by Tony Woodlief
Gabriel: “Do you know the difference between a hustler and a good con man?”
Gabriel: “A hustler has to get out of town as quick as he can, but a good con man—he doesn’t have to leave
—Steven McKay, Diggstown
The Kansas City Shuffle: Winston-Salem, NC, 1985
I was a 16-year-old kid out with my girlfriend on a Friday night. We were at the county fair, where we wandered a lane crowded by brightly lit booths advertising competitions of chance and skill. Carnies invited us to toss baseballs into milk jugs, shoot basketballs through hoops, and pop balloons with darts. They made the games seem easy, but I’d never had much luck at them. I couldn’t throw a ball fast enough at the pitching booth, or swing a mallet hard enough to ring the bell at the strongman game. Still, I really wanted to win a prize for my girlfriend.
I’d resigned myself to the indignity of leaving empty-handed, when I noticed the weight-guessing booth. I figured that it, like everything else there, had to be rigged in some way. The carny working it was probably trained in weight calculations based on a person’s visible dimensions. Maybe he even had secret markers to judge my size, like those strips in convenience-store door frames.
The thing was, it was bitterly cold that night. I was wearing a thick sweater underneath a heavy coat. There was no way, I reasoned, the carny would be able to discern my true weight beneath all that padding. His training, his secret height and width estimators, and whatever else he had up his sleeve were going to be worthless tonight. A sly smile crept over my face.
I plunked down the three-dollar price and winked at my gal. Sure enough, the carny looked me up and down, then barked a weight that was thirty pounds too high. I chuckled, stepped onto the scale, and let gravity reveal the magnitude of his failure. My girlfriend clapped her hands. I stepped off the scale, held out my hands, and received in my palm a tiny stuffed animal that had been stitched together in a Chinese sweatshop. I’d just paid three dollars for a trinket worth 25 cents.
I’d assumed the game was about weight, but really it was about economics. I didn’t know it at the time, but this ruse was an example of what con men call the Kansas City Shuffle. In the Kansas City Shuffle, the swindler doesn’t trick you into trusting him; he tricks you into imagining you understand the nature of his con. You put yourself on guard against the trick you think is coming, and as a consequence you overlook the real trick. The deviousness of the Kansas City Shuffle is that you do the con man’s work for him. You distract yourself.
This is where our punch-drunk American democracy now finds itself. We know cadres of political elites aim to direct our lives, run up the country’s debt, and stick us with the bill. And thanks to the nonstop attack machinery arrayed by both major parties, most of us have some sort of theory about how the bad guys aim to stick it to us. We’ve been fed story after story (fine-tuned by whatever your Internet browser and Gmail messages indicate you’re willing to believe) explaining how Russian oligarchs, the Kochs, George Soros, the Chinese Communist Party, Catholic legal scholars—whoever serves as the scariest boogeymen given one’s particular psychological triggers—are working behind the scenes to steal our votes, poison our minds, and radicalize our kids. We understand, better than any general or military strategist in history, the movements and intentions of our enemies. All we have to do is click on cable news, talk radio, or social media and it’s all laid out for us.
We know the score; or, at least, we think we do. And given what we think we know about the schemes of people we believe to be our enemies, we can deduce whom we should vote for, what to thumbs-up on Facebook, where to send a check, and which thoughtcrimes must be reported to Twitter’s mind-control police. Like the dupes of the Kansas City Shuffle, we imagine that we’re too attuned to the facts to let the wool be pulled over our eyes.
The distressing reality, however, is that—just as in the Kansas City Shuffle—we’re distracting ourselves from the real con, and losing something vital in the process. Anything a carny or confidence man might cheat us out of can be replaced. However, what’s being jeopardized in the Great American Con is irreplaceable. The stakes are higher than we realize, and we’re running out of time.
The Dark Before the Dawn
I want to make it clear that this story has a happy ending. Or, at least, it can have a happy ending, depending on what you do after you read it. At the very least, it’s a hopeful story, and in a way it’s a love story, too.
Yet, every true love faces trials, doesn’t it? And as for hope, well, that’s only necessary where there’s peril. So, while I’d like to just skip ahead to the hopeful part, I have to talk first about the danger facing the American republic. The darkness that’s settled over our land. The present trial of the American soul. We need to understand why hope is needed, before considering where it might be found.
So, into the darkness we go.
Welcome to the Machine: Nashville, TN, 2020
The staging of the final 2020 U.S. presidential debate revealed the Great American Con in a microcosm. Each contender stood on a stage and declared what laws he would create, what foreign nations he would punish, and how he was going to make a pandemic disappear. We Americans sat before our digital screens and listened to the Great Men contend for a kingship.
The backdrop for this spectacle? A large, blown-up image of the Declaration of Independence. As we learned in school, that document contains both promise and aspiration: we are all of us equal, we are all of us free. In a matter of days, each of us would equally be free to choose who would rule over us for the next four years; who would send our sons and daughters into harm’s way overseas; issue proclamations that would reorder vast swaths of our economy; and mandate which people and products would be allowed past our borders.
Rather than recoiling at the candidates’ naked aspirations to unchecked power, We the People sat there sizing each of them up in hopes of guessing which one would be best able to make good on all the things he had said he was going to give us. It’s how we’ve been taught to evaluate them by the talking heads who have weaseled their way into orchestrating these events. It’s an alien notion these days to ask not whether a politician’s promise is a good one, but instead whether he ought to have the power to promise it in the first place. The land of the free, goes the penultimate lyric in our national anthem. You know the words; we play them before ball games (though not before presidential debates). Do we still mean them? Do we still want to live in the land of the free?
If so, how did we come to this?
Most of us understand that what we hear from the stage of a presidential debate is often just big talk. Candidates know they don’t have the power to create jobs and amend the Constitution. But politicians, because they’re humans like the rest of us, (that’s our working hypothesis, anyway) certainly crave dictatorial powers, often with good intentions. That human reality is why the American Founders created a host of checks and balances to restrain both would-be tyrants and emotional mobs. We were taught in high school that our freedom is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, as our charter, and backed up by the Bill of Rights. The latter contains those sacred promises we read in our textbooks: that courts of law will protect our speech, our religious practices, our guns, even our right not to have our beds commandeered by Hessian mercenaries.
Almost from the outset, a struggle emerged between political parties whose leaders have competing convictions about the purpose and practice of government. Viewed in the best possible light, political parties have served to check one another’s ambitions, just as James Madison expected of factions in American society. They have done this in large part by drawing us citizens to one banner or the other. Because we are Americans, many of us think of political parties like sports franchises. We root, root, root for our home team, overlooking its players’ transgressions as we recite the worst behaviors on the other side. Our political talk shows have the feel of ESPN programs, breaking down who won or lost yesterday, who might win or lose today, and what juicy new player scandals have come to light.
The danger with political teams is that, like sports teams, their hunger for victory increases as the stakes get higher. They look for any edge, no matter how unscrupulous. Advances in technology since the 1990s have afforded both sports and political teams more powerful methods of gaining that edge. For athletes, this has meant advances in training, opposition analysis, and legal (and illegal) enhancements to physical performance. For politicians, these technological edges have taken the form of insights into voter psychology, investigations into the pasts of their opponents, and tools for raising money from coast to coast. Both political and athletic teams face tremendous temptation to win at all costs, even by cheating and breaking the law, thereby driving away all but the most rabid, unprincipled players and fans.
This intersection of greater stakes and more powerful technology in the political realm is where things have begun to go awry. Even in George Washington’s day, politicians and their operatives showed a willingness to lie, cheat, and manipulate. The founders, knowing full well their own natures, worked to restrain these impulses through what, to outsiders, could seem like an unnecessarily complicated and slow governmental structure. Given that men will never be angels, James Madison wrote, we must erect barriers to their baser instincts.
Mostly it worked, somewhat imperfectly, as institutions constructed by imperfect men can only ever work. The machinery of American government certainly suffered at least one catastrophic failure, in the decades leading up to and culminating in a civil war over the most enduring shame of the American founding—its uneasy acceptance of human slavery. Our government has endured other bouts of dysfunction and abuse since then. It is, like all people, imperfect. It has failed in the past, with deadly consequences. It might fail again.
It helps to think of our government as a machine because otherwise it’s tempting to blame our problems on the bad people within it. Make no mistake; there are plenty of bad people in government—just as there are bad people in business, academia, the media, charitable foundations, and even religious organizations. But the interconnected and counterbalanced nature of the U.S. government, combined with its massive growth since the early 1900s, means that the worst of individuals can only accomplish so much mischief. Even a dedicated cabal of evil people would find it all but impossible to bend the entirety of the U.S. government to its ends. The machine was built to resist the self-interest of its agents by deploying—in a brilliant governmental innovation—the self-interest of other agents within its machinery.
When that machinery starts to rumble and quake, therefore—as it did in the years preceding the Civil War, for example—it’s easy to find villains to blame because there are always villains maneuvering their selfish ways through the halls of power. And yet, most of the time the system works, in spite of them. In some respects, it works because of the selfishness that animates them.
I say the system has mostly worked because Americans have largely enjoyed peace, rising prosperity, and justice for generations. Not always, and not for everyone all the time, but certainly in comparison with the only real standard we can apply, which is the results realized by other countries throughout history. For all its faults, America has been a good place to live, a fact proven by the millions who have come to our shores, and the reality that our harshest domestic critics rarely choose to pack up and leave. The point is that when the machinery of government begins to break, it’s too simplistic to single out one wicked person, or a bad political party. There’s something deeper at work.
It’s important to reflect on this because the machinery of our government is now malfunctioning. Whereas the major parties and their leaders had for a century offset one another’s power, mostly keeping their animosities from spilling over into the lives of everyday Americans, it feels more and more like we are on the verge of open warfare with our fellow citizens. A quick trip through the comments section of any news article reveals a depressing level of hatred expressed between people who know nothing about one another except their party allegiance. Surveys show a collapse in tolerance for members of the opposing political party. Other surveys reveal that a shocking number of Americans say they’d consider violence to settle political disputes. A panoply of historians and other academics have gone on record saying we are closer than we’ve been in decades to another civil war.
Are they right? One hopes not. But are things the way they’re supposed to be? No. Not at all.
A Confederacy of Dunces
There’s an unconscious conspiracy afoot. Political elites, long held in check by our Constitution and one another, have overrun the guardrails. Pursuing the self-interest that has always driven powerful people, but aided now with new technologies, egged on by the prize of unprecedented power in Washington, D.C., and unchecked by many of the old, boring rules that once kept politicians in line, members of the political class on both the Left and Right now function as if they’re in cahoots. Locked in a battle for power, and deploying a host of persuasion mechanisms to seduce everyday Americans into joining them, they’ve unwittingly triggered the biggest game of Kansas City Shuffle in human history: the Great American Con.
Every Kansas City Shuffle has two components: the outer game; and the steal. The outer game in our Great American Con is political theater. National politicians and the media companies that subsist on them crave dollars and eyeballs, and these accrue to the loudest, the brashest, the most combative drama producers. These dramas offer, like every good story, heroes and villains. Opposing elites within the political class work feverishly to persuade us who is which. Good-versus-evil struggles are what get clicks, fill coffers, and win battles of public opinion.
Our nation’s political theater is the outer game, the distraction. It’s me as a 16-year-old kid again, thinking the carny’s gambit is to guess my weight. The steal, meanwhile, has been effected by the political class’ relentless centralization of authority in Washington, D.C., much of it in the hands of unelected judges and executive agency officials. Whereas America’s Constitution assigns most of the work of governing—and, therefore, citizenship—to communities and states, our nation’s capital has become an imperial city. When real authority resides in communities, citizens are more likely to engage, to express their values and views, to hold government officials accountable, and even to become elected representatives themselves. When authority sits in D.C., it belongs to the political class. The rest of us are relegated to the roles of bystanders and sometimes cheerleaders. We come to believe that citizen is synonymous with voter, which is an utter corruption of that concept.
In other words, what the political class is stealing from us is our right to self-governance, which is essential to American citizenship. Citizens governing themselves is the ethos of our Constitution. It’s rooted in the faith that we can hold our elected representatives accountable, and practice virtues that make invasive government unnecessary. A decades-long ideological war waged by political elites in our name, however, has punctured the reservoir of goodwill that characterized American civil life for generations. Simultaneously, centralization of power in D.C. has eroded the authority of our elected legislatures, which has reduced our control over our own government. As a consequence, we are losing both the ability and the freedom to govern ourselves. How, then, will we continue to define and pursue that “more perfect Union” described in our Constitution’s Preamble?
We won’t. Our overseers will define it for us, and claim to pursue it on our behalf, primarily through rules and dictates crafted inside their imperial city. American self-governance will be displaced by the selfish rule of our bipolar political class. Since neither faction within their ranks has yet realized its dream of utterly destroying the other, power will continue to shift back and forth from left to right, while everyday Americans try to avoid whiplash.
If this dynamic continues, we may well keep a semblance of individual rights, albeit in truncated form, and even deceive ourselves into believing that we still reside in the land of the free. We’ll still well up when we listen to our National Anthem at ballgames. But our unique American freedom as citizens to govern ourselves will be lost.
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Tony Woodlief is Executive Vice President at State Policy Network, a nationwide community that cultivates and supports state-based organizations working on behalf of citizen freedom and self-determination. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan.