In which I become a Hobbesian

It’s a deeply frustrating moment to be a political scientist.

We know what is happening. We have seen the processes, we have watched them unfold over time and named them and made appropriate historical comparisons. We have tried to sound alarms all along the way. We have had unprecedented access and opportunity through social media to provide education and facilitate mobilization in real time during a period of authoritarian consolidation—a phenomenon we actually know quite a lot about and can effectively predict (there aren’t that many things in poli sci about which one can say the same.)

We’ve never known as much as we know and had the capacity to share it as widely as we have. And yet. We have not been able to stop this, or even slow it down. People still don’t understand. It’s not about any particular president, even this president. It’s not about any particular set of policies, even these. It’s about what this president is doing to the institutions. It’s about the long game. It’s about how he is creating a political environment that invalidates the entire playing field. When you do that, you erode and eventually destroy the entire concept of the loyal opposition. When you’ve accomplished that, really accomplished that, democracy is utterly hosed. There’s no coming back from that. At least, we have zero evidence that there is. Maybe whoever survives the strongman junta —whoever isn’t executed or disappeared and is able to regroup in exile—can eventually return and rebuild. Maybe things will return to normal-ish in a generation or two, but it’s never the same. And even that is far from a guarantee.

It’s not too late, because how would we know, really. We can only say in retrospect where precisely the Rubicon is or was. But if we haven’t crossed it yet (and by my estimation it was in Puerto Rico last year), then we will very soon. It’s not going to be the same in our lifetimes. We have to fight an all-out war—not to tear down our institutions, but to preserve them. Or at least the parts of them that transcend the very deep corruptions that permitted this whole situation to arise in the first place. And that also….has never happened. Revolutions don’t happen to preserve existing institutions. That’s not how they work. That’s not how human brains or human social groups work.

I don’t trust us to emerge from massive collective dislocation by building a better mousetrap. I don’t think there’s any evidence in recorded history that that is something humans are likely to do in that situation. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, because of course it is. And of course I want to believe that we will do that. And maybe we will, in small groups that value inclusion and justice and elevate those virtues in a polity that overrides its baser impulses. But that’s not the undertow of this thing in the short term. The undertow of it is the civil war and police state that are already happening escalating and encompassing daily life in a way that predisposes people to a tyrannical Leviathan who can deliver “security” via a firmer hand. Just ask Putin about how that works. Ask him about 2000% inflation. Ask him about Chechnya.

The left is about to face it’s biggest-ever “lesser of two evils” debate. Not necessarily candidates this time (although that may happen as well), but about the institutions themselves. This is just a game for 45. He’s just obsessed with winning. He doesn’t see what he’s doing. He doesn’t know how this ends, and he doesn’t care. And we’re playing right into it because that’s what we are wired to do. But if we lose sight of what we’re fighting for, it’s already over.

We’re fighting for justice, yes, of course we are. But justice flows through institutions, not individuals. And the institutions of liberal democracy are deeply corrupted by a lot of things, but if we kill the patient in order to save it, we’ve already lost.