I doubt that the middle can hold. Circumstances the founders could not have expected are unleashed and what we know of as America hangs by a precarious thread.
The founders knew this form of government was an unlikely concoction. In fact, they collectively had a deep fear of democracy. Historically, attempts to form democratic governments had been unmitigated failures. The Roman Republic was their worst case. So, James Madison, and he was the primary author, created a constitution that explicitly seeks to parcel out power via interlocking checks and balances. It is a bit of a kludge that has mostly served us well. While it didn’t fix everything immediately, slavery and women voting for example, it was constructed in a way that even those onerous flaws were mitigated. We move toward justice.
Our democratic republic is like a steady middle infielder who never bats above.245. (Of course, a baseball metaphor) Such a player is essential because they grind out at bats with the occasional home-run and play defense that consistently saves runs. Any given day, they can dazzle, but most are the core of any excellent team. I think the problem with current perception about America is that we expect it to be a phenom, the star. Kind of silly that. The founders were audacious, but they weren’t idiots.
There is an old word at the core of Madison’s assumptions: comity. Here’s one definition: a state or atmosphere of harmony or mutual civility and respect. America was playing hardball, 2-party politics as early as 1800. Vicious attacks and outrageous claims were in newspapers and pamphlets. Still, when the dust settled, even the worst political enemies shared a baseline loyalty to the system, Enlightenment liberalism, and most importantly, the constitution. Differences existed under a single name: American. I have studied political polarization for decades and have remained an optimist about the resilience of the American experiment, but now I must admit that I may have been wrong.
The Internet is killing us. I was one of the earliest adopters of internet. A bit of a nerd, I was part of a small group who hacked our ancestral home PCs to behave like the UNIX systems in universities. After days of tinkering with an unbelievably slow modem, I recall the rush of seeing my screen slowly paint a web page from Switzerland. I yelled for Sally to come look. “Look… Look I am in Switzerland now!!” To which I believe she responded, “I don’t know what that means.” We few nerds rambled on endlessly about sewing the world together over one big internet. Veterans of dial up Bulletin Board Systems, we already understood virtual communities, but this was going to be different, free, universal. We were fools.
I am now sure the single most important factor in the coming dissolution of our republic is the internet. Social media is a collection of isolated cells of festering malice. We don’t use the tool to expand our personal universe and challenge our own assumptions. No, aided by the social media companies and malign actors (are those the same) people gather to confirm what they believe. “Believe” is the key word. The internet has vast wells of empirical knowledge, but our current internet exists to aggregate misinformation and support new religiosity. To believe is to commit to articles of faith. On the right, that is the cult of Donald Trump. Remarkably, Evangelical Christians have found in this swindler a new messiah. On the left, as critical theory has exploded into universities, what has emerged under the label “woke” is a secular religion where founding beliefs can’t be questioned. Both extremes define heretics then hunt them down on the internet, and increasingly, with violence on our streets. What both share is the resolute rejection of the single most important characteristic of our founding, the emergence of the independent, liberal human.
Quoting Andrew Sullivan:
The genius of liberalism in unleashing human freedom and the human mind changed us more in centuries than we had changed in hundreds of millennia. And at its core, there is the model of the single, interchangeable, equal citizen, using reason to deliberate the common good with fellow citizens. No ultimate authority; just inquiry and provisional truth. No final answer: an endless conversation. No single power, but many in competition.
Simply, the internet has made us all more stupid. Social media exists in the world of primal stimulation. The best way to keep your eyeballs on the screen is to tell you what you want to hear and poke at the basest emotion: anger. Love can motivate, anger keeps us clicking and clicks are money. The economic incentive of the internet alone is enough to dismantle over 200 years of comity.
The current version of the Republican party sprang to life in about 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. The Democratic party was the midwife of that birth. Reagan Democrats. That’s what we called those blue-collar voters who abandoned the Democratic party. The welfare state wasn’t helping them and all those promises of the Great Society had left them behind. Democrats abandoned God and started building ideological bastions in the big cities. Smart Republican operatives immediately understood the new game. Democrats, as usual, not so much. The victim and anger machine cranked into high-gear. AM radio, Rush Limbaugh and soon Fox News, took up the message. And election after election, Republicans pumped up the rubes in time to vote. Make no mistake, the smart Republicans always saw those would become Trump voters as rubes. Both parties looked down on them but the Republicans believed they could manage the mob with inter-splicing red meat issues like guns and abortion. But like the day that the Frankenstein monster left the lab, there came a point where the monster was hungry and angry at both parties. Toss in a black president to externalize white race anxiety and soon the call was, Fuck them all!!! And Trump responded, “Yea, fuck them all!” To fight Trump, the always clueless Democrats sent forth one of the most hated politicians in history. The coronation of Hillary became a revolution. Only Trump could embody the race fear of the mob so completely. At last, someone had their backs. And here we are.
I was waiting for a single event before I came to this horrifying conclusion. It wasn’t the January 6, 2021 insurrection. That one didn’t surprise me. They had telegraphed the attack for months. No, the single event that has now confirmed, for me, the unraveling of our democratic republic was today’s vote by the Republicans in the senate to kill the January 6 Commission. It is the refined essential oil of everything that has preceded it. Recall that the Republican votes in the 2 impeachments were couched in process. Those were not up and down votes on the core of the matter. There were long arguments about “jurisdiction” and “standing.” Republicans stood behind those thin ramparts. This time it was different. This time they had been personal witnesses to the crimes. They had run for their lives. This time the vote was achingly simple: Truth or Lie.
The audacity of the vote against the Commission was pure and clarifying. This was a vote to secure and maintain power. They didn’t hide the fact. Senator McConnell, who will be seen as the most powerful politician of the first part of the 21st Century, told us, told his caucus, told anyone who was listen. This vote was about the 2022 midterms and taking back the House and Senate. Truth sought by a majority of Americans would be an impediment to regaining full control of Congress. Truth would upset Trump, and more importantly, Trump is the essential filter through which almost all money for the Republican Party flows. Small donations from Trumpists are the lifeblood of the party now. McConnell, offended that he may have been on January 6, is above all the perfect transactional manager of power. I admire his singular focus, like I admire the ruthlessness of the Roman Emperors. He understands the inherent weaknesses of the Democratic leadership and is running the country as the minority leader of the Senate. It is a monumental accomplishment.
Here is what you are not hearing in the media now. So, what is the Republican plan? Trump lost them the Congress and the White House. Why stick with him? Democracies die when a minority party takes power and governs beyond the will of the majority of the governed. Almost nothing in the thin agenda of Republicans has majority support. They know they are a demographically shrinking and localized party now. It is only getting worse. But they also understand the greatest flaw of Madison’s design is that he never completely considered a threat to the nation would originate from within. His mechanisms to balance power assumed comity, the ultimate allegiance to the experiment itself, over the narrow interests of a single group or party. Madison didn’t know about how tight information bubbles, impermeable to facts or reason, could be wrapped around a motivated minority of Americans. Madison and the founders wrote about their fear of the tyranny of the majority. It never occurred to them that there could be a tyranny of the minority.
The Republicans are moving to rewire the voting process. Their greatest success in 2020 and 2021 has been to convince a minority that elections are all corrupt. Do you think that should a Democrat be elected president in 2024 that a Republican majority in Congress would affirm that election? When Putin injected himself to get Trump elected in 2016, he did not know how he was setting the predicate for Americas to destroy their own Republic.
I am bereft of optimism now. Sedition, and this is what is happening, requires ruthless toughness from an opposition to suppress it. Democrats have much of their own party who explicitly reject the American experiment as an existing failure. The progressive left are ambivalent about the current threat. They naively, arrogantly, believe they have a better way. But, have you ever asked a woke advocate what system lives at the end of their deconstruction rainbow? They don’t have a clue.
Fools like Manchin are still looking for 10 good Republicans. Oh stop. Do you think that once in power McConnell would hesitate to kill the filibuster? He baited the Democrats to remove the filibuster for court nominees and they fell for it. The right now controls the courts.
To paraphrase Orwell, the most important thing is to see what is right in front of one’s eyes. Don’t rationalize. Don’t equivocate. The Republican party is now a populist, authoritarian, minority power regime in waiting. With the Commission vote, they admitted it. We are on the edge of a battle over power that could become a real civil war. At the very least, this moment is as close to the bombing of Fort Sumter by Confederate cannons as we have been since that day. The evil is clear. All the authoritarians need is complacency and distraction for them to complete their quest. I fear we have gone too far; the impediments are too institutionalized for the middle to hold.