Diving in - Part 2 - Broken politics and our many crises
We're living through the beginning of the end of the republic
As I introduced in my first post, I’ve been planning to write more regularly about current affairs, but I felt it necessary to lay down some markers about where I’m coming from first. Last time, I discussed how I will approach my writing journalistically. I also mentioned - in the interest of transparency - that I’m a liberal, and with this post, I’ll begin to show how.
We’re living through the beginning of the end of the republic
The attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 will mark a turning point in American history - the beginning of the end of the republic. Of course, I hope I’m wrong about this, but I fear I’m not.
For the first time, Americans used violence to attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in a presidential election. (Yes, we had our Civil War. But at least, in that case, the southern states were attempting to leave - in order to preserve slavery, mind you.)
And it was all built on a series of lies. Donald Trump had been clear since before the election that he likely wouldn’t support any outcome in which he was the loser. So, it was no great surprise when he claimed that there had been widespread voter fraud and pursued every legal option available to him. However, overwhelmingly he lost those cases, and even Republican officials pushed back against his claims. In the normal course of our politics, that should have ended it.
But it did not.
Instead, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in order to disrupt the certification of the vote. Eventually they were beaten back and left, with one person shot and killed and others dying as a result of the attack.
The attack should have discredited the pro-Trump movement. However, it has not. Of course, Trump is primarily to blame. It’s become conventional wisdom that Trump “incited” the attack on the Capitol, especially with his and others speakers’ rhetoric at the rally on January 6th. I find this argument to be weak. While the political moment was particularly tense after weeks of disproven election fraud claims, if you listen to the rally itself, nothing in there stood out to me as completely outside the bounds of a normal political speech.
However, as I’ve written before, Trump’s rhetoric at the rally quickly didn’t become the issue. It was what he did during and after the attack that mattered - and frankly, made him impeachable. He did not condemn the attackers. Instead, he identified with and supported them. Here’s a portion of his video message, hours after the attack:
From me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you, you’re very special. We’ve seen what happens, you see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know you how feel. But go home, and go home in peace.
Again, "We love you." "Go home in peace."
Now, we had a brief moment where this beginning of the end of our republic could have been headed off. Other Republican leaders could have stepped up to condemn Trump and the attackers. Briefly they did. But most fell in line out of fear of Trump and Republican primary voters who had bought into the “Big Lie” of widespread voter fraud. (Notable exceptions were Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and those who voted for the second Trump impeachment, including Illinois US Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Wyoming US Rep. Liz Cheney.) What I will call “everyday” Republicans are also to blame. If you self-identify as a Republican, this is a moment to be outspoken against Trump and what he represents. If not, you share blame for what is to come.
Why do I think all of this adds up to the end of the republic? Well, once you legitimize the use of violence in our political process - as Republicans have now done - you only invite more. Electoral politics is really just a way to have societal conflict without violence. It’s the thin membrane of civilization over the visceral desire of many to solve their disagreements by physically destroying their opponents. Once that membrane has been pierced - like a coronavirus spike protein penetrating a cell wall - the body politic will eventually become ravaged and die.
This might not come quickly, by the way. I’m not making any specific predictions for any given election or year. But it will happen.
And it has happened before. This comparison is not original to me, but the history of the Gracchi brothers in the Roman Republic is instructive. Sean Carroll on the podcast Mindscape has a good introduction to the comparison from historian Edward Watts.
How did we get here?
What I describe above is a growing political crisis. But the current state of our politics is just a symptom of a group of underlying crises. These are interrelated and influence individual Americans in different ways, but taken together they add up to our current, larger societal crisis.
A crisis of trust
Americans are losing faith in one another - and by extension, the viability of representative democracy. Gallup does regular polling on this, and our trust in political leaders and our fellow Americans has been on a steady decline for nearly 50 years.
This loss of faith is widespread, extending to many of our societal institutions, as well.
In fact, among the 14 societal institutions that Gallups asks about, Americans only feel strongly confident in two - small business (70%) and the military (69%). The police are just barely positive (51%). Every other institution is underwater - from schools to medicine to churches to big business to the news media.
(As an aside, it’s a dangerous moment for a democratic republic when the military is vastly more trusted than political institutions. In many ways, we’re ripe for a military coup, and it’s only the deeply ingrained patriotic training of the US military that has kept us from becoming yet another failed democracy.)
Of course, people’s estimations of our society tend to ebb and flow based on party affiliation. When Republicans get elected, Republicans’ trust goes up - vice versa for Democrats. All of which leads me to a second crisis.
A crisis of truth
I’ve written about the growth of “tribal truth” before. We are at a moment when what we accept to be true highly depends on our prior political and ideological affiliations. The space of shared truth is becoming ever more narrow. While no group is completely immune from this form of confirmation bias (that is, believing what you want to be true whether it stands up to scrutiny or not), most of the action in recent years is on the right-wing. The attack on the Capitol should be the clearest proof of how far the march toward tribal truth has gone on the right.
That said, let me say - truth is hard.
Think about it for a moment. Why do you believe what you do about most things? The honest answer in most cases is because someone told you. If that person is someone you trust, you’re more likely to believe it. The more you trust the person, the more strongly you are to believe it, too.
This fact about life applies to everybody - period.
For example, it’s become pretty standard on the left end of politics to demand that people “follow the science”. Whether it’s climate change or coronavirus vaccines, we’re admonished to believe what “science” tells us and act accordingly. Setting aside for a moment that “science” is constantly evolving as new discoveries are made, science is still done by scientists - that is, flesh and blood, fallible human beings. Suppose you don’t trust scientists or a particular group of scientists. What in the world does it mean to “follow the science”? First a person has to have faith in the scientific process, then one has to have faith in the scientists themselves - most of whom we will never know or meet. And really, given the degree of specialization and complexity of modern science, who can really judge any given set of scientific evidence for themselves? The most honest observation here is that, to “follow the science”, we have to have a lot of faith and trust. But of course, that takes me back to my point about a crisis of trust from above. It’s an enormous quandary.
A crisis of governance and accountability
In the last 20 years, the US has seen a colossal failure of governance, and then following these spectacular failures, there has been a near complete lack of accountability.
The US engaged in two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq starting in 2001 and 2003, respectively, with a huge loss of life and expense. More than 170,000 people died in the Afghanistan War, and more than 200,000 in the Iraq War. That includes American soldiers, but the vast majority of the deaths were Afghani and Iraqi soldiers, enemy combatants, and civilians. Together the two wars cost the US $2 trillion in direct costs. One estimate put the total cost, including interest, at $6.5 trillion. Also, as the Associated Press points out:
(T)he United States has committed to pay in health care, disability, burial and other costs for roughly 4 million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans: more than $2 trillion.
Period those costs will peak: after 2048.
Hundreds of thousands dead. Millions continuing to live with the consequences of these failures. Trillions spent. (Remember, for comparison, the seemingly outrageous Biden climate/social spending plan was $3.5 trillion over ten years.) And let’s not forget the so-called “War on Terror”, which led - among many terrible acts - to the US becoming a nation that freely tortured people in black sites.
Meanwhile, we went through one of the greatest financial crises in US history back in 2006-2008, which led to the Great Recession. We had years of sub-par economic performance for most Americans, while the wealthiest continued to see their fortunes increase as they were bailed out by the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury.
Finally, we had the US response to the coronavirus epidemic by the Trump administration, which has led to our having one of the highest covid death rates in the world, especially among advanced economies. (Some pretty kick-ass vaccines were also developed during the Trump administration. If only more self-identified Republicans would get on board…)
What do all of these failures share? Practically none of the people in charge leading up to or during them have faced any serious repercussions. In fact, many of them have either quietly retired from public life or have gone on to be accepted back into polite society and rewarded with steady and successful careers. These failures share the feature of no one in any position of real responsibility having ever faced any true accountability.
A crisis of economic desperation
On top of all of these crises, add a roughly 40-year stretch of growing income and wealth inequality. Most Americans continue to see their economic security become ever more precarious. Some of it is due to technological innovation, but there have been a variety of policy choices, as well - including a particular way to structure globalization (trade policy) and the design of our social welfare state (taxing and spending).
A crisis of “culture”?
Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there’s been a long-running argument in left-wing circles as to how this could have possibly happened. In general, two arguments are made - one, that people are economically desperate and so will look to any sort of savior figure and two, that cultural conservatives who are afraid of changing race relations and social mores also seek a savior. I’ll be honest; I’m still sorting through these arguments. I’m inclined to put more faith in the economic argument, but it’s not a slam dunk. Suffice it to say for now that I, personally, think there is no cultural crisis, even though I don’t agree with the entire current left-wing cultural program.
How do we get out of these crises?
I plan to do a separate post with my thoughts about how we can begin to address these multiple crises, but - spoiler alert - I really have no idea. After all, if we don’t trust one another or share a common truth, what can be done?
That said, I have a few ideas, but I think they are all long shots. More to come.
For now, though, in my next post, I’m going to move on to some other trouble areas I see ahead for the US and the world.