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A Better Mousetrap for the Age of Rats

American democracy is a better mousetrap. Unfortunately, it was born in the Age of the Rat.

It isn’t just any old rat, either. It is a magical rat that somehow convinces its victims that the fatter it gets, the better off they are. I refer, of course to the robber barons of Wall Street, the plump rats and plutocrats of the Industrial Revolution and its technology-empowered successors.

It doesn’t take a fine-grained historical account to see that our democratic mousetrap has proved inadequate to the task of catching rats, from yesterday’s railroad magnates to today’s Wall Street thieves. It took a civil war to stop the trafficking in human beings.

With some extraordinary exceptions – child labor laws, the New Deal, civil rights – we’ve done little more than occasionally wipe the coal dust from our faces.

What is the source of the rat-magic that has made many Americans believe their freedom depends upon the freedom of others to, well, destroy their freedom?

Some point to Calvinism. Others mention Hobbes’ description of humans as fallen brutes. (Calvin & Hobbes? Ah, the hidden meaning!) Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” became the right hand of the Calvinist God. Then there’s Charles Darwin. To the Right, biological evolution is a fraud, but social Darwinism is the cat’s meow.

Their worldview goes something like this:

A person lives in isolation from other humans and from all of nature. Life is deterministic. Freedom is acceptance of one’s place in the hierarchy. Free people accept a dog-eat-dog world in which human attachment and interdependence are seen as mollycoddling folly. Obedience to authority brings economic security and is a sign of divine favor. Extreme wealth usually proves that some are naturally closer to God than others. Importantly, economic exploitation can, sometimes, be taken as betrayal. We’ll come back to this.

The holders of this unhandsome outlook don’t see it this way, of course. They are inside the worldview. For them, it is where meaning comes from.

The progressive worldview holds that persons live in an interdependent world with nature and with one another. Self-reliance and social responsibility are recognized virtues. Individuals exist in relationship. When one is in chains, no one is free. Freedom comes with responsibilities. It is something more than a safe place in a hierarchy.

George Lakoff uncovered another key source of the difference: family. The language and values of “strict” parent types correspond to conservative political views. “Nurturant” styles correspond to progressive views. Obedience and discipline are important to the strict parent. Its first priority is the maintenance of authority. Nurturant parents focus on responsibility and concern for others. Most of us hold some of both. The strict parent at home might be tolerant and empowering at work or hold political views at odds with his parenting style.

Back to rat-magic.  In conservatives’ more confining picture of human nature, legitimate authority is more often a cleric or a CEO than a product of that suspicious, unseemly lottery called an election, unless the cleric or CEO wins the election.

And, capitalism has the neat feature of sorting people into an economic hierarchy. As their capitol accumulates, the rich really do get richer. It seems quite natural to the conservative authoritarian. Government interventions aimed at putting the rats on a diet are unnatural acts. And that’s why democracy’s mousetrap can’t catch rats.

The advantage isn’t lost on the rats. They use their heft to reinforce the conservative worldview through political bribes and a sophisticated message machine. They’ve done a great job of activating the brain networks in which the hierarchical, authoritarian models reside. How is it that so many people I know who would break their backs for a neighbor in need can hold such cold and punishing political opinions? The rats abracadrabed them. It helps, of course, that the rats can tempt politicians with a hand up the economic ladder where the partners can keep one another well fed.

We have some clues to building a bigger, better mousetrap, one made for rats. Some voters felt betrayed by President Bush and the Republicans. President Obama’s 2008 victory was due in part to this feeling of betrayal. There are goodly numbers of moderate voters who recognize betrayal when they see it. They are secular Anne Hutchinsons. Hutchinson was the 17th Century Puritan dissident whose self-confidence and moral courage allowed her to see through the magic spells of intolerant authority. These Americans hold a less rigid view of the divine hierarchy. While not abandoning the “religion,” when betrayed they will abandon its temporary human despots and embrace new leadership.

Also, people feel a natural empathy for one another. Fellow-feeling and skepticism of divisive, abusive authority are deeply ingrained in our natures, much more deeply, I think, than either the authoritarian will to power or the weak passivity that wants only to be led. The progressive outlook is alive in the good neighbor. I call it prairie humanism. We need to draw it out into the political sphere.

Progressives, then, would be wise to incorporate two themes in their messages:  1) The need for institutional safeguards against betrayal by economic and political elites; 2) An authentic, empathy-based argument that we are, collectively and cooperatively, our own best allies. It’s easy to say, but, apparently, harder to do.

The Mousetrap game animation, “Cheese Trap”: “First quarter final project for the Computer Animation course at University of Washington — the mouse trap. Created in Maya by Dane Barney and Camden Davis in the span of three weeks (with very little sleep) in December 2004.”

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith