So said Dorothy to Toto in The Wizard of Oz.
I’m thinking about the inauguration of a new president, the historic transfer of power from the administration of Barack Obama to the administration of Donald Trump. It’s an important event with major implications.
But for me, “Kansas” is not a metaphor for the Obama Administration.
The “Kansas” we left at some point in our journey is a society in which the visible and accountable arms of government set the terms and conditions by which all of us live. It’s the system we learned about as school children, where the People elect a Congress, the Congress makes the laws, the President enforces the laws, and the Courts serve as the referee among the three. It’s the place where the press is independent of wealth and privilege and yet has the resources and determination to dig out the truth. It’s an understanding of power, how it is legitimized and how it operates in our lives.
Most of us have lived in “Kansas” all our lives, haven’t we? We’ve built our lives around its “reality.” Indeed, even our differences (Republican or Democrat? conservative or liberal?) reflect a shared perception that the authority and power of government sets the terms and conditions by which we live.
In “Kansas,” seeing “my candidate” move into the White House was a kind of victory, meaning that better times were on the way.
I know, most people insist we’re still living in “Kansas.” This explains the strong reactions (pro and con) people have to the ascension of Donald J. Trump to the presidency. There’s a new sheriff in town with the power to change everything—for good or ill, depending on one’s perspective.
My hunch is that we’re not in “Kansas” anymore.
In this place where we now live, the power to set society’s terms and conditions is held privately, resting in the hands of people whose names we do not know. They have offices on Wall Street, in Central London, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, Dubai and Bonn and are far richer than most national governments. The smartest people work for them, the latest technology is at their fingertips. They have access to nearly all the intimate details of all our lives—enough information to assure no man or woman dares to stand in their way. To enforce their decrees, they have at their beck-and-call private armies: lobbyists, campaign committees, security companies, criminal networks, mercenaries.
Governments are not in charge anymore; they no longer set the terms and conditions by which we live. That’s how it was back in Kansas, but we’re not in Kansas anymore.
So maybe it’s time to stop arguing about whether we are Republican or Democrat. Or whether we are conservative or liberal. Or whether we love America or lament America. Maybe we have more important choices to make.
What do you think?
What would we call this new place we are living, if we were to acknowledge it’s not Kansas? There are similarities to the medieval era with its power of princes (now we call them oligarchs) and its lack of unifying authority.
But there are obvious differences too. Medieval Europe had the unifying influence of the Roman church; we lack that now. Its destructive potential was limited to how many people could be put to the sword before the killers collapsed in exhaustion; now we have robotic weapons of war and nuclear bombs, death-dealing devices that never get tired. Then there were many "frontiers" where one could go for a fresh start; now the empire is everywhere.
What agenda do we have to work through in this new place? Is it our feelings about Donald Trump? Whether Congress should be controlled by the Republicans or the Democrats? Whether my narrow identity group is morally superior to your narrow identity group? I don’t think so.
Nor is it whether the stock market will rise or fall, or whether our children can land a spot in a fine university and then a job on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.
Power to set the terms and conditions of our lives has shifted to people and places that are not publicly accountable, that are a law unto themselves. In our new context, life is more unpredictable, authority more arbitrary, prosperity more elusive, moral nihilism closer by, the pace of change more frenetic. This presents us with a different set of issues than when we lived in Kansas.
So what am I suggesting? That we reframe our conversations with one another to reflect this dawning reality. Sure, we will continue to argue and disagree, but please, let’s argue and disagree about things that are real.
Rod Dreher is a writer who will help us do this; you will find him published daily at The American Conservative. Though I often disagree with Dreher, I hear him speaking about our new reality. Consider this post about capitalism through the eyes of German economist Wolfgang Streek, this post about “community, capitalism and christianity,” and Dreher’s frequent discussion of “The Benedict Option,” which is a strategy for social and spiritual renewal in a society that is increasingly toxic to faith, truth-telling and community.
There are other helpful writers, to be sure. Let me know of those you’ve found; I would be glad to highlight them here.