The US is commonly cited as the first large experiment in popular government. Even admitting that it started on the basis of a government of white men that excluded women and non-European men and who enslaved other human beings, it was the first large trial of the idea that the purpose of this new popular government was to benefit every member not just a ruling elite. Men of an elite class and religion should not decide how society should be organized and who should benefit. Further every man had the right to develop in the directions they see fit. It was inherent in this trial that human beings are capable of thinking through problems and developing solutions based on the facts around them to the benefit of themselves and society at large. This is the Enlightenment view of mankind in action. John Locke in action.
The developments in the US over the last four years of Trump focuses the mind to question the notion that humans are rational creatures. Are we as a species capable of sustained rational action at all? Or, is our capacity for some rational thought a glossy cover over the long history of our cultures which are dominated by the afactual worlds of myth, religion, race, misogyny, greed, and violence?
What might be thought to be just the worries of academics and the proverbial deep thinkers of the world seem very close to home after the last five years in the US. Ideas and actions that seemed the domain of a tiny minority of people appear today to represent the views of a near majority of the population. Four years of Trump in the White House brought us his tens of thousands of lies, his painfully obvious narcissistic behavior, predations of his supporters throughout state and Federal government, the insurrection of January 6th, well I am not going to continue with this catalogue. The only legislation of note during his term was the 2017 $1.46 trillion tax give away to corporations and the rich. All of this and still 74 million voters – 47% of the votes cast – supported Trump’s reelection.
What does this say about the ability of people to gather facts and evaluate useful responses? Where does this leave the promise of the Enlightenment and the whole experiment in popular government?
This is my next research project.