Our last chance

Whether or not Hillary Clinton would have been as bad a president as Donald Trump is the topic of a counterfactual, a line of reasoning so invalid I regard it as fallacious.

Counterfactuals are fun to think about. What would have happened had John F. Kennedy not been shot? Or Richard M. Nixon not forced to resign? Or, going back further, Abraham Lincoln had permitted the South to secede?

These questions are not so much about political leanings as about the outcome of a different set of factors, what would have emerged?

I’m using the term emerged intentionally, referring to emergent properties in systems theory. In systems theory, emergent properties in previously unseen systems are unpredictable. A classic example: water. If you didn’t know what water was or the atoms that make it up, you would not forecast that two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom could combine to produce a clear, tasteless, odorless liquid that is crucial for life.[1]

The elements of a system come together in ways that are unpredictable. This fact refutes a reductionist approach to reality, the notion that a thing can be understood as the sum of its parts. Emergent properties rather are the difference, sometimes greater, sometimes lesser, but always different, between that thing and the sum of its parts.[2]

Which is why a counterfactual is inherently fallacious. Systems cannot be analyzed reductively. The world that would have happened had some historical event not occurred or happened differently cannot be derived from a different set of factors.

But we can look at a thing and say it is awful. Such a thing today would be the presidency of Donald Trump. It won’t happen, but this presidency is such a shitshow that William Rivers Pitt was moved to suggest that Trump should

[r]esign. Immediately. In the face of his rapidly collapsing credibility, he must be questioning how long his die-hard supporters will be able to protect him and how much time it will take to tear down the velveeta walls of his crumbling redoubt. He should resign, and take his band of brigands — among them Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and Sarah Huckabee Sanders — with him.[3]

Understand—please understand—that I grew up with Nixon as president. I understood him, particularly with the Vietnam war that had spilled into Cambodia and Laos, as the epitome of evil.

Not only do I now see Nixon as a better president than any of his successors—the Environmental Protection Agency was created and the social safety net was expanded on his watch—but I see each of his successors as successively worse. Yes, that includes Barack Obama, who not only did not prosecute the criminality of George W. Bush’s so-called “war on terror” or the bankers and other financiers who precipitated the 2008 financial crisis, but who instead embraced and extended many of Bush’s neoconservative and neoliberal policies. The failings of those policies was one factor that made Clinton’s candidacy in 2016 toxic and so Obama deserves blame, along with Clinton herself, for Trump’s presidency.

That each successive president seems worse leads to a certain obvious trepidation about what the next presidency will bring. But perhaps in part because the Nixon era was formative for me, I am coming to see it as a tipping point, as a point when a new, more regressive era/system began to take hold which, with its own set of feedbacks, will seek to preserve itself. It will intensify until those feedbacks reach a balance.

The antiwar protests, the various liberation movements of that era produced a sense among some Democrats that their party had left them behind. This was the dawning of neoconservatism, a tendency of conservatism that abandons a traditionalist reticence toward war in favor of notions that the U.S. political and economic system is the best system for all humans everywhere and that U.S. security can best be ensured by compelling, as with the Iraq War and the “Washington Consensus,” the rest of the world to adopt that system. Neoconservatism is largely about a backlash against the uprisings of the 1960s and early 1970s. And it embraces neoliberalism as a moral imperative.[4] In a certain sense, all of the regression we’ve seen since that time has been a reaction to that time.

And so a great counterfactual: What if the counterculture movement had succeeded? I can’t answer that question. But because, ecologically, we are exhausting our planet, I very much fear that, as a species, it was our last chance.

  1. [1]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995); Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  2. [2]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995); Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  3. [3]William Rivers Pitt, “Here’s an Incredible Offer, Donald: Resign,” Truthout, July 21, 2018, https://truthout.org/articles/heres-an-incredible-offer-donald-resign/
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126); Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Irving Kristol’s Neoconservative Persuasion,” Commentary 132, no. 2 (2011), 25-29.

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