Chaos Syndrome: A Systemic Reason for Madness?

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Jonathan Rauch for the Atlantic about a political ‘disease’ in America that he has dubbed the ‘chaos syndrome’. It reminded me of the chaos prevalent in Pushkin’s play that the conveners’ discussed earlier and that time we talked about the similarities between a demagogue like Trump and Oedipus the King. It’s a contemporary example of how disease can be used as a metaphor for a breakdown in sociopolitical systems and relationships.  The parallels between the dysfunction in the current American (and perhaps global) political climate and in the fictional plagued societies we have been reading about are striking. Can you spot the common threads and themes running through them? Rauch suggests chaos syndrome leads us into positive feedback loops of self-destructive behavior antithetical to our shared commitment to the greater good. Could you say Walsingham and the revelers are in a similar predicament? Have you come across a treatment or cure for ‘chaos syndrome’? Also here’s link to a PBS News Hour Interview with Rauch.

“Trump, however, didn’t cause the chaos. The chaos caused Trump. What we are seeing is not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome.

 Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.The disorder has other causes, too: developments such as ideological polarization, the rise of social media, and the radicalization of the Republican base. But chaos syndrome compounds the effects of those developments, by impeding the task of organizing to counteract them. Insurgencies in presidential races and on Capitol Hill are nothing new, and they are not necessarily bad, as long as the governing process can accommodate them. Years before the Senate had to cope with Ted Cruz, it had to cope with Jesse Helms. The difference is that Cruz shut down the government, which Helms could not have done had he even imagined trying.
 Like many disorders, chaos syndrome is self-reinforcing. It causes governmental dysfunction, which fuels public anger, which incites political disruption, which causes yet more governmental dysfunction. Reversing the spiral will require understanding it. Consider, then, the etiology of a political disease: the immune system that defended the body politic for two centuries; the gradual dismantling of that immune system; the emergence of pathogens capable of exploiting the new vulnerability; the symptoms of the disorder; and, finally, its prognosis and treatment.”

1 Comment

 Add your comment
  1. I like the claim made at the beginning of this blog post: “Trump, however, didn’t cause the chaos. The chaos caused Trump”. I am assuming that Trump in this claim refers to Walsingham in Pushkin. It is true that had Walsingham not encountered or experienced the plague, he would not have developed his unique daredevil personality and expressed his feeling of ecstasy towards the plague situation. Therefore the chaos (the plague) caused the character of Walsingham within the context of the play.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.