For many years I have used this last day of the year to tell stories about year ends or cyclic time reckonings, involving, for example, the Puritans, Imperial Rome, Edwardian England, and so forth. This year I had on tap the story of America’s first war hero, who died 241 years ago today on the Plains of Abrahams before the British fort at Quebec. He was General Richard Montgomery, one of Washington’s most able (and one of the few trained) leaders and led American forces in an attempt to take Canada, either for its own sake (the Continental Congress burned with desire to liberate, and thus possess, all of North America) or to bring Britain to the table by a dramatic offensive action. He died a half a year before the Declaration of Independence. The story is interesting as a study in leadership (and the hagiography of George Washington) because it represented an impetuous decision by Washington, something he was known for in his early career but learned (largely from this mistake) to adopt strategy to his resources and thus became the military leader Napoleon honored on his death in 1799 (a military leader unlike Napoleon in every way except his startling success). It also is interesting because it involved the heroics of two figures not thought of as American heroes anymore: Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr. The two,.together with a band of unschooled patriots, trudged through the Maine wilderness in winter, in a march that became so desperate that men boiled their leather belts for something to eat. And it ended, as all memorable war stories do, with luck balanced on a razor’s edge and eventually teetering off one side. As an added advantage, the story can be told in intimate detail since many of the participants (including common soldiers) kept journals of their trials.
And then November 8 happened. The idea of sitting up on the ground and telling sad stories on the death of American heroes seems an empty exercise. We are about to be ruled by a group who are so outside any reasonable conception of an American tradition or ideals (however untethered to our actual history) that it is staggering. This group of grasping, self-interested, anti-intellectual authoritarians is so cynical that their spokesperson, the reactionary tool Kellyanne Conway has just the other day used their preferred tool of the diktat, Twitter, to give a lecture to George Washington University on what history it should be teaching. As a famous baseball catcher should have said if he didn’t: their knowledge of history is enough to drive a truck through. It’s been nearly two months and my head is still spinning.
Yes, we have had presidents who were unqualified (Calvin Coolidge jumps to mind) and ones who were dangerously hateful and uneducated (for example, Andrew Jackson) and ones who were duplicitous and used lying as a tactic (Richard Nixon, although he is an amateur compared to our soon-to-be leader). But not one of these has not only combined all these traits but actually publicly and proudly displayed them as the very essence of his campaign. We will soon have a president who appealed to the very worst impulses of his supporters and still persuaded nearly a plurality of voters to give him the job. Add to that the fact that at this juncture in history having a preening, blow-hard, narcissist as the executive may represent an existentially disastrous decision, and we have reason to think this turn of the calendar may be the most epically portentous in our history.
You can think of year ends as melancholy: 1777, 1861, 1862, 1929, 1941, even 2008. There were certainly times during the cold war that The End was foreseeable by clear thinking people. But in none of those times (except, perhaps, for the two economic collapses of 1929 and 2008) did we actually consciously, with a decision that was based on fully disclosed fact, bring about the calamity upon ourselves.
Nor in any other of those times were we faced with a disaster whose only solution was for people to reject what they deliberately decided to do in the face of all the evidence.
I have no idea how we can save ourselves (and the planet). It may be too late. But since I did spend a great deal of time before November 8 trying to persuade voters not to go down this road (my GOTV effort was concentrated on Wisconsin voters), I have some observations that might interest graduate students specializing in pre-catastrophe America several centuries from now.
Social media is not social activism. In fact, it probably is the reverse. What ails this country is not having too few outlets for stating one’s opinion. It’s having too few forums for having reasoned discussions. Twitter is not the New England Town Meeting despite what Internet entrepreneurs believe.
Snark, satire, ridicule do not promote social justice or progress, motivate people to engage in public affairs or develop faith in self-government.
The right wing has done a spectacular job at destroying patriotism and belief in civic responsibility. Since the Age of Reagan when “greed is good” was the motto, the right has slowly but surely gnawed away at civic virtues to the point that common decency is considered “PC” and subject to scorn.
America, which has always had a virulent streak of anti-intellectualism, has never been as deeply co-opted by the forces of ignorance as it is today. Reactionaries, with well-financed lackeys, have convinced Americans that identifying a problem that requires the smallest bit of sacrifice on a citizen’s part is a lie dreamed up by a conspiracy of “experts” who have never done a days honest work (such as by selling subprime loans as securities). It is as though the PVC, cyanide, lead, agricultural runoff, hydraulic liquid that has invaded our water supply have softened all of our minds. How does a country regain its trust in experts once hoaxsters have taught them to disregard evidence?
And everything that ails America right now is what the Founders (or at least the authors of the Federalist Papers) warned about. They argued that the Constitution was designed to prevent this catastrophe. But yet here we are.
Is there a solution at hand? At one time there was a party that had stumbled onto a way to use democracy to produce social justice, economic opportunity, general welfare and the expansion and spread of useful knowledge. Since the Great Depression national Democrats (or at least many leading ones) had relied on university experts to guide and inform public policy. The party struggled with moral questions and often made political sacrifices to do the right thing. Unions were part of this coalition (in fact the New Deal created the national union movement), and they helped educate their members in the purposes and benefits of polices that were broadly beneficial and warned them against those designed to promote individual greed. Some time around the end of the 1980s the party made a serious turn. Political experts replaced policy experts. Wall Street replaced universities as the source of advice. Self-interest replaced common interest as the benchmark of political promises. And not to pull any punches, that change was pushed by and benefitted the Democratic Leadership Council and its poster boy Bill Clinton. The glib over-achiever from the right-to-work state, who would say anything to charm interest groups is probably more responsible for our current dilemma than even the buffoon who was elected president in November, because he gutted the one organization that worked for (however fitfully and slowly) social and civic progress. I could go into how deeply his cynical approach to both politics and policy, but he is now ancient history.
The question is what to do now. I wish I saw an answer. But it is something I will be contemplating as this year expires. There will be great damage done by those who soon will hold the branches of the federal government in their hands. Before that can be undone, we will have to figure out how to prevent them from permanently solidifying that power before it is too late. But the task is daunting given our disorganization, loss of core beliefs and entrenched recent history of poor political instincts. We must first forget the idea that either money, social media or demographics are going to save us. In fact, nothing is going to save us until we prove ourselves worthy of saving. And that is going to be a long, painful process.