Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
They Said It:
It may be wise to reflect upon what we really mean when we observe that theology, philosophy, metaphysics have reached an end – certainly not that God has died, something about which we can know as little as about God’s existence . . . but that the way God had been thought of for thousands of years is no longer convincing; if anything is dead it can only be the traditional thought of God . . . not that the old questions which are coeval with the appearance of men on earth have become “meaningless,” but that the way they were framed and answered has lost plausibility.
Hanna Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1971.
A NATION WITHOUT GOD.
It would probably be hyperbolic on our part to declare this to be “the most dangerous moment in the history of the republic.” After all, just over 150 years ago, the American people fought a civil war that left hundreds of thousands of citizens dead, hundreds of thousands more injured, and nearly half of the country broken – physically as well as politically – for several years afterward. Likewise, the 1960’s – and 1968, in particular – was a violent and unhappy time in the country. Politicians and civil rights leaders were murdered. Cities burned. Riots engulfed much of the urban cityscape and left many Americans with the sense that their nation was coming apart again.
Our guess is that we likely do not face anything of similar consequence today. It occurs to us that full-scale street violence would simply be far too much of an inconvenience for far too many people today. Moreover, the millennials appear to be too delicate to fight anyone or anything on a large scale. GenX-ers are too apathetic. And the Boomers are too old. And that, sadly, is just about the best news we can find in the current mess of American political violence. Three cheers for America?
In spite of all of us this, we think it would be a mistake to dismiss the present moment as irrelevant. In a very real sense, the danger that exists today is unprecedented in the history of the nation. The current spate of political violence could, at least in theory, continue to escalate. And if it gets out of hand, it could create a set of conditions that would leave us all longing for the good ol’ days of 1968.
You see, in 1861 all the combatants in the intra-American war prayed to the same God. They believed in the same general moral principles. And they understood the world on the same basic terms. The war was bloody, vicious, and destructive – as was the peace, at least in the beginning – but the cause of the hostilities was ultimately resolvable because both sides shared a common moral language. They both prayed to the God of Abraham, and neither side sought the destruction of the noble experiment in self-government that Lincoln described as “the last best hope of earth.”
Likewise, in 1968, most people knew what was right and what was wrong. The majority of Americans understood, deep down inside, that the racism, sexism, overt discrimination, and economic oppression of the previous century were contrary both to their personal, religious and moral values, and to the values on which the nation itself was founded. Vietnam was a complicated matter, and men and women of good will could disagree about the necessity and decency of American participation, but again, most people – not the radicals, mind you, but most people – appreciated that the United States was trying to the right thing, both at home and abroad.
None of this is true today. Today, the two sides in the burgeoning American civil war – or what our old friend Angelo Codevilla has rightly called the “Cold Civil War” – agree on almost nothing. And we do mean nothing. It’s not just that they see politics or policy differently. It’s not that they have differing beliefs about the proper solutions to common problems. It’s that they agree on nothing whatsoever. Not only do they disagree on the character of man; they disagree on whether or not that word – “man” – is, by definition oppressive. Not only do they disagree on the definitions of good and evil; they disagree on whether those words – or any words – can ultimately have any definitions at all. It’s not just that they see the world in differing terms; they don’t even agree if the world – or anything in it – is represented by reality, much less how that reality can be understood. There are no “first principles,” if you will. Everything is a conflict, and nothing is reconcilable.
Part of this can be blamed on our old friend, the clash of moral codes. But for our purposes today, that explanation is inadequate. It is both trite and unsatisfying. There is something else going on here, related but different, something that is far more specific.
As best we can tell, the current epoch began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which is to say at about the same time that radicals of the 1960s were coming into their own politically and the nation was, accordingly, about to elect its first Boomer president. George H. W. Bush was a nice man, but he was also old hat. And he had to go. The world was changing. Old enemies were dead or dying. New enemies had not yet fully emerged. The American people rightly felt triumphant. And their government did as well. More to the point, that government was suddenly flush with cash. The largest generational cohort in history was entering its peak earning years, even as the apparent need to spend excessively on national defense was dissipating. The New Hats decided, therefore, to get busy making themselves look useful, enjoying their newly found money and political power and translating their beliefs into public policy.
Almost twenty years ago, we wrote a piece looking back on the era in question here and assessing the impact that all of this “change” had on some of the nation’s more change-resistant populations. We began that piece as follows:
Okay, brothers and sisters. This week we’re going to begin with a question. What do you get when the following things all happen at once over a relatively short period of time, say 20 years?
–The government extends its influence far beyond the role of defending the shores, delivering the mail, establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, and overseeing the economy, and takes on the task of altering the nation’s culture, using its great judicial and executive powers in an attempt to significantly degrade the importance of religion, family, and virtually all of the traditional customs and mores around which society was ordered for over 200 years.
–Immigration skyrockets to over one million illegal and legal individuals per year, boosting the percentage of the population that is foreign born from under 5% in 1970 to almost 10% in 1996, with an overwhelming majority of new arrivals coming from nations with sharply different cultures than that of America.
–The government launches an attack on a fundamental principle of American democracy, namely legally guaranteed equal opportunity, with the primary target of this change being white males, the single most influential demographic cohort in the nation.
– In the face of vociferous opposition from the nation’s two largest religious congregations, the Catholics and the Baptists, all restrictions on abortion, both legal and ethical, are abandoned (including those relating to late term procedures), and the number of abortions performed skyrockets to approximately 1.5 million per year, approximately 300,000 or so on teenagers.
We went on to answer our own questions by describing the then-ongoing conservative backlash during which the Republicans had gained control of both Houses of Congress, captured a record number of seats in state legislatures and governors’ mansions, and were riding a wave of popular support for various reform initiatives in such important areas as welfare, immigration, taxes, public education, affirmative action, and abortion policy, all aimed at rolling back or stemming the liberal tide.
We observed that this was good news from the standpoint of the Republican Party, as well as welcome evidence that the American political system was reasonably vigorous, noting that in a healthy democracy, substantial social change is accomplished, usually slowly, via the ballot box, as each new generation asserts its values and beliefs and as the beliefs of older generations change as they mature.
At that point, we took off our happy face and addressed the fact that such periods of sweeping political and social change are more often than not marked by some elements of violence. We noted, among other things, that the early 1990s were characterized by a rather sharp spike in what could only be described as “terrorism,” planned, funded, executed, and celebrated by reactionary elements within the American body politic. We continued:
A list of crimes and serious confrontations with law enforcement officers which involve Patriot groups is long and frightening. Among the terrorist attacks credited to persons affiliated with Patriot groups are the April 19, 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that left 169 people dead, and the October 9, 1995 derailment of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited passenger train that killed one passenger and injured 83. . .
In March 1995, four members of the Minnesota Patriots Council, an extremist Posse Comitatus faction with ties to Identity, were convicted of conspiracy to produce and possess ricin — one of the deadliest known toxins – in order to kill IRS officials and law enforcement officers. The four had learned how to manufacture ricin through a manual marketed to Patriots.
The Tri-States Militia, comprised of militias from at least 30 states, was linked to at least five would-be terrorists whose bomb plots were thwarted by federal and state law enforcement. Oklahoma militia leaders and Identity “prophets” Ray Lampley and Larry Crow had been involved with Tri-States since April 1995. The two, along with Lampley’s wife Cecilia and J.D. Baird, were arrested in November 1995 on federal explosives charges. The four were allegedly part of a terrorist cell that planned to blow up the Southern Poverty Law Center, offices of the Anti- Defamation League, federal buildings, abortion clinics and sites in the gay community.
For a variety of reasons, this culturally reactionary terrorist blip dissipated rather quickly. We suspect that this was due in part to the emergence of real, full-blown, America-hating Islamist terrorism around the same time. In any case, the reactionism of the 1990s gave way to the revanchism of the 2000s. That is to say that the people and populations most frustrated by the pace of the Left’s culture wars also happen to be the people and populations who fight this country’s real wars, and they turned their ire away from their domestic oppressors and toward the nation’s foreign enemies. Just as important, out of respect for the principles that they represented, the political, cultural, and religious leaders of the conservative movement disowned and unfunded the rogue violence that was emanating from their ranks.
When all was said and done, the threat of violence inspired by cultural displacement more or less disappeared. The Obama administration tried to scare people about right-wing boogeymen, but no one cared, mostly because the whole illusion was so patently transparent. But while the violence vanished, the underlying frustration didn’t. It bubbled and festered just below the surface, building up a tremendous head of pressure during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who feigned affinity with the culturally disenfranchised quite well, but set about turning his cohort’s fantasies of radical cultural change into political reality.
Not surprisingly, in the nearly two decades since Clinton left office, the Democratic Party has continued its cultural march, stopping only to ditch the political pretenses with which it formerly adorned itself. In the eight short years between the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency and the start of Barack Obama’s, the Democratic Party became almost unrecognizable, ditching its previous contrived fealty to the foundational principles of the nation and even of the party itself. Obama was unconstrained by the niceties of an earlier age. He didn’t worry about the ramifications if belittling erstwhile Democrats who bitterly clung to their God and their guns. He didn’t understand why anyone anywhere would care that his preacher desired asked of God that he would “damn America.”
If Bill Clinton’s presidency represented the pinnacle of liberal Baby Boomer social self-congratulation, then Barack Obama’s presidency represented the beginning of the end of the liberal dream. If this were a play, Obama’s presidency would be the penultimate act; the one in which the drama builds to a breaking point.
Barack Obama promised his supporters the world, almost literally, vowing not only to create good jobs, but to hold back the tides of man-made climate doom. He promised the country’s redemption. He offered it radical egalitarianism. His mere presence in the Oval Office served as proof that with government by their side, the American people could do anything. Cost-free bailouts? We got ‘em! Health care for all? You bet! Free birth control? A “living wage?” Great new “green” jobs? Yes, yes, and yes! He spent the entirety of his presidency consolidating the gains made by Big Government over the course of the previous century. He insisted that there was nothing government couldn’t do, and he set out to prove it.
He failed. And like all good liberals, he blamed the capitalist running dogs. Nothing was his fault. Everything was their fault. Moreover, if they would just shut up and go away, everything could still be perfect. Naturally, his followers became angry. There were riots in Ferguson. Riots in New York. Cops shot in Dallas. Windows smashed and stores looted in DC. The great Charles Murray physically assaulted on a college campus. The city of Berkeley, California beset by protesters, counter-protesters, fascist anti-fascists, and legacy skinheads looking for a fight. Everyone angry and everyone ready to do damage – to property AND people.
By the end of the Obama presidency, not only was the Democratic Party’s transformation complete, but the new version openly and unashamedly despised the old version and its old, change-denying demographic cohorts. The party no longer even pretended to care about the people and cultural traditions of the past. It no longer bothered even to campaign in Michigan or Wisconsin, very fountain-heads of progressivism.
By 2016, the Democratic Party was happy to consign the nation’s once dominant culture and demographic groups to the dustbin of history. It designated this culture and its practitioners as the enemy. In the process, the Party and its leaders agitated and motivated their own supporters, but also reignited the animal spirits of those who had sensed the early stages this conflict a full quarter century earlier. Last summer, as Trump was wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, the aforementioned Charles Murray put it this way:
If you are dismayed by Trumpism, don’t kid yourself that it will fade away if Donald Trump fails to win the Republican nomination. Trumpism is an expression of the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken, and its appearance was predictable. It is the endgame of a process that has been going on for a half-century: America’s divestment of its historic national identity. . . .
As recently as 1960, the creed was our national consensus. Running that year for the Democratic nomination, candidates like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey genuinely embraced the creed, differing from Republicans only in how its elements should be realized. Today, the creed has lost its authority and its substance. What happened? Many of the dynamics of the reversal can be found in developments across the whole of American society: in the emergence of a new upper class and a new lower class, and in the plight of the working class caught in between.
In my 2012 book “Coming Apart,” I discussed these new classes at length. The new upper class consists of the people who shape the country’s economy, politics and culture. The new lower class consists of people who have dropped out of some of the most basic institutions of American civic culture, especially work and marriage. Both of these new classes have repudiated the American creed in practice, whatever lip service they may still pay to it. Trumpism is the voice of a beleaguered working class telling us that it too is falling away . . . .
Now, the Trump presidency – unexpected and therefore resented by the Left – represents our play’s so-called denouement; that critical point in the drama when all of the strands of the plot are drawn together, revealed to audience, and either explained or resolved. The scene opens with the appearance of the main character, The Donald himself – the protagonist or the antagonist, depending on your perspective. Trump promises to rebuild the nation on the wreckage that Obama has left behind. Some cheer; others jeer. As fate would have it, though, the play turns out to be a tragedy – for everyone involved.
As the curtain falls, Trump stands alone, surveying the scene and it becomes apparent to him that the wreckage was far greater than he imagined. Meanwhile, the foot-soldiers of Left are seen in the background preparing the “resistance,” trying to maintain a government in exile that will recapture the nation at a point in the not-too-distant future.
Last week, National Review’s David French penned a response to the shooting of Republican House Whip Steve Scalise and three others. This violence, French argued, is caused in part by overheated political rhetoric, on both the Right and the Left. The solution, he says, is not to restrict speech, but to “return to virtue” to ensure that violent rhetoric isn’t transformed into violent actions. “Morality and virtue are concepts that point the way toward a far more holistic view of personal responsibility,” French writes. “What we’re losing isn’t so much ‘civility’ but the fundamental worldview in which even our ideological enemies are seen as human beings created in God’s image and in which an ‘ends justifies the means’ instrumentalist morality is shunned in favor of respecting universal moral standards that bind both sides.”
This is great. It’s spot on. And it’s also quite pointless. “We” aren’t “losing” universal moral standards. We’ve lost them. They’re gone. And they’re not coming back. The current spate of violence isn’t about what happens when people lose these moral standards. It’s about what happens when the glue that “united” the United States has been destroyed. It’s about the conscious efforts of America’s ruling class over the last quarter century to rid the nation of its trite and outdated traditions and the various reactions to those efforts.
The founding fathers were able to declare the United States to be “One nation under God,” because the citizens of the United States believed that certain “truths” were “self-evident,” one of which was that they were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Today, a large percentage of Americans, no longer believe that the “truths” that the founders cited are actually true, much less that the rights they endow come from any “creator.” “Truth” to them is simply a word which, as Humpty Dumpty put it, “means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” And to them, rights are endowed to them either by government or by violence.
The outcome of this is bifurcation is uncertain. In theory, one side could win over the other, although this would probably involve continued and even escalated violence. Alternatively, the two sides could agree to disagree, which is a solution we posited last week, when we raised the possibility of the “devolution” of much of the federal government’s power back to the states. But this too is unlikely to happen without violence, especially given the fact that some states –most notably Illinois – are likely soon to be seeking massive financial aid from the federal government at a time when the federal government is strapped.
In the meantime, Trump will try to find some sort of glue that will put Humpty Dumpty back together again, while God watches in the wings.
Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE 68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.