I have learned that in my own studies here over the last decade. It’s our ability to learn from history, and so step back from the brink, that is the secret of America’s success.
The present political conflict has elements of the Civil War and World War II in it. Like the Civil War it’s primarily a sectional struggle, this time between cities and suburbs, and also (so far) primarily a political struggle. At the same time it’s also a global struggle over values, with people around the world wanting to tear apart the post-war order and so make war upon one another. It will be America’s job, over the next four years, to offer a credible alternative.
Also, as with previous crises, this one has roots going back a generation. The Civil War followed a generation of compromises between North and South, brokered by the West. World War II followed the harsh peace of World War I, and the rise of Empires (including, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, our own).
Similarly, everything we’re seeing now is an outgrowth of what I have called the Nixon Thesis of Conflict.
Let’s remember what that was about.
Why, then, with so many negative examples all around us, not only in history but in the newspapers, would Americans possibly copy that error with Donald Trump?
I don’t think we will, but thinking something doesn’t make it happen. There is always the struggle. This is true whether you’re trying to prove a political point or a scientific one. The other side does not care about your evidence for Pluto being a satellite rather than a planet. They don’t care about your evidence for global warming, or the need for gun control. They’re not thinking with that part of their brain.
There has always been a duality to the human mind and heart. We’re capable of great good, but also great evil. We’re capable of this as nations, as religions, as groups, as individuals. Give us the means and some are bound to take it.
This means the better angels of our nature cannot be passive in the face of fear, or threats, or violence. They must be firm, and their search for justice sustained. They must be able to hold together under great stress, even under great odds. The story of America is the story of doing just that.
History will record the present period as one of civil war. Not Civil War, but civil war. There is a difference between armies marching and individuals terrorizing the neighbors. Barring a result I do not foresee, Civil War will be averted. But the civil war has been going on for many years.
The war over the judiciary has been going on for a generation, and the Nixon Thesis has won enormous victories, ridding courts of moderates and liberals, packing courts with “conservatives” who will see every issue as political, and who will respond in an entirely political manner. The radicalization of the party apparatus, within the states, has also been going on since the Nixon era. I cut my teeth on it, with the New York Conservative Party believe it or not, which eventually rode out not just Nelson Rockefeller but every other sensible voice.
The key to maintaining cohesion in such an effort is that you always blame the other side for what you do. Theirs is the conspiracy, theirs is the threat. You’re only defending yourself.
It was the Warren Court that gave birth to Rehnquist, they’ll say. It’s Bork who created Clarence Thomas, they’ll say. It’s the corruption of Democratic city machines that made Bush vs. Gore necessary, they’ll say. Power must be maintained, even in the face of democratic majorities going the other way, thus Citizens United. It must be maintained even through violent rebellion, thus DC vs. Heller and the extremism that has followed.
It was the 2008 Heller decision that made this a shooting war. By deliberately misreading the Second Amendment as granting individuals a “right” to own guns, overturning a completely valid precedent in U.S. vs. Miller (1935) Antonin Scalia unleashed radicalism in the name of any cause, or in the name of no cause, although he meant to unleash it in the Republican cause. While the case at bar only involved handguns, it has been used by the industry, and conservatives, to apply to semi-automatic machine guns. While the case at bar only involved a prohibition against gun ownership it has been used to oppose any form of gun safety.
Thus the war has been prosecuted, not by generals and by disciplined armies, but by diseased individuals following every type of cause they can conjure. White supremacy in Charleston. The voices in someone’s head in Aurora. Muslim fanaticism in Orlando. And with every battle we mourn, yet we find ourselves unable to act because of Citizens United, along with the deliberate, willful gerrymandering of Republican legislatures, who have become not just anti-Democratic, but profoundly anti-democratic.
This is the real political pressure building under the surface of America. We focus on what the right is doing, we ignore what the left is feeling. We focus on Trump. We ignore Sanders.
More Constitutional Amendments have covered the right to vote than any other subject, and yet still these assholes seek to limit the franchise in a dozen different ways. They demand identification and then prevent voters from getting it. They close polling places in Democratic areas, while keeping plenty open in Republican ones. They end early voting working people depend upon. They throw people in prison on trumped-up charges and then say felons can’t vote. When all else fails, local officials go for rank intimidation of ethnic or religious minorities.
This is not democracy. These are not the actions of republicans. These are acts of war, war against the very ideas and ideals on which the country was founded. The noise is coming from inside the house.
Fortunately, it has until now been a political struggle. It should remain a political struggle, if those engaged in politics remain willing to use the remaining tools of democracy to keep up the fight. It’s when we give up on voting, when we decide the system is “rigged” and take up arms against those committing civil war against us, that this can become a Civil War. And, then, a global war of all against all, one no one can win and will make man a virus Gaia will destroy for its own survival.
As has been true many times before, Americans stand on a precipice. Once upon a time, we fell in. I don’t believe we’ll fall in again. I do believe November will represent a true turning point.
But who can be certain? We can’t.