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Nobody wants what’s coming, so nobody wants to see what’s coming.
On the eve of the first civil war, the most intelligent, the most informed, the most dedicated people in the United States could not see it coming. Even when Confederate soldiers began their bombardment of Fort Sumter, nobody believed that conflict was inevitable. The north was so unprepared for the war they had no weapons.
In Washington, in the winter of 1861, Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, declared that “not one man in America wanted the civil war or expected or intended it”. South Carolina senator James Chestnut, who did more than most to bring on the advent of the catastrophe, promised to drink all the blood spilled in the entire conflict. The common wisdom at the time was that he would have to drink “not a thimble”.
The United States today is, once again, headed for civil war, and, once again, it cannot bear to face it. The political problems are both structural and immediate, the crisis both longstanding and accelerating. The American political system has become so overwhelmed by anger that even the most basic tasks of government are increasingly impossible.
The legal system grows less legitimate by the day. Trust in government at all levels is in freefall, or, like Congress, with approval ratings hovering around 20%, cannot fall any lower. Right now, elected sheriffs openly promote resistance to federal authority. Right now, militias train and arm themselves in preparation for the fall of the Republic. Right now, doctrines of a radical, unachievable, messianic freedom spread across the internet, on talk radio, on cable television, in the malls.
The consequences of the breakdown of the American system is only now beginning to be felt. January 6 wasn’t a wake-up call; it was a rallying cry. The Capitol police have seen threats against members of Congress increase by 107%. Fred Upton, Republican representative from Michigan, recently shared a message he had received: “I hope you die. I hope everybody in your family dies.” And it’s not just politicians but anyone involved in the running of the electoral system. Death threats have become a standard aspect of the work life of election supervisors and school board members. A third of poll workers, in the aftermath of 2020, said they felt unsafe.
Under such conditions, party politics have become mostly a distraction. The parties and the people in the parties no longer matter much, one way or the other. Blaming one side or the other offers a perverse species of hope. “If only more moderate Republicans were in office, if only bipartisanship could be restored to what it was.” Such hopes are not only reckless but irresponsible. The problem is not who is in power, but the structures of power.
The United States has burned before. The Vietnam war, civil rights protests, the assassination of JFK and MLK, Watergate – all were national catastrophes which remain in living memory. But the United States has never faced an institutional crisis quite like the one it is facing now. Trust in the institutions was much higher during the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act had the broad support of both parties. JFK’s murder was mourned collectively as a national tragedy. The Watergate scandal, in hindsight, was evidence of the system working. The press reported presidential crimes; Americans took the press seriously. The political parties felt they needed to respond to the reported corruption.
You could not make one of those statements today with any confidence.
Two things are happening at the same time. Most of the American right have abandoned faith in government as such. Their politics is, increasingly, the politics of the gun. The American left is slower on the uptake, but they are starting to figure out that the system which they give the name of democracy is less deserving of the name every year.
An incipient illegitimacy crisis is under way, whoever is elected in 2022, or in 2024. According to a University of Virginia analysis of census projections, by 2040, 30% of the population will control 68% of the Senate. Eight states will contain half the population. The Senate malapportionment gives advantages overwhelmingly to white, non– college educated voters. In the near future, a Democratic candidate could win the popular vote by many millions of votes and still lose. Do the math: the federal system no longer represents the will of the American people.
The right is preparing for a breakdown of law and order, but they are also overtaking the forces of law and order. Hard right organization have now infiltrated so many police forces – the connections number in the hundreds – that they have become unreliable allies in the struggle against domestic terrorism.
Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked undercover against domestic terrorists during the 1990s, knows that the white power sympathies within police departments hamper domestic terrorism cases. “The 2015 FBI counter-terrorism guide instructs FBI agents, on white supremacist cases, to not put them on the terrorist watch list as agents normally would do,” he says. “Because the police could then look at the watchlist and determine that they are their friends.” The watchlists are among the most effective techniques of counter-terrorism, but the FBI cannot use them. The white supremacists in the United States are not a marginal force; they are inside its institutions.
Recent calls to reform or to defund the police have focused on officers’ implicit bias or policing techniques. The protesters are, in a sense, too hopeful. Activist white supremacists in positions of authority are the real threat to American order and security. “If you look at how authoritarian regimes come into power, they tacitly authorize a group of political thugs to use violence against their political enemies,” German says. “That ends up with a lot of street violence, and the general public gets upset about the street violence and says, ‘Government, you have to do something about this street violence,’ and the government says, ‘Oh my hands are tied, give me a broad enabling power and I will go after these thugs.’ And of course once that broad power is granted, it isn’t used to target the thugs. They either become a part of the official security apparatus or an auxiliary force.”
Anti-government patriots have used the reaction against Black Lives Matter effectively to build a base of support with law enforcement. “One of the best tactics was adopting the blue lives matter patch. I’m flabbergasted that police fell for that, that they actually support these groups,” German says. “It would be one thing if [anti-government patriots] had uniformly decided not to target police any more. But they haven’t. They’re still killing police. The police don’t seem to get it, that the people you’re coddling, you’re taking photographs with, are the same people who elsewhere kill.” The current state of American law enforcement reveals an extreme contradiction: the order it imposes is rife with the forces that provoke domestic terrorism.
Just consider: in 2019, 36% of active duty soldiers claimed to have witnessed “white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military”, according to the Military Times.
At this supreme moment of crisis, the left has divided into warring factions completely incapable of confronting the seriousness of the moment. There are liberals who retain an unjustifiable faith that their institutions can save them when it is utterly clear that they cannot. Then there are the woke, educational and political elites dedicated to a discourse of willed impotence. Any institution founded by the woke simply eats itself – see TimesUp, the Women’s March, etc – becoming irrelevant to any but a diminishing cadre of insiders who spend most of their time figuring out how to shred whoever’s left. They render themselves powerless faster than their enemies can.
What the American left needs now is allegiance, not allyship. It must abandon any imagined fantasies about the sanctity of governmental institutions that long ago gave up any claim to legitimacy. Stack the supreme court, end the filibuster, make Washington DC a state, and let the dogs howl, and now, before it is too late. The moment the right takes control of institutions, they will use them to overthrow democracy in its most basic forms; they are already rushing to dissolve whatever norms stand in the way of their full empowerment.
The right has recognized what the left has not: that the system is in collapse. The right has a plan: it involves violence and solidarity. They have not abjured even the Oath Keepers. The left, meanwhile, has chosen infighting as their sport.
There will be those who say that warnings of a new civil war is alarmist. All I can say is that reality has outpaced even the most alarmist predictions. Imagine going back just 10 years and explaining that a Republican president would openly support the dictatorship of North Korea. No conspiracy theorist would have dared to dream it. Anyone who foresaw, foresaw dimly. The trends were apparent; their ends were not.
It would be entirely possible for the United States to implement a modern electoral system, to restore the legitimacy of the courts, to reform its police forces, to root out domestic terrorism, to alter its tax code to address inequality, to prepare its cities and its agriculture for the effects of climate change, to regulate and to control the mechanisms of violence. All of these futures are possible. There is one hope, however, that must be rejected outright: the hope that everything will work out by itself, that America will bumble along into better times. It won’t. Americans have believed their country is an exception, a necessary nation. If history has shown us anything it’s that the world doesn’t have any necessary nations.
The United States needs to recover its revolutionary spirit, and I don’t mean that as some kind of inspirational quote. I mean that, if it is to survive, the United States will have to recover its revolutionary spirit. The crises the United States now faces in its basic governmental functions are so profound that they require starting over. The founders understood that government is supposed to work for living people, rather than for a bunch of old ghosts. And now their ghostly constitution, worshipped like a religious document, is strangling the spirit that animated their enterprise, the idea that you mold politics to suit people, not the other way around.
Does the country have the humility to acknowledge that its old orders no longer work? Does it have the courage to begin again? As it managed so spectacularly at the birth of its nationhood, the United States requires the boldness to invent a new politics for a new era. It is entirely possible that it might do so. America is, after all, a country devoted to reinvention.
Once again, as before, the hope for America is Americans. But it is time to face what the Americans of the 1850s found so difficult to face: The system is broken, all along the line. The situation is clear and the choice is basic: reinvention or fall.
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