Legitimacy is a question

If legitimacy does not originate in the means by which power is gained, it must instead accrete from the ends toward which power is employed. Thus, while the monopoly on force is never legitimate in origin, since it is always based on an exercise of arbitrary force, it can become legitimate via governance: by transforming from a regime that disproportionately benefits the rulers at the expense of the ruled into one that trends toward equality. As a corollary, a government that has obtained legitimacy may lose it in time.

Of course, the point at which legitimacy is gained or lost is devilishly difficult to determine. If one gang protects your community from other gangs but demands half of your livelihood in exchange for not destroying you, is this gang’s rule legitimate? This entails a grave risk-reward analysis: is your community’s vulnerability to other gangs, and to this one, worth giving up half of everything? More relevantly, if the U.S. government can be considered to have achieved and maintained some modest degree of legitimacy, but Trump and the Republicans in power proceed to turn it into even more of a self-serving power brokerage at public expense than it already is, will the American government remain legitimate?

That depends not only how inequitable the rule becomes but also on its degree of entrenchment. If something sufficiently closer to equity can be restored within the system, i.e., through the constitutionally prescribed election process, the rule may still be considered legitimate. But if the rule succeeds in entrenching an extreme degree of disproportionate power, whether by blatant force or subtle manipulation, its legitimacy, and therefore its claim to a monopoly on force, may be questioned.


Year of the Overt

2016 is the year that the covert became overt. The implicit white nationalism of conservatives became explicit with the embrace of Trump. The backroom understanding between Wall Street and the cowardly liberal establishment took center stage in the defeat of Bernie Sanders. And the anti-democratic features that had been lurking behind our elections — gerrymandering, voting rights restrictions, the electoral college — burst into the open by delivering victory to the candidate with about 3 million fewer supporters. Finally, the endemic bias, sensationalism, and distortiveness that has always characterized news reporting became explicit with “fake news.”

Why was 2016 the year of the overt? Was it happenstance, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of Trump, Bernie, and Julian Assange, or was it an eventuality that was ripe for occurrence thanks to budding social movements and technologies?  If this is the development of a process with its own momentum, rather than the coincidence of exceptional individuals and circumstances, then we must confront deeper, more historical, more existential forces than the flickering shadow play of party politics.

What does 2016 mean for the future? Is this the end of hypocrisy, and is that good or bad? Was there value to the illusions of principled parties, representative democracy, factual journalism, and now that we are disillusioned, do we teeter on the brink of cynicism, apathy, resignation?

With the soul of America bared naked for all to examine, will we transcend the disfigurement now that it has been exposed or embrace it as the new norm? How can we come together to make the ugliness revealed in 2016 an overture to something beautiful?

Mer(cena)ry Christmas

Is there not something wrong with an economy that relies on the “holiday season” to artificially boost consumption and employment? How fitting that the celebration of a religious figure who decried wealth and asked his followers to renounce their possessions should become the pretext for driving up the profits of the consumer goods industry. It is entirely consistent with the history of religion exploited as a guise for the concentration of power. We buy more crap and work longer hours not because we are imbued with the holiday spirit but because we are duped by capitalism.

Normal or not?

Today the Electoral College will elect Donald Trump to the presidency. Our adherence to the laws and norms of American governance all but guarantee it. This adherence is at once reassuring and unnerving. May Trump pay those laws and norms the same respect. If he does not, may we have the audacity to break them, too. Sometimes, the ends justify the means.

Celebrity in chief

The appeal of Trump: he makes politics accessible – not in a good way. People tuned into him because they wanted to see what he would do next. And they supported him because they wanted to see what he would do as President, out of morbid curiosity, with no moral regard for the impact on people’s lives.