A few days ago, a clearly exasperated reader of this blog asked “the” question–the question I ask myself daily and am unable to answer. He agreed with my “diagnoses” of the myriad problems we face, but wanted to know what we can do about them. We know what the problems are–what can individuals do to solve them?
If only I had an answer! We’d both feel better.
Not only do I not have a solution to “the question,” I vacillate between two competing analyses of the problems we face. As I have previously noted, I’ve been reading a lot more history lately, in an effort to determine whether we’ve been here before, or whether the severity of America’s divisions is something unprecedented. (That’s another question to which I have no answer…).
As I used to tell my students, it depends–and it’s complicated.
Like many of the people who read this blog, I take the daily letter from historian Heather Cox Richardson, who provides helpful historic context to the issues of the day. Recently, she addressed the question of Trump’s stolen documents, and Senator Lindsey Graham’s threat that holding Trump accountable would be met with violence in the streets.
Richardson pointed out that arguments about the theft of those documents are arguments about the rule of law–not about contending political opinions. Graham’s threats about gangs taking to the streets is an authoritarian’s argument for the use of violence to overturn the rule of law. Richardson then provided valuable context, noting that resort to violence is not new to this country, citing to the Reconstruction South–a period during which “white gangs terrorized their Black neighbors and the white men who voted as they did, suppressed labor organization at the turn of the last century, and fed rising fascism in the 1930s”.
Right-wing activists have been an ever-growing threat since the 1990s. Under Trump, rightwing gangs became his troops. But as Richardson reminded us, even the incidents of domestic terrorism aren’t new.
Such gangs have always operated in the U.S., and they gain power and momentum when they engage in violence and are unchecked. After several years in which they have seemed invulnerable, we are now in a period when, as we learned on Saturday, an armed man in a truck chased Independent Utah senatorial candidate Evan McMullin with a gun after an event in April and forced the vehicle carrying McMullin and his wife into oncoming traffic. That incident echoes one from October 2020, when a bus carrying Biden staffers and volunteers through Texas was harassed by Trump supporters, some of whom appeared to be trying to force it off the road. When the terrified Biden workers called the police, officers allegedly refused to help.
What I take from Richardson and other historians–as well as the upheavals most of us personally experienced in the 1960s and 70s– is the lesson that the times we are living through are not unique. We can take some comfort in the fact that we got through those ugly episodes, and reassure ourselves that we can make it through these times as well.
Or–as a part of my brain whispers–maybe this time really is different.
Previous periods of unrest didn’t occur in the face of the existential threats posed by climate change, and new technologies that facilitate mass murder and Orwellian surveillance. Obsolescent rules weren’t bringing federal governance to a grinding halt…
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which of these analyses is accurate. Whether we’ve been here before or we really haven’t–we need to find a way out. But the solutions available to us will ultimately depend upon understanding what is happening now, and how unprecedented (or not) our challenges are.
Choose your preferred diagnosis–but neither sparks an epiphany pointing to a cure.
The single thing that each of us can do is to vote, and work to ensure that other rational Americans do likewise. Gerrymandering and vote suppression tactics may win the day– but a truly overwhelming Blue turnout would keep the GOP from furthering its march to fascism, and would begin the long and difficult job of mending American government.
Voting Blue in November won’t be an endorsement of whatever Democrats stand for. The party certainly isn’t above criticism. It is, however, largely sane and pro-democracy.
A Blue vote is a vote for women’s reproductive autonomy, for the civil rights of LGBTQ citizens, for sensible restrictions on firearms, and for prioritizing the interests of working and middle class Americans. We can–and will– argue about the details of those basic commitments, but only if we defeat the unAmerican cult that stands firmly against them all.
This November, we must vote Blue for America.