I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election. When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons. Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being. They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party). The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me. And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.
After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person. The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited. To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy. Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.
The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals. Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history. They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings. In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.
While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties. Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.” The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.
Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849),
from this source.