Friday, January 22, 2010

The Structure of Political Revolutions

I suppose all bloggers worth their salt this week have to try to provide an explanation for the current Democratic debacle, stand among their ruins, and prophesy. Here goes. Let us return to grad school and the first time you read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I’m sure you remember it, with that pink cover, and the famous argument that most of the time science tends to go along quite nicely, with a self-confirming worldview, confirmed again and again by the experiments of those who share it. Now, there are occasional things that do not fit neatly into any world view. These are explained away as anomalies, and do not threaten the architectonic of the worldview, until the anomalies accumulate with sufficient number and gravity, leading to what Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” (he is responsible for popularizing paradigm in middlebrow argot), and uses the example of the paradigmatic paradigm shift, the Copernican revolution, overthrowing the Ptolemaic geocentered universe.

Okay. Enough astronomy. To make the analogy, we have lived under a Reaganite paradigm for lo these thirty years; government is bad, taxes are bad, the military (which is somehow seen as not really part of the government) is good, and free markets are good, and everything confirms this, except what doesn’t, and those become the anomalies, such as Medicare and Social Security, which do not count as being government. And since the people who control the paradigm get to declare what is and what is not anomalous, the Republican departures from these standards, as frequently happened under the two Bushes, get a free pass, while the Democratic departures are condemned as wrecking the system.
Well, under the second Bush, the anomalies piled up, fastly and furiously, until it seemed that the underlying system was beginning to crack and falter, and we were in the presence of a paradigm shift, heralded by the election of Obama. But I don’t think this has happened, and the old paradigm, though shaky, is beginning to recoalesce. And the main reason is, though Obama was elected as a Copernican, his governing style has been Ptolemaic, and without giving a clear enough alternative, too many Americans have engaged in retrograde motion, and returned to their Reaganite epicycles. There are always anomalies, things that don’t fit, but only the person who controls the paradigm gets to announce the anomalies, and that person is not yet Obama, and it is no longer clear, alas, that he ever will be.

Do you remember Tycho Brahe, the greatest astronomer in the generation before Galileo, who had a golden nose, and wrote about the supernova in Cassiopeia? Well, he also tried to combine the Ptolemaic and Copernican models, and argued that the earth was indeed in the center of the universe, and the sun revolved around the earth, but all the other planets revolved around the sun. This was an act of scientific bipartisanship, and Tycho Brahe was half-right. But sometimes, in politics and celestial mechanics alike, being half right can be the same as being completely wrong.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Required reading should be "The Wrecking Crew" by Thomas Frank which explains how in the past 35 years the rightwingers have systematically re-made the gov't to the sorry state it is in today. Unfortunately, the people who need it most, those who believe Fox news is unbiased and accurate are highly unlikely to be reading these posts. The book is heavily annoted with many sources coming from the rightwingers themselves, i.e. it is not an opinion piece.
Karin McCall

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