In the last few months, several celebrities have threatened to move out of the United States if the Donald became president. Notables such as Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Stewart, Cher, Samuel L. Jackson, and Miley Cyrus all put their feet down before the election as a way to protest the possibility of their side losing.
Of course, now that the election has passed, and the Donald has indeed been elected president, the celebrities are not so gung-ho anymore. As the Daily Mail reports, “Some dismissed what they pledged as a ‘joke’ and others simply went to ground when asked by DailyMail.com when they were packing up and heading to Canada or other countries.”
This is rather disappointing to some, who saw the purging of this group as the best reason to vote for Trump. It also brings into question the formerly rock-solid faith that fans had in the celebrities. As Miley Cyrus said, “I don’t say things I don’t mean!” What are we to believe now that she has apparently had a change of heart and now accepts Trump as the president?
This shouldn’t be a surprise. As explained in the 2010 essay, Juggernaut, I explored this kind of threat to leave and why it so rarely happens. In short, we live in a closed economy, and the threat to leave is a kind of wishful thinking that such an action would be productive. When the election is over, the realization that there is no better option sinks in, and we all end up dealing with what we’re given.
During the run-up to the mid-term election in 2010, as it became apparent that scores of Democrats would be replaced by a troop of Republican ‘Tea Party’ candidates, a bystander was almost guaranteed to hear a steady chant of lament from the left side of the political spectrum. It was a familiar chant, one that included such claims as ‘If those yahoos get into office, this country is ruined!’ and the old standby, ‘If they get hold of power, I’m moving to Canada!’
It was familiar because we actually heard it from the other side of the spectrum in 2008, when it had become clear that Barack Obama and the Democrats were poised to win power. Conservatives and Republicans from across the country shouted that ‘If that guy gets into office, this country is ruined!’ They too threatened to move to a different country, though it was to New Zealand or Singapore or some other place known to have reduced taxes and government intervention in recent years.
To the thoughtful participant, making such claims seemed like the only recourse. In fact, during every election, and especially the presidential ones, the mantra is always the same—‘If the other side gets ahold of power, the only thing left to do is move.’
Of course, in 2010, as it was in 2008 and other election years before, no one actually moved. As the protesters quickly learned, there was nowhere to move that could provide an escape from the newly elected officials and still offer all the benefits of living in the United States. What troubled voters found upon reflection was that no other country in the world provided a better situation than that which could be found at home—all had their drawbacks, and none provided the kind of deliverance that might be imagined.
For example, modern liberals saw Canada as enticing because of its universal health care, its anti-war posture, its progressive stance on same-sex marriage, and other liberal causes célèbres of the time, but Canada has always had high unemployment, relatively limited culture, and, no matter how warm their poutine is, it’s just really cold up there. Conservatives found places like New Zealand and Singapore appealing because they have reduced taxes and governmental bureaucracy in recent years, but they still maintain no small amount of strict rules and state intervention, which make them less appealing than they might have seemed on the surface—not to mention the 18-hour flight it would take to get there.
And so the typical disgruntled American voter really has no alternative in the situation. As corrupt as Dick Cheney and George W. Rex might have seemed, the leaders of France or Italy proved to be no more principled. As socialist and radical as Obama seems, the conditions in Germany or Australia provide no reprieve—all advanced countries suffer from the ills of the modern system, quite as if they are endemic. By moving away from America, one might be able to escape the threats to freedom and well-being present under its new regime, only to face new threats abroad. And who wants to eat Vegemite all day, anyway?
The fact is that there is no place to go that would provide a frustrated American with a viable escape. Certainly, there is no place to go that would improve the situation enough to justify changing citizenship, packing up, and actually making the move. It would be too much trouble for too little gain, and so, though such a move is often promised, it never happens.
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This subtle truth is more troubling than it may seem. Simply, there is no place to move if things don’t go the way one wants them to go. This means that the citizens of this country, as passionate and idealistic as they are, must endure whatever policies and ventures the few in power decide to assume, even when those policies and ventures completely contradict the people’s core beliefs and ideals.
Throughout the Bush presidency, for instance, modern liberals had to tolerate eight years of foreign wars, crony capitalism, and bad public speaking; throughout the short Obama presidency, conservatives have had to endure third-world-style nationalization, deficit spending that would make Keynes’ head spin, and really good speeches that make it all sound like grapes and sunshine.
Americans are not used to this sort of thing. To them, it seems illogical and even unnatural to accept anything that is disagreeable or contradictory to one’s principles. If one is faced with a war that he finds objectionable or a government health care mandate that he considers to be unconstitutional, the American believes he should just reject it, turn away, and go find something that he does agree with—that is the American way; that is the way of a free people.
But that’s not the way it works anymore. For some time now, the party in power has been able to dictate what everyone must do, whether or not those dictates coincide with what everyone wants or believes to be in their best interest. We live in what might be called a ‘closed system’, one where there are no real alternatives or means of escape. If one disagrees with the war or cannot come to accept the government-run health care system, too bad. Everyone must deal with it and carry on as if there is no problem at all.
Now, one might argue that the average citizen does not have to just sit by and deal with it—he is given a means to correct the situation by voting. And, certainly, the kind of elections that we have seen in the last decade or so show that an agitated public can and will take their concerns to the voting booth to change the officials in power. It is thought that by doing so the people can improve their situation and actually make the system work.
But this is to neglect the contingencies inherent in the system itself. A closer look shows that it is designed in such a way that every action a voter makes or attempts to make through his representatives to correct the system basically undoes or prevents an action that someone else wanted or aimed for through other representatives. In the modern system, one side’s victory is the other side’s loss.
And so a citizen’s action necessarily invigorates a slew of others—Republicans stir up Democrats; the clean air advocates rile the tobacco lobbies to further action; environmentalists agitate the oil companies for more protection; financial regulations give banks incentive to find new ways to capitalize on their consumers. In a closed system, one group’s action always leads to another group’s reaction, and the process continues until everyone is affected.
Politically minded individuals will simply view this condition as a challenge. If we face a closed system with no real alternatives, then the only thing to do is to join in the fracas and get as much of the action as possible. The idea is to form some sort of lobby, ignite a campaign, or organize a special interest to extract as much funding, underwriting, or subsidy from the system as can be mustered.
These days, no one can afford to sit by and do nothing, and so everyone takes part and forms a special interest to gain political power. Manufacturers, teachers, engineers, farmers, secretaries, accountants, doctors, bankers, and so on—everyone must take part or else lose out. Indeed, this football fan recently learned that the NFL has a political action committee. Apparently, no one is exempt.
Anyone can see the trap that is set. By attempting to control the system through lobbies, campaigns, and special interests, these few politically minded activists only agitate others to join in and do the same. So more lobbies are initiated, more campaigns are run, and more special interests are formed in order to get more from the system, ultimately inducing even more of the same action. The more diligent and persuasive a group is, the more power they can obtain. Everyone involved is compelled to jump in on one side or the other and compete for control of the system that no one can afford to reject or deny. Since everyone has a stake in the game, and no one can deny the benefit of joining in, it becomes a massive tug-of-war that can only end in lots of muddy participants.
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This vignette shows us in capsule form what happens when alternatives are eliminated from a given situation. Like clockwork, the powerful end up dictating, and so everyone is forced to compete for power, which only leads to an ever-escalating quest for control over others. This is the condition in which we live in early twenty-first century America. Without viable alternatives, everyone must adhere to the dictates of those in power, whether it is the Democrats or Republicans, the corporations or the unions. Given such a predicament, it is only reasonable to strive to achieve control, and so ensues a never ending struggle to obtain and hold power over everyone else.
The Western story is emblematic primarily because its signposts are so vivid in our historical imagination. At the end of the fifteenth century, the system was closed with nowhere to go, much like it is today. With the discovery of America, the system suddenly opened up, after which came an era of revolution and growth. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, the frontier closed, and a sort of cultural reversal set in. In our age, the West again finds itself locked in a closed system, not unlike that from which it emerged around 1500, and braces for what critics have warned will be another Dark Ages.