|US Capitol Building|
Most thinkers have noticed that America is going through a difficult time. My favorite podcaster, Dan Carlin, tried addressing the issue of extreme politics in 2017 then went silent for months. His listeners urged him to jump into the fray because, "the stakes have never been higher". In May he let loose a podcast, saying his whole political worldview is in crisis, and that if you walk away from his podcast thinking, "yeah, that is exactly what I wanted", then you probably didn't need it to begin with.
(Dan is trained in political science and mostly podcasts with entertaining historical epics, from the Achaemenid Empire to a 5-part, 24-hour runtime series on World War I, which comes highly recommended!)
Dan's recent rantings have helped clarify, for me, the reality of the current political moment. There are a lot of people pointing out problems that are ultimately symptoms, but what is the underlying ailment? Everyone seems to have different ideas. Sure, people don't know how to consult, not enough people vote, money increasingly corrupts power, social media has fundamentally changed the way people get information, the news is bonkers, gerrymandering undermines democracy, it goes on and on. But why is it different now? Why does it feel like we've gone from a contentious debate to nearly a civil war?
A clue to the conflict comes from both sides calling the other Nazis, that catch-all insult for an evil government. For sure, most people throwing around “Nazi” as an insult have missed the nuances of what that means. The government that Hitler ran was definitively on the right of the political spectrum. The left/right divide has to do with the attitude toward labor and capital: the left are leaning socialist and the right are leaning capitalist. Left/right is not about being conservative or liberal; in China the conservatives are communists and the liberals are capitalists, just the opposite of the USA. Left/right is also not about freedom and authoritarianism; Karl Marx praised democracy and said that communism would take hold in democratic societies without the need of a violent uprising. Hitler and Stalin were both dictators who took total control of the state and killed their own citizens to keep power, but they were on opposite ends of the left/right political divide.
America has long considered itself on the center-right of the spectrum, leaning capitalist but with enough socialism to keep old people from dying in the streets. However, when it comes to power, America has always been strongly on the side of freedom and democracy with a distaste for the extremes of fascism and single-party communism.
Until now. Both sides are calling each other Nazis because they think the other is becoming authoritarian, and they are.
The white-hot core of the left represents only 5-7% of Americans. That might not sound like much, but that’s about 15 million people. The right has about the same number of extreme voters. The culture war is largely among these two opposites duking it out for supremacy. Then there are about 20% on each side who associate with one side or the other but are moderate in their views, and of course that leaves about HALF THE COUNTRY either uninvolved or not committed to a political framework.
Recently both parties have been pushed toward their political extremes, and at the same time both see the other as stepping into authoritarian measures to gain powers. When your enemy uses power to secure more power, what do you do? As this game has played out for over 20 years, we’re now a few key steps away from one side taking total power and permanently cementing their authority for generations. Both sides want that prize and either side is willing to step over decency and the law to get it.
Conservative rural America lost a major culture war and see the liberal victors as removing their constitutional freedoms, leading the country into moral bankruptcy, and pushing a communist agenda that will lead to collapse. They feel like they are fighting for their lives, so what they want is control of districting to get a few more Representatives, control of the Senate, which favors less-populated areas, a news program that counters the left-leaning bias, an electoral college that can be won without a majority, the allowance of law-breaking to stay in power, the removal of immigrants that would vote for more social programs, and control of Supreme Court nominations by any means necessary. Backed into a corner, the right would rather have a dictator on their side than a democracy that destroys them.
Faced with increasing totalitarianism from their political enemy, many people rush to the opposite extreme, thinking that the only way to beat fascism on the right is to support ever more extreme ideas on the left. Conservative states have been passing laws to limit abortions, and in response liberal states have been loosening their abortions laws, passing resolutions that give the right up to the moment of birth. After a mass shooting when there are calls to restrict weapons, conservative states have passed laws loosening gun rights. Liberal college campuses are totally willing to deny conservatives a space to share views, even though a few decades ago it was the right willing to deny communists a place in society. The right passed massive debt-financed tax cuts and has proposed cuts to health care and social security. The left is proposing astronomical spending increases on health care, education, minimum wage increases, or just simply handing every US citizen $1,000. The infatuation with control of the Supreme Court came in part from its declaration that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, an issue that should have fallen to the legislature to decide.
The move back to the center can be accomplished through some straightforward changes. In 2016 I wrote out 6 Reforms to Save American Democracy that would reduce corruption and extreme views, but as I mentioned, they are unlikely to be implemented. American division can’t be fixed by people entrenching themselves in comfortable bunkers and hurling insults. I would like to end this with a happy note that everything is going to be okay. It’s not. Bad times are ahead.