The verified allegations of the Fake President’s autocratic attempt to throw off the bounds of democratic process to affirm the object of his self-doubt—supremacy to everyone and everything in the world—keep piling up. Yet, the present political predicament of the United States of America is quite a bit more complicated than that. Without the decay of civic culture, none of it would likely have happened.
Life is What We Make It
Yes, we have a constitution and the Founding Fathers intended it to guide our politics toward forming a more perfect union with freedom and justice for all. Well, life is not that simple either, as reflected in the qualification, “if you can keep it,” offered by wise old Ben Franklin. Ben knew that the Constitution would not enforce itself; nor was it a perfect document that would make following it a simple matter. It was not some philosophical notion of liberty so much as the will to escape the economic oppression of the merchant class, that drove the revolutionaries to form a new nation. The enlightenment philosophy was intellectual icing on the cake of economic liberty for merchants and traders in the colonies.
Today, the constitutional originalists assert that the constitution simply means what it says and there is no room for interpretation of the sacred document; then they go about interpreting it in favor of their own political predilections. Others know that the Constitution is a “living document,” which must evolve with the times, as if life evolves along a linear path of inevitable progress. Life is more erratic than that.
Pragmatic realists recognize that the founders were men of, in some cases, great wisdom, and also of personal economic and political interests. Men (not women), many of whom owned slaves, uttered all those egalitarian protestations that “all men are created equal,” and the like, yet freedom was far from equal or fully evolved, especially for people of color. What shall we make of such apparent hypocrisy in the context of the modern adoration of the Founding-Fathers? Human imperfection, that’s what. The Constitutional Convention was a struggle for power as well as an attempt to unify the interests of the diverse colonies.
Who Made That Mess?
The favorite saying of an old history professor I knew in graduate school was, “It’s a ramshackle world we live in.” He knew that whatever sense we try to make of the world is not only tentative but also crude compared with the complexity of life in the late twentieth century.
Therein lies part of the problem of political-economic modernism in the twenty-first century. Most of us envision our nation state as evolving toward a ‘perfect union.’ In fact, all the strife and violence we experience today—from mass shootings to everyday street violence and endless wars of choice, as well as the ‘culture wars’—results from the struggle for power that produces cultural chaos as well as political turmoil, far from a perfect union. As power elites grow stronger, societal chaos intensifies.
Wait, what? Yes, political integrity results not simply from whether the laws are strictly following the Constitution’s putative dictates. Instead it exists when and if the society is culturally integrated, even in its diversity, enough that people not only believe in its basic constitutional values more than in technical interpretive variations, but are willing to act with compassion in the political process.
Yes, compassion. Where did you see that on January 6? An angry mob incited to violence by a Fake President in an autocratic attempt to overthrow the democratic process of peaceful transition of power from one administration to another. That is a direct measure of the political decay of civic culture and of the high risk of destroying democracy.
Compassion and the Intolerance of Intolerance
The phrase, intolerance of intolerance, may sound self-contradictory. It is not. One of the most fundamental of civic values is tolerance of the perspectives of others. That is the basis of the peaceful transition of power after an election in a democracy—even an imperfect democracy, which all are. The opposite of compassion and tolerance is fascism—the intolerance and brutal oppression by force of disagreement with the autocrat.
We cannot afford to tolerate such intolerance. The autocratic attempt of the January 6, 2021 seditious insurrection at the nation’s capital was a first attempt to impose a fascist dictatorship upon the American political process by force. It isn’t over yet, folks; that was just a trial run.
One of the most interesting and scary aspects of the cultural decay we experience today, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe and across the globe, is its confusing convergence of all sorts of resentments and opposition to the abusive power of elites. To sustain and grow their power and wealth, the financial, political, and industrial elites manipulate resentment of centralized power of those very same elites. They do this mostly by scapegoating vulnerable groups, such as immigrants and people of color. And, it is working.
Whether conspiracy theories point to magical manipulations of politics by George Soros or to some baby-eating cabal of Democrats in the basement of a pizza parlor near Washington, D.C. that has no basement, or to Bill Gates putting microchip spying devices in your body using vaccines as the medium of transmission, does not really matter. What is most interesting and dangerous is the fact that the very elites that people fear generate such apocalyptic fantasies, via sophisticated marketing strategies. They do not realize that elites scapegoat vulnerable groups to misdirect the anger of the victims of their economic and political centralization.
It is not easy to understand nor to counter bizarre counter-factual imaginaries grounded in fear, resentment, and hate, even after they are established. Confirmation bias becomes a powerful tool of those who would manipulate ordinary people for political power by stimulating intolerance of groups believed to be plotting conspiracies against them. Yet, somehow, we must take an explicitly intolerant stance against the intolerances and violence that result from a world in which centralized political-economic power produces fascist tendencies to destroy democracy in the interests of the politically and economically most powerful actors on the world stage.
Only by the restoration of political tolerance by establishing norms of compassion and communication can democracy overcome autocratic attempts of neo-fascists such as those exemplified by the coup conspirators who met in the West Wing of the White House on December 18, 2020 and fomented the mob attack on the nation’s capital on January 6, 2021.