I’m not talking about masks against COVID–although the utterly bizarre fight against mandates protecting public health are certainly part of the picture. (I’m a pretty hard-core defender of civil liberties, but I never thought I’d see people arguing that the Bill of Rights gives them the “liberty” to infect and perhaps kill their fellow Americans…)
The mask that has come off of far too many American faces is the mask of sanity.
When we have former military officers promoting coups, millions of Americans agreeing that the country is being run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, members of the U.S. Senate calling legislation to protect voting rights “partisan” and ideologues of every stripe self-righteously pontificating to their chosen “choirs” rather than participating in efforts to right the ship of state–what can we call that, other than insane?
Actually, a comment to this blog by JoAnn recently contained an excellent descriptor: these are “Twilight Zone Americans.”
We haven’t come very far from 1919, when in the wake of the First World War, Yeats wrote The Second Coming, with its often-quoted–and still painfully relevant– lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
I would argue that today, the “best”–i.e., the sane (these days, the bar is low)–don’t necessarily lack conviction. They are simply uncertain in the face of complexity and ambiguity. On issues where they recognize shades of gray; they hesitate to act.
As an article on the subject of ambiguity explained, we need only look at history, recent and otherwise, for examples of catastrophic blunders made as a result of leaders’ inability to deal with contingency and ambiguity. And particularly when people are under stress, faced with what they see as existential threats, their resistance to ambiguity grows strongest.
We’ve all known people–some famous, some familial–who have gone from one political extreme to another with equally “passionate intensity.” A distant cousin of mine is a perfect example. In college, he was far Left; in later adulthood, equally far Right–and in both cases, belligerently and rigidly so. These extreme shifts aren’t evidence that True Believers (at least, the leftwing variety) have been “mugged by reality” and come to their senses, as a popular saying a while back had it. Rather, they are people for whom certainty is critically important–the content of their dogma may change, but their need for purity, their need to be on the right side of a bright line, doesn’t. That need overwhelms recognition of inconsistencies (not to mention patently improbable aspects) of whatever worldview they are wholeheartedly embracing.
In 2016, before the election that gave us the assault on national sanity that was and is Donald Trump, The Atlantic had an article titled “How American Politics Went Insane.” The intervening years have underscored much of the article’s argument, especially this observation:
There no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon.
The article described the then-contemporary political reality as chaos, and it’s hard to argue that much has changed.
Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.
Normalizing chaos ensures that the people’s business cannot be conducted. It’s insane.
Recent reports of state-level political wars–almost all, it must be noted, within the GOP, since the multiplicity of constituencies within the Democratic Party forces Democrats to recognize complexity–are consistent with the described decline, and with the Twilight Zone. Idaho is just one example.
Indiana isn’t all that far behind.
Increasingly, American politics isn’t an argument between partisans who disagree about policy; it isn’t even “warfare without guns” as one popular description has it. It’s a battle between people who still live in the ambiguous and messy real world and the growing number of “passionately intense” Americans who are willing to take up actual arms in defense of demonstrably insane “explanations” of the world.
We live in a scary time.