Just a couple of years after I moved to America from Russia, I was discussing my career prospects with a friend, head of humanities at a Texas university.
My training and inclination naturally pointed to life in the academe, but my friend Peter warned against it: “It’s assumed that everyone at every humanities faculty will be at least broadly liberal.”
Since I knew I couldn’t be liberal even broadly, I began to look for different paths to economic survival. My academic career died before it got a chance to live, and my biggest illusion followed it to the knacker’s yard.
Everyone, Peter? There I was, thinking that pluralism in politics ipso facto promoted plurality of views, certainly in the intellectual arena. Yet according to my friend it fostered uniformity instead. I hoped he was wrong, but sensed he wasn’t.
Now, almost half a century later, an English friend also named Peter asked me about my “thoughts on the outlook for the USA”, and that made me recall the other Peter and the paradox at which he hinted.
It wasn’t the only one. The other paradox was the dichotomy between ‘public opinion’ and opinions of the public. The former was opinion with a public voice, produced by the vocal chords of “everyone at every humanities faculty”, the major newspapers, TV networks, publishers and assorted celebrities.
The latter was opinion enunciated in the public bar, an institution enjoying an overwhelming numerical superiority over the other one. Yet no war for a nation’s soul is ever decided by the large battalions so dear to Napoleon’s heart.
Those who think otherwise ought to remind themselves that the greatest revolutions of modernity, American, French and Russian, were each perpetrated by a few hundred revolutionaries, a few thousand at most. The majority either remained silent, or was seduced into joining the chorus of ‘public opinion’.
What matters is the specific weight of opinion, not its demographic spread. Thus I discovered that the public generally didn’t share ‘public opinion’. Long before terms like ‘political correctness’ entered the lexicon, the American public rejected ‘public opinion’ on all its pet subjects: race, taxation, foreign intervention, the role of the state, guns, contempt for American grassroots and history.
The rejection was visceral, rather than rational. Public bar opinion was happy to rail against ‘pinko preverts’, racial strife shoved down its collective throat, growing taxes and so forth. But for as long as ‘public opinion’ didn’t interfere too much with the pursuit of happiness also known as the American Dream, public bar opinion was happy to remain confined to its natural venue.
And when such interference overstepped a certain threshold, public bar opinion tended to find able enunciators, such as Reagan and, well, Trump. Those mouthpieces got themselves heard – and elected – by putting public bar opinion into words capable of converting it into a political force.
‘Public opinion’ was always aware of that danger, which is why it curbed its more extreme, totalitarian tendencies. Such self-restraint reflected a tactical consideration, not an inner need. Public bar opinion had to be kept in check, and that desideratum was best served by seeming moderation, not unbridled extremism.
With a beagle’s olfactory sense and a sapper’s eye for the landmines, ‘public opinion’ developed an intricate system of verbal control mechanisms, something I call glossocracy, government of the word, by the word and for the word.
‘Public opinion’ learned how to come up with words that public bar opinion wouldn’t perceive as too extreme. Thus ‘health insurance for all’ is better than nationalised health; ‘state investment’, than state control; ‘social justice’, than expropriatory taxation, ‘affirmative action’ than reverse discrimination; ‘identity politics’, than social atomisation – and so forth.
The glossocrats avoided certain words the way anglers avoid noise, and for the same reason: they didn’t want to scare off their prey. But for all the dominance of ‘public opinion’, words and realities can’t go their separate ways entirely.
Immoderate policies can’t hide their whole body behind moderate words: an elbow or a toe is bound to stick out. Hence, it’s not just extreme words that were off-limits, but also, to some extent, extreme policies. ‘You can’t say that’ isn’t the same as ‘you can’t do that’, but some link usually perseveres.
This long introduction was necessary for me even to attempt to answer my English friend’s question about the outlook for the USA. That outlook, I’m afraid, is grim, made ever so much grimmer by the Trump tenure.
Throughout his presidency I’ve been as complimentary about Trump’s policies as I’ve been scathing about his personality. Alas, his good policies are more easily reversible than the damage done by his bad personality.
Those seeking significant political shifts need both their gods and their demons, with these entities existing in binary glossocratic opposition. It could be proletarians and capitalists, Aryans and Jews, monarchists and republicans, liberals and racists or anything else.
To what extent such binary entities reflect reality doesn’t matter. What matters to budding glossocrats isn’t that they are real, but that they are plausible.
Thus, for example, Reagan had his opponents and even haters, but, hard as their tried, they couldn’t attach the devil’s horns to his public image. Reagan was too obviously a good chappie, or at least made a damned good show of being one.
His haters from the ranks of ‘public opinion’ had their gods, but they lost a great deal of their omnipotence without the plausible dialectical antithesis of an obvious demon. That dulled the cutting edge of glossocracy and delayed its triumph: dialectics won’t be defied.
Yet Trump is no Reagan. His repulsive personality, especially its post-November manifestations, gave the glossocratic ‘public opinion’ the demon it sought. For people blessed with easy command of language it’s child’s play to establish a link between Trump’s rotten character and the ethos that gave rise to his good policies.
That Trump’s undertakings will be undone by the Biden administration within months, not to say weeks, has always gone without saying. Yet much more damaging is the increase in the volume of ‘public opinion’ with a pari passu muting of public bar opinion.
Glossocratic ‘public opinion’ now doesn’t have to hide behind the smokescreen of moderation. It no longer has to forswear extreme words because it no longer has to forswear extreme policies. Since Trump is a plausible demon, ‘public opinion’ can easily demonise, and thereby silence, public bar opinion.
In practical terms, this means a forthcoming leftward turn in American politics, with every destructive consequence such an excursion will inevitably entail. The consequences would be hurtful even without the Covid pandemic devastating the country’s economy and denting its spirit. As it is… well, as it is, I can’t find many hopeful words.
All I can do is pray that the devastating effects of the extreme policies will only shake the foundations of America, rather than implode them. Public bar opinion has been shamed into silence, but it’s still there, waiting for a gentler, more persuasive voice than Trump’s to appear. I pray that it does, soon.