I was going through some files recently, and came across a Governing essay from last September that echoed my own growing despair over what the author called “the situation.” He’d been invited to a conference that was ostensibly about the future of the Badlands, but during the telephoned invitation, it was suggested that they would also discuss “the situation.”
That phrase triggered his inquiry.
For the rest of the evening, I tried to determine what might be meant by “the situation.” I know, I could simply have picked up the phone and asked a few questions, but I thought it was an interesting exercise. It’s easy enough to get started. America seems to be disintegrating. Our national political system seems to be paralyzed. There is a great deal of anger and distrust awash in the land. Each of the two main tribes (the Right and the Left) declares that the other one is a clear and present danger to the future of civilization. Some tens of millions of people continue to argue, and perhaps believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. We cannot even agree on basic public health measures in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years.
If–as he assumed–these and other crises we face are what was meant by “the situation,” what could be accomplished in that discussion? As he noted, it’s a lot easier to diagnose “the situation” than to identify a prescription.
More civility? A great and inspiring leader with the idealism of Barack Obama and the oomph of Theodore Roosevelt? Some self-restraint by the 24-7 cable media? A return to the Fairness Doctrine? I can hear one participant saying we’d be just fine if we could only get back to the intentions of the Founding Fathers; and another urging the progressives to terminate the filibuster and pass rafts of reform legislation along the lines of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. One person would argue that we must abolish the Electoral College, another that we should pack the Supreme Court.
The fact that his imagined conversation was self-evidently inadequate to the challenge mirrors much of the conversation on this blog: there’s general agreement that America’s society is in crisis and its governance is in thrall to a minority composed of frightened, uninformed and frequently deranged citizens–but there is no such agreement when it comes to the really important question: what must we do?
The author illustrated the dilemma by quoting Archimedes, who said, “show me where to put the lever and I will move the world.” The question, as he noted, is: where do we put the lever?
After citing research showing that that 43 million Americans (about one in nine) are illiterate, he makes a point that I endlessly repeat:
If American citizens don’t know the difference between an impeachment and an impeachment trial, if they don’t know the difference between an emolument and an embolism, if they don’t understand the constitutional function of the Supreme Court, if they think Obamacare is socialism but Medicare a sacred American right, how can we expect to keep the republic alive? In a letter to Charles Yancey in 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.”
Ignorance, of course, isn’t the only threat to democracy and stability. The vast and growing divide between the rich and the rest is a clear danger. The author writes that the inability of our government to address climate change is another–and he wrote this essay before the Supreme Court further hobbled government’s ability to do so. He acknowledges the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the racism that is an all-too-obvious motivation of the MAGA crowds. He gives a nod to Eisenhower”s warning about the dangers of an unrestrained military-industrial complex.
Unsurprisingly, the author of the essay doesn’t answer his own question. Instead, he argues (feebly) for a “spiritual renaissance.” I think the reason I haven’t previously written about this particular essay is my instinctive aversion to that cop-out. This often-encountered longing for a “renaissance” rests on a very dubious belief that Americans were once more “spiritual”–a belief uncomfortably close to the “we were once a Christian nation” fantasy. In any event, he is silent on the rather significant question of how the desired increase in spirituality is to be obtained.
So here we are–like doctors who can describe the disease but have no magic potion with which to treat it. We’re left with what is, admittedly, a very good question: where do we put Archimedes’ lever?
It’s a question that suggests another: are our problems far too numerous for a lever even to work?