Cultural and Political Inertia

Most of you know what inertia is – Objects in motion tend to stay in motion; objects at rest tend to stay at rest.

The biggest effort is the first inch you roll a boulder. Then everything gets easier; then it keeps going on its own. Once that boulder is rolling, don’t get in its way.

The same thing happens in politics and culture. It’s difficult to enact changes, but once the revolution happens, it’s hard to slow down. Everything that is taken for granted can go out the window.

You can see this with the transformations that happened in the French revolution, or various communist revolutions. In france, what began as populism quickly spiraled into a bloodbath and ended with Napoleon being Emperor.

Up to 100 million people were killed in the Chinese communist revolution. Russia might have had two revolutions if you look closely – the initial Bolshevik revolution, which killed millions and destroyed the social fabric, and the Stalinist revolution, which went on for years, further transforming the country and re-organizing multiple nations into a communist empire.

People wonder how Hitler did the things he did. Why didn’t anyone stop him?

Well, some tried, but the real answer is inertia. Once the first steps were made, it was like a boulder rolling down the hill. Best to get out of the way, and the people who saw the boulder at rest were likely mystified – it had only been pushed an inch!

There was also the Meiji restoration in Japan. Once the shogunate began to weaken, it was a slow move to a breaking point. The emperor took control, and in less than 10 years the entire samurai class was eliminated, the country became industrial and westernized, and everything about the culture, down to the very names people used, was altered.

The rigid structure of society that had lasted some 800 years was suddenly washed away in a few years.

What does this mean for us today?

Consider the nearly 20-years long wars and occupation of the middle east.

It took a big push to get the war machine rolling – that was 9-11. Once that precipitous event happened, inertia changed from static to dynamic. The military was mobilized and an invasion took place. Then a second invasion happened, because the wheels were already rolling.

Politically, we had the Patriot act, a huge monolithic piece of legislation that changed the landscape of America and the very idea of liberty. When Edward Snowden revealed the massive government spy program targeting Americans, lots of people were shocked (not me – but that’s another story).

How did such a big boulder get rolling, and why didn’t we stop it?

On the flip side – why do we still have military personnel in the middle east when we have no clear reason to be there? The answer is inertia.

War has become the static state now. Endless war is the boulder at rest. Any attempt to change the status quo will net very little progress – at first.

The big lesson from history is that things can change, often more quickly than people realize, and change due to things which, on their own, might not seem precipitous.

This is the primary problem with American conservatives. They have conserved nothing. The practice has been to allow piecemeal reforms with the idea that slow change is tolerable. The problem is, slow change becomes rapid, painful change. They don’t operate with inertia in mind.

That’s part of why none of them saw Donald Trump coming. They thought the boulder could only be nudged, not that it a few good pushes could get the whole thing rolling and they couldn’t slow it down. Make no mistake, the Republican party infrastructure did not anticipate Trump winning the nomination and the white house, and they have spent 3 years trying to figure out how to slow down the boulder and get back to the old static state.

It’s also why they don’t understand the nature of their opposition. Things like “gun control” seem piecemeal and acceptable, but the standard republican doesn’t understand where those pushes are headed. Perhaps Virginia will be a signal to them; perhaps it will be the boulder rolling.

You can make a list of similar things – socialized medicine, non-traditional marriage, drug legalization, trans “rights,” immigration, etc. that are being pushed. You can also see the static state at work in a host of dysfunctional institutions – education, infrastructure control, student debt… the list goes on. People assume their efforts do nothing because it’s hard to overcome inertia.

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