Root Causes and the Subversion of Democracy
Or, how to ignore problems by pretending to solve them
Earlier in 2021, government estimates indicated that the total of illegal crossings over America’s southern border this fiscal year may reach 2 million. One wonders whether the officials who calculated that estimate anticipated and included the extra 15,000 who showed up on the American side of the Rio Grande in mid-September (or the 60,000 reported to be now making their way northward through Central America). This figure of 2 million is based largely upon the number of apprehensions that occur at the border, which can be used to extrapolate how many are crossing by the day, week, or month. But this means that the number is almost certainly higher than 2 million.
As Secretary of Defense during the early years of the War on Terror, the recently-deceased Donald Rumsfeld uttered a famous line about “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” “Known unknowns” are things that we do not currently know, but that we are aware that we do not know. “Unknown unknowns” are things we don’t know which we are unaware that we do not know.
The actual number of illegal border crossings is a “known unknown”—the numbers of apprehensions are useful, but how many people cross who are not detected? While there is anecdotal information (observations of ranchers in the borderlands, etc.), we simply don’t know how many are not being apprehended. But we can reliably assume government officials are purposely underestimating this number; the Biden administration and its servants in the media are heavily invested in minimizing the border crisis. They want the public to believe that border security need not be prioritized. This isn’t because the problem is intractable and difficult to solve. It’s because they don’t want to solve it. We know this from the way that officials insist on addressing the “root causes” of the crisis.
What are the causes of the border crisis? Well, reason might tell you that there are three main drivers. The first is that the economic opportunities to be had in America are far greater (even for illegal immigrants) than the minimal opportunities available to most citizens of the nations to our south. The second driver is that we do not have a secure southern border and we maintain a set of policies (catch and release, allowing for illegal migrants to procure official documents like drivers’ licenses, etc.) that incentivizes migration. These first two causes are mutually reinforcing: the economic opportunity in America creates the desire to cross the border illegally, and our lax security measures encourage people to act on this desire. It’s pretty elementary.
The third driver is the government’s very predictable and consistent response to mass migration. When 15,000 people (mostly Haitians) recently gathered under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, we were initially told it was merely a case of bad “optics.” Then, the Biden administration promised to get it “under control.” Then we were told most would be deported, but some would stay. A few days later, we learned that over 80 percent of the Del Rio group (slightly upward of 12,000) were dispersed to states around the country until asylum hearings could occur—asylum hearings that approximately 90 percent will not bother to attend. In essence, we’ve added 12,000 new illegal residents: a group about half the size of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. When caravan after caravan arrives, only to be granted access to the inner parts of the nation time and time again, this provides an enormous encouragement for those who are considering an illegal crossing to enact their plans.
So, three obvious causes of our illegal immigration crisis. But our officials and experts would tell us we’re wrong about them all.
In fact, we are assured, the steady stream of illegal immigrants has nothing to do with our border policies or the economic opportunities in the United States. There are other, deeper “root causes” that we are told must be addressed if we are to solve this problem. For example, one of the root causes of illegal immigration is “global climate change.” You see, greenhouse gas emissions have changed the agricultural conditions in central America, making the inhabitants of those nations more vulnerable to storms. Those aren’t illegal immigrants; they’re refugee farmers seeking greener pastures, if you will. The people crossing the Rio Grande are just fleeing a climate catastrophe which is mostly Americans’ fault. Thus, to solve the border crisis we should really be trying to reduce climate change.
There are other root causes for the mess at the border. It’s not that there are economic and policy incentives that the U.S. creates for people to cross illegally. It is just that there simply isn’t enough opportunity in their home countries. The people who are crossing illegally would much prefer to stay in Haiti…if only life in Haiti was more like life in America. But Haiti can’t become America on its own. After all, American dominance of global markets ensures the Haitian economy suffers for our country’s luxury. So (of course), our nation’s responsibility is to provide sufficient financial investments that Haiti can become more like America. If we want to solve the border crisis, we will have to commit ourselves to a kind of nation-building in Central America—one which involves the investment of huge amounts of taxpayer money in foreign nations. Many of the Democratic candidates seeking the 2020 presidential nomination made proposals of this type. They’re the party of ideas, you know.
There are even more “root causes” of the border crisis, and the policies that would be required to address most of them would have nothing to do with border security or, say, a mandatory national identification system that would limit the opportunities of illegal immigrants to find gainful employment in the country. But that’s the point. The ruling class in America doesn’t want to solve the border crisis. Our leaders depend on a donor class with deep investments in the global corporate marketplace. The success of those investments demands the profitability of specific businesses and companies. And those profits depend in large part on the cost of labor. Illegal labor is cheap, and so the donor class makes clear that they expect our political leaders to provide American business with access to illegal labor. This is why policy makers continue to insist that we direct our efforts toward “root causes” which have virtually nothing to do with the problems at hand.
“Root Causes” as Misdirection
Attending to the “root causes” of a problem is simply rhetorical shorthand for justifying inaction. Whenever you hear Jen Psaki or any other government official use the phrase “root causes,” you should know that they have no will to undertake any policy intervention that might meaningfully address the problem.
Only when you understand just how many problems we are told must be solved by attending to “root causes” can you understand just how few of those problems our leaders intend to solve. Think that urban crime must be addressed by more and better policing? Think it is driven by the decline of the American family? Wrong on both counts. You need to consider “root causes.” Things like white supremacy and racism. Once you have grasped these root causes you can see the wisdom of defunding law enforcement and the many ways such a policy would reduce the amount of violent crime.
Or maybe you think that lax laboratory standards in China may have caused the outbreak of Covid-19. This logic might tell you that we should impose some sanctions on China, or demand some compensation from the Chinese Communist Party for the economic damages inflicted by their negligence, or require more oversight to ensure that China observes international best practices for handling dangerous contagions. But you’re wrong. Again.
First of all, as the top-tier medical journal the Lancet would tell you, “evidence supports the view that [Covid-19] is a naturally occurring virus” and that the pandemic is probably the result of an unfortunate instance of “pathogens being transmitted from animals to humans.” Suggestions to the contrary, the authors explain, are motivated by “geopolitical agendas and misinformation.” Moreover, a whole constellation of root causes must be addressed. As the Lancet clarifies: “To protect humanity from these zoonotic diseases, we need to […] require new precautions on many fronts: ending deforestation, respecting and protecting conservation areas and endangered species, intensifying the monitoring and surveillance for zoonotic events, and ensuring safe practices in the animal trade, meat production, and markets.” So, there you have it. The real problems are “deforestation, land degradation, poverty, food insecurity, and the uncontrolled encroachment of humans into new habitats.” But you would have known that if you had read the Lancet.
So, let’s recap. The border crisis needs to be resolved by addressing climate change, fast-tracking citizenship for migrants, and federal investments in foreign nations. Urban crime can only be resolved by ending the pandemic of racism, defunding police departments, increasing funding for social workers and the like, and providing a universal basic income. And viral events like the COVID-19 pandemic can only be solved by empowering governments to enact redistributive monetary policies and impose stricter regulations on land usage and food production.
Well, what do all these “solutions” have in common? The first thing is obvious: none of them will do anything to ameliorate the problems to which they are said to respond. Secondly, enacting each and every one of these “solutions” would require an expansion of state power. This exposes the real problem that these “solutions” are meant to address: our leaders are simply too accountable to morons like you and me. Only by freeing the state from any limitations imposed by the Constitution or the will of the public can our ruling class save us from ourselves.
This brings us to the final commonality shared by all of these solutions: none of them are measures that the institutional left doesn’t want to undertake. They all neatly align with the policy wish list of the left. This curiosity could be explained in a few ways. First, it may just happen to be the case that the American left is correct about everything. But the past ten years have shown this to be patently false.
A second explanation could be that our ruling class has so completely absorbed leftist ideology that they are no longer able to conceive of any solutions that do not conform to that worldview. That’s possible, but unlikely.
A third explanation is that our ruling class knows that these solutions won’t solve the problems at which they are directed. In this case, all of the solutions above neatly align with the left’s policy agenda because our ruling class not only believes the public has the wrong concerns, they feel no obligation to address those concerns. But rather than explicitly admit as much, they simply push their pet policies by claiming that these interventions will solve problems that they know will not be solved. This third possibility—that the state doesn’t think it is obligated to address the concerns of the public—is really the only explanation for the chronic failure of our regime. The rhetorical flourish of “root causes” is a strategy for concealing these autocratic tendencies.
It works like this. Our ruling class clearly understands there is a crisis at the southern border. This is by design, so they don’t want to solve it. But they can’t say they don’t want to. And the measures that would meaningfully address the problem are patently obvious, but they can’t say that they are obvious – this would compel them to do something they don’t want to do. Thus, they falsely claim that the obvious solutions are mere half-measures, band-aids that would only slow the bleeding rather than close the wound.
Then, in a masterful work of rhetorical misdirection, they call our attention to the “root causes” of problems that they don’t actually see as problems. Often, the “proper” policy responses to these “root causes” are actually solutions to different problems—ones that our rulers do want to address (e.g., climate change, wealth disparities, “racism”). This is convenient because “root causes” provide justification for the absence of progress on the real problems we face. Further, they provide a rationale for policy interventions that are often unpopular with the public (e.g., a carbon tax, defunding the police, reparations for slavery) under the pretense that they are necessary measures to address genuine public concerns. “Root causes,” then, are a godsend for the authoritarian left: they ensure that our rulers never have to address any problem they don’t want to address, all while appearing to act on those problems through policies that neatly advance their ideological objectives.
The “root causes” of any issue are never the factors that a normal person would identify as the actual causes of a problem. But that’s the beauty of this gambit—the term itself explains why the typical explanations of a problem are invalid. In botany, the root of a plant lies deep underground, out of sight. But the health of the root is absolutely critical for the health of the plant. Thus, when diagnosing some social ill, its cause can never be something that immediately presents itself to the casual observer. No—the cause always lies deep underground, beneath a thick bed of mediating factors and complexities. As such, the “root cause” will often seem to have nothing to do with the presenting problem. But that’s only because you’re not looking in the right place.
Only skilled experts—the type that we have running this nation, thank God—have the intelligence to ascertain the real causes of all of our problems. And while their solutions to the crises we face might not seem to make the least bit of sense to unschooled rubes like us, we had better listen to them. If we don’t our problems might persist or worsen. Strangely, though, it seems they almost always do persist and worsen. Maybe that’s because we never address the “root causes” of the pains that ail us. Or maybe, just maybe, the very people talking about “root causes” are themselves at the root of our problems.
Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. He is the author of Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self (2020). You can follow him on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger.