This Isn’t The Dystopia You’re Looking For: A Warning For Those Who ‘Burn It Down’

Jane Coaston and Ana Marie Cox discuss revolutions, dystopias, and how much we really do not want either

Frustration with the American political system has reached new heights in 2016, whether measured by the popularity of “outsider” candidates or the number of voters who remain undecided this far into the election. And while this frustration itself is nothing new, what's different in 2016 is the presence of voters who have turned that frustration into a kind of gleeful rage — it's not that they think the system is broken and want it fixed, it's that they think the system isn't broken enough. We discuss the byproducts of such a philosophy.

Ana Marie Cox: Look, I get it. Faced with two historically unpopular candidates and a level of debate that veers from the explicitly vulgar to the merely coded racist, there are folks who have embraced the idea that “burning it down” is the solution — whether that means endorsing the “Sweet Meteor of Death 2016,” or deciding that a Donald Trump presidency would offer the same fiery relief. A lot of people are mostly joking about this, but, Jane, you and I both are concerned about that frame of mind.

Jane Coaston: Revolutions traditionally do not end well, for anyone. They do not end in chaos that burns empires to the ground (but leave revolutionaries, Daily Beast commentators, and people who tweet about fighting for the upheaval untouched). The Cultural Revolution in Maoist China lasted for 10 years, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and displaced millions more. The Russian Revolution led to the Soviet Civil War, which killed at least seven million people. In both cases, among the dead were the people who wanted a revolution most.

Revolutions eat people. Sometimes, those people are guilty, the ones the revolution is aimed at removing. But a lot of times, it's the teachers and the school principals and the guy next door and your parents and priests and people who wear glasses. Revolutions kill, and they don't care who.

Cox: I also think some of the young people enamored of the “burn it down” philosophy come from an entirely too rosy image of dystopias. I want to shake them: Trump's dystopia will not be like Hunger Games — no sexy costumes and life-or-death heroics. For the Gen X nihilists, I'm not seeing the grimy neon of Blade Runner, either. (Though I think it would be interesting to administer the Voight-Kampff test to Melania Trump.)

We know exactly what Trump's dystopia will be like. It's an Atlantic City casino gone to seed, with threadbare carpet and a cold all-you-can-eat buffet. It will be garish and cheap, desperate and empty. No heroics, just the cruise ship virus.

Coaston: For whom are dystopias preferable, anyway? Aren't the people in the Hunger Games dealing with a regime so merciless that it requires people to compete in a televised death match? Armageddon wouldn't mean we'd return to an Arcadia where everything is finally free range and organic again. Armageddon would mean that a shit-ton of people would die horribly because of violence and weapons and giant guns, and then a lot of other people would die but in slower ways, because of starvation and cholera and malaise and childbirth and tuberculosis.

Cox: I don't want people to think we're just picking an easy target by pointing out, hey, dystopias are bad (I mean, that is why they're called dystopias). What's disturbing about this longing for “disruption” — as they put it in Silicon Valley — is that I'm pretty sure it's coming mostly from people who see where we are, currently, as terrible. People who think there's some lost golden period we've already fallen from. People who, say, think America is “not great” and who wonder, “What do we have to lose?”

These people may not think of themselves as Trump supporters, but they are thinking like Trump supporters. And they are probably white. Obviously, most Trump supporters are, and I am pretty sure even those people who are cheering for armageddon in part because of Trump are mostly white. I haven't seen racial breakdowns of the undecided and angry, but this study says many of those types were Bernie Sanders supporters, which is not exactly a melanin-rich pool. And of course, it's easy for white Americans to romanticize revolution and dystopias — they've never known their downsides.

Coaston: White Americans romanticize revolutions and dystopias because white Americans assume that they'd be fine there, too. They could take up sea-steading or move to Montana and start a garden, because they think that during a revolution there would still be gas stations and credit cards and someone around to sell them on the right kind of organic mulch.

Why? Why would a revolution leading to the destruction of the American economic system leave everything torn asunder and yet permit you, Soylent drinker, to be perfectly safe in your solar-powered condo? Why would a dystopia leave anything in its wake but total and complete destruction? The people who say “what do we have to lose?” seem to believe that their savings accounts and 401ks and CrossFit memberships would be miraculously preserved when “disruption” takes place. They wouldn't be. That's the point.

There would be no Uber in a revolution. There would be no wi-fi. There would be pain and suffering and death and tragedy occurring on a scale most of us, having avoided 1990s Yugoslavia or the current-day mountains of South Sudan, have never endured. And there would be the knowledge that it would not get better, that there was no way out, and that this was life, as it is, as it would always be.

I do not want a revolution.

Cox: Now, now: “A world without Uber” is exactly the hellscape most white people think of when they imagine dystopia. Indeed, I think “bad neighborhood with no cell reception” is the closest many have gotten to real revolution. But you're right about the general sense of entitlement that makes “disruption” seem not so bad.

Your mention of Yugoslavia and the Sudan reminds me as well that Americans tend not to appreciate just how fragile democracies are; they forget our nation is an ongoing experiment, not a software system. There isn't an update that might come with a few glitches; it's an intricately interconnected web where pressure in one area can influence the entire process. Other countries have seen that democracy break down, and, as with the slow rebuilding of an ecological disaster, there's no bouncing back. All damage is permanent.

I keep saying this about the Clinton email scandals versus the wholesale abandonment of principles that Trump represents. That intricate web of representative democracy? The Founders actually designed it to deal with relatively small-scale sketchiness and greed; these things aren't exactly part of the system, but they're unavoidable, and we have processes that are supposed to expose them and flush them out. Democracy still works when people are motivated by personal gain (indeed, some might argue that it's the only way that it works). But democracy can't work under threat of violence, and our system can't protect itself if we elect as president someone intent on sabotaging it.

Or, perhaps more accurate, someone who is totally uninterested in democracy and happy to let others sabotage it.

Coaston: The idea that we need to “shake up the system” or turn democracy off and turn it back on like it's a goddamned router, or the idea that installing someone completely disinterested in doing the crushingly boring work of being president would be in any way helpful to Americans, in general is almost offensive. A representative democracy that can build a country of nearly half a billion people is not made for being run by a maniac, and cannot be preserved by one.

Dystopia isn't good. That's the point of the prefix “dys,” which literally means the opposite of good. Revolution isn't good. That's why we avoid it. There are thousands of better options than “burning it all down.” How ironic that the same people who say that we need to do that are horrified by violence? That's what this shit looks like, dingbats.