Politics in the modern age was symbolic, as much as practical, as the state had grown so large that meaningful change was going to be gradual. In fact, change was so slow that it transcended generations. One generation of politicians would tinker around with the rules and the next generation would realize the consequences. By the time the consequences of Johnson’s Great Society were felt, the people who pushed it were mostly out of office, so it was the successors who had to deal with the ramifications.
In the post-modern age, some may call it the technological age, political language is becoming esoteric, rather than symbolic. The language and discourse is not supposed to be sensible, but rather designed to test the boundaries of the formal political language. It is a game, of sorts, to figure out how to insert bits of heresy and forbidden topics into the political discourse, in a way that is only obvious to the people doing it. The point of the effort is to get people talking obliquely about forbidden topics and themes.
The most recent and best example of this is the Pepe the frog stuff in 2016. It was not just a pointless gag. It was about testing limits. Initially, it was about getting forbidden subjects into the mainstream of social media in a way that the designer could understand, but that made little sense to others. Eventually, a general awareness of what was happening turned the Pepe image into a symbol. Clownish political hucksters then adopted it as a symbol of their edginess, because it carried with it an implication of radicalism.
Another great example of this is the word “cuckservative” that got going around the same time as Pepe. One of the more amusing things during that period was watching members of Conservative Inc. come to understand what it meant. These are people who thought they were the face of dissident America, so they initially did not understand the term was a slur against them. Slowly, they understood and then the term moved from an esoteric insider gag to a symbol, denoting a line between dissidents and conservatives.
Currently, a similar dynamic is at work with the long shot candidacy of Andrew Yang, the Taiwanese businessman running in the Democratic primary. Dissidents, unhappy with Trump, initially landed on Tulsi Gabbard, due to her anti-war positions. The trouble with Gabbard, though, is her positions are explicit, rather than symbolic or esoteric, so supporting her does not serve the purpose of dissident actors using esoteric political language to test limits. That’s where Yang’s UBI proposal comes in.
The Universal Basic Income is a dumb idea, but that’s part of its appeal to those engaged in esoteric politics. The point of backing it and Andrew Yang is to take the reality of modern politics, that it is a bust-out, where non-white tribes loot the country, and pushing it to the limit. If non-whites have their snout in the trough, then everyone should have their snout in the trough. It’s also an oblique way of introducing white identity politics into the discussion. White Nationalists want their thousand bucks.
The Yang phenomenon is more than just an internet fad. According to 538, Yang is now a serious candidate and as such he is getting serious attention. It is the epitome of esoteric politics that an Asian candidate will become a cat’s paw for a wide range of issues important to white Americans, but forbidden in conventional discourse. You can be an open white nationalist, by sporting a YangGang ball cap, while BoomerCons are getting beat up for wearing their old MAGA hats to their grand kid’s ballgame.
Esoteric political language is not simply about camouflaging taboo subjects. That’s never worked, as evidence by the collapse of libertarianism. That was always the truth about libertarian politics. Outside of the weirdos and potheads, people identified with libertarian ideas as a form of implicit whiteness. Free markets and meritocracy assume that biological reality will take care of the rest, leading to a restoration of heritage America, but the obviousness of this is why it never got very far and is now a joke.
That’s what is different with things like the UBI support among white nationalists. It’s not just a proxy for white identity. It takes the logic of identity politics as practiced by the ruling class and pushes it to the boundary. It’s going to be hard for them to dismiss Yang as a white supremacist or his UBI idea as some sort of honky plot against the browns. In fact, any effort to do so will make them look ridiculous. That’s the point of esoteric political language. At its best, its critics confirm what they wish to deny.
It’s possible that esoteric political language is a natural result of democracy. In the Cold War, threat of nuclear annihilate meant politics remained grounded in the real, even as it relied on symbolism to communicate ideas. After the Cold War, the Clinton years were mostly about symbolism. The Bush years started the same way, but then curdled into a blend of symbolism and mendacity. Bush was the opposite of what he claimed. In the Obama years politics became an absurdist pantomime.
Perhaps this phase we’re entering is something new, where the dull-witted masses participate in democracy, but have no practical influence, because they are manipulated by the smart fraction using esoteric language to avoid plunging into the abyss. Maybe it is just another facet of late-stage liberal democracy. Maybe it is just the death rattle of empire, where practical politics is nothing but frightening choices, so the political language descends into a weird competition to reach some absurd limit.