I’ve written about the changing political winds before.1 And the events of the past couple of months have shown that this is definitely an historically interesting time.
Since the election on November 8, we’ve had sporadic street protests in various cities, sometimes attended by breaking glass and burning cars. The same thing happened on January 20 while the new president was inaugurated several blocks away. And the following day, January 21, we had what many sources are calling the largest demonstration in U.S. history. The multiple events in cities around the country were called for and primarily attended by women, but many sympathetic men were also there. Estimates include 500,000 marchers in Washington, DC; 750,000 in Los Angeles; 250,000 in New York City; 200,000 in Chicago; 145,000 in Boston; 130,000 in Seattle; and comparable numbers in smaller cities. If these estimates are correct, we may have had as many as three million people on the streets of this country protesting the projected policies of the new administration. That approaches one percent of the U.S. population. And sympathy marches of nearly equal size took place elsewhere in the developed world.
Even if these numbers are wishfully overestimated, even if the protests were joined by many people who just went out for a sunny day among friends, that is still a huge effort in communication, coordination, and logistics. The images, the numbers, and the statement of public discontent are sobering. I am reminded that the Tsar of Russia fell after fewer people—but perhaps including more discontented workers and distraught soldiers—appeared on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
I am also reminded that the last election was close—hardly a mandate for the new president. The number of people appearing on the streets on January 21 roughly equals the edge in the popular vote won by his opponent—although it would be fatuous to say that these people represent, one-for-one, the number of Americans who now feel disenfranchised. The new president won because of the way our governing documents and our representative democracy are structured.2 His election was the result of some brilliant campaigning, sharp calculation of electoral votes, and a raw emotional message. Add to that a relatively weak message from his opponent—other than “I deserve this”—and embarrassing communications that were leaked from her campaign.
As a country, then, we seem to be sitting on a knife edge in 2017.
For half the country, the last eight years of a Democratic administration have been about moving the nation towards the sort of regulatory state and social democracy practiced in Europe, Asia, and much of the rest of the developed world. The promised “fundamental transformation” has been toward a larger role for government in the economy, expressing direct concern for people who cannot or will not compete against their fellow citizens for their share of the “American dream.” The focus has been on providing safeguards for poor people, various disadvantaged and marginalized groups, and the environment itself and protecting them from the uncaring and undisciplined practice of free markets and a capital-funded industrial sector. For this half of the country, generous welfare benefits, redistribution of incomes, and centralized control of the economy are all positive goals. And what has been achieved so far is a start, but it must continue to move forward before everyone is safe.
For the other half of the county, the last eight years have been a rolling back of what they see as the strengths of America. Regulatory control by centralized bureaucracies increases the costs of doing business and throttles the initiative and creative spirit of the entrepreneurs who have built the strongest, most innovative, freest economy in the world. The focus on welfare rather than opportunity creates a downward spiral: as the average person becomes unable to participate—or indifferent to participating—in the economy, fewer goods and services are created and provided, and fewer people can afford to purchase and consume them. The centralized controls engaged by the executive branch represent an unearned place in the productive process, where politicians get to exercise their animus against certain industries or else create skewed incentives to reward their political donors. For this half of the country, greater economic activity, popular skill building and labor flexibility, and the expansion of product lines and choices are all positive goals. And this “natural” state of things has been under attack in the recent Democratic administration.
In international affairs, half the county wants the United States to accept a reduced role and diminished influence, becoming no different from or better than any other country. In this role, we have no need for a large naval fleet, a readily deployed military force, or nuclear capability. The other half sees the United States as the paragon of strength and fairness, inheritor of the fundamentally free and benign Western Tradition, and needing a strong military to project power in its role as “the world’s policeman.”
In cultural matters, half the country wants to erase the old definitions of and relationships between male and female, parents and children, artists and their viewing/reading/listening public, the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong. They reject the “melting pot” of America in favor of a racial and ethnic “mosaic.” They want to redefine and thereby control human nature itself, in order to create a fairer, more just, more equal society. The other half views these attempts at redefinition and revision as both frivolous and dangerous, and considers them a weakening of our national character.
In scientific matters, half the country wants the other half to become more scientifically literate, to base its policies and programs on good science and hard evidence, and to beware of science “denial” and perpetrated “hoaxes.” The other half wants the same thing. Just no one can agree on where truth lies and where biased interpretation and unsubstantiated reporting begin.
For the last dozen years or so, I have heard, both in the alternative news media and in social media—less so in the mainstream media, but now growing there, too—the terms “culture war” and “soft civil war.” These are code words for all of the above tendencies. One half of the country wants progressive, collectivist, and socialistic adjustments made to the regulatory state that has been a long time building here, at least since the Great Depression if not before. The other half wants a return to more the individualistic, unfettered, self-reliant, and self-determined approaches to our perceived problems—and this half also perceives far fewer problems with our society and economy in the first place.
In the last three months, I have begun to hear, in all the different media, the term “second civil war”—without the qualifying adjectives “soft” or “cultural.” In California, I also hear the word “secession” bandied about, and not by kooks.
In my own writing, I am no stranger to the idea of another civil war in America. In my early novel First Citizen, from 1987, I showed a possible breakup paralleling the civil wars of the Roman Republic, with factions based on competing economic and cultural spheres à la Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America, which was published in 1981. And in my two-volume novel Coming of Age, from 2014, I show the country falling apart along the lines of coastal states vs. central states when the international holders of the U.S. national debt call for an accounting.3
What I’m sensing in the often-violent protests that have periodically broken out since the election, and now in the peaceful but determined march that took place on January 21, is a further hardening of these viewpoints. Half the country wanted the changes that took place in the most recent Democratic administration, and the other half voted just as strongly in the recent election to slow, halt, or abolish those changes. Maybe we will have another eight years of rollback and consolidation of the old economic and cultural conditions. And maybe after that will come a renewed push toward more social and economic change. Maybe we will teeter on the knife edge indefinitely.
Or maybe things will come to a head much sooner. The protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 drew perhaps 10,000 participants. They were focused on two issues: ending the war in Vietnam and voicing the discontents of the new “counterculture.” The keynote of that protest was “The Whole World is Watching.” Now we have two to three million people protesting in the streets—peacefully on January 21, thank goodness—and the whole world seems to be joining them.
I don’t know how this can be reconciled peaceably. Maybe half the country will just get tired and quietly accept a new status quo—in one direction or the other. Maybe these January 21 protesters did just come out for a sunny day among friends, and maybe other protesters at other times have come out simply for the animal joy of screaming their lungs out, breaking windows, and torching parked cars. Maybe one side or the other will finally admit that they’ve been foolish, wrongheaded, and stubborn all along … but I doubt it.
I begin to entertain the notion that the insurrection has already started, and that it will end in blood.
1. See Something Happening Here from May 8, 2016.
2. Yes, the Electoral College keeps us from having a simple democracy and appears to block the “will of the people.” Every party that wins the popular vote and loses the electoral vote makes this claim. But the time to pass a constitutional amendment changing the rules would be well before the next presidential campaign season starts. Party organizers and campaign managers on both sides tailor their planning and efforts towards the realities of the electoral college. If the winner were going to be decided on a straight popular vote in 2016, both candidates would have campaigned very differently. It’s not too much to say that neither one would ever have left the hot spots in California and New York. And people in places like New Hampshire and Iowa might as well have stayed home and not voted at all. No one really wants that.
3. And that scenario still haunts me. A debt of $20 trillion will have to be paid back somehow, and I’m betting that at least half the country will balk at scrimping and sacrificing in order to repay it. Even if the government decides to make the debt disappear through a roaring, Weimar-style inflation, half the country may still find its voice to object.