Looking Forward, Watching Out

Politics, once a kind of sport for we amateur observers, is just no fun anymore. We’re in the third year of a deadly pandemic, on the cusp of a recession, and we’ve lived through one of the strangest, least civil, most divisive election cycles in memory, culminating in the horrific disruption at the Capitol. We’ve been isolated and cautiously reunited, given hope and had it yanked away again (I speak of both the election and the pandemic). And now we’re in another election year.

We’ve lost our appetite for political discussion because there no longer seems any possibility of persuasion, much less consensus. Science and medicine are no longer viewed as sources of empirical truth, but rather as fronts for political and social agendas. The Supreme Court’s term has seen it overturn Roe v. Wade, further expand gun rights, and require public funding of private schools with explicitly religious curricula. The Biden administration’s progressive agenda, ravaged by recession and Joe Manchin, but also tone-deaf to the concerns of moderates, independents, and much of the middle class, is in legislative tatters.

Almost half of American voters and the vast majority of Republicans say they believe that the last national election was fraudulent and the other guy really won. At least half a dozen recent books are devoted to contemplating the likelihood – or unavoidability – of another civil war in this country.

The natural reaction to the surfeit of recrimination and sheer nastiness in our national discourse is to withdraw from it. I for one read the op-ed pages much less often than I did a year ago. I know what they’ll say in advance, and I don’t need to hear it, the name-calling, rhetorical deck-stacking, partisan analysis and moral condescension, again and again.

Actual interpersonal discussion of political or, more precisely, policy issues has become taboo, not just in what we used to call polite society, but wherever you value your friendships, familial relationships, and general sense of decorum. I and a group of old and dear friends, most of whom are staunch conservatives, used to exchange lively, sometimes heated, but always civil emails debating the issues of the day. All that has stopped. It’s possible, of course, that it’s continuing and I’ve just been excluded, but I doubt it. More likely, it’s no longer worth the risk to any of us of alienating people we care about, so strong and predictable have our respective positions become. We’re tired of talking where there is no hope of persuasion. We’re exhausted by our mutual intransigence.

In this exhaustion, we are vulnerable.

It’s important to keep things in perspective. This isn’t the first time the American people have been so divided, nor will it be the last. I came of age when the country was deeply riven by the war in Vietnam, police were disparaged as pawns of a corrupt and racist state, and the president of the US was an object of scorn bordering on hatred for a sizeable percentage of the population.

The difference then was that, despite our usual partisanship, there were huge reservoirs of public trust in American institutions and respect for authority, starting with print and broadcast media, and extending to Congress, the judiciary, the presidency, and most importantly, the electoral process itself. This was considered simple patriotism. No one had the affrontery, not to mention the sheer demagoguery, to claim that any of the presidential elections in my adult lifetime that were decided by much thinner margins of electoral votes than our last one (Carter over Ford, Bush over Kerry, and most famously, Bush over Gore) had been “stolen” or was the result of fraud. As profound as our disappointment in those outcomes might have been, they were viewed as the result of a process and a principle that commanded almost universal respect and deference.

Those days are past.

All those books and articles about the next American civil war are in a way salutary. We should be preparing for the worst so that if it happens we’re not completely flat-footed and shocked into immobility, as we were last January 6th. In a country where there are more guns in circulation than people, and we’re encouraged by open-carry and stand-your-ground laws to use them, the prospect for armed conflict between civilian factions, and against elected governments, is far less preposterous than it should be.

More than a dozen states are in the process of dismantling apolitical vote-counting mechanisms and substituting their legislatures as the arbiters of electoral outcomes. The Arizona legislature is considering a resolution that would retroactively de-certify the state’s slate of presidential electors, and in fact from the founding of the republic through the early 1800s, it was not uncommon for a state’s presidential electors to be chosen by the state legislature, without any popular vote at all – a practice that some Republicans, foreseeing defeat under modern rules, seem hell-bent on resurrecting from the ash heap of history.

The gerrymandering of congressional districts by both major parties continues essentially unabated, with the result that Republicans will continue to control a significant majority of the statehouses, and are likely to take the House and the Senate in 2022. And once that occurs, it will not take a mob of costumed vigilantes to alter the course of the 2024 presidential election if by chance it doesn’t go their way at the polls.

Mind you, the threat here is not just to Democrats’ pet causes or their political power. The real threat is to very notion of majoritarian democracy in this country, to the principle of one-person-one-vote, to the idea that it is the people, in all their polyglot imperfection, and not some group of self-appointed guardians of a perceived higher order of the common good, who get to decide who runs our government. And yet most conservatives, once champions of traditional democratic values, remain silent as the threat to those values grows by the day.

Also blameworthy are Democrats, who tend to bring position papers to knife fights. There was never any practical hope that the Voting Rights Advancement Act would pass and impose federal standards on state voting procedures, yet the Democratic leadership seems willing to sacrifice other reforms on which there might be bi-partisan agreement (such as amending or repealing the idiotic Electoral Count Act of 1887, which quite literally gave us January 6) on the altar of progressive purity. Democrats have been totally out-gunned in the gerrymandering game, with the result that Republican legislatures are constrained only by what sense of civic responsibility their members can muster, and so far there isn’t much evidence of that.

Given this political landscape, what should moderate, centrist Democrats and Republicans be wishing for in this election year?

In this strange and dangerous time, we can take perverse comfort in the fact that, hobbled by their a failed agenda and seemingly bereft of electable successors to Biden, Democrats seem likely to lose, for real, in 2022 and 2024. The alternative, where they win but are openly usurped by state legislatures under the banner of election security, would be even more damaging and dangerous.

Is this capitulation to political thuggery? In a way it is. But we moderates have been asleep at the switch for too long, the die already seems cast for at least the next two elections, and the question we should be confronting, despite our exhaustion, is how we and our civic life can best survive them.


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