Anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention to the news in this country these days can’t have missed the serious culture war now raging, and if there is someone just emerging from a cave somewhere in the Brooks Range who hasn’t heard about this battle, it is time to pay attention.
Because there are now in the tubes that connect most Americans to that electronic pipeline known as the internet ominous signs of danger for these un-United States of America.
Researchers at the University of California who surveyed Americans for their views on American democracy and society earlier this summer concluded that more than two-thirds (67.2 percent) see democracy as “threatened” and an ominous 40 percent are of the view “that ‘having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy.”
Were this not worrisome enough, just over half – 50.1 percent – told the researchers they agree that “in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States.”
The country’s last Civil War killed more Americans than any war in which the country engaged before or after, but it was fought for a good and noble causes – to bring to an end the despicable use of slavery and to save the union.
The issues dividing Americans today seem petty by comparison, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t spark that new civil war a majority of Americans seem to think is on the horizon.
No one in the American political realm seems to have paid much attention to these warning signs or to care. The peacemakers appear few and far between, and the warriors many. President Joe Biden just turned up the heat by declaring that his political opponents are “semi-fascists” much to the delight of some in the country’s mainstream media.
Biden’s “abandonment of kumbaya blather around bipartisanship for a blunt assessment of rising fascism in America might become his defining moment,” Bunch wrote beneath the headline.
Indeed it might be a defining moment, but for worse rather than better given there are a lot of totalitarian inclinations showing on both sides of the political aisle in, strangely enough, a country where people are by and large living better than any humanoids in our 300,000-year history on the planet.
And a lot of them appear angry as hell despite this.
The big disconnect
As a simple, objective measure of just how well off our species in the U.S., consider that the Centers for Disease Control reports more than four out of every 10 Americans are now obese in a world where death from starvation or malnutrition was common up until only 100 years ago.
The 1887-89 famine in China killed about 11 million people in a world then home to but a fifth as many people on the planet today, according to Our World in Data, a website maintained by the University of Oxford. Covid-19 has to date killed about half as many globally.
Only a century ago, the Russian famine of 1921-22, driven in part by the policies of the country’s new and totalitarian communist leaders, killed about five million. The two-year tally for Covid-1`9 in that country is one thirteenth of that, according to the Worldometers trackers.
Those Russians again live in a state ruled by a dictator, but more than 40 percent of them might well believe that having a strong leader for Russia is more important than having a democracy. People can rationalize damn near anything and live with it quite comfortably just as easily as they can become swept up in anger for reason good, bad or imaginary.
See the whole sad history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian fiction penned at the start of the 1900s that later helped fuel the rise of the Jew-blaming National Socialist German Workers’ Party – the Nazis – who took control of that country via the election of 1932.
Up until then, the German “Weimar Republic” had been, as historian Michael H. Kanter has observed, “hailed by liberals far and wide as the cradle for a modern democracy, a paragon for Germany and the world.
The cradle went up in flames at the polls after the German left and the German right fought a bitter battle for control of the heart of the country. It was a battle driven by grievances, real and imagined, on both sides.
On the left, the belief was that the government in Germany as in much of the rest of the world was being used to oppress the working class, and on the right loomed the fears of rising crime and economic collapse as German businesses fell victim to the rise of global competition.
The conflict that grew through the 1920s caused German democracy to implode in the 1930s even as its economy was recovering from the Great Depression.
“Why did Germany, experiencing steady recovery by 1926, fall to (or embrace) Nazism seven years later?” the historian Seth Rogoff asked five years ago. “Why did Germans overwhelmingly support this new type of radical racial nationalism? These are questions historians and critics have tried to answer since 1933, key questions for understanding the complicated interaction between culture and politics and the inherent fragility of all democratic political orders, including those of today.”
Rogoff blames in part the Germany economy, which didn’t recover fast enough from the Great Depression, and the late Oswald Spengler, a German mathematician, philosopher and historian who penned the two-volume Decline of the West in 1918 and 1922.
Spengler argued that, as Rogoff writes, democracy “was a weak and corrupt form of government. (And) capitalism was the opposite of all that was vital among the people, especially since it divided a people into a social class and stoked class-based antagonism.
“Young Adolf Hitler gravitated immediately to Spengler’s pessimistic notions, and Hitler posed a national-socialist-authoritarian answer to the dilemma of civilization’s decline. This response to the issue of Western or German or civilizational or cultural decline became the core appeal of Nazism. On the other side of the political spectrum, communists looked east to the Bolsheviks for a model of how to pull Germany (and the rest of the industrial world) out of the mire.
“Germans on the right become increasingly nationalist, racist, and militant. Germans on the left became increasingly Bolshevized, meaning that they were ready to support a minority, vanguard party in an overthrow of the state. Increasingly, these became the two main ways for Germans to imagine a way out of the cultural, political, and economic morass. Gradually, year by year, the room in the center of the German political landscape got smaller.”
Does anything sound familiar here?
Woke vs MAGA
Today in America we have the woke, heirs to the Bolshevik legacy, trying to “cancel” anyone who disagrees with or even questions their worldview, and the Make America Great Again crowd fanning the flames of a militant nationalism along the largely geographic tribal lines that deeply divide urban and rural America.
There are plenty of grievances to go around on both sides. Some individuals – left, right and center – are treated unfairly in this country every day. On an individual level, injustices happen regularly to people of every race and ethnicity. Life just isn’t fair.
And there might still be pockets of the country where injustices happen at the group level.
But this isn’t the Jew-killing Germany of the Reich years that followed the collapse of the Weimar Republic or even the American South of the 1950s. The country remains a long way from perfect, but it has rid itself of a lot of the worst of the inherent tribalism of the human species or at least it had.
Society seems to be slipping back the other way now. It seems farther from the late civil-rights leader Martin Luther King’s 1`963 dream that “one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” and even farther from then Senator, later president, and now former President Barack Obama’s 2004 observation that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America.
“There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.”
These days those Red States and Blue States sometimes look more like warring nations than anything remotely united. And both of them are home to their share of “semi-fascists,” whatever the hell a semi-fascist might be, and their semi-Bolshevist opposition, to continue the Bidenesque stereotyping of the combantants in our culture war.
For those unfamiliar with fascism, which looks a lot like all the other forms of totalitarian government, here is how Webster’s Dictionary originally defined it back near the start of the last century when it was a “thing:” “a political theory advocating an authoritarian hierarchical government; – opposed to democracy and liberalism.”
None of which is all that much different from the Bolshevik vision of a “rigidly centralized, cohesive and disciplined” state theoretically controlled by the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” but historically run by a plain, old, ruthless dictator.
One could today define “a rigidly centralized, cohesive and disciplined state” as one ordering its citizens to wear masks and get vaccinated because the state is better at making decisions for them than they are at making decisions for themselves.
And one could likewise define an “authoritarian hierarchical government” as one denying a woman the choice to have removed from her body an organism that could one day become another living, breathing human but is not yet so.
It is more than a little ironic that Americans who believe they should have the right to make decisions as to their personal behavior – as opposed to having the government make those decisions for them – can be opposed to both government-mandated Covid-19 responses and abortion, or vice versa.
But then intellectual consistency is one of the first things to die in a war between tribes.
Tolerance’s death bed
The big problem in this country today is that the tolerance that defined liberalism in its traditional sense for both Republicans and Democrats for decades is dead, and the country’s political stridency echoes that of the fascists and communists of Germany at the start of the 1930s.
“In the Weimar Republic, the left consisted of the Communists (KPD) and the Social Democrats (SPD). The Center consisted of the Democratic party (DDP), the Catholic Center Party (Z) and the People’s Party (DVP). The right consisted of the German Nationalist Party (DNVP) and the National Socialist Party (NSDAP-Nazi). Unlike American political parties, German political parties had narrower bases of support generally based on class, occupation and religion. They were therefore less inclined to compromise and more inclined to have programs based on clear sets of ideas (ideologies),” historian Paul Bookbinder from the University of Massachusetts has written.
“The parties on the left were strong supporters of progressive taxation, government social welfare programs, labor unions, equality and economic opportunity for women. They were less nationalistic, militaristic and antisemitic than the parties on the right. They favored greater government involvement in – and control of -business and industry, and were to varying degrees anti-religious. Still, there were strong differences and major conflicts between the two major leftist parties. The Social Democrats were strong supporters of the Republic and democracy while the Communists were opposed to both, favoring a Russian-style communist dictatorship.
“The parties in the center were the most moderate and the least ideological of the German political parties” until Germany’s culture ware became so intense they were forced to pick one side or the other. They picked wrong and Germany, and then the world, ended up with Adolph Hitler.
America’s two-party system has in modern times been dominated by those Republicans and Democrats “most moderate and least ideological.” There was long the belief that candidates for office had to “move toward the center” in order to get elected.
But there has been a steady shift away from this position over the course of the last two decades with the left favoring ever greater government involvement in everything, the right increasingly rising up in resistance to that idea, and the moderate middle ever shrinking.
In some quarters, this has been defined as a battle between conservatives and liberals, but the liberal wing has been largely replaced by progressives, whose greatest historical accomplishment was to help usher in the 18th amendment ot the U.S. Constitution, the one banning the manufacture, sale and importation of alcoholic beverages.
Wrapped up in their good intentions of saving the country from Demon Rum, they brought in the Prohibition Era.
Historically, she went on to observe, that activities that don’t “harm others, like consensual sexual activity and obscenity, were the province of colonial and local governments. When the union formed, states retained that authority; the Constitution established no overarching national system of criminal or civil law and laid out no moral prescriptions for citizens to follow.
“‘The powers delegated to the proposed Constitution are few and defined,” James Madison emphasized in The Federalist Papers. “[They] will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce … The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people.” With the introduction of the Bill of Rights, the Framers moved still farther away from moralistic legislation by limiting the areas in which the federal government could restrict the actions of the people it governed.”
But the federal government, driven by both right and left, has increasingly crept toward dictating morality and economics to the states.
The Economist, an English publication that has been covering global news for almost 180 years, four years ago described what has happened here as well in parts of Europe as a 25-year shift away from “freedom and open markets….even as China, soon to be the world’s largest economy, shows that dictatorships can thrive.
“We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism – not the leftish ‘progressivism’ of American university campuses or the rightish ‘ultraliberalism’ conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government, and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.
“Our founders would be astonished at how life today compares with the poverty and the misery of the 1840s. Global life expectancy in the past 175 years has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. The share of people living below the threshold of extreme poverty has fallen from about 80 percent to 8 percent and the absolute number has halved, even as the total living above it has increased from about 100 million to over 6.5 billion. And literacy rates are up more than fivefold to over 80 percent. Civil rights and the rule of law are incomparably more robust than they were only a few decades ago. In many countries individuals are now free to choose how to live – and with whom.
“This is not all the work of liberals, obviously. But as fascism, communism and autarky failed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, liberal societies have prospered. In one flavour or another, liberal democracy came to dominate the West and from there it started to spread around the world.
“Yet political philosophies cannot live by their past glories: they must also promise a better future. And here liberal democracy faces a looming challenge. Western voters have started to doubt that the system works for them or that it is fair.”
The good old days
In significant part, this shift, at least in the U.S., has been driven by people abandoning the idea of looking forward to that world King once envisioned building in favor of looking back to tally the score on the long, ugly history of American tribalism, and all too often looking back through badly tinted glasses.
There are now people in this country who actually believe the indigenous residents of the North American continent were better off before Christopher Columbus showed up in the Caribbean than their ancestors today are living in the nation that evolved in the wake of the European discovery of Central America.
All that can be said about such a view is that anyone who believes that has never tried living off the land by hunting and fishing with primitive weapons and making fire without matches. Day-to-day survival in even the middle latitudes of North America – forget Alaska – in the 1400, 1500 and 1600s was unbelievably hard.
That the Inuit managed to cling to life around the rim of the Arctic Ocean at the same time is almost unfathomable. It was a cold, hard and short existence. Neurobiologist Stephan Guyenet has calculated life expectancy in Arctic Alaska at 43.7 years in the mid-1800s.
By 2014, it had increased by more than 77 percent to in excess of 77 years, and an infant mortality rate that ranged from 80 to 145 deaths per 1,000 births as late as 1958 has fallen to under seven per 100,000.
But instead of being pleased by how much better the situation has become for everyone under a democratic, capitalist system that the late-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described as “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried,” many have set off on a “social justice” warpath – some well intended, others not – aimed at tearing it all down and rebuilding something new with no real idea as to what that might be.
The wholly reactionary idea of “defunding the police” would indeed get rid of problems caused by law enforcement, but one has to ask what would happen to the problems policing helps solve. Some communities might actually benefit from more police funding, not less.
Chicago set a record for homicides last year. The 797 dead were 25 more than in 2020, “299 more than in 2019 and the most since 1996. And there were 3,561 shooting incidents in 2021, which is just over 300 more than were recorded in 2020 and a staggering 1,415 more shooting incidents than were recorded in the city in 2019,” the Associated Press reported.
“Other cities have also seen an increase in the number of homicides. But Chicago, as it has in previous years, ended 2021 with more homicides than any other city in the United States, including New York and Los Angeles, both of which had recorded at least 300 fewer homicides than Chicago for the year as of late December….”
It is ironic that both those who want to defund the police in Chicago and those who want more police have the same goal, fewer people dead. But somehow they find it impossible to agree on a program that helps reduce both the number of Chicago residents killed by their fellow citizens – a nation leading 797 last year – and the much, much smaller number shot and killed by police.
Instead they are at culture war, which is sort of where the whole country is today.