Falling Expectations - December 3, 2012

In graduate school, I first heard about the theory of rising expectations, which, in its political-theory iteration (there is a similar theory in economics) says that revolutions and political disruptions occur when times are improving, not when they are at their worst. Good examples could be made for the two central violent revolutions in modern Western history, the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Both occurred after a relatively moderate changeover in rulers, and improvements in living conditions were in the works and definite improvement in freedom of action were already advanced.

The theory posits that it is not when people are beaten down by strong dictatorial powers that engender the most dissatisfaction and impatience for improvement, but when the improvement had already begun, and peoples’ impatience for faster improvement brought about demands and, in these cases, violence.

If rising expectations can bring about a revolution, what about those times that can best be understood as periods of falling expectations, which I take to be our own time? If rising expectations bring about the highs of our bipolar politics, does falling expectations bring about the lows? Rising expectations occur when there has been an upswing in fortune; falling expectations occur when the bottom has been reached and no rise is foreseen. Rising expectations lead to political action; falling expectation leads to quietism

I contend that this “theory” may help explain the predicament that the country finds itself in lately, when majorities say that the economy is their principal concern, that they have little confidence in the current political “leadership,” and then vote to reelect that leadership. There have been many hypotheses for this: the strength of the Democrats’ ability to get out their base, the low turnout, the inability of Republicans to connect with voters, the rise of minorities who typically vote for Democrats, etc. But none of these clear up the conundrum we find ourselves in, since a majority of those who voted for President Obama don’t seem to have confidence in his leadership or the future.

I see this in the book business: huge numbers of books printed (2 million new titles in 2011) at a time of insecurity and retrenchment.

Falling expectations may be our near-term future as well as an answer to the present. After all, in the recent election, there was no “I have a plan,” à la Nixon, going on. In a very real way, the present administration is an outstanding example of the unique combination of deceitfulness in tactics and openness in strategy. There is no plan in the normal meaning of plan, because the end result of the tactics, which is the all-important part of the plan, seems to have nothing to do with the economy or jobs or deficits or anything connected thereto. It seems to be wholly a plan for the future of party power over the government.

So if hope and change are not the guidelines to voters’ actions in reelecting a president that the majority agrees is a failing president, what is it that drives people to vote this way? I see two possibilities (or a combination of both): the Empathy Factor (“he cares about me and will help me”) and class warfare (“he will punish those whom I envy”).

Class warfare is the bread and butter of European politics, but it has never worked consistently for very long in America (the longest example by far was the New Deal, which presided over the Great Depression . . . please note that the 1930s depression took place throughout the “first world,” but only in one country was it called the “Great Depression”). It can last for an election or two, but in the end, Americans have, in the past, proven to be more interested in advancement than in punishment.

What about the Empathy Factor? I think this may be tied to what I see as a unique form of charity, the one that occurs from the left. It was beautifully put by Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a rewriting of the New Testament with a new Jesus. There, Zarathustra says, “I give you a new commandment: Love the Farthest.”

The Empathy Factor works consistently only when charity (another word for “love”) involves loving the farthest. And what is loving the farthest? Let me give you a recent example: When the memorial service took place for fallen Benghazi hero, Tyrone Woods, the president shook hands with Charles Woods, Tyrone’s father. The father later said it was “like shaking hands with a dead fish.” It would be hard to deny that Tyrone Woods was among the farthest.