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Nobody wants what’s coming, so nobody wants to see what’s coming.
On the eve of the first civil war, the most intelligent, the most informed, the most dedicated people in the United States could not see it coming. Even when Confederate soldiers began their bombardment of Fort Sumter, nobody believed that conflict was inevitable. The north was so unprepared for the war they had no weapons.
In Washington, in the winter of 1861, Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, declared that “not one man in America wanted the civil war or expected or intended it”. South Carolina senator James Chestnut, who did more than most to bring on the advent of the catastrophe, promised to drink all the blood spilled in the entire conflict. The common wisdom at the time was that he would have to drink “not a thimble”.
The United States today is, once again, headed for civil war, and, once again, it cannot bear to face it. The political problems are both structural and immediate, the crisis both longstanding and accelerating. The American political system has become so overwhelmed by anger that even the most basic tasks of government are increasingly impossible.
The legal system grows less legitimate by the day. Trust in government at all levels is in freefall, or, like Congress, with approval ratings hovering around 20%, cannot fall any lower. Right now, elected sheriffs openly promote resistance to federal authority. Right now, militias train and arm themselves in preparation for the fall of the Republic. Right now, doctrines of a radical, unachievable, messianic freedom spread across the internet, on talk radio, on cable television, in the malls.
The consequences of the breakdown of the American system is only now beginning to be felt. January 6 wasn’t a wake-up call; it was a rallying cry. The Capitol police have seen threats against members of Congress increase by 107%. Fred Upton, Republican representative from Michigan, recently shared a message he had received: “I hope you die. I hope everybody in your family dies.” And it’s not just politicians but anyone involved in the running of the electoral system. Death threats have become a standard aspect of the work life of election supervisors and school board members. A third of poll workers, in the aftermath of 2020, said they felt unsafe.
Under such conditions, party politics have become mostly a distraction. The parties and the people in the parties no longer matter much, one way or the other. Blaming one side or the other offers a perverse species of hope. “If only more moderate Republicans were in office, if only bipartisanship could be restored to what it was.” Such hopes are not only reckless but irresponsible. The problem is not who is in power, but the structures of power.
The United States has burned before. The Vietnam war, civil rights protests, the assassination of JFK and MLK, Watergate – all were national catastrophes which remain in living memory. But the United States has never faced an institutional crisis quite like the one it is facing now. Trust in the institutions was much higher during the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act had the broad support of both parties. JFK’s murder was mourned collectively as a national tragedy. The Watergate scandal, in hindsight, was evidence of the system working. The press reported presidential crimes; Americans took the press seriously. The political parties felt they needed to respond to the reported corruption.
You could not make one of those statements today with any confidence.
Two things are happening at the same time. Most of the American right have abandoned faith in government as such. Their politics is, increasingly, the politics of the gun. The American left is slower on the uptake, but they are starting to figure out that the system which they give the name of democracy is less deserving of the name every year.
An incipient illegitimacy crisis is under way, whoever is elected in 2022, or in 2024. According to a University of Virginia analysis of census projections, by 2040, 30% of the population will control 68% of the Senate. Eight states will contain half the population. The Senate malapportionment gives advantages overwhelmingly to white, non– college educated voters. In the near future, a Democratic candidate could win the popular vote by many millions of votes and still lose. Do the math: the federal system no longer represents the will of the American people.
The right is preparing for a breakdown of law and order, but they are also overtaking the forces of law and order. Hard right organization have now infiltrated so many police forces – the connections number in the hundreds – that they have become unreliable allies in the struggle against domestic terrorism.
Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked undercover against domestic terrorists during the 1990s, knows that the white power sympathies within police departments hamper domestic terrorism cases. “The 2015 FBI counter-terrorism guide instructs FBI agents, on white supremacist cases, to not put them on the terrorist watch list as agents normally would do,” he says. “Because the police could then look at the watchlist and determine that they are their friends.” The watchlists are among the most effective techniques of counter-terrorism, but the FBI cannot use them. The white supremacists in the United States are not a marginal force; they are inside its institutions.