Since the first case of covid-19 was reported in the US, Americans have had to face a new cause of death and illness. So far, two years into the experience, society remains divided in its willingness to combat the virus, protect itself, and limit the myriad harms that this pernicious, sometimes mortal contagion brings. Covid is just dangerous enough to interfere with ordinary social pleasures, disrupt institutional regimens, and cramp habits of congregation outside the home.
Yet, we are intrinsically social beings. Humans must gather, interact, and abide together. The more this natural impulse (amounting to a necessity) is thwarted, the more frustrated and unfulfilled people naturally feel. It is one thing to forego society for the sake of public health temporarily, quite another to undertake indefinitely. As omicron sweeps the nation and indeed the world, it humbles the scientific pretense of human control.
While in the camp that takes every precaution, I increasingly appreciate the actions of those who, with a dash of faith and courage, are living into the moment as they normally would. One can master the science and actuarial risks, yet remain befuddled about how to live with an infectious threat that’s small but vexatiously variable. It’s a quandary for rational, conscientious people: how to rejoin society while meeting the subliminal risks of covid-19.
Which brings us to the political point of this essay, which is that good Americans must become gregarious again, if only for the sake of stabilizing the political system and promoting domestic tranquility. As federalism veered dangerously close to a meltdown in the final years of the Trump administration, most patriots were immobilized, balkanized, cooped up at home. The elements threatening the polity remain at large, thanks in part to the complicity of the Republican Party.
Americans have always been a congregating people, freely combining for purposes of worship, self-improvement, leisure, and fostering innumerable charitable, civic, cultural, and political enterprises. When such informal associations flourish, reform and regeneration typically thrive. Americans have been painfully slow to take commonsense measures known to mitigate covid’s spread and severity, but as a majority recommits itself to the ideals of health, prosperity, and community, a political renaissance could follow, too.
The Republican and Democratic parties remain locked in a struggle against one another. Their parity produces an agonizing see-sawing that distracts officials from their true representative function. Careerism and the fate of partisan “teams” dominate the national narrative, coloring the news.
Every issue, including that of the role and condition of citizens in a republic, assumes a fantastical shape when seen through partisanship’s unreliable lens. Only a few patriots like Liz Cheney use their time at the microphone to remind colleagues and peers that the entire political class is bound to a higher calling, which involves reverence for and adherence to the Constitution.
The federal system that binds disparate states and populations into one powerful nation has always involved trade-offs. It involves one state putting up with another. It involves something very much out of fashion, particularly among radicals: federalism requires compromise.
Compromise is often very painful, and it’s tricky. Its crafters must bear the responsibility for compromise, which by its very nature is unpopular. Compromise is never ideal; it’s always “less than.”
Those who compromise may suffer resentment and guilt. Misgivings may haunt them, about whether their counterparts at the bargaining table are trustworthy or whether they could have gotten a better deal. All this they have to manage while mitigating the disappointment of followers back at home. And this is the best case scenario, because it assumes that a compromise can be made.
Compromises are imperfect, yet they are generally better than “settlements,” which are face-saving arrangements. Compromises address painful underlying issues, whereas settlements are ways to avoid the issues and the responsibility that comes with facing them. Settlements cost the parties nothing and tempt them into “kicking the can down the road.” Settlements allow problems to balloon through neglect, to the point where they come to govern all other events, even usurping the rule of law.
Instead of tackling urgent national issues together, the parties–at every level of the federal system–are intent on “the politics of procedure.” This style of politics focuses on the mechanisms of government. According to the rules of this game, each party seeks to use government and every public power to consolidate and extend its own control. This style of politics is very bad for the people. It’s bad for the nation. Yet, it has been increasing in popularity among politicians since the time of Newt Gingrich, reaching an almost intolerable crescendo today.
Whether Democrats or Republicans are on top is the principal issue in US politics today. Each party is so used to this degraded form of politics that their members can’t see beyond party destiny. Their sense of nation is nearly gone. They imagine and tell one another that, if their party suffers defeat, nothing of value will remain. They shame and punish anyone bucking the narrative.
Such is the state of politics in the United States.
Image: from this source. In John Dorival’s 1834 drawing,
an eagle clings to a rock littered with symbols of American Union.
Above the shield of unity floats a baricole bearing the nation’s motto,
E Pluribus Unum (“From the Many, One”).
The poem reads
“Here on the Rock of Boundless Ages
Are Shades of Patriot Chiefs and Sages!
Who form’d our Constitutions Plan
On Moral Justice and the Rights of Man.”
A year ago, Trump supporters marched on the US Capitol. Some were feckless thrill-seekers, but others were dead set on preventing Joe Biden from becoming the nation’s legally elected president. Members of the crowd wore bizarre regalia; some wore military gear. Some waved Confederate flags. Some were armed with sticks and aerosols that came in handy when they stamped on and warred with police officers.
The marauders forced their way into a locked-down Capitol. They came for high government officials, particularly vice president Mike Pence, whom they wanted to hang. Congress had to duck and run for cover. Some House members were sheltering in place when Secret Service officers barricaded the House Chamber, drew guns, and shot dead one of the mob who kept pushing her way in anyway.
Hours into the bizarre incursion, reinforcements came to assist the Capitol Police. Pence and his family and all the Senators and Representatives were guided out of the building to safety. Late at night, after Trump’s forces were expelled, Congress re-convened. With Pence again presiding over the Senate, in the wee hours of January 7, 2021, Biden’s election was finally certified.
Subsequently, some 25,000 National Guard troops camped in the Capitol to defend it against future attack. Biden’s inauguration took place in a militarized atmosphere necessary to deter violent anarchy.
Those of us who followed the events on social media saw ample proof of the serious intent and orchestration of the Capitol attack. We saw embedded video from a phalanx of the Proud Boys, as they made their way to the rear (east side) of the Capitol that day. We saw an organized paramilitary element within the crowd, invading the Capitol with professional determination. We learned of pipe bombs planted near the headquarters of the national parties, put there to divert law enforcement from the Capitol at a favorable time. A vehicle loaded with napalm and materials for bomb-making was discovered.
We all heard the racist taunts of the rioters as they smashed through the perimeter of the Capitol grounds, demeaning and injuring the police. After breaching the Capitol, shattering windows and beating down doors, a faction of murderously angry Americans vandalized the seat of self-government. They declared they were there for Trump, a power-hungry loser whose prompts they obeyed.
Some Republicans in the House and Senate hinted at colluding with the out-going president and the rioters. Some met with the president on January 5 and came away uttering cryptic prognostications of wondrous events about to transpire. Others remained firm for Trump after the chaos was put down. They continued to question the state-certified election results. Astonishingly, six Republicans in the Senate and 141 in the House finally voted against certification, defiantly indifferent to the implications of the violent siege.
Despite eyewitness coverage and the detailed narrative of January 6th that House prosecutors presented during Trump’s second impeachment trial, too much remains unknown about just who planned, aided, financed, and executed this failed coup. The chief perpetrators of a crime against the United States, who betrayed the Constitution and sought to nullify a Constitutionally ordained process, still go about their business, passing as decent, respectable people. The Republican Party is protecting them. Only a handful of Republican patriots, including Liz Cheney, Peter Meijer, and Adam Kinzinger, have had the courage to speak out against the treachery that pro-Trump forces resorted to last year in their bid to hang onto power. Had their insurrection succeeded, the federal government would be a regime, Constitutional government a sham.
On the first anniversary of January 6th, I marvel at the dark forces combining to whitewash the mortal threat that Constitutional government barely survived. One part of American officialdom is intent on recasting what happened at the Capitol, using the repressive tactics of authoritarian regimes. They wish Jan. 6 to go the way of Tiananmen Square. The insurrectionists and other Trump partisans who bear responsibility for what happened have been astonishingly successful at suppressing and denying the bloody truth. Trump apologists insist that nothing scary or wrong happened. Right-leaning news outlets cast aspersions on the integrity of those the insurrection would have destroyed.
Social media friendly to right-wing extremism stoke the grievances of these fringe minorities, justifying their unlawful lust to war against the popular will. State Republican organizations have become little more than propaganda machines. False narratives flourish as conservative investors increase their control over the press, buying up independent newspapers, gutting their newsrooms, often shutting them down. A firewall blazing with obfuscation and lies keeps Trump and his accomplices miraculously safe.
Yet conscience and political ambition may crumble the defense that seems so impregnable. Already battle-scarred Republicans like Chris Christie have pointed out the liability that Trump represents. Trump lied and failed the nation. He betrayed the Constitution. He LOST. As long as Republicans remain loyal to a “dangerous and irrational man,” they will never regain the majority’s trust. Why should the nation empower people who lie? Fealty to Trump is a shackle that smart Republicans will soon saw off. As incentives to desert Trump build, the prospect of learning the whole truth about January 6th will swell, at last becoming inevitable.
The new year 2022 unscrolls. As we struggle to get clear of the wreckage of 2021, the question is whether Americans have it in them to begin again, to journey into the future with some humility. Can we leave behind the evil passions that have eroded the order and security of American life and re-envision something more wholesome, more generally beneficial, that’s kinder to nature and humankind?
The pressure to turn conservative is increasing: by which I mean, the pressure to appreciate and preserve what we have and to consolidate public sentiment around goals consonant with our historical strengths. Partisan sniping, barbarizing technologies, upper-class selfishness, and decades of in-migration have triggered keen disillusionment, anomie, and rage. Meanwhile, our love affair with globalism has turned sour. We are croaking from the environmental and monetary costs.
Amid the disappointment and weariness, January invites us to be open, to be curious, to regard the world with fresh eyes. Paradoxically, the recollection of what Americans have struggled toward as ideal goods can green the journey, can guide our hejira through a broken world.
Image: “The Journey” (1903) by Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott,
from this source.
I knew you would be trouble but I didn’t anticipate how much or for how long. I didn’t anticipate how high-maintenance you would be, when you, with your big head, your big mouth, and your shocking ideas, eclipsed every other craven presidential wannabe in that first GOP cattle call back in 2015. Continue reading →