I was pleased to see this article at Quillette. The author, Jonathan Kay, is clearly of mid-left-wing political sympathies, but he’s also clearly a thinking man, who’s realized that we’re headed like lemmings towards a cliff from which there’s no return. I can only wish more people of good will, on both sides, could realize this, and do something about it before it’s too late. The former is happening. The latter . . . not so much.
When you have lived long enough in a foreign country, you eventually begin to realize that the one you left behind, once accepted as utterly unique since it was all you knew, is not particularly different from anywhere else. One can call this perspective, but it is more a recognition of the essential contingency of any nation.
This is especially true when observing a country like the United States, which raises its children to believe that it is exceptional and, being exceptional, also immortal. Indeed, living in a country like Israel, which must be ever-vigilant about existential danger, I am struck by America’s extraordinary sense of invulnerability. An unthinkably bloody civil war did not break it, nor did Pearl Harbor or even 9/11. America and Americans, by and large, think they are going to live forever. Like most Americans, I grew up reflexively believing this. It was never said or taught outright, but it was a kind of cultural assumption. America was born of the virgin Liberty, and like the son of God in which it still largely believes, will always rise from the dead.
From afar, however, you eventually realize that, just as no man is immortal, nor is any nation. It is possible, of course, that it may survive for a very long time—much longer than the lifespan of any individual citizen. But even Rome fell, and while the Jews and perhaps India and China appear to prove the possibility of perpetual existence, it is in the nature of existence itself that survival is by no means inevitable.
This disillusion has been much on my mind lately, as I gaze from this great distance at the country of my birth. Because … it looks like America is in the midst of a crack-up.
I doubt that it is necessary to present a complete list of the symptoms of this collective nervous breakdown, but there were certain inflection points that seem important in retrospect. Over the past 20 years, America threw itself into two wars, one necessary and the other wholly not. It saw the rise of an anti-war movement that asserted, quite stridently, that a relatively innocuous president was the equivalent of Hitler. It watched as its overclass, through greed and short-sighted pursuit of profits, nearly destroyed the economy. It elected a messianic leader who proved all too human and followed him with a narcissistic, bloviating, entirely unscrupulous incompetent who was indifferent to the basic conduct required to sustain a democracy. It witnessed a direct attack on one of the great institutions of that democracy, now defended by a great many who ought to know better. It fostered an opposition composed of radicals prone to censorship and street violence. It has been riven by racial divisions that appear to admit of no obvious solution. And now it must contend with the fact that approximately half the country believes that a presidential election was stolen because their mendacious leader told them so.
The results of all this are not too difficult to discern: A significant segment of the American Left and Right have both, to a great extent, given up on the republic and its institutions. Something like a low-intensity race war has broken out both on the streets and in rarified cultural and academic institutions. Half the country considers their opponents godless, pagan heathens who are—at times literally—in league with Satan. The other half considers their opponents Nazis who are seeking to rebuild and re-enforce a white-dominated racial hierarchy. Both believe, quite sincerely, that the victory of the other side will mean the triumph of evil and therefore must be prevented at (almost) any cost.
All of this has led me to contemplate a depressing but perhaps inevitable possibility: I don’t see how America gets out of this. I had hoped that the Capitol attack might finally break the fever, and that some measure of sanity might prevail. But the opposite happened, and the Right has, with some noble exceptions, doubled down, proclaiming that the mob were peaceful protesters and Ashli Babbitt is the new John Birch. The Left, meanwhile, has gone about gutting the right to free speech and destroying the lives and reputations of anyone who ventures that there are, for example, only two sexes. Neither side, then, is willing to admit the obvious, and is determined to impose an alternative truth—that is, lies—by coercive means, if necessary.
This all seems to add up to something like a sign of the end. Republics, and especially democratic republics, rest not only on the written law but also on an unwritten law: “Thou shalt submit to reality.” This brand of Enlightenment-born politics requires citizens to assent to the laws of the republic, the institutions of the republic, and the results of its regular elections, secure in the knowledge that there will always be another one. In other words, citizens are expected to conduct themselves as reasonable human beings. No one, however, appears to be reasonable anymore. One side believes that the moral imperative of equity overrides all other values and considerations, including the Bill of Rights; the other side submits to nothing but the dictates of its spiteful demagogue. This is unsustainable.
There’s much more at the link. Recommended reading.
I don’t see how America gets out of this, either. It’s still possible for rational, reasonable people to find a way; but rational, reasonable people are not in charge right now, and are not leading either wing of US politics. It’s become a tired old cliche to quote Yeats, but sadly his words are no less accurate for that:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
What Mr. Kay fails to realize (or, at least, to acknowledge) is that the individual leaders involved – President Obama, of whom he clearly approves, or President Trump, of whom the opposite is clearly true – are not the “leaders” of their respective “sides”. The two are merely figureheads for their followers, giving a human face to a fundamental dissonance in US society. The extremists on either side appear unwilling to regard the other as “human”. Instead, they’re “things” – “Rethuglicans” or “Democraps”, leftists or rightists, conservatives or progressives, enemies or friends. There’s no longer any recognition of the essential humanity and shared national heritage that should unite us. I’ve written many times about that dissonance and its effect on societies. See, for example, what I said about the Paris terror attacks in 2015, and apply that to US society today. There’s an awful lot in common.
I did not like and still do not like President Trump’s arrogant, abrasive style, and did not and do not support him because of it. I did so because his policies to put America first and restore the balance between Wall Street and Main Street were and are, to me, so self-evidently correct. Others will, of course, disagree with that perspective, as is their right. That’s the beauty of freedom; one is free to choose. I disagree profoundly with those who hold that President Obama’s policies were right; but I grant that if he won a free, fair, democratic election and proceeded to implement those policies, he had the same right to do so as President Trump had to do the same when he won election.
Sadly, neither side is willing to extend such tolerance to the other any longer. We are no longer the “United” States, whether we like it or not. Instead, we no longer trust each other, and we no longer trust the organs and institutions that run our country. That way lies dissolution. As economist Herbert Stein said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. That seems to be happening right now to our country in its present form.
Charles Lipson sums it up.
Sometimes, stories that appear unrelated share common foundations and have cumulative effects, far more serious than any one does individually. Highlighting these common features tells us something profound about our society and its troubles.
. . .
The problem we face, beyond the specifics about crime, COVID, duplicity, and social division, is a palpable breakdown in public order at the same time the public has lost confidence in our government officials and the institutions they lead. The two meta-problems—the breakdown of order and erosion of public confidence—are deeply intertwined because we count on our leaders and institutions to give us reliable information, provide a stable environment (so each of us can go about our lives), and abide by the same rules we all do. Those are foundational elements of a peaceful, liberal, democratic society. Their attrition imperils that society and its governance.
. . .
The danger and dishonesty come after decades of eroding trust in public officials and the institutions they lead. Polls in the early 1960s showed over 70% of the public believed public officials were telling the truth. Those numbers have declined steadily to less than 20%. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon got that ball rolling downhill, but it hasn’t stopped. The mistrust goes beyond public officials to include news media, social media, universities, corporations, unions, churches, and even civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts.
The public put aside those doubts, at least temporarily, when the COVID pandemic struck in February and March 2020. Almost everyone was willing to follow mask mandates and business closures. They were willing to let small children skip in-person learning and use their computers. But after more than a year of self-confinement and school closures, the public’s patience has run out.
So has the public’s confidence that health officials know what they are doing and are telling us the truth.
. . .
The public’s growing mistrust of senior officials, elected and appointed, overlaps with widespread doubts that those officials must follow the same rules as the rest of us. This common standard, and public confidence in it, is foundational to our constitutional democracy. Politicians, billionaires, and celebrities may be able to hire the best lawyers, but they are not supposed to be above the law itself.
. . .
The key point here is that these problems—and they are serious—occur amid a long-term decline of trust in all our institutions, public and private. That problem goes well beyond the FBI’s bias, the hypocrisy by Muriel Bowser or Gavin Newsom, or the public mistrust in Anthony Fauci’s pronouncements and the CDC’s guidance. It goes beyond Trump’s dangerous game in questioning the election, and beyond surging crime and illegal immigration. Serious as those problems are, an even larger problem encompasses them: threats to our country’s stability are cumulating when the public no longer has confidence in the institutions meant to cope with them.
Again, more at the link.
That’s the problem, right there. We no longer have faith in each other as fellow citizens. We no longer have faith in our society and its institutions. We have lost faith, not just in our common, shared humanity, but in the various and sundry faiths that helped us look beyond the obvious, to perceive the natural in terms of eternal truths and the supernatural.
President Adams pointed out, more than two centuries ago:
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
I think he was absolutely right – and we are no longer either a moral or religious people. Thus, our Constitution is proving inadequate to bind us together. Sadly, there is nothing else to do so . . . and thus, as Yeats put it, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold”.
I see no way out of this dilemma except separation; the breakup of our Union into two or more separate polities. If anyone thinks that’s going to be an easy or peaceful process, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn, NYC I’d like to sell you. Cash only, please, and in small bills.