What Won’t Change (II)

Progressives, conservatives, independents, libertarians, the disgustedly disengaged: whatever your political affiliation, you need to stop waiting for a Presidential (or Congressional) election to bring you closure. The day after, everyone you hate and fear politically is right here, just waiting to vote again.

I’ve listened to liberals confidently predicting that the demographic base of American conservatism is right at the edge of crumbling. Next time or next time or next time, they say, it’ll be safe at last to believe in sane health care policy, the extension of rights to gays and lesbians, meaningful regulation of crony capitalism, strong environmental protections, and so on. I’ve read conservatives confidently predicting that liberals are only one major defeat away from moving to Europe or retreating into their walled communities–or worse yet, more extreme conservatives fantasizing that the next victory will give them the power to forcibly repress an opposition that they view as seditious and illegitimate. The disengaged dreamed last time that they’d see a new politics full of meaning and substance: they might believe it again from someone else.

The foundations of American political division at this point are deep and abiding enough than nothing like an election every four years is going to move them much. Nothing that any President does or could do, any Congress, will shift those foundations much, though some politicians have and will continue to make them even stronger and more immobile. No policy, no law, will change the math that will make most elections hard-fought, ill-felt and close.

It’s hardly surprising that there should be so many fantasies, some light and sardonic, some ugly and sincere, of hard overrule by one faction over the other. Because the only way out is through one of two gates: a bare, fragile majority (or a large plurality that locks in an advantage in the Rube Goldberg machine of American politics) forces itself on the communities and people who reject it, or we work out some kind of renewed social contract among a much larger center, to hold strongly together as a people and a nation. The latter doesn’t seem to interest much of anyone at the moment. The current incumbent, as I see it, made some pretty earnest attempts to move that direction and got little but scorn and disregard for it–some of which I’ve joined in because there’s no point to sitting down to strike a bargain with someone who has no intention to strike one. Sometimes you only get to a peace because enough people come to see the costs of war without end–the hard way. In any event, it’s not up to Presidents or four-year election cycles to accomplish that work–either a new covenant or a slow-motion civil war. It’s up to us.

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5 Responses to What Won’t Change (II)

  1. jerry hamrick says:

    I agree with your assessment of the problems with our systems as you set them out in I and II. I just wish you had some detailed proposals for dealing with them.

    On November 30, 2005 I made one of my first combative comments on this blog. I was eighteen months into writing a book about our political systems. I have worked on it pretty much full time ever since. The essence of the book is that our systems were badly designed in the beginning, and over the centuries, certain men, those who form factions, have learned to exploit these flaws so expertly that we find ourselves racing into a crash that will fill the air with heat and smoke on a grand scale.

    By an accident, I was taught from a very early age that, to quote you, “It’s up to us.” I took that admonition to heart and have worked on ideas for improving our systems for more than sixty years. My book is my attempt to do my part. As I have asked before in various ways here and in other places: What is your part? What is everyone’s part?

    In any case, I have been waiting for this election to be over so that I can add some predictions to my book about the next twenty years or so, because this election will determine the nature of those years. In fact this election can go a very long way toward determining the nature of Nature for the next century and beyond. It will take four to six weeks after the election for my book to be published, and then I will promote it. So don’t be surprised to find a copy of it in your mailbox around the start of the New Year.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Looking forward to it.

  3. Nes says:

    It’s amazing how many people I’ve talked to lately who have mentioned, either passively or with grave intent, that some sort of civil war is a real possibility sometime in the near future. I’m doubtful that such a civil war will – if it even occurs – be anything but a cold civil war, but I fear I share your sentiment that a “new covenant” is virtually impossible unless there’s some kind of a massive shift in socio-political consciousness. But how would such a shift even begin? We’d need something like a slew of charismatic critical intellectuals to somehow offer a different kind of ideology up for consumption. This seems unlikely given our current ideological palet and, of course, the fact that any such new way of thinking would be intrinsically opposed to the kind of simplistic and binary narratives that undergirds American political discourse in the first place.

    No, a new covenant doesn’t seem likely. But I think if the political polarization reaches critical mass, and compromise begins to look like a deal with devil, the simple shock of the reality of an impending civil war might wake people from their concessional slumbers. I don’t think a majority of Americans on either side of the wall to see blood spilt (although surely a fringe minority would vie for this option).

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    When I say ‘slow-motion’ civil war, I think I mean what you’re suggesting by ‘cold’ civil war. Not an actual shooting conflict, just two (or three or four, I think it’s more than two, actually) factions that have strong political and social bases hunkering down and holding on fiercely to what is theirs, defending their perceived rights and the character of their communities, blocking and sabotaging whatever they can of their opponents’ political desires, with legislatures largely being used as battlegrounds or if captured by one side or the other, as weapons of war (as say in Wisconsin this last cycle). This goes beyond ‘politics as usual’ in that there will ultimately be lives lost and things destroyed because business that needs to get done by government and civil society will not get done. In fact, I think we’re already well past that point: there is a great deal of work that should be getting done that has not been done for some time.

  5. Nord says:

    It is a war between two sets of rent seekers, both who seek to use the election to reward supporters and punish enemies. Hard to “find a middle” unless it just paying off both sides … A trillion dollar deficit seems like a strong effort to get there – would 2 trillion be better?

    I view this like rent control in Cambridge, MA – an awful system that led to an entrenched minority receiving a large benefit at a cost of a minority. Could rent control ave survived if either side was “more reasonable”? Sure, but for those opposed to the system, mending is as bed as keeping it, why bother?

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