Failed states

The coverYesterday brought me last week’s issue of The Economist, which promises coverage of “the Republican victory and what it means for America’s broken government.” The casualness of this reference to American government as “broken” is particularly interesting, to me, because I distinctly recall a different editorial stance from the same publication less than five years ago. Then, they noted a growing sense that “the political system is broken. America has become ungovernable,” before declaring that “we argue to the contrary.”

Poking into their newest cover story, the transformation is remarkable. Then, they allowed that various systemic problems “should be corrected. But even if they are not, they do not add up to a system that is as broken as people now claim.” Overall, they insisted, “the basic system works as intended.” The real problem was that “Mr Obama” would not compromise.

Fast-forward to 2014, and subheadline to their story is “Republicans have won a huge victory. Now they must learn to compromise [emphasis added].” This prospect, moreover, they categorize as an optimist’s hope, and a faint one absent systemic reforms. Now, The Economist warns that “even if the optimists are right [emphasis added], America faces a host of ailments that seem beyond the reach of today’s politics.” If this is to change, Americans “need to change the way they elect their leaders.”

So, I guess I won that argument. Progress. Splendid.

…oh, wait, the society I live in is breaking down. Actually this is terrifying.

This is a bit of an interesting shift in perspective for me, also, relative to more like 10 years past. In the dark depths of the Bush administration, I worried about political enemies consolidating a lasting takeover of American government. That didn’t happen, and while attempts to rig the system continue I’m skeptical of any “permanent majority” scenario for the time being. Now, I’m less concerned with the prospect that the right will seize control of American government than the prospect that we won’t have any functioning American government at all.

I’m not sure how many people really understand this, or will until such time as it happens; maybe not even then. Dysfunctional nations and failed states are something that we occasionally read about (or hear about from a TV news anchor) in America. Whether the product of poorly designed systems or silly foreigners without good American sense, those are situations which happen “over there.” That wouldn’t ever happen here.

I suspect that it can, and worry that it will. That it is happening, now. Frankly I’ve believed, for a few years now, that America is already basically in a state of civil war. The contesting sides are not trying to destroy one another with guns and bombs. But the GOP has basically been committed to destroying its opponents’ influence on politics, even as a possibility, as strongly as its commitment to any policy objective for six years, now. I’m entering the long grass of semantics, here, but this looks to me as much like war as it looks like healthy multiparty democratic governance.

I worry because I can’t foresee any good near-term resolution to this.

For most Americans, myself included really, the term “civil war” calls to mind Lee and Grant leading armies of blue- and gray-clad riflemen against one another at places with names like Chickamauga and Bull Run and Antietam. At the moment, though, having spent more than a year writing about the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, I feel like America’s 21st-century reality has more in common with the lead-up to England’s civil war.

Our civil war was, after all, really more of an attempted secession, crushed by military force. England’s civil war was not. Neither side had any intention of being satisfied with independence for their own region; both Roundheads and Cavaliers regarded the entire country as “their region.” The social divergence leading up to war was less geographically defined separation, than it was two parties uneasily sharing the common center of governance deciding that they no longer had political common ground.

This is a simplification of the 17th and 19th centuries, of course, but it does feel like the former is more and uncomfortably more close to us today. Sir Robert Cotton saw compromise as the sole solution, rather than constitutional reforms; it’s easy to say now that he was wrong, but attaching any practical significance to that runs into something of a chicken-and-egg problem. England’s government under the first Stuart dynasty didn’t work very well… civil war ending in a military dictatorship seems about as clearly a failing grade as you can get… but where was reform to come from without parties willing to work together and compromise?

The ultimate solution to this insoluble dilemma was, basically, changing the conditions. Over a couple of decades, many of those who created the original deadlock died—some from old age, some from combat, one in particular from beheading—while at least some survivors were probably changed fundamentally by extended traumatic experience, in addition to being joined in the ranks by a new generation. Though drastic, this was fairly effective. The next time one of the incorrigible Stuarts exasperated critics in Parliament, he was just run out of the country in favor of the next in line; though the Glorious Revolution might have turned out rather worse, it didn’t, and (again, with lots of simplifications) government in Britain has generally been self-correcting without civil war, since.

It’s difficult to see US politics splitting into armed camps, admittedly. But, as desirable as it would indeed be to avoid that outcome, I’m not sure what happens instead. How, then, can a system that deters compromise be reformed? The optimist can claim that x will intervene to square the circle (where x ≠ civil war), and maybe the optimist will be right.

But at the moment I can’t see it. I’m, I suppose, more the Doubting Thomas type. I’ll believe in the improbable once I see evidence for it.

At the moment I don’t see evidence for an American conservatism that would rather govern by compromise with opposing agendas, than pursue tribal extermination of those agendas, governance be damned. Frankly, I read about this yesterday and thought “how are you drawing this conclusion, Yglesias?” How do you conclude that because a proposal “massively violates the established norms of American politics,” the 21st-century Republican Party will sit down and accept electoral victory by an element they now regard as an alien other? Yes, as Yglesias points out, there is evidence of them doing just this with regards to such electoral-vote rigging. But there is also evidence that the contemporary GOP is engaged in ongoing redefinition of “norms of American politics.” More and more aggressive vote suppression, officially justified by a made-up threat of vote fraud and in reality justified by the belief that non-Republican votes are inherently fraudulent… Routinization of the filibuster justified by “we’re angry,” and new extremes of gerrymandering justified by “fuck you,” basically…

You think a new extreme of electoral vote rigging won’t happen? I don’t think it will happen now, personally. But I do think we’ll see further attempts in future, along with a growing internal campaign to rationalize this and other “solutions” to the problem of “fraud” as defined above. Say that in 2016 the GOP loses the popular vote for, what, the sixth time in seven tries, and finds itself shut out of the White House for at least 12 years in a row? I’m by no means certain that this will occur; I don’t go in much for prediction, particularly in US national politics. Risk, however, is another story. I think this outcome is definitely possible, and that it’s probable such an outcome would further inflame frustration at sharing the common center of governance with opponents who are barely recognized as sharing a common humanity, never mind common interests.

Whatever happens, I just don’t see a neat solution as likely here. In the very long run, all of these problems will probably be irrelevant; 400 years later, very few of the issues Cotton and King Charles and the Duke of Buckingham sparred over feel like they are ongoing in any direct sense. In the meantime, though, dark ages do happen, even if they pass… which they don’t always… and even a relatively positive scenario of resolution via slow generational shifts, without physical violence, is pretty discouraging.

I’m 36. When will the clouds part, if they do? How bad will things get in the meantime, and how am I to get by in the face of both practical difficulties and, what feels at least as daunting, the absence of any hope?

I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t want to live in the future that I foresee, and at the moment I don’t see any persuasive alternative either. It’s tempting to close with some flippant quip, but even a very black humored one would feel like a lie. This isn’t funny. This is dispiriting.

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