Honesty about disaster

Several years ago, I wrote in Cotton’s Library about the political breakdown which flummoxed the Jacobean antiquarian and courtier, Sir Robert Cotton:

In evaluating his political career, Cotton comes across as a Jacobean Cicero. Like the influential senator at the end of Rome’s republic, Cotton stood in the very middle of a constitutional system buckling and splintering under strain, yet never saw any possible solution but voluntary moderation of the competing forces. The relatively respectful and effective interplay between Elizabeth and her parliaments during Cotton’s early life always remained his model of how English government worked. As political relations deteriorated under the Stuarts he did not see a failure of the system; the system was perfect, and the need for change lay not with it, but with the people within it.

I have since concluded that, in a sense, Cotton’s attitude was both wrong and right, about a political paradox which may be universal. I feel confident that some political systems are so flawed as to be unworkable, but I have begun to suspect that there may not be any set of rules and institutions so perfect that they remain effective when too many people simply stop believing in them.

That’s now happening right in front of us, in America.

America’s Constitution and related political infrastructure has never been better than incredibly flawed. To the extent that flawed but functioning governance has generally been possible, it has depended on voluntary cooperation, forebearance, norms, etc., above and beyond the firm ironclad guardrails which turn out to be very few.

Republicans have been withdrawing voluntary moderation, particularly at the national level, for at least a generation and are not really any kind of governing party at all, now, just a permanent insurgency.

It’s basically every kind of bad that so much of America—including more than one Democrat in a zero-margin Senate—is in denial about the permanent insurgency and its consequences even though not actively part of it.

Ultimately I just don’t think there is a path from this situation which doesn’t involve more crashing and explosions.

All of this is stuff I have written about before, of course. The past week has brought more symptoms of the breakdown:

  • President Biden responded to the latest mass shooting with executive actions, suggesting a resignation to the hopelessness of legislation which is at once refreshing and apocalyptic.
  • The Senate Majority Leader has been working on “recycling” the budget resolution to do more with “reconciliation,” which indicates the same resignation, while one of his pseudo-majority’s members has committed to blowing up expanded use of reconciliation, essentially committing to kill not only reform but spending measures.
  • Rapacious, predatory corporations’ power is greater than ever—it’s basically impossible for workers to win a contested union organizing vote now—yet people including prominent politicians are actively turning to corporate intervention as their hope for impeding regressive policies springing out of Republican state governments like toxic popcorn.

The zombie failed-state interim is here, right now. A mood of recovery enabled by “shots and checks” is illusory; the crisis is political and in the deepest sense constitutional, which won’t be fixed by shots and checks.

I have no idea how long la la land spring will last. But while shouting and recriminations may disrupt it, and probably will, I cannot hold out hope that some event or rhetorical confrontation will deliver a breakthrough. The lack of political movement after all we have been through just in the past year or two should disabuse us of fantasies that holdouts will “come around.”

All of this is basically stuff I have written before, mostly many times. If I have anything new to add it’s perhaps just a further appreciation that honesty is the critical and perhaps only reasonable response to unreasonable situations.

As much as any one thing, dishonesty in so many forms is destroying America. The fraud into which the Republican Party has descended, culminating in its Big Lie, is the biggest part of that. But all registered Republicans combined don’t amount to even one-tenth of the population. Their sabotage is enabled not only by bad rules, but by dishonesty: journalism’s narratives are outdated and misleading, individual Democrats’ insistence that constructive Republican cooperation exists to be engaged is false nonsense, and most other Democrats’ la-la-land pretending that legislating is still possible is also dishonest.

For just about all of us, meanwhile, there is a bias toward optimism which is also dishonest at this point. The cop-out cynic’s assertion that nothing matters is a kind of dishonest optimism—usually implying falsely that the cynic’s present lot will never improve but is also in no serious danger—but so is the activist’s permanent assumption of possibility. I have phrased this as “we’ll just route around the bad sectors, for now, and gradually use the good code that’s still left to debug the rest.” I have also observed that there is no longer enough good code to constitute a functional operating system.

What can we do instead, any of us? Be honest. Be honest that yes, you never know, but unless one credits uncertainty with so much as to result in an entirely random universe and lead back toward indifferent cynicism, one must also be honest that some possibilities are unrealistic. Be honest that pushing on a rope is unlikely to start working suddenly. Be honest that it makes no sense to keep citing “bipartisan” as a merit when the Republican Party is absolutely corrupt. Be honest that good journalism is essential but America’s is so dependent on bad habits and false tropes that it’s critically failing society. Be honest that the Democratic Party cannot credibly claim that it stands for things while failing to deliver any more as a Congressional majority than as a minority. Be honest that the majority of Democrats in Congress support acting in spite of Republican obstruction, but cannot even claim exemption from blame if they participate in steering the conversation away from the crisis.

Honesty isn’t much consolation, and it is not easy, and I don’t believe that the truth possesses magic power or always wins out or anything like that.

But at this point I can’t see much else to do about a disaster except confront it honestly, and take care.

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