Democracy vs Tribalism

Picking up from where my previous post left off, in the big picture it does not seem like American governance which is inclusive of a diverse population is going to work any time soon, because it does not seem like it has ever worked in America’s whole history.*

America only recognized women’s right to vote 100 years ago. It was another couple of generations, after that, before substantial, practical assertion of equality for women and minorities. That coincided with a reactionary backlash which has continued up to the present day. Realistically, then, dominant culture in America was united against acceptance and inclusion of diversity until the 20th century, and the end of that internal unity was the beginning of a cold civil war of 50+ years which is still intensifying.

Instances of broad political unity in America have, repeatedly, resulted from relatively liberal whites betraying marginalized communities, to throw in with patriarchal, white supremacist oligarchy for a while. The abandonment of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The segregation-driven Reagan landslides. George W. Bush’s “coalition of the frightened” circa 2002. Even the New Deal coalition, which sponsored massive egalitarian reforms, actively preserved white privilege from disruption by those reforms, in exchange for the support of racist “Dixiecrats.” As soon as Lyndon Johnson signed basic civil rights protections into law, the racists began organizing the Republican Party into a white supremacy alternative:

When the Civil Rights Act passed, it did so with Republican votes, even as it was signed by a Democrat. The compromises of that era saved the country, but they ended that political system.

Ezra Klein at Vox

Johnson’s much quoted remark about “losing the South for a generation,” perhaps once a model of dour pessimism, now seems like riotously rose-colored optimism.

None of this is new analysis, but, I simply have to wonder what anyone is going to do about it in the foreseeable future.

The optimist’s view is that “the arc of history bends toward justice,” and “reverses may follow steps forward but we must fight on anyway.” Yet, 1) America has never achieved broad political unity except around patriarchal white supremacy, 2) to the extent that “we” only began trying (i.e. the supportive faction of white liberals grew large enough to make a critical difference) about 50 years ago, the attempt is not only still unsuccessful but has inspired a toxic opposition which is ready and very possibly able to sacrifice any kind of fair, functioning society.

All of this is basically hypothetical, in that even if someone could identify policies which could end the cold war with justice for all, the combination of America’s obstructionist Constitution with the cold war’s toxic politics would prevent any such policy’s implementation.

Still, I believe that maintaining some contact with reality is essential unless one is ready to surrender to the maelstrom.

So, for example, while proposals for “a truth and reconciliation commission” are probably fantasy anyway, it’s still worth considering whether or not the idea has merit. I struggle to determine a way that any such commission would not be rejected instantly, as illegitimate, by Republicans, in which event it’s difficult to see what merit it has even as an idea.

More broadly, Joe Biden cannot “heal America,” and I think that we should treat claims to the contrary with reluctance.

Over-promising is dangerous. Fatalism is dangerous as well, but believing in some particular possibility, just for the sake of motivation to keep going, seems like a way to end up going down a cul de sac.

What positive resolution to this cold war is realistic?

More and more I conclude that Palestine/Israel may be the most relevant comparison. For years, I have been struck by western liberals’ insistence on an ethnically segregated “two-state solution,” and firm rejection of a “one-state solution” i.e. multiethnic democracy. How, I have asked, is the insistence that Jews must have a Jewish-majority state really different from racist white Americans’ determination to hold back demographic change? I don’t really see a way. “But the Holocaust” is not an effective argument for promoting multiculturalism everywhere except in Palestine/Israel. As soon as you assert that an ethnic group needs majority status in a distinct nation state in order to avoid extermination, how do you propose to persuade resentful white Americans that they’re being silly in believing that the same goes for them?

If anyone thinks they have a winning argument it seems not to be making much headway in practice.

Realistically, the prospects for “Middle East Peace”—a term which at least a generation of Americans has used to evoke a prospect impossibly remote—no longer seem much worse than the prospects for an inclusive political reunification of America. White resentment doesn’t seem like it’s going to calm down and be reasonable any time soon. To the extent that an opposing coalition is larger and growing, even in the best of circumstances it will be prevented from governing effectively by stubborn anti-majoritarian rules and customs, and the intervention of powerful interests which see enormous benefit in thwarting such an outcome.

“Peaceful divorce” as an alternative doesn’t seem any more likely here than in Palestine/Israel, either. To the extent that tribal sorting in America is geographic, it’s a sorting of landscape rather than region. Almost every state is one of “blue” urban islands separated by a “red” hinterlands. Partitioning this into two states would be just as difficult as Palestine/Israel, qualitatively, and much more difficult quantitatively. Even if you ignore that level of detail and just look at American states, there’s no way to connect the coastal “blue states” through the middle of the country. To the extent that this might not be strictly necessary, well, again let’s ask ourselves how hypothetical we’re being.

Finally, I don’t believe hope will be found in suggestions that ordinary Americans “aren’t really that divided” and would mostly prefer to stop the fighting and work together, either. This is probably not entirely wrong, by any means; strong political convictions do seem to be something which most people don’t really experience. But 1) that’s one reason why race proves such a powerful organizing force, even when it results in many people “voting against their own interests,” 2) to the extent that actively promoting politics of racial division is an elite-driven phenomenon, this is a common feature of political movements. If your faith that a harmful political movement can be overcome is based on the role of a relatively small group of elites, in stoking popular anger and resentment, you have missed the point. That’s the problem.

The people and forces driving our toxic politics have no incentive to stop. We seem to lack the cultural technology to create such an incentive—without sacrificing the resented communities—or to contain the problem.

Struggling anyway is the right thing to do, but it seems more and more that if there is some sort of positive “after,” I will not live to see that far shore.

* this is not just my novel theory.

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