• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Title

America’s Borderline Personality

Of political culture.

 

May 30, 2017
 
 

Along with a developmental approach to history, I warm to a notion of societies having traits associated with individual personalities. Given that societies are made up of people, it is not too much of an intellectual stretch, although I caution myself with the understanding that psychology in general and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in particular are, themselves, historicized. 

That said, and in the admission that I don’t have a license to diagnose psychiatric disorders, take the following thought with a grain of salt. Of late, the United States political culture has something akin to a borderline personality disorder.  According to the NIH, this disorder is characterized as “[Borderline personality disorder (BPD)] is a serious mental disorder marked by a pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning. These experiences often result in impulsive actions and unstable relationships. A person with BPD may experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last from only a few hours to days.”

As one might expect of a person struggling with these personality aspects, there is a lot of drama, but little effectiveness.  As the nuns might have observed back in the day when I wore a uniform to school both ways, lots of heat, little light.  Much sympathy goes to those who suffer these affects.  The anxiety, anger and depression are real, as well as the fallout from impulsive behaviors and broken relationships.  With genuine concern, I read that suicide is a factor in this diagnosis.  

What am I talking about? For some time now, an ineffectual Congress, no matter which party is in charge.  Let’s call that the ego.  The presidency acts under the influence of the id and has been one dramatic reality T.V. act from start to present.  The superego is the Supreme Court, the only one of the three branches of government with rationality, although increasingly, in my opinion, on such a strong pro-business path as to practically lose touch with the essential meaning of individual rights as our Founding Father’s first conceived of them (race, class and gender divides included in that assessment).

More recently, we have tattered foreign relationships to contemplate.  NATO nixed, our ally Germany no longer relies on us, the U.K. does not trust.  Did you see the fake handshake with the new French president?  Or the Montenegro shove followed by a lone, puffed chest?  On again, off again with Russia, in the extreme.  A continuous mess in Syria.  The United States dropped a big bomb in Afghanistan.  Now horrific suicide bombs rain in Iraq and Kabul.  Cozying up to dictators when historically the United States has stood strong for democratic governments (minus the C.I.A. assassinations, of course).  By noon on this last day of May, reports suggest that Trump will pull the U.S. out of the climate pack.  On foreign policy, the United States fundamentally lacks coherence. 

Internally, we are no better.  The true needs of the American people go unaddressed while Congress and the White House thrash around tax, health, and immigration law.  Lots of talk, no meaningful action on bringing down ACA premiums which would allow the current health care bill to make sense, or how to deal with the legal and illegal drug scourge that has laid rot on this country, or to find equilibrium on immigration.  The quality of these debates bespeaks the core problem.  Each side believes in its emotions more than anything else.  There is no room for eloquent discourse, never mind understanding or compromise.  We think we have time and resources to indulge ourselves, but, in fact, we do not.  Millions of people suffer daily in the lacuna of our policy gaps.  They should not be sacrificed on either an egotist’s (Trump) or an ideologue’s (Bannon and much of the Republican party) alter.  Other countries, such as China, continue to develop in earnest increasingly without U.S. input, while a rogue nation such as North Korea becomes a primary focus.  That way lies madness.  

Let’s look at how the maelstrom plays with a topic that this blog specifically tracks: Internet policy.  I would be the first to admit that it is not a front burner issue, not of the same immediate import that health care, immigration or tax reform present.  But in terms of long-term impact, given the economic, political, and cultural aspects of the internet, it is significant.  After considerable debate on a range of internet-related topics that go from broadband deployment to privacy and security obligations of telecommunication companies, the Obama Administration reclassified the internet (which instantiated “net neutrality” and provided for on-going funding to expand broadband in underserved geographic areas of the U.S.) and had more robust rules in place for telecoms to secure consumer privacy.  With the flick of a switch, the Trump Administration has reversed that policy.  

For whose benefit?  I honestly do not see that this shift does anything for consumers, or citizens, or students, K-12 or higher education in the least.  The only beneficiary would be the telecommunication companies.  With considerably more freedom now that regulation is relaxed, and with no expectation of oversight from Jeff Session’s Department of Justice on the ancillary anti-trust aspects, telecommunications companies – increasingly integrated vertically with abundant content – can rake in profits, control programming, and not give a fig for the vast underserved areas and people in the United States, now or in a future context.  

That path keeps millions of people in poverty; it robs youth of the educational resources that they need to succeed in a global economy.  Even on the home from, when Google played fast and loose with GAFE on FERPA and other regulatory requirements higher education must meet, Obama made a historic visit to the F.T.C. and called their bluff.  We still do not have the quality of transparency or informed consent with vendors that I, for one, believe is our right, but at least we had a president who stood up for us.  Three months after that visit, Google promised to remove the OneBox technology off its GAFE pipes.  The Big Five, who took the consumer’s side on the F.C.C. matter of reclassification in 2015 but now sit in virtual silence, have abandoned us.  They know on which side of this administration their bread is buttered and do not want to rock the boat.  Thanks for nothing, it turns out. 

It is exactly this kind of shifting, extreme behaviors that lend interpretation to a borderline personality.  A country, its policy, cannot be trusted from one minute to the next not to shift into reverse and give its citizens whiplash.  One cannot plan accordingly, invest in the future, or hope for betterment because there is no clear path.  Pop Quiz:  Under which president did equal employment rights or regulation of the environment take place?  If you said Johnson or Carter, surprise, it was Nixon.  Not because he championed those issues, but because U.S. political culture had a sense of coherence.  Borrowing from law, our presidents, until Reagan, observed the doctrine of stare decisis in public policy, or the authority of precedent.  That doctrine allowed for political differences and party politics, but not so extreme and at the expense of a basic sense of economic, social and political development. 

As a historian, if I take a big step back on the twentieth century, I observe that, for the most part, Democratic party politics prevailed over policy while Republicans addressed the extremes or the unworkable aspects.  The net result was a balance in public policy over the long course of what many call “The American Century.”  Something in our body politic is now badly out of whack with the attempt to reverse almost a century of reason growth and development.  It is in the confusion of chaotic reversals that so many people suffer.  The wealthy/corporate elites pick up the pieces.  Given the tax code, they act not as representatives of this country or even as an interested aristocracy but an international oligarchy invested almost exclusively in the accumulation of their own wealth.  Watching our politicians thrash without a realistic touchstone is not too different than the reality T.V. on housewives.  Lots of heat, no light. 

Although considered one of the more difficult diagnoses to treat, borderline personality has protocols.  Key among them is talk therapy.  That might be a start.  Talk therapy is characterized, first and foremost, by establishing trust.  On that basis, other inauthentic tendencies, such as delusion, projection, or displacement can be called out and addressed.  The goal is the emotional health of the patient.  Can we please endeavor to do that?  We need to believe in each other and bring some good old functional psychology and American pragmatism to bear on what ails us.  It is no wonder that this philosophy reigned at the start of the “American Century.”  It would do us well to refer back to that cultural moment.  Otherwise, I would hate to think of what befalls us if we don’t avail ourselves of genuine help.  Recognition that the problem is serious and deep and among us is the first step out of this emotional morass.  

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