Don’t you know there’s a war on?
Just before I was born, a shade over 50 years ago, a War on Poverty was declared. It embodied all that was great about America – a pledge to marshal our forces with military precision to feed and clothe every citizen of this land. Nevermind we were fighting a real war at the same time – called a “police action”.
Since the War on Poverty we’ve had a War on Drugs, a War on Terror, and a number of actual shooting wars – none of which we called a “war”, of course. There’s also been a War on Women, War on Christmas, War on Islam, War on Cancer, a War on the 1% …. the list goes on indefinitely.
As we enter this election an angry and energized electorate might be forgiven for perceiving every small slight as though it was an assault from “the enemy” from “the war” (pick one). It’s the only language we have to describe conflict, after all. And it’s language and behavior completely anathema to any kind of civilized democracy.
In behavioral economics, “loss aversion” refers to tendency among people to fear losing what they have about twice as much as they can hope gaining something new. Times of great change, therefor, create far more anxiety than hope – especially among people with a lot to potentially lose.
This may appear to have nothing to do with the constant state of war, but how they feed into each other is critical. Our “leaders”, to the extent we have any, feel compelled to ratchet up all rhetoric to a state of war over absolutely everything. Anyone who is a Gen-Xer (like myself) or a Millenial has had this be the standard of all conflict and achievement our entire life.
In a war, there are winners and losers. The fear of losing being far more compelling, war is a constant state of threat more than anything. “Progress”, to the extent anyone could possibly define it, becomes less desirable all the time, as it necessarily entails not just risk but a very high level of risk.
At some point it becomes an issue of what constant war weariness does to the warriors themselves is what matters. Since everything is a war, conversation with “the enemy” is essentially treason. Those who are not on our side are clearly motivated by immoral and indecent goals, or are at the very least tools of the oppressor.
The goals of these warriors are inherently defensive. There is no point to trying to win over anyone new to the cause given that loss is more compelling than gain. The primary motivation is always fear of losing. Encounters with “those people” are opportunities for hand to hand combat, an exercise in destroying them before they can destroy you so loss may be averted.
This sort of attitude can be expected in any election year, but this year we have candidates who give the sense of constant war a focus and a voice. Whether the target is immigration or the wealthy, the real enemy is “the establishment” – those who defend the target and for whatever reason do their bidding.
How does anyone create something like a mandate to accomplish anything in a world constantly at war?
The short answer is that they can’t. No one can possibly win anything in a constant state of war. On the Republican side an end to budget deficits, abortion, and welfare has been promised for over 30 years without any significant advancement on any of these issues. Once the war ends, the thin call for leadership necessarily ends, too. The fear of loss keeps the faithful engaged yet at bay.
We’ve been at war, you know. All kinds of wars engaging culture, race, religion, and any other identifiable set of values anyone can name. The trenches are dug and the lines have been drawn as long as most of us have been alive.
What can a civilized, democratic people do about this?
The short answer is that we have only one war left – the war on war itself. When peace breaks out and we all attempt to convince each other rather than assault and diminish each other we will have a chance. When fear and anxiety finally give ground to faith and hope we can have progress.
There is no war. There is only us, a people. Some of us disagree with each other, but we still have to live together. And we have to make the future together, too.