Where Do We Go From Here?

In a recent Substack letter, Robert Hubbell reduced America’s current situation to a pithy paragraph, noting that “Biden” and “Trump” “are surrogates and avatars for two different visions of America—authoritarian vs democratic, gun safety vs a heavily armed citizenry, reproductive liberty vs state-imposed religious regulation of women’s bodies, dignity vs discrimination against LGBTQ people, and environmental protection vs unregulated fossil fuels.”

In November of 2024, Americans will decide which of those visions to embrace. It really is that simple–and that stark.

Let me be brutally honest. Those voting for the Trump vision won’t be simply voting for an autocrat. They will be voting for a racist society–a throwback to a time that they “remembered” but that never existed–but it was a time when straight White Christian men occupied the top tiers of a society where Blacks, LGBTQ people, non-Christians and women faced obstacles based soley on their identities, and they desperately want that society back. (People who decry what they call “identity politics” somehow forget the way identity politics played out in the past.)

And what about those “Second Amendment” defenders voting for Trump? I still recall a conversation I had some forty years ago with a historian who was an official of my city’s (then sane) Republican County machine.  His take? “The Second Amendment entitles you to carry a musket and a powder-horn.” His point should be clear to any intellectually honest individual: no matter what your interpretation of the Second Amendment–whether it was intended to protect a militia or a personal right–the Founders could never have imagined the invention of assault weapons or the other high-tech weapons of war that our current gun fanatics claim to own as a matter of right.

There are multiple definitions of “autocracy,” but individual rights vanish under any of them. One of the most significant improvements in governance introduced by America’s adoption–in our Constitution and Bill of Rights– of the Enlightenment’s vision of limited government. “Limited” government in that philosophical sense did not mean “small” government–the limit was on the power of government and its authority over the individual.

Government, in our non-autocratic version, was to be restrained from interfering with the fundamental right of individuals to self-government. Limited government meant respect for personal autonomy–the right of each individual citizen to decide what the Supreme Court (before its capture by a majority of theocrats) dubbed “intimate” matters: whether to procreate, whether (and with whom) to engage sexually, who to marry–in addition to decisions about what books to read, and what political or religious opinions to embrace or reject.

This country has made slow and irregular progress toward a system that honors that basic respect for the integrity of the individual’s conscience and right to make those “intimate” decisions, but we have made progress. In 2024, that progress will be on the ballot.

The rise of a large and fearful cohort of people who reject self-government in favor of autocracy couldn’t come at a worse time. America has persevered through wars and contentious political times before, but never under an existential threat of climate change. In a sane age, we would be coming together to focus our efforts and energies on combatting global warming–on preparing our cities for rising waters and strengthened storms and hurricanes, preparing our international politics for the likelihood that millions of people will become refugees from areas no longer able to sustain them.

Instead, thanks in no small part to our increasingly obsolete political structures, a large cohort of fearful, tribal Americans has elevated a clown show of posturing know-nothings and bigots to America’s Congress, and is evidently determined to nominate and re-elect a preposterous and mentally-ill ignoramus to the Presidency.

I don’t know how we get through to that cohort. I rather suspect we can’t. For whatever reason, their ability to recognize reality, to evaluate evidence and to act rationally and in their own long-term self-interest has been overwhelmed by their  fears and tribal hatreds.  

So here we are.

As Hubbell accurately pointed out, next year’s election won’t be between Biden and Trump. It will be between autocracy and democracy, between those of us who want to remove weapons of war from our city streets, who want to enable individuals to live their lives as they see fit, who see government as a useful communal mechanism through which citizens provide a functioning physical and social infrastructure–and those who yearn for overseers to relieve them of the burden of choosing their own beliefs and behaviors.

Between slow, steady progress and a terrifying regression.


  1. This is one of the best blog posts you’ve ever written and it needs to be presented it in a nationally televised speech.

  2. About those 2nd Amendment voters, they have no historical knowledge or understanding of what the term “well regulated militia” means or why it was needed at that time. Nor do they realize that when the Amendment was written, the vast majority of people had guns to use for hunting to put food on the table and they were shooting “bars” and “injuns” to protect their lives. Their version of history is the 1950s; they will be voting to move us back to 1930s Germany with the takeover of Europe by Hitler and his cronies. The House “Freedom” Caucus is the 21st Century version of Hitler’s Gestapo and their terrorist tactics. I see us moving closer and closer to a coming Holocaust with the same groups of population here today and those who voted against them, being denied their rights and facing loss of lives as did those in Europe who were placed in concentration camps. Have any of you known or spoken with survivors of Hitler’s takeover of European citizens before and during WWII? I have; two friends who survived to tell about it. I’m glad they are gone now to prevent them from facing living through it again here in America where they came to be safe and have freedoms long denied in their early lives.

    Just as the House infighting with no Speaker yet in sight, the Israeli/Hamas war his distracted the government and the entire media from what we should be dealing with NOW and the continuing war in Ukraine. I hope you don’t think Putin has called for a recess in his war to track Israel’s war against Hamas.

  3. Both presidential candidates represent oligarchic interests. Charles Koch is spending $5 billion on the upcoming election to ensure victories for “small government” candidates.

    The media screwed up in 2016 and said they wouldn’t repeat the mistake, but they have done so again. Trump is in every newsletter I receive because he is the leading presidential nominee and he isn’t participating in the “democratic processes.”

    While the presidency might become autocratic under Trump, the USA is still an oligarchy. A few wealthy and powerful men /organizations control the show. Will they get what they want from Trump? Some will and some won’t.

    Under Biden, they will all get what they want — especially the MIC.

    Some claim we still get to vote, so we are a democracy. Sheila has often pointed out that gerrymandering and other obstacles make voting sometimes moot.

    I’m with Albert Einstein on this one. He called us an oligarchy where a select few control all significant institutions in this country. Only a person skilled in highly functioning critical thinking skills can navigate the waters. We lack the critical-thinking populace to turn this around. The oligarchy is several steps ahead and owns all the propaganda outlets.

    Don’t fret about losing democracy because we lost it almost at the onset of the experiment. The oligarchy is a mess and isn’t sure what to do, but it also doesn’t care about our experiences. You are better off picking a sports club and escaping into nothingness. 😉

  4. Todd. This is one of your doom and gloom posts that makes me wish you would follow your own advice… pick a sports club and escape into nothingness. lol

  5. “Where do we go from here?” you ask. I don’t know, and neither does anyone else on this blog. But I do know this….we had all fasten our seatbelts, because we are in for one hell of a bumpy ride.

  6. Well said professor. I have often wondered how our world would be different if our elected officials had promoted the development of sustainable energy sources, infrastructure, etc decades ago, when we had a chance to change the future. Instead, here we are today.

    Since we can’t go back in time to make the fix, the question to ask is what will the world be like in 10, 20, 30, or 100 years from now if we make the wise choices now.

    As has been said, a smart man learns from his own mistakes, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. It is better to be wise than to be smart.

  7. I think I more or less agree with Todd’s comments: whichever we choose, as long as money talks we are not truly free or autonomous. From my reading of right-wing stuff, the transition to digital money ( already well under way) has more than just efficiency going for it — it’s also the slippery slope to a surveillance state, just like China. Dystopia to the left of me, dystopia to the right of me. Where is the third way?

  8. Todd, you are basically arguing that the two sides are indistinguishable and equally bad. That’s just not the case at all.

    One big issue I’ve always been frustrated by is something raised by Sheila here: we cannot talk/argue/reason with the other side. Oddly, presenting actual evidence against their claims (even in a careful and rational manner) often hardens them in their opposition.

    But, my biggest concern these days is the increasing tendency of the political right to view violence as a valid tactic. (I think this is one of the reasons many of them love Trump; he constantly glorifies violence and suggests its application as a response to any opposition. And they love him for that.) I’ve visited the USA regularly throughout my life. But currently, I plan to never visit again. I’m convinced: it’s not safe.

  9. Todd Smekens is spot on.
    Two other take backs are reproductive liberty should be based on science. The child starts having a heart beat after the 5th to 6th week. Its viable to live after 7-8 months with the aid as a premature child. As a nation we have no soul in regards to this.
    How many terrorists have crossed the border? Biden now wants to close the border, its become an acute problem because huge corporations sont want to pay more for labor?
    Leading from behind we see recruits in jail of Hamas and Hezbolah. So how many get aways are there in this country. Police all across the country are being called back. Illogical leadership at best

  10. Closely held beliefs are impervious to facts! I know I’ve said that a million times over the past seven years, but I will keep saying it, because I understand the frustration people have when trying to convince the true believers that, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

  11. Jim Swan. The third way is to continue ahead. Make progress toward a more perfect union. As Sheila points out, it is either that or go backward into the ugliest parts of the past.
    Note to all you folks who claim it is utterly hopeless and it is pointless to even try to make things better. If you really believe that, the only reason for you to keep taking the time and effort to read and respond to Sheila is to try to make the rest of us as miserable as you seem to be. Unrelieved pessimism just drags down the people who are working to make things better. You aren’t even serving the purpose of sounding the alarm. We are already alarmed.

  12. So, in one post noted (elsewhere)yesterday, I read that Trump’s 91 criminal counts have even further hardened the position of the fools who still support him! And his company has already been convicted of fraud. Facts?
    But the “avatar” point makes even more sense, given what I just wrote. If one can still support him, he, himself, is simply not the issue.
    Excellent post, Sheila!

  13. The Founders intended us to vote for “good people” who would put their country and its people ahead of “Party” or ideology. Have we now been “tricked”/forced into only deciding by party? They must be doing cartwheels in their graves…

  14. Sheila, building on Robert Hubbell’s recent opening to his newsletter, you have cast what is at stake in the 2024 election in a thoughtful, eloquent way. Exquisitely done!
    In Robert’s concluding thoughts in his newsletter today, in referring to the Israeli/Hamas conflict, but certainly applicable to the topic being discussed here today, he said:”…we should choose to do what is right, just, and true. In a hopelessly complicated situation with no single answer or easy solution, we must follow our moral compass and remain true to the ideals that carried our nation to this point, including the courage to make difficult choices and act with conviction.”

  15. Let’s not lose sight of all the good people in the world that will help each other if need be.
    Yesterday my father fell in a restaurant and a good Samaritan helped get him to his feet again. Another man saw my Dad’s army hat and Thanked him for his service. I feel relieved when I see people being kind and respecting each other. All is not lost!

  16. This takes what JoAnn said a step further.

    The fourth paragraph, about the Second Amendment is worded as most comments about it are worded. And every one of them that I have seen ignores a basic element of English grammar. The subject of the Amendment’s sentence is clearly stated (security of a free state). The verb (being necessary) is the present participle of the verb “to be”, or the more common form “is.” If the Founders intended the amendment to guarantee your right to own a gun, they would have put a period after the word “state.” If they had used a semi-colon there, the NRA’s interpretation could be justified. But they put a comma, indicating that what followed was the object of the verb (to be a free state).

    Anyone who reads the things the Founders wrote (say, in the Federalist Papers) has to realize that those guys were not sloppy writers. They all could read Latin, and some of them, Greek, languages more complex than English. So what they wrote should be taken to represent their thinking.

    If you want to play with guns, join the National Guard.

  17. I’ve gotta agree with G Carlin: “If voting made a real difference,it would be illegal.”

    Moreover, I gotta agree with Todd. Carlin referred to both parties as the Uniparty. There’s more than enough empirical evidence to prove he was correct in the assertion.

  18. For those of you accusing contributors of making you miserable just by viewing their words, perhaps you would be happier in a more oppressive milueue?

    Also, if you’re that easily defeated, you would have been much too delicate to join the French Resistance back in the day. Or any true resistance.

  19. Perhaps by continuing to categorize people belonging to ‘sides’, ‘them and us’, may be part of the problem. In addition, I may be mistaken but I think the readers of your column, Shiela are the proverbial ‘choir’ .
    It is highly likely that Trump may not be the candidate. If he is, then I credit the media for non-stop promoting of his every breath because it sells paper.
    Why are so many assuming that he will be the nominee? Why are you assuming that? He gets so much publicity from the liberals who apparently did not read George Lakoff’s book, ‘ Don’t Think Of. An Elephant’. In other words stop giving the opposition so much free publicity.


  20. I understand Sharon, I really do! Okay, so, what happened to King Belshazzar when he was overthrown? He was warned about his conduct for a long time. He endured some very supernatural issues along the way. But he never changed his course. And then one day, as he was drinking out of the goblets looted from the temple, and, a hand started writing on the wall.

    What did the hand write?

    Translated, it meant that God has numbered the days of your kingdom, you have been weighed in the balances and found lacking, your kingdom has been divided towards the Medes and Persians! That very night, Chal’de’an King Belshazzar was killed in a surprise attack and the Mead “King Darius” received Belshazzar’s throne.

    Now, they were really enjoying themselves, they were having a party, looking at the positives, feeling that they had their finger on the pulse of their kingdom. Belshazzar considered himself a god.

    The point of this, is to say, or show, words don’t matter, action matters, conduct matters, The law matters! Without the law, you have anarchy. When men interpret laws to allow them conduct antithetical to the laws, the handwriting is on the wall so to speak.

    Having faith in those that you believe in is a good thing, but the history of those you believe in, have they solved the problems affecting this particular country? Have they solved the problems of any particular country? No they haven’t. Should you feel concerned? Absolutely, I am!

  21. Every state in history has been an oligarchy in one form or another. To point out that it still exists is a red herring. The question is, more democracy or less? Which I think is Sheila’s point. In reality it is a stark choice: manage our own affairs to the extent we can, or give up and be helpless subjects of a kingdom. Our founding fathers chose democracy for us. We will either embrace it or lose it.

  22. Mm-hm, yes, indeed, James Todd, Sharon, Peggy, and Pascal. Suzanne, please thank your father for his service to America. Ian, you must have been aiming at the spelling of ‘milieu’. There you go. Happy to help!

  23. Trouble is, David, who gets to determine what is right, just, and true? Trump? MTG? Boebert? The current Republican nominee for Speaker? These people are immunized from such application to solve our difficult problems by political barbarism and incredible ignorance since such an effort would involve governing, and they are preoccupied not with governing but rather the acquisition of power in a bow to fascism at the expense of our democratic institutions.

    As Lincoln noted in a different context (his Gettysburg Address), “We are met upon the great battlefield of that war” with the fascist captors of the Republican Party, who in their zeal to “own the libs” have shown and are showing an affinity with Nazi authoritarianism as their chosen means of asserting power with their election denial and other utterly baseless claims, which leaves nothing to the imagination in determining what is “right, just, and true.” Nothing.

  24. Sheila Kennedy is as poignant as ever, but she has recently included ad hominem in her comments. This is unhelpful because it narrows the distinction between rational, intelligent behavior on the left and irrational ad hominem behavior on the right.

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