Sweden, air travel is down because enough of their citizens worry about its impact on the climate. Some of their citizens have voluntarily acted on their own for the good of all. But that’s from a smaller, less dense country than ours, and one that’s socialistic, which means they are more concerned with the common good. We are more concerned with individual freedoms and opportunity. Our nationalistic psyche is different. We believe we should grab all we can take, to go for the gusto. We have revised greed from sin into a virtue. Are Americas fundamentally different from citizens of other societies?
I’m not sure if we vote in Harris, Sanders or Warren that will change. I’ve been thinking about how I’d have to live to walk my talk. I already feel I do a great deal to be environmental, but I doubt its enough. If I used 1/7,000,000,000 of my share of sustainable resources, what would that be? And if I polluted 1/7,000,000,000 share of sustainable waste, what would it be? And what’s the difference between choosing on my own to live environmentally, and voting in a person that will pass laws that make us?
Even though I’m an atheist, I would say that difference would be finding the Kingdom of Heaven within, and being a slave in Paradise.
[Damn, I write about weird shit sometimes, don’t I? No wonder some writers feel they are channeling a muse. Sometimes I feel its all pointless philosophy and I should go play in my science fictional worlds.]
6 thoughts on “Can We Elect a Leader That Will Make Us Better People?”
I’ve certainly not read everything you have posted but…but you’re are going to have one hell of a time doing better than this.
One true story and then I go away:
On Monday 02/27/12, I had gone to see a “therapist”. We talked a bit. She then called in her “boss,” a psychiatrist, so he could prescribe the meds. He and I talked for a few minutes. As you did here, I talked about “this” and “that” from this point of view and looking at it from another point of view while, at the same time, if you look at this way….Yes. I was on a roll.
He interrupted and said, “Mr. Vaughan, what’s your point of view?”
That’s the day I knew I was broken. The tears were immediate and I spoke the truth before I had time to even think about a more plausible lie: “I don’t have one.”
I remain, of course, thoroughly broken. I prefer broken to their “meds” and so-called “fixes”. That will never change. I can argue, debate, and persuade this point of view as well as that. But I see no “happy endings” regardless of paths taken.
The choice, it seems, is whether or not we drink from the poisoned well in order to be as stark-raving mad as everyone else.
But the world, for all the reasons you stated and alluded to, has always been broken. The madness is in thinking it can ever be “fixed”.
So you write here and me, I kept adding to a journal that is now almost 6,000 words long.
But you are in good company, you know:
“And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.”
Again, excellent piece, James.
Stay safe and be well.
Randy, Every human has a point of view. The real challenge is accepting who we are, the ability to trust ourselves . From there we can trust others and accept them for who they are. All things are possible from that point on.
You site a very relevant passage. It is true, we can drive ourselves mad contemplating all possible worlds. Clinical psychologists call this cognitive dissonance or in simple terms …the search for answers to problems that don’t exist
It’s an interesting issue: do people get the leaders they deserve, or do leaders shape the attitudes of nations? My take is that there is a bit of both, and that the nature of any given nation, culturally, also shapes the way these forces play out. What concerns me is that this direction, overall, has been veering towards a framework in which the main arbiter driving society is monetary value, one way or another. When a leader emerges who offers kindness and compassion – such as our Prime Minister, here in New Zealand – they are viewed as weak. And yet kindness and compassion are among the highest human values. Looking in from outside at the US, I can’t help thinking that there are trends and forces that are greater than any given leader or government – that a change in 2020 will maybe create a sense of immediate hope, but in practise the trends that need correcting are too deep-seated for a single administration to quickly fix. And meanwhile, as you point out, the climate change clock is ticking. Actually, this is probably true for most world nations at the moment, western or otherwise, for all have been framed by the way twentieth century politics and economics, worldwide, played out. I will check out both Kaku and Jain, as I get time, they look interesting.
There’s a Macro side to Life and a Micro side to Life. I have a lot of points of view in Micro Life. I live in a safe, friendly, well-ordered community with good schools and a hospital 5 minutes away from my house. I believe your life-style reflects your points of view.
In Macro Life, it’s a whole lot harder. How do we influence what happens in Washington, D. C.? Or Wall Street? Or Silicon Valley? There are Red States and Blue States and Purple States–reflections of the points of view of the majority of the population. Sure, it’s easy to feel helpless at the Macro level. That’s why so many people don’t vote.
You might want to read Hans Rosling’s Factfulness. It’s a look at how the world steadily gets better despite the occasional bumps in the road. He disliked being called an optimist merely because the statistics show we live in a better world than we imagine. He saw himself as a realist who had good reason to believe human living will continue to improve. He doesn’t just show us the statistics, the book also becomes a lesson in grappling with information as he ponders why the vast majority of people so consistently assume things are worse than they are. Easy to read, not dense at all.
I’ve bought Factfulness, but haven’t read it yet.