What I talk about when I talk about Democrats.



I believe that principles are important in that they give us something to aim at. They set out the general goal so we can design the specifics to get there.

And in terms of political principles, the most important concept for me is actually one I stole from some biology textbooks I was reading while working on my theology thesis in New Zealand: reciprocal altruism. It is a theory of cooperation and sacrifice that attempts to explain why organisms work together, and in basic, it is the assertion that when individuals collectively decide to sacrifice their own good for the benefit of the others, ultimately everyone comes out ahead. In biology, it is used to explain things like why ant colonies exist where many individuals never reproduce and spend their entire lives supporting the queen and her mates. In politics it represents the best aspects of the American spirit: "Ask not what your country can do for you...," and all that.

I believe that the concept of reciprocal altruism is an opposing concept to the philosophy I talked about in my last post, which I believe provided the energy behind the Trump movement, and which I called anxious imperialism - that someone is to blame for our problems so we have to act aggressively against them. (We might as well call this Christian or White Supremacy because those are the primary forces at work in our current American situation, but anyone can respond in this kind of way.) That philosophy is driven by fear and the sense that life is a competition with winners and losers, while reciprocal altruism is driven by trust and the sense that life is best lived in community where we all work for the good of the whole above our own self-interests.

And if I say that I'm a Democrat, I mean that of the two major American political parties, it is the one that I believe is more generally likely to pursue policies driven by reciprocal altruism, while the Republicans are more likely to pursue policies driven by competitive, selfish individualism.

In theory, I think Democrats have normally embraced this kind of 'We're all in this together' approach. Obama appealed to it especially in his first election - Hope and Change also came in an inter-racial, international package that was promising to sit down for conversation with our enemies at a time when we had spent years entrenched in multiple wars without clear purpose, and in partisan government gridlock with a historically unpopular imperialist president. Obama's campaign recalled the Civil Rights Movement and some of the best aspects of American multiculturalism, as well as a hopeful, better future. Hillary tried to appeal to the same impulse with the 'Stronger Together' theme, but with very different baggage and in a very different context. Democrats claim the legacy of MLK and the feminist and Civil Rights Movements, The New Deal and The Great Society - all aimed at organizing government for the benefit of the whole rather than (just) the success of individuals.

But let's be honest.

But having said all of that, readers would be right to roll their eyes at the assertion that the national Democratic Party embodies much resembling reciprocal altruism, and that was a major problem this year.

It's true within their own country, the public perception (and at least part of the reality) is that  Democrats have been willing to write off rural whites - the rednecks and country music fans - as not a part of the multicultural 'us' that we see as America. And when it comes to a choice between altruism and money, it's the standard public narrative that Democrats in the Federal government, same as Republicans, could be bought and sold. It's also true that outside of our own country, the principle of reciprocal altruism frequently has not seemed to apply. Democrats, in international policy, are frequently anxious imperialists in the same way that Republicans are - attacking or exploiting outsiders with little clear moral direction. Again, fairly or not, as the most establishment of Democrats, Hillary represented this type of hypocrisy to a huge number of people, both inside and outside of the party.

And this was basically the issue this year: what Democrats did wrong. They didn't live up to their stated principles - in perception sometimes as they failed to create a coherent, compelling narrative about what the party had to offer. But at other times the failure was a reality, with party Democrats failing to embrace (for instance) the Black Lives Matter movement, or address the moral justification for the war machine operating in the Middle East and elsewhere, or dismissing rural America as a bunch of ignorant hicks. The (probably valid) perception that the DNC actively undermined Bernie - the People's Democrat - the promotion of political dynasties, a perceived failure to attack Citizens United aggressively, a failure to provide a coherent plan to address national debt - it read as Democrats acting hypocritically.  Misinformation fuelled a massive amount of anti-government and anti-Hillary sentiment during this cycle, but to the extent that Trump voters were voting to throw the bums out, and were voting against politicians who present one vision to the population and act in a totally different way, their vote was understandable. Americans have a right to demand better.

And there's a lot more that could be said in critique, of course, and I personally can understand how a lot of Americans this year found it hard to convince themselves to vote for another establishment Democrat that they felt was just lying to them like so many others in the past.

But oooooooon the other hand...

I work on a children's psychiatric unit, with kids who are disregulated, delayed, in crisis, and/or generally out of control. And it's a daily occurrence on our unit for a patient to do something socially or morally unacceptable in a moment of uncontrolled anger, and blame either a staff member, another kid, or their parent for making them so angry as to behave in that way.

Example: A kid gets mad, poops on the ground, and smears it on the walls (this happens at least once every few months). Then they say "It's my parents fault! I just wanted my iPad and they wouldn't give it to me!"

Sometimes there's some truth in the statement: maybe the parents know they have an explosive child, and could have prevented them from blowing up by just giving them the iPad. Or maybe they shouldn't have promised to give it to them when they knew they weren't going to in the first place. And sometimes maybe a staff member should have done a better job of intervening and talking the kid down before the poo started flying.

But in the end, everyone just watched that kid smear the poop on the wall, and even though we're all going to help clean it up, and maybe could have prevented it, it's pretty clear in the situation who has the most work to do on their issues in the future.

And, I have to admit, to me, this year's election was so different from the norm, and Trump's campaign was so beyond the pale in essentially every way, that the impulse to blame Democrats for what happened in this year's election reads to me like the kid's attempt to blame his parents for his bad behavior.  Even if there are ways in which others could have prevented what happened, it's not the main issue. The main issue is the poop. I generally think I'm a pretty fairminded person, but I have to admit that I just can't get my heart into a place where I feel like, "If the Democrats could just do better..." it would fix this problem. Because Trump voters, you just pooped on the floor, and smeared it all over America's walls. Even if there are things we could have done better, you cannot blame this on the rest of us.

And, in fact, this year it feels like so many of us are stuck cleaning up shit that we didn't put there while at the same time trying to stay calm enough to teach the kid why smearing poop isn't a good solution to their problems.

But jeez - it's true, and it doesn't matter. Whether we put the poop there ourselves or not, it's smeared all over our walls.

And it's also true that when you recognize that you have a family member who smears poop on the walls when they get mad, it only goes so far to blame them, because you have to live in the same house. In the end, and as frustrating as it is, you eventually have to take responsibility for both cleaning the poop up if you don't want it staining the paint, and helping the kid develop some coping skills so they'll learn to do something different next time.

Because even if it's not your poop, they are your walls, and you still have to do something! That kid clearly has a lot to learn, and he's only going to learn from people who know better. And in the end, people of good conscience, if you're really committed to the concept of reciprocal altruism, and the idea that we're all in this together, it means that if the kid won't do it himself, you suck it up and get started wiping up the poop yourself.


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